Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Union of Fire and Water--and of Venice and Baku, Azerbaijan--at Ca' Barbaro

The entrance hall of Ca' Barbaro, with video by Almagul Menlibayeva on right wall
The exhibition entitled The Union of Fire and Water by the two Azerbaijani artists Almagul Menlibayeva and Rashad Alakbarov, which now fills most of Ca' Barbaro's piano nobile (and continues until November 22), manages to tell a story with the far-ranging sweep and drama and pathos of the best of historical novels.

Taking as their starting point the fact that the Venetian ambassador Giosafat Barbaro (1413-1494) "traveled to and wrote extensively on Azerbaijani cities and the court of Shah Uzun Hassan" (from exhibition's press release), the artists position Venice and the city of Baku as the two poles of an extensive series of cross-cultural exchanges, and conflicts, stretching from the 15th century to the 20th, when the oil magnate Murtuza Mukhtarov built a grand Venetian Gothic style palace in Baku for his beloved wife.

Having served various functions since its construction in 1912, the palace now houses the main marriage registry office in Baku, according to the press release, and is known as the "Palace of Happiness". Though the romantic tale of Mukhtarov and his wife did not itself have a happy ending. Just eight years after the palace's completion, Mukhtarov commited suicide after fighting against (and killing some of) the invading Bolshevik forces.

The Union of Fire and Water is an ambitious and interesting exhibition that manages to more than hold its own within storied rooms once frequented by Henry James, Robert Browning, Monet, Whistler, and John Singer Sargent. 

Much more information on the exhibition and artists can be found here:

For those interested in an intimate (and pocket-sized but very nicely produced) introduction to Ca' Barbaro itself during the years when Henry James stayed there, I'd recommend Letters from the Palazzo Barbaro (Pushkin Press), which includes not only letters written by James himself, but is rounded out with letters from members of the Curtis family that provide interesting glimpses of their celebrated guest.

A previous post on a prior visit to Ca' Barbaro--when the palace's rooms were filled not with new art, but with the furniture of the present owners, and which includes images of the palace's courtyard made famous by its appearance in the BBC Brideshead Revisited--can be found here:

A final note: The famous high-ceilinged salone depicted by John Singer Sargent in his portrait of the Curtises (an image of which is included in the earlier post above) is, unfortunately, not open to the public during the present exhibition. Though there is a link in the post above to a website with images of the salone.

The grand central hall or portego with a weathered metal house of cards sculpture by Rashad Alakbarov, Precariousness of History, that introduces a central theme of the exhibition. (Also of note, a large ceramic stove near rear windows: a heating source that WD Howells, writing in the 1860s, describes as being generally unheard of in Venice palaces.)
Stucco work above a door of the portego with satyr-cherubs
Rashad Alakbarov's stairway maze, Untitled (Omnes Viae Ducunt Venetias)
Alakbarov's installation Do Not Fear
A detail of a stucco ceiling
Stucco work above a door
A detail of a stucco ceiling
An Alakbarov installation with mirrors (with "I WAS HERE" reflected on wall at rear) in the palazzo's dining room
A detail from the dining room ceiling
An Almagul Menlibayeva video installation in which a sea appears to surge just outside the palazzo's windows (in another room, another pair of "video windows" create the illusion that the city of Baku itself lies outside the palazzo)
A detail of Menlibayeva's and Alakbarov's melancholy installation Conclusion

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