In a poignant coincidence, one of the first exhibits opening at the Legion of Honor since the pandemic disaster began 14 months ago is about the disaster that struck Pompeii in 79 AD.
The museum, which reopens to the general public on Friday — with timed admission and COVID safety measures in place — has mounted two new exhibitions: “Last Supper in Pompeii: From the Table to the Grave,” curated by Renee Dreyfus, and “Wangechi Mutu: “I Am Speaking, Are You Listening?,” featuring sculptures by the Kenyan-American artist and curated by Claudia Schmuckli.
The prominent Roman city devastated by fire and ash from the volcanic eruption in Mount Vesuvius had “remarkable parallels with the San Francisco Bay Area with its rich and lively culture around food and wine,” says Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Director Tom Campbell.
In the first century, Pompeii was a large, flourishing Mediterranean city, its streets filled with shops, bars and taverns. Many of its elegant villas belonged to families who made their fortune trading in such famous local commodities as wine.
Dreyfus, whose titles are distinguished curator and curator in charge of Ancient Art and Interpretation, has organized some 20 exhibits at the Fine Arts Museums over the years, including the 1979 “Treasures of Tutankhamun,” the 2009 sequel, “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs,” and “The Search for Alexander.”
She had long planned a show about Pompeii, but instead of a general exhibit, she developed the current special exhibition (extra admission fee required) with a specific focus, because, she says, “with its narrative about food and wine, it brings us closer to the everyday lives of the people who lived and died there.”
Dreyfus arranged for bringing 150 objects from Pompeii during COVID-restricted days of international transportation. Among the items in the exhibition are sculptures, mosaics, frescoes, precious metals, and even a group of carbonized food. Most of the items — covered by ash for centuries until excavations began — are on view for the first time in the U.S.
There is even a section of erotic art, clearly marked “Naughty Art,” to warn visitors who have G-rated sensibilities.
The show includes a dramatic three-minute film showing the destruction of the ancient city from the quake, fires, and the blanket of ash. Pompeii, Herculaneum and the surrounding area were buried by Mount Vesuvius’ volcanic ash and pumice as thick as 20 feet in places.
Along with the ancient relics, the Legion is presenting something boldly contemporary: phantasmagoric sculptures of hybrid beings by Nairobi-born Wangechi Mutu, 48, which are scattered on museum’s first floor and flanking the iconic Rodin “The Thinker” in the Court of Honor.
The juxtaposition of classic European art with Mutu’s powerful African figures is a “critique of colonial legacies, patriarchal and racist power structures,” according to a statement from the museum. What the viewer may experience, however, is a remarkable admixture of powerful expressions of art, whatever the source.
Explaining her bronzes of hybrid goddesses that are part animal, part woman and part alien, Mutu has said: “Relationships and juxtapositions of different materials and symbolic languages, between human behavior and the natural world that have empowered us, describe the long history of creation and self-representation that has differentiated us from other creatures and from one another. It has also been the reason man has justified the rape, dominion and destruction of all he has encountered.”
IF YOU GO
Legion of Honor
Where: 100 34th Avenue, S.F.
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays
Tickets: $6 to $15 general; $15 to $30 for special exhibitions
Contact: (415) 750-3600, https://legionofhonor.famsf.org/
Note: Visitors must purchase tickets for timed entry to the museum, where COVID safety measures will be in place.