Sir Denis Mahon remains one of the most influential British art historians of the 20th century, and his passion for philanthropy and research lives on through the work of his eponymous foundation. Through curatorial endeavours, annual essay prizes and institutional support, Sir Denis Mahon Foundation continues the influential figure’s contributions and promotion of art historical scholarship and curatorial excellence, as displayed in their upcoming exhibition at Cromwell Place.
Time and Eternal Life (10 October - 22 November), takes on the concept of eternity, and the history of the endless. The exhibition uses a range of mediums to stretch across millennia, from time immemorial to the present day – and far beyond.
It is an imposing subject matter, and one which cannot have been easy to take on. We spoke to Orietta Benocci-Adam, Artistic Director and Trustee of the Foundation, about where the idea for the exhibition first came from – and the difficulties which come with attempting to document time itself.
Curating an Exhibition Which Spans Millennia
“It started with the concept of ‘Time’ and the tau symbol, which is present in the title of our exhibition,” says Orietta. “The tau sums up several meanings related to the concept of Time. In Christianity, as a symbol of the cross, it is redemptive; in physics, tau is an elementary particle; in astronomy it is a measure of optical depth; while in the theory of relativity, it symbolises Time itself.”
Time and Eternal Life takes the concept of the tau and runs with it, applying an artistic eye to concepts around the theory of eternity and the concept of Time in art. Spanning five millennia, the physical exhibition divides what Orietta describes as an “immense period” into three distinct chapters, set apart in separate gallery rooms.
The first chapter covers Antiquity to the Modern Era, spanning everything from Ancient Egyptian works to sixteenth-century Italian pieces – many of which have been lent by the Galleria Sabauda and the Royal Museums in Turin. The oldest work on show is an Old Kingdom statuary group from the 4th Dynasty. For context, that is 2,500 years prior to the birth of Christ.
In the second chapter, two twentieth century artists are in dialogue: Alberto Burri and John Latham, both of whom worked with the landscapes around them – Burri in monolithic slabs of concrete, Latham in monumental deposits of shale – to create works which tackled the subject of Time in a post-war world.
Finally, the third chapter explores the concept of the eternal through a contemporary lens. “Gaetano Muratore’s Time Machine is a kind of intricate and playful object that, with irony, recalls the myth of the time machine,” Orietta says. “Michelle Cioccoloni's drawing Time emphasizes the importance for young artists of drawing from reality as a means to observe the true sense of life and Time.”
Other contemporary artworks on display include Bruno Marcucci’s Black Hole, and works by “Britain’s greatest living stone sculptor" Emily Young. “Her body of work and huge chiselled heads elicit a primordial, mystical and transcendent thought of an ancient and remote memory that has no time and has not passed,” Orietta says. “It creates an ante quem/post quem dialogue with the antiquities and the eternity of Time.”
In Dialogue: Contemporary and Antiquity
When asked what links the artists in the exhibition – some of whom are separated in time by thousands of years – Orietta says it’s that very time that brings them together. “It’s their preoccupation with Time and eternity, from the Egyptian concept of eternal life, to the eternal preservation of landscape art in Burri and Latham, to the human desire for time travel through a time machine,” she explains.
In a year quite unlike any other, the Foundation has been forced to adapt ahead of the opening of Time and Eternal Life. Among plans were an excursion to Gibellina, Sicily, with prominent Burri scholars and geologists, as well as talks at Niddry Castle in Scotland about Latham's Five Sisters Bings. Both are on hold until next year, although a Study Day with theoretical physicists and geologists from Imperial College and other universities is still planned.
When choosing the perfect location in which to exhibit Time and Eternal Life, the Foundation didn’t have to look much further than the unique gallery spaces of Cromwell Place. “Whilst Sir Denis was focused on art historical research and philanthropy, he much appreciated Newton's legacy,” Orietta explains. “He supported post-war artists who had a strong interest in relativity, Einstein and cosmology.”
Thus, Cromwell Place’s proximity to Imperial College and London’s Museum District was a particular draw for an exhibition which is as much about the science of relativity as it is about the artistic scope of eternity. “In the spirit of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, Cromwell Place and Sir Denis Mahon Foundation very much hope to capture the public imagination and interest in science and art,” Orietta says.