Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1985
Naples, Maschio Angioino, Andy Warhol: Viaggio in Italia, 1996, p. 173, illustrated in colour
Ludwigsburg, Kunstverein Ludwigsburg, Andy Warhol, 2001, n.p., illustrated in colour
Milan, Fondazione Antonio Mazzotta, Warhol – Beuys: Ommagio a Lucio Amelio, 2007-08, p. 165, illustrated in colour
Bologna, Museo d'Arte Moderna di Bologna, Cara Domani, Opere Dalla Collezione Ernesto Esposito, 2012, p. 3, illustrated in colour
Tampere, Sara Hildén Art Museum, Andy Warhol – An American Story, 2014
Naples, Palazzo delle Arti di Napoli, Andy Warhol, Vetrine, 2014
Completed in high key turquoise, yellow, mauve, and scarlet, the base colours of this work project a mood of saturated positivity that seems entirely at odds with the force and horror of a volcanic eruption. Warhol’s idiosyncratically pop palette is only tempered by the torturous twitchings of translucent black which dominate the lower half of the canvas, even appearing in some areas as the staining residue of thick black smoke, burnt onto the layers beneath. This work is also fascinating technically: in the background, and in much of the more improvised expressionist detail, we can observe a return to the hand painted technique that Warhol had favoured in the 1960s. The artist believed that this mode of depiction affected a mood of unrivalled spontaneity: “I painted each Vesuvius by hand, always using different colours so that they can give the impression of having been painted just one minute after the eruption” (Andy Warhol quoted in: Exhibition Catalogue, Naples, Museo di Capodimonte, Vesuvius by Warhol, 1985, p. 35).
The Vesuvius series was realised for Warhol’s solo exhibition in 1985 at the prestigious Museo di Capodimonte – a hallowed exhibition space usually reserved for Old Masters such as Titian and Caravaggio. In this way, the works were steeped in art historical import from their very inception. Furthermore, to tackle the Volcano as a subject was to take up the mantle of a long line of artists who had historically engaged with its depiction. Vesuvius had surged in popularity as a motif of choice during the era of the Grand Tour in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, and came to be represented by such artists as Joseph Wright of Derby, and even JMW Turner. In its high key palette of turquoise and pointedly canary yellow, the present work seems an idiosyncratically irreverent Warholian reinterpretation of their legacy. Indeed it is one that aligns the Vesuvius series with Warhol’s Art after Art series, executed only a few years previously. In these works the artist had appropriated images form Leonardo da Vinci, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Raphael, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and others, certifying the notion that artworks were also party to the fame and celebrity that fascinated him endlessly.
The Museo di Capodimonte exhibition was only organised after Warhol had participated in a group show curated by the leading Neapolitan dealer, Lucio Amelio, some four years previously. Amelio had used his significant curatorial clout to commission works from a group of artists including Warhol, Joseph Beuys, Keith Haring, and Jannis Kounellis for the show – Terrae Motus – which was held in response to an earthquake in Empoli, just south of Naples. The show firmly placed Naples on the map of the global Contemporary art world, and Warhol’s experience of the city – particularly his encounter with Beuys – made a lasting impression. It is then noteworthy that the present work references the tectonic disaster which provided the contextual background to the earlier group exhibition, taking as its subject that totem of natural beauty and latent destruction that has rendered Naples such a unique and extraordinary city throughout history.
Indeed Vesuvius, not only recalls Warhol’s 1960s praxis in its hand-painted technique. Imbued as it is with the threat of impending catastrophe, it is also redolent of the haunting contemplation of death so sensationally depicted in Warhol’s Suicides, Disasters, Car Crashes and Electric Chairs of the 1960s. The present motif is perhaps most comparable to Warhol’s Atomic Bomb of 1963, sharing not only a similar sort of explosive plume, but also a less explicit approach to death – the sense of morbidity is not an immediate fact, but rather an imminent intimidation, looming over our viewpoint. While it is possible to ascribe some significance to the fact that, in this work, Warhol returned to morbid themes only two years before his own untimely death, in truth, mortality had never been far from his psyche. In his own words, “I realised that everything I was doing must have been death” (Andy Warhol quoted in: Exhibition Catalogue, Houston, The Menil Collection, Andy Warhol: Death and Disasters, 1988-89, p. 19).
Vesuvius is a remarkable work. It exists as testimony not only to Warhol’s relationship with the city of Naples but also to his relationship with two of its most creatively minded contemporaneous residents: Ernesto Esposito and Lucio Amelio. It conflates the themes of death and art history in a manner that is all but unparalleled within Warhol’s oeuvre; as replete with import, meaning, and historical significance as it is rare and unique.
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