The ancient city of Pompeii—both destroyed and preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in a.d. 79—has captured public imagination since it was first excavated in 1748. Questioning the established perception of Pompeii as a city frozen in time, Pompeii: Photographs and Fragments highlights the changing representations of the site since its rediscovery. The exhibition presents contemporary photographs by William Wylie and An-My Lê, m.f.a. 1993, and a selection of 19th-century photographs by Edmund Behles, Robert Rive, and Giorgio Sommer alongside an 18th-century etching by Francesco Piranesi and ancient art from the Gallery’s collection. Through these objects, Pompeii: Photographs and Fragments explores both the ancient history of the Roman town as well as its more recent history as an active excavation site.
The exhibition was inspired by two projects that Wylie and Lê undertook during their Gallery-sponsored Happy and Bob Doran Artist Residencies in Praiano, Italy. Wylie’s large-scale photographs of Pompeii, taken between 2013 and 2017 and recently brought together in a book published by the Gallery titled Pompeii Archive, document the passage of time—the ongoing cycles of deterioration and preservation that mark the site as a living landscape. Wylie studied the work of Giorgio Sommer (1834–1914), whose photographs of Pompeii became world famous in the mid-nineteenth century. The images taken by Sommer and other nineteenth-century photographers reveal how the initial archaeological excavations and restoration work at Pompeii actively transformed the site into a picturesque ruin. Wylie’s images revisit the site some 150 years later, recording the ongoing evolution of the ruins as a result of natural and human intervention.
Lê’s artist’s book Praiano-Naples (2013–16, printed 2017) juxtaposes sweeping views of the Bay of Naples with details of the erotic artworks that were excavated at Pompeii and are now held in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. While excavations at Pompeii and nearby Herculanem revealed these cities to be rich in erotic artifacts, including statues, frescoes, and household items decorated with sexual themes and fertility imagery, 19th-century moral sensibilities led to the artworks being housed in a locked room at the museum—long referred to as the Secret Cabinet—for nearly 200 years. The rich color images in Lê’s accordion-folded book reveal both an intimate look at ancient Roman culture and an appreciation of the timeless natural beauty of the region.
Complementing these photographs are fragments of wall paintings from Herculaneum, which was also destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in a.d. 79, and a range of quotidian objects, including pottery, glassware, and coins from the period and region. These objects animate the photographs and enrich our understanding of life in first-century Pompeii.
“Wylie’s large-scale, black-and-white photographs and Lê’s small, color photographs in her artist’s book are remarkably distinct,” states Judy Ditner, the Richard Benson Assistant Curator of Photography and Digital Media and curator of the exhibition. “But both artists are deeply engaged with the traditions of landscape photography, employing a large-format view camera to compose their images, just as the nineteenth-century photographers who first recorded the sites did. Lê’s views of the tranquil Tyrrhenian Sea make it hard to imagine the violent eruption that wiped out Pompeii and left it buried for centuries,” she continues, “while Wylie’s photographs capture a stillness that is starkly different from the site experienced by tourists. Both artists have brought their personal sensibilities to bear on a much-imaged place, yielding works that feel simultaneously contemporary and timeless.”