Thursday, March 10, 2011

You'll never work in this town again, or my thoughts on the new museum dedicated to 20th century art in Milan

It sounded like such an exciting prospect…a new museum in Milan dedicated to modern Italian art of the first half of the 20th century, during which Italian artists contributed not just locally, but also internationally to the art scene. In truth, there is great merit in the project. Finally gathering together and displaying the important bits and pieces previously scattered around town and in storerooms is of undeniable value. Further, if memory serves, during the first couple of months every day at least four thousand people waited in long lines to visit the museum—while entrance was free—under the cold winter sun, or drenching freezing rain, and, believe me, there has been a lot of rain.

I got lucky on the way home from work, one day…absolutely no line!...and so I uncharacteristically did something spontaneous (it wasn’t easy), and went right in, more to see the new museum, itself, than to look at the individual pieces....More......

...I’ll never work in this town, again, after this post, but…where to begin with all the aspects of my deep disappointment at such a missed golden opportunity?

I’ll admit first off that, in addition to welcoming the gathering together and displaying of these works, I’m in total agreement with the museum planners regarding the conception of the display of the objects: chronological order and thematic.

Why is this a big deal, you ask?

It is more of a big deal than non-art historians and non-museologists might think.

The way something is presented to you gives you a lot of subconscious information, and presenting something in chronological order leads the uninformed public into thinking that the changes were “natural” and “unavoidable progress.” These notions have been debunked, so let’s toss them out right away, too.

If, then, the chronological approach is so risky, why am I so in favor of it? Because, aided by this eye-opening information and other aspects, such as thematic groupings, it can help us put things into context.

Here stops the agreement, and starts the J’accuse.

The inner space has been horribly planned.

Fair is fair. I’ll admit right away that I don’t know what the spaces were like before they gutted the “Arengario” (a public hall/loggia for proclamations and debates) for the museum, and the interior already wasn’t as it had been originally, anyway.

The structure, itself, has a complex history, which—for our purposes, here—can be summarized briefly.

Next to the Duomo, the Arengario on the left is part of the ex-Royal Palace (with ancient Visconti and Sforza roots). In the second half of the 1930s during the years that Italians euphemistically call “of the Consensus” (that is, the general and widespread support for the policies of Mussolini and Fascism…before your hackles rise, you should know more about both, both good and bad, than there is space, here, to detail), it pointedly took the place of a mid 19th century wing and loggia—themselves replacing more ancient structures—that had been planned for appearances of the representatives of the new Savoy monarchy in those years shortly after the Unification of Italy. Shortly after WWII, this pair of mirror-image structures opening the street between the Piazza del Duomo and the adjacent Piazza Diaz were gutted, reconstructed internally and finished. The structure on the right is still occupied by city offices. The structure on the left, now dedicated to the new museum, was occupied by the conveniently and visibly located provincial tourism office once called APT, now called IAT and moved into the poorly marked underground refurbished bowels of the ex-Cobianchi Day Hotel (1924) on the other side of the piazza, accessible via curving staircases, or a glass elevator in November of 2010 to the Piazza Castello, 1 (MM1/red stop "Cairoli").

So, what’s so awful about the use of space in the new museum?

Almost the entire area (it seems so, anyway) of the cube full of windows giving onto Piazza Duomo has been gobbled up by a poor and perfectly useless—artistically speaking—spiral staircase. The Guggenheim—without the paintings!—comes immediately to mind, though the architects, Italo Rotta and Fabio Fornarsari say they were inspired by the spiral staircase in the Vatican.


It is a horrible waste of space and natural light, and it makes the new museum jut out into the space of the original portico…‘making it interactive with the surrounding space,’ you say? I say ‘a faddish and useless violation of the original structure,’ but that’s my personal opinion.

What else is so wrong about the new museum?

The display already is covered with inches of virtual dust and mold.

Painting. Painting. Painting. Sculpture. Painting. White walls. White light. Silence. Nothing interactive. No videos (at least not yet). No integration of contemporary music (particularly music inspired by the art periods in questions, such as Futurism), let alone other aspects of daily life (cooking…Futurism, again). Old. Old. Old.

I really didn’t expect this for a museum dedicated to such dynamic art from the early 20th century up to the end of the 1960s (the rest up to and including contemporary art is planned for yet another new museum…where? …when? One imagines in time for the 2015 Expo).

What else?

Like the apple of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, the fascination with “genius” is just too hard to resist, apparently. Furthermore, in the initial hall it’s apparent from the awkward placement of the closing wall with regard to the columns and ceiling that the gracious original space of the hall has been violated. But those are arguments for specialists.

What will bug even non-specialists, especially if they’re tall, with bad backs and have less than perfect sight like me, is the faddish choice of creating the art work labels in print soooooo small that even a micron microscope probably wouldn’t help, and, what’s more, placing them really really low, so that one has to bow before the art work like a humbled devotee, while risking having to be carried out on a stretcher because it’s impossible to straighten back up.

What was the one positive really heart-opening surprise?

Taking the escalator up to the top floor, and realizing as I inched my way up, that that wasn’t just any ol’ ceiling. Whatever one thinks of the works of Fontana (and I’m no great fan of modern art after the Fauves), it was a delightful surprise to find myself ascending towards and almost up into his delicate “Spatial Ceiling,” which he had created in 1956 for a hotel on the Isle of Elba.

Another pleasant surprise? The winsome Marini sculpture visible from outside (here framed by my shadow).

So, now that the very reasonable ticket prices have been installed (and visitors have dropped to the very respectable 1000 a day), is it still worth going?

Yes, for the fantastic views of the Piazza and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele (there’s also an expensive caffé-restaurant).

Yes, to see the collections, with these caveats in mind.

Yes, to support the arts in Milan.

Culture is us. To understand who we are now, how we want to be, and where we want to go—in other words, to form good citizens—studying history in all its forms is fundamental.

And it helps the economy grind around, which doesn’t hurt, either.

I snapped the photos with you in mind on the 12th of December at about 5:15 P.M.


Migliavacca, Carlo, “Milano Museo del Novecento Un secolo da collezione”, Bell’Italia, n. 298 (Feb 2011), pp. 36-44

“Albergo diurno Cobianchi”,

TOURING, Milano, Milano: Touring Club Italiano, ristampa aggiornata 2000


Star said...

Thank you, Roberta Kedzierski, for the heads-up about the recent move of the IAT office. You can follow Roberta's always delightful and helpful info about Italy in Twitter (RobertaK) and/or Facebook (Roberta Kedzierski). You'll be glad you did!

bitercat8 said...

i just read this, finally,. i agree. architects are supposed to deal with space. these archs have ruined it. it was the most difficult museum to figure out. i had to constantly look for where to go next. at least then it was free!

Star said...

Hi, Connie, nice to hear from you. Thanks for writing a comment!

Note to all: the ground floor area has been redone, again, and the Marini is no longer visible from the window. A lot of this space was rather wasted in the original design, as a kind of ottoman-filled place to plop, exhausted, after having seen the museum. Perhaps it is destined to changing exhibits. Time will tell.

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