Pulp Fictions

Story by Lachlan Taylor

Art History, 2017

The Art of Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Every two years, the Adam Art Gallery hosts an exhibition curated in collaboration with Honours students in the Art History programme.

Since their inception in 2000, these exhibitions have been an opportunity for students to experience the practical processes involved in organising, researching, and presenting a professional art exhibition.

But beyond this, they represent the Adam’s role as a site of collaboration and the importance of the Gallery as a cultural institution at Victoria.

2007’s Pulp Fictions: The Art of Giovanni Battista Piranesi brought these roles together in an exhibition of one of the most accomplished Italian printmakers of the eighteenth century.

Piranesi’s Prints

The exhibition was named for both the paper upon which Piranesi’s works were printed, and the widespread popularity and sensational quality of his work.

Although originally from Venice and trained as an architect, Piranesi’s fame came from his prints which "celebrate the architecture – both real and imagined – and archaeology of his adopted city of Rome" (Maskill and Norman 2008, 61).

Piranesi’s prints were a favourite of the Grand Tourists – the young aristocrats who, from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, travelled throughout Europe on pilgrimages of cultural education. The prints gained fame among the Tourists as much for their imagination as for their mechanical skill and realism.

For example, in the Vedute di Roma (Views of Rome), the ruins of the ancient city are not only rendered with precise architectural detail, but are brought back to life by being shown as functioning, living structures within the city of Rome.

Piranesi possessed a poetic ability to combine documentary description with imagination and originality.

Collaborating with the Turnbull Library

The prints in Pulp Fictions came from four of Piranesi’s best known series, the Prima Parte di Architetture e Prospettive (First Part of Architecture and Perspectives), the Grotteschi (Grotesques), the Carceri d’Invezione (Imaginary Prisons), and the Vedute di Roma.

The works were loaned by the Alexander Turnbull Library, which acquired them from Timaru architect, Percy Watts Rule, in 1953. Pulp Fictions provided an opportunity to do further research on this set of prints. They were revealed to have all been produced during Piranesi’s lifetime and to be a rare, valuable, and important collection.

A Glimpse Inside

Working with Students

The exhibition at the Adam Art Gallery was jointly curated by senior lecturer in Art History, David Maskill, and art history Honours students. The students wrote essays for the show’s catalogue, and presented talks in the Gallery.

In this way, the exhibition was a site of collaboration. Not only between the University and the Turnbull Library, but between students and their teacher.

With such an important and interesting collection of works, Pulp Fictions could have been displayed at any gallery or museum. But, at a purpose-built university gallery, it was able to represent the values of Victoria as an institution.

As a "laboratory for creativity and scholarship," Maskill notes that the Adam Art Gallery provided an environment that reflected the nature of the exhibition.

Pulp Fictions was not only a collection of art works in a room, but the culmination of a process of research, creativity, and collaboration.

Visit the Adam Art Gallery

Gate 3, Victoria University, Kelburn Parade, Wellington 6012, New Zealand