On The Spiritual Matter Of Art at Maxxi Rome

Roma, MUSEO DEL MAXXI 16 10 2019
 ©Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini
Sean Scully / Pavoni. Foto: © Musacchio

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MAXXI, the National Museum of 21st Century Arts in Rome (Italy), hosts On The Spiritual Matter of Art, an exhibition where nineteen artists explore the dichotomy between the material and the spiritual dimension through the lens of contemporary art. The show, that runs till the 8th of March 2020, also combines the contemporary pieces with seventeen extraordinary Etruscan and Roman archaeological artifacts.

An ongoing dialogue between ancient and contemporary sensibilities, the show proposes a rigorously non-confessional vision, bringing together leading artists of very different cultures and backgrounds whose artworks interact with selected archaeological relics dated between the 8th century B.C. and 313 A.D. date of the edict of Constantino, coming from main institutions of the Italian capital: Vatican Museums, Roman National Museum, Capitoline Museums, and Etruscan National Museum.

The fact that these selected antique artifacts are exhibited together with contemporary pieces represents the path that leads from the ancient “pagan” world and its collective sacred dimension, to the establishment of monotheism and the individual spirituality in the postclassic era, when Christianity became the official religion.

Thought as a walk to the afterlife, On The Spiritual Matter Of Art pristine display articulates its discourse across the museum’s open-plan. Designed by the late controversial architect Zaha Hadid, it is an unconventional building composed of giant intersecting concrete segments that inside results in flowing pathways to gently transport the visitor through space.

Matilde Cassami’s velvet curtain Tutto, welcomes the public as one must walk through it to access the show. A metaphorical threshold, a symbolic and theatrical rite of passage which leads into the realm of spirituality. Behind the curtain, Hassan Khan shows a light and sound installation where rhythmic clapping as an allusion to the 2013 Egyptian coup d’état can be heard. The repetitive pattern of the sound almost leads spectators into a gentle trance.

Roma, MUSEO DEL MAXXI, DELLA MATERIA SPIRITUALE DELL’ARTE, Matilde Cassani, Tutto, 2018 ©Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini

More than a century since Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) wrote the text Über das Geistige in der Kunst (Concerning the Spiritual in Art), 1911. A pioneering text wanting to free art from its traditional bonds to material reality, Kandinsky’s own theory of painting crystallized the idea that artists should express their own inner lives in abstract, non-material terms. Just as musicians do not depend upon the material world for their music, artists should not have to depend upon the material world for their art.

Roma, MUSEO DEL MAXXI, DELLA MATERIA SPIRITUALE DELL’ARTE John Armleder, Skateboarding is not a crime, 2019 ©Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini

Emulating Kandinsky, the exhibition seeks to show spirituality through abstraction, pure form, colour, and composition throughout large two-dimensional works by John Armleder, Francesco Clemente, and Sean Scully. The latter encircle the large central space that houses those from antiquity, as a kind of Wunderkammer of archaic artifacts: the Fegato dello Scasato, the Winged Scarab, the Chrismon Necklace & the Leontocefala statue, and the Gem of the Goddess Rome. Contemporary works confronting the old, perhaps a nod to the intrinsic proximity of the past in the present.

Roma, MUSEO DEL MAXXI, DELLA MATERIA SPIRITUALE DELL’ARTE Francesco Clemente, Crown, 1988 ©Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini

Sean Skully’s geometric colour fields, flanked by Two Bronze Peacocks from the Hadrianic age, ~120 A.D. coming from the Musei Vaticani. The birds are an allegory to immortality while Skully’s diptych represents the relationship between the abstract and the everyday visual experience.

Roma, MUSEO DEL MAXXI, DELLA MATERIA SPIRITUALE DELL’ARTE Sean Scully, Window Diptych Green, 2018 and pair of Peacocks from the Musei Vaticani ©Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini

Accompanying the Wunderkammer at the centre of the exhibition space which contains the ancient pieces enters into dialogue with figurative and highly symbolic paintings of Victor Man, Self Portrait With The Yellow Shadow of Christ.

Victor Man, Self Portrait With The Yellow Shadow of Christ, 2018-2019. Foto: Mathias Schormann

Victor Man, Moonlight, 2018. Foto: María Muñoz

Rituality, image, oracle, cosmogonies, interiority and human nature, the immeasurable, the incomprehensible, the symbolic and spiritual. Italian artist and member of the Transavanguardia movement, Enzo Cucchi, explores the mystical and mythical in popular culture. With small sculptures of idols, vestals, haruspices, and wizards, he has conceived a complex symbolic alphabet that evokes the past in an exercise to rediscover our primal spiritual instincts.


The most excentric use of materials is Namsal Siedlecki’s Trevis, where coins and medals collected from the Trevi Fountain are dissolved into a sort of copper. This metal is slowly deposited onto wax sculptures. The process of transformation can be followed in real-time as the tank is present in the show. 

Namsal Siedlecki, Trevis, 2019. Foto: María Muñoz

New media as video and photography, again the old and the new, are present in the show. The series of photographs by Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, are images of the hands of Iranian women in the gesture of offering verses by poets of the Farsi tradition.

Roma, MUSEO DEL MAXXI, DELLA MATERIA SPIRITUALE DELL’ARTE Shirin Neshat, Offerings, 2018-2019 ©Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini

Video works: Israelian Michal Rovner, who shows Nilus, a two screens display were the Egyptian god Anubis is the protagonist, the representative of the duality of the human condition: man/dog, life/death, and as a metaphor of the schizophrenia of recent history that fluctuates between the reason and irrationality. Jeremy Shaw in his film Liminals, presents a group of people that suffer the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage. Individuals in transition, when they no longer hold their previous status but have not yet completed the transition to another.

Roma, MUSEO DEL MAXXI, DELLA MATERIA SPIRITUALE DELL’ARTE, Michal Rovner, Nilus, 2018 ©Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini

Roma, MUSEO DEL MAXXI, Exhibition view DELLA MATERIA SPIRITUALE DELL’ARTE ©Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini

To finish the tour, Elisabetta di Maggio sends Greetings from Venice. She recreates the Cosmatesque floor of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice entirely using postage stamps, an ode to the medieval crafts. Interaction is “forced” at Yoko Ono’s Add Color (Refugee Boatwhere paint pot in hand public must contribute to the installation. In this time of long refugee crisis and boats constantly arriving to the European costs, maybe this piece helps to undermine humanity’s lack of emphaty with other issues.

The subject matter of the spiritual in art represents a major shift in contemporary sensibilities. For decades, religion’s declining authority has been steady, especially in post-industrial countries. Correlations between traditional–religious and secular–rational values across numerous countries, clearly indicate a strong contrast between the decreasing number of nations in which religion remains an important value and those where it is increasingly losing ground.

However, it seems that “Spiritual Capital”, the term referring to the benefits of spiritual development in individuals is on the rise.

In the age of artificial intelligence, On the Spiritual Matter of Art triggers curiosity on the fundamentals of mankind and the origins and evolution of our intellectual and spiritual development. Through a lens of the contemporary world, a dialogue is facilitated where ancient sensibilities as rituals and religions are scrutinised and reevaluated.

Nowadays there are emerging forms of spiritual art understood as the “belief in spirituality without a connection to traditional religions.” Quite a few younger artists manifest an interest in spiritual, mystical, and occult dimensions in their work as expressions of “authenticity’” in a culture that is inauthentic as the result of relativism, the ambiguities of contemporary life, and fashionable pessimism. It seems that the generation born in the 1990s will be a spiritual generation. Significantly, the reappearance of the spiritual in art doesn’t point to a growing commitment to religious life but rather a longing for authenticity: between mystery and evidence.

Roma, MUSEO DEL MAXXI, DELLA MATERIA SPIRITUALE DELL’ARTE, Konaté, Ocean, Mother and Life, 2015 ©Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini

Roma, MUSEO DEL MAXXI, Exhibition view DELLA MATERIA SPIRITUALE DELL’ARTE ©Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini


Text: María Muñoz

Photographs: Courtesy of Maxxi, Rome.

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