Bill Viola: A Blend of Classic and Contemporary Art

by Joseph Sutton (Syracuse University)

Photo: Try to find the Bill Viola ad on the bus. Hint: It’s in the center.

Ever since I started studying abroad in January, I’ve been surrounded by beautiful, Italian scenery. However, there was one sight that I couldn’t get away from and that’s the Bill Viola: Electronic Renaissance advertisement. You can’t miss it— it’s all over Florence. 

I made a list of 26 things you must do before leaving Florence and Bill Viola was my number one!

Just some background on Bill Viola: he’s an American artist born in New York, was inspired by his grandfather who was of Italian origin, and Florentine art influenced his work between 1974 and 1976.

This past week, I marched over to Palazzo Strozzi in the center of Florence. I popped the audio guide headphones in my ears and let the Electronic Renaissance journey begin.

Throughout this exhibition, there is a fascinating interaction between classic Italian and contemporary art that fosters an innovative dialogue between Viola’s work and the masterpieces of such great artists of the past as Pontormo, Paolo Uccello, Masolino and Cranach, from whom Viola has drawn his inspiration, and who have marked the development of his artistic vocabulary and style.

The exhibition will allow you to immerse yourself in space and sound, as you track the career of this master of video art from Bill Viola’s early experimental work in the 1970s right up to his monumental installations of the 21st century. Video art is a powerful medium which allows for an infinite amount of space and time for experimentation and language.

Almost all of Viola’s art in this show had to do with humanity, but also the strong interaction with the opposing forces and energies of nature — water and fire, light and dark, and the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. As I was walking through the gallery, my thoughts led me to ponder on the composition of our bodies and the meaning of humanity and emotion. Everyone will have a different experience when exploring Bill Viola’s art. His work can have you question the meaning of life, your past experiences, and knowledge.

My favorite part of the show was Catherine’s Room. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but what I would say is that this piece had me thinking about the outside world. Viola took his inspiration from the predella (a term in art history to denote elongated visual painting). In particular, he utilized the reworking of the predella by Sienese painter Andrea di Bartolo, and both artists’ visions are showcased and paralleled for the purpose of direct comparison. Both are depicting scenes of women going about their everyday lives. Viola saw a photograph of the predella at the Getty Museum and this caught his eye because of the repetition of interior space and the personal, intimate life of women living on their own. Typical predella features are the observance of the linear structure of day and night. Viola wrote: “Predellas have always fascinated me…To the contemporary eye, they look like storyboards.”

Bill Viola’s bond with Tuscan history and art is further embodied in the exhibition’s off-site extensions into such museums and institutions as the Grande Museo del Duomo, the Gallerie deli Uffizi, and the Museo di Santa Maria Novella in Florence, as well as with other cities such as Empoli and Arezzo.

Don’t forget to go to the basement where you can see more of Viola’s art, as well as the entire backstage production of these beautiful pieces of video art. The exhibition started on March 10th and will be around until July 23rd.

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