Visitors to the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, which will reopen to the public today (May 7th), will receive a double treat from two very different shows that were originally supposed to take place every year and together form an interesting diptych of the Western Museum: The Last Supper in Pompeii: from the table to the grave and Wangechi Mutu: I speak, are you listening? The excavations of the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum from the 18th century, which were destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, fueled the reconnaissance and the establishment of the “encyclopedic” museum, while the site-specific exhibition of the Kenyan-American A challenge to the artist is the colonial legacy and Eurocentric racism of such institutions, including the Legion of Honor.
Mutu’s work confronts visitors as soon as they arrive and shatters the refurbished, stately feel of the museum’s neoclassical building. As if entering a crime scene, the first thing you will see are the spread female figures Savasana I and Savasana II (Sanskrit for “corpse pose”; 2019) lying at the feet of Rodin’s The Thinker, with mats covering the torso and faces as well as colorful shoes high heels that fall off your feet. Therefore, visitors cannot enter the colonnaded courtyard without thinking about violence, especially against black people. Below, two fantastic bronzes (Mama Ray, 2020; Crocoydlus, 2020) facing the museum greet visitors not so much as to appear ready to burden the institution.
These bronze works beat the European canon in a game of their own. The most compelling sculptures, however, are the bizarre and beguiling female figures in European art galleries who don’t have to play a game to prove their importance. These works made from natural materials from Africa, relating to non-European practices of body decoration and ritual, were scattered by Mutu and curator Claudia Schmuckli along with works in the permanent collection to challenge the dominant art-historical narratives of the West.
For example, in a chapel-like gallery dedicated to Rodin, monumental strands of pearls hang over a figure resembling a skeleton from the doorway, with limbs made of twisted branches, but a pregnant woman from the side (Sentinel IV; 2019). Elsewhere, a reclining female figure with bumpy, armor-like skin (Outstretched; 2019) plays in the background against Le Sueur’s sleeping Venus (1638-39). Visitors may miss Mutu’s new video work, My Cave Call (2020), as it’s further down the galleries, but anyone who walks by is attracted by the magnetically seated, camouflaged figure of Seeing Cowries (2020) strewn with seashells both a valuable currency and a symbol of fertility that has a palpably sacred and mystical aura.
Below, the concurrent show The Last Supper in Pompeii: From Table to Tomb focuses on the love and production of food and wine in the ancient city, a largely revamped version of an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Delayed by more than a year due to the global pandemic, this time of collective mourning takes on a new edge, and curator Renée Dreyfus has created a sensitive show that even recognizes the deaths of Pompeii and Covid-19 at the exit.
However, the show starts off leisurely with a white marble statue of Bacchus, the god of wine, fertility, and feast. Like the rest of the displays, it is set in scene by the breathtaking frescoes of birds and plants that adorned a house in Pompeii. The colors are so incredibly vivid that they seem almost unreal. They have never traveled to the US and the Pompeii Archaeological Park team that loaned them made a video call with the San Francisco team to ensure proper installation.
Thematic sections make the show more accessible. An area of X-rated items with a “naughty” warning sign may not be for everyone, but a section in the kitchen – still everyone’s favorite room – has intriguing artifacts, like a clay pot with a ramp inside that houses a dormouse located (a delicacy) would be kept for fattening. Another has groceries from Pompeii, such as cereals and the popular pomegranate, but also a piglet print that was killed in the disaster. While it makes sense to put this animal (a favorite meat) here, there is something terrible and terrible to see the poor creature that must have suffered presented as food on an otherwise empathetic show.
A welcome effect of the pandemic on the exhibit is the distributed footprint with smaller, less crowded display cases and limited wall text to avoid overcrowding. Archaeological exhibits often seem to bombard visitors unnecessarily with display cases crammed with artifacts. Dreyfus’ digestible less is more approach is engaging and digestible, like the single loaf of carbonated bread found in an oven beneath the fresco of a well-dressed man distributing bread – perhaps a politician seeking votes, she says.
Nowhere is this pared-down approach as effective as in the last gallery, which is done in a somber purple and contains the resin-coated remains of a woman who perished in the ash cloud of Pompeii. While it’s always strange to see a person in a museum, this woman has been treated with awe and taken to a tomblike alcove where her jewelry is on display. “She had no one to celebrate at a funeral or a banquet, no one to follow her into the next world. It gives us an opportunity to mourn and reflect on the people who have been lost,” says Dreyfus .