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Here's my take

Two New Exhibits at SF Legion of Honor

By Carol Benet, Go See

Pompeii and Wangechi Mutu at reopened Legion of Honor 

Carol Benet

With two huge volcanoes currently raging the world (Congo and Iceland), an exhibit on Pompeii could not be more timely.  Why is it that people like to revel in disaster and seek it out as part of their entertainment in movies and museum exhibits?

The recently reopened Legion of Honor presents two exhibits, “Last Supper in Pompeii” and “Wangechi Mutu:  I Am Speaking to You, Are you Listening”.  As different as they are, they both depict remnants of disasters and dwell on them.

“Pompeii” is a collection of items used in the preparation and the partaking of meals, with emphasis on wine produced in the volcanic soil surrounding Mt. Vesuvius.  Volcanic soil around both Etna and Vesuvius are rich for wine grape growing. The disastrous volcano that destroyed the entire city and its inhabitants took place in A.D. 79.   People have been fascinated by it since then.  This exhibit is part of this curiosity that has continued for centuries. 

Much of the exhibit is about the wine industry at the time.  Renée Dreyfus, Curator of Ancient Art at the SF Museums of Fine Arts, has contributed to this exhibit. and points out that people in the first century gravitated to Pompeii as a luxurious destination from Rome, much like the way pleasure seeking people head for Napa Valley to eat and drink.  

In the past Dreyfus has brought other interesting exhibits to the museums that shine a light on traditional viewing of Greek and Roman sculptures now seen in stark white where she points out and demonstrates the original colors they bore.  She also organized an exhibit on Thrace, an unusual and unknown subject for an art exhibition.

Most people know about the destruction of Pompeii by the volcano Vesuvius in A.D. 79.  In this exhibit their knowledge is expanding by knowing how they lived, ate, drank and spent their leisure hours. 

On display are many wine vessels, pitchers,  cups, bowls, often in silver with a myriad of designs.  The history of the wine industry in Pompeii is well labeled and introduced by a statue of Bacchus, the god of wine, is apparent.  

Cuisine is the other important subject of the exhibit with preparation vessels, plates, utensils on display. This part is not so interesting as it is predictable.  But a narrow room with a fresco, paintings and statue of a giant phallus attest to the love these people had for erotica as they used it as decoration of their homes.  This gallery is off-bounds to youth attending the museum.

The finale of the exhibit is a short video with computer graphics that recreates the volcano and show how it destroyed the buildings and the city,  bit by bit.  ‘Last 

supper in Pompeii:  From Table to the Grave” runs at the Legion through August 29.  Reservations are a must.

The second exhibit, upstairs, mainly in the Rodin galleries are the works of the Kenyan American artist Wangechi Mutu.  Her exhibit “I Am Speaking to You, Are You Listening” is a series of mostly sculptures and some paintings.  The works are spread among the standard Rodin sculptures as if they are in dialogue with this European male artist’s presentations of his reality.  It was the former director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Max Hollein who first starting putting the contemporary and sometimes shocking works next to the standard fare of the Legion.  He was much criticized for this.  This criticism didn’t matter to him because after San Francisco he took up the helm as director of the Metropolitan Museum of New York.

Mutu’s sculptures are many layered. Two greet the visitor in the courtyard before the entrance of the museum and at the the base of the famous “Thinker” of Rodin as if the figure is pondering the disaster below.  Here Mutu has placed  two bronzes, bodies covered by  blankets covering two figures, These are identifiable as female because of the pointy toed very high sexy heeled red shoes poking out.  An overt reference to violence against women. Also in the courtyard are two huge bronze sculptures that represent mythological female goddesses.

In the entrance hall of the museum is another reclining sculpture and beyond that in the main Rodin gallery is “Sentinel IV” made of several materials including wood, soil, branches, paper and black hair.  The standing sculpture is set apart by strands of large black beads.   This statue stands on a platform of earth red soil, a motif that is present in other of her sculptures.  

Three photographic prints of ink and emulsion are placed in the next Rodin gallery with three busts emphasized with mirrors.  A standing sculpture has  an exaggerated hairstyle and fringe replicating a skirt. 

Mutu uses a rich assortment of materials as she works in many genres.  She refers to questions surrounding feminism.  She has exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the 2019 Whitney Biennial in New York. Her works are a welcome addition to the once staid collection of European art at the Legion.  This exhibit runs through November 7, 2021.  41 5 750 3600 or