Sunday 17 November 2019

The Holy Shroud - Exhibition Review

What: The Holy Shroud
When: 15 - 24 November 2019
Where: SpACE@Collins
Created by: Veronica Piraccini
Curated by: Giovanni Butera
Three faces of Christ
In 2012 renowned artist Veronica Piraccini came face to face with a life-size scan of the Shroud of Turin and this encounter created within her the impetus to deepen her artistic explorations as well as her religious explorations through using her unique painting techniques to riff off the images and ideas encompassed by the Shroud. Butera has brought some key pieces (and Piraccini) to Melbourne through the auspices of GAIA for local audiences to view and ponder and experience revelation.

The Shroud of Turin has been an enduring, yet iconic, religious relic for the Catholic Church since it's discovery. It is not formally recognised by the Church as a sacred item because it's provenance has never been able to be authenticated, but Catholics have been permitted to revere it as a holy relic. Therein lies the secret of the power of Piraccini's work, but before I speak to that I must tell you more about the artist.

Piraccini holds the Professional Chair of Painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome and since the 1980's has been investigating what she calls "imperceptible" pigments which were discovered by her physicist sister, Nadia.. Rather than being metal based paints such as those most commonly used by artists throughout history, these paints are clay based (such as are used in painting ceramics). The unique aspect of these paints as Piraccini has developed them is that under white light they are barely visible earth toned markings (when painted on cotton or linen) but under UV light they come alive as almost fluorescent images of blue, red and green. Mixing these primaries does not result in the same colours as traditional pigment paints.

Piraccini's paintings of this nature - up until her contact with the print of the Shroud - was in abstract expressionism and so the starkness of these colours worked well. Working with her new subject, this holy image of Jesus before his resurrection, Piraccini realised she needed to explore a more delicate nuance. Over time and across her subsequent works Piraccini discovered that through mixing oils into the pigments she could develop a more detailed palette which lended itself to this more naturalistic work. She has also discovered working on herringbone linen rather than her previous cotton activated the third dimension of depth to an almost holographic level.

The exhibition includes samples of her earlier works in this medium as well as her developmental progress of technique and interpretation across her explorations with the Shroud. It is worth noting one of the other inspirations for Piraccini was the fact that in 1898 the first photograph, taken by Secondo Pia, surprised everyone by revealing a higher resolution image than is seen on the Shroud with the naked eye. The synergy between revealing the Shroud through Piraccini's imperceptible pigments becomes a natural extension when you consider the ideas of revealing God's truth. This parallels beautifully with the questions over the authenticity of the Shroud and the story of the doubting apostle, Thomas.

Piraccini's first painting, 'Dall'Impronta di Gesu' is perhaps the most startling. A lifesize replica of the print, Piraccini created an image in red and blue. The blue marks the striations across the flesh of the body as revealed on the Shroud, and the red marks the pooling of blood. It is horrific to see a full human body able to be mapped out and represented in this way, to be forced to see the pain and injury inflicted on another human being - any human being.

What was most astounding however, was the depth of the three dimensional image with the red and blue clearly situated in different space for our eyes under the UV light. For those of you who study or work in colour theory and light this is an intriguing exhibition on those levels alone. Piraccini chose to do these paintings on herringbone linen and I can't help but wonder how the looming and quality of the fabric accentuates this affect, which is not as pronounced on the previous works painted on cotton canvas.

The point where religion meets art becomes clear in the painting 'Il Mio Gesu'. This is the painting where Piraccini developed a more delicate nuance using oils. this life-sized portrait is painted double sided, as if the Shroud were folded. In this work we see the revelation of God's word mirrored in the revelation of the art itself. When you are close you can see the weave of the fabric and the strokes of the brushes. As you move further away, however, the third dimension becomes stronger and somehow those details vanish to reveal a man with all the nuance of a sculpture (in UV light, of course).

At this point I must admit to being an atheist, but I will say this exhibition brought me much closer to understanding the basic ideology of faith based religions and the difficulties of trying to explain them through scientific methodology. The picture (or ideas) are greater than the sum of their parts, so if the detail is what you are looking at you are not seeing the full picture.

This is the power of art - the ability to reveal the inexplicable. This exhibition is not going to convert non-believers, but it may just be the experience needed by the uncertain to bring them back into the arms of God. It is worth noting in 2015 Pope Francis bestowed his blessing on Piraccini's work.

Other items in the exhibition include a cleverly realised portrait in three layers representing the Son, the Father, and the Holy Spirit - 'La Trinita'. There are also some stunning examples of Piraccini's earlier works including 'La Resurrezione', 'Il Battesimo di Gesu Impercettibile' (perhaps my favourite), and 'Grovigli dello Spirito'.

I think Piraccini's Shroud explorations are going to go down in history as one of the most significant collections of religious modern art and I really do suggest you find you way to SpACE@Collins because who knows when you will have the chance to see these amazing and revelatory pieces again. Because of their 3D nature, seeing pictures in catalogues or on the internet will never come close to understanding the experience of this art.

As well as the exhibition itself (which are guided and immersive) there are a couple of other special events across the week. These include a cocktail and catwalk event on the 22nd and a closing ceremony on the 24 which includes live music and a buffet. My only complaint about the exhibition is I wish there was more of the work on display!

4.5 Stars

Pro Tip: The Walk Arcade is not sign posted on Collins Street. It looks like a really thin office building but has bright red walls at the entrance with big white arrows. The exhibition is one floor up from the Collins Street entrance - accessible by stairs or elevator.

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