Exhibition reviews: Piranesi: Master of Fantasy | Soviet Grand Designs

One of the etchings from Piranesi's Prison series, Carceri d'invenzione
One of the etchings from Piranesi's Prison series, Carceri d'invenzione
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TWO exhibitions throw open windows on Rome and Soviet Russia to give a sense of how artists saw those worlds and how such civilisations saw themselves

Piranesi: Master of Fantasy

National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

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Soviet Grand Designs

The Scotland-Russia Institute, 

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Giovanni Battista Piranesi was one the great masters of printmaking. Born near Venice, he made his career in Rome and indeed the city itself and its monuments were to provide inspiration for his art. He became the great champion of Roman architecture and its most brilliant recorder, exploring not just its detail, but also memorably interpreting the mood and impact of the mighty remains of ancient Rome. His prints are big and often spectacular. Never surpassed, they are current still, but as a result their impact has been dimmed because we are mostly familiar with them through reproductions or through pale and tired late copies. When you see his etchings in their original strength and freshness, as you do in several of the prints in the National Gallery’s small, but choice show, it is a quite different experience. His print of the Colosseum, for instance, from a series he published in 1761 to which he gave the resounding title Della magnificenza ed architectura de’romani, is a tour de force. The print is 30 inches across and deeply etched in strong chiaroscuro. The huge building occupies the whole picture field, curving away from us in dramatic perspective at either side. Piranesi’s print gives a vivid sense of the building’s dramatic bulk, of its weathered antiquity and indeed, in his own words, of its magnificence as no other image could. If you look closely, too, linking it to the world of 18th century tourists and connoisseurs in which the artist flourished, you can see the address included in the inscription and next to it the price – two and a half paoli. (The paolo was a silver coin in the papal currency used in Rome.) Altogether Piranesi produced more than 1,000 prints. All were based on his great skill and fluency as a draughtsman, and the exhibition includes several drawings along with the etchings. One small example in pen and ink of St Peter’s Piazza is typically free and lively and yet also convincingly accurate. This is also true of other actual views in and around Rome such as his etching of the column of Marcus Aurelius in the Piazza Colonna, for example. His images are not always strictly topographical, however. There is a fine print here of the Temple of the Sybil at Tivoli and he has embellished it with fantastical detail of figures engaged in strange activities. He was also master of the capriccio, or architectural fantasy, composing pictures from a combination of real and imaginary elements as he does in the splendid frontispiece that he designed for his series of Vedute di Roma, an ongoing collection that he published between 1746 and 1778.

Throughout, his vivid drawing style informs his etchings, but nowhere more than in his famous Carceri, his Prisons. A drawing in pen and wash suggests how he improvised these extraordinary compositions inspired, not by the ornament of Roman architecture, but by its massive structures. The dark interiors of a ruined, gigantic architecture tower upwards, but also seem to descend into unknown depths below like the dungeons of a race of giants.

Piranesi’s story is closely linked to Scotland through his friendships with Allan Ramsay and Robert Adam. He later fell out with Ramsay over the latter’s Protestant view of the Catholic Church, but also because Ramsay held the Greek tradition was far superior to the Romano-Etruscan which Piranesi championed. Adam, however, who was known to his friends as Bob the Roman, shared Piranesi’s enthusiasm for all things Roman. Nevertheless, Piranesi’s admiration for both Scots was recorded in the frontispiece (not in the show) for his Antichità Romane, where their names appear as Roman inscriptions engraved on stone. One monument to these international friendships is in the show however. The Scottish architect Robert Mylne also got to know and admire Piranesi in Rome. Back in Britain, to the chagrin of his English rivals, Mylne won the competition to build Blackfriars Bridge over the Thames. (His bridge was replaced a century later.) Piranesi was an important part of his inspiration. Returning the compliment and working from Mylne’s own drawing sent at his request to Rome, Piranesi made a print of the building of the bridge. The print is described here as an etching. It seems, however, to be predominantly engraved and the technique did lend itself better to the precise description of technical things such as the complex timber centring for the construction of the arches of the bridge which is shown still in place. The print is itself testimony to the internationalism of 18th century art and architecture. There is also a neat compliment to London in it. Flanking the arms of the City and mimicking SPQR, Senatus Populusque Romanus, the acronym of ancient Rome, Piranesi has put the letters SPQL, the Senate and People of London. A good idea for Boris Johnson?

With his taste for the colossal, Piranesi would have looked at home in Soviet Grand Designs at the Scotland-Russia Institute. Artists in the Soviet era were expected to think big. The show brings together a group of works by Russian artists who made their careers at that time. While everything else in Russia changed with the Revolution, in St Petersburg at least, where these artists come from, art teaching did not. Right up to the fall of communism, artists were trained strictly in the 19th century Beaux Arts tradition. Based on drawing, everything was geared to the production of elaborately prepared historical compositions. Under the old regime, an artist who made it and became a member of the Artists’ Union had a job for life. There was not much chance they would rock the boat, so most of this art is pretty safe. With the fall of communism, however, these artists seemed an anachronism both at home and abroad. The studios they inherited as sitting tenants at the collapse of communism were a comfortable privilege, but they were full of unsaleable paintings. John Barkes, who has organised this exhibition, has spent time searching them out. The show is a small selection of what he has acquired. The big “machines” of Soviet realism were familiar enough in the west, but what Barkes has looked for in the studios is the less formal work done in preparation for these grand designs, or simply produced privately following the artistic urge, but with no expectation that they would ever be seen publicly.

Thus there are studies of airmen by Anatoli Zak for a major public composition, but there is also a simple and charming painting called First Snow of Winter by Anatoli Levitin with colourful washing hanging against the fresh white covering of early snow. Edvard Vasiliev simply paints his own chair and his cat without pretension, while Elena Tabakova paints geraniums in a sunlit window with delightful simplicity.

Several painters celebrate the workers and heavy industry as good communist artists were expected to do, but in his sketches Vladimir Burov, who is the best of them, demonstrates a lively dramatic imagination in response to his subject. There is perhaps even a little inspiration from Piranesi in his pictures of dark smoking factories and huge enigmatic pieces of machinery.

Although most of this art scarcely reflects Modernism, in the designs for colossal mosaics made by Evgeni Kazmin, there is evidence of the artist’s admiration for the early Russian Modernists. He evidently also admired Matisse. Perhaps in the decorative arts artists were allowed more licence. Certainly, the figures included in the designs to give scale suggest that if they were actually carried out his mosaics and murals would have been both impressive in their size and decorative in their design.

• Piranesi until 7 October; Soviet Grand Designs until 22 September