After walking through the Galleria Borghese—a gem of a museum in which masterpieces from classical antiquity and the Italian Renaissance and Baroque are housed in a 17th-century villa amid inlaid marble pavements, floor mosaics, and elaborate furniture and wall decorations—one found Hans Op de Beeck’s six black-and-white watercolors installed on two charcoal gray panels in the villa’s unadorned former aviary. It was a strikingly ascetic, even humble display.
The 40-year-old Belgian artist painted the series of large watercolors in 2009 as a commission from the Italian banking group UniCredit. (Following this exhibition, the work went on long-term loan to MAXXI, Italy’s first national museum of contemporary art, which opens in Rome this spring.) The commission is the third in a 10-year program that brings together a contemporary artist with an old master in the Borghese collection, a pairing chosen by the museum’s curators. “In Silent Conversation with Correggio” matched Op de Beeck with the 16th-century northern Italian painter best known for his dramatic, illusionistic ceiling frescoes. However, it was Correggio’s lesser-known easel paintings depicting melancholic, intimate scenes that inspired Op de Beeck’s series.
The show was the artist’s first to feature only painted works. (Op de Beeck works in an eclectic range of mediums, including photography, drawing, video, digital animation and sculpture—from miniature models to room-size installations.) Executed in loose black brushstrokes, the paintings are titled according to the subjects depicted: Chandelier, Raven, Lounge, Mirror Ball, Smoke and Nocturnal Sea (the largest, at approximately 53 by 96 inches). Somewhat generic scenes empty of people, they are infused with a sense of moodiness and suspense. A coat appears to have been left hastily on a Chesterfield sofa, and a tote bag on the floor in front of it, in Lounge. The interior resembles an upscale hotel lounge, with damask wallpaper and a highly polished floor that makes the space float. A large mirror enclosed in an elaborately carved frame to the right of the sofa reflects the dark upper corner of an open doorway in the opposite wall. As in a thriller or film noir, such fragmentary views and human traces spur one to wonder what has just happened, or will happen. In Smoke, a curling wisp rises from a lit cigarette in an ashtray placed on a table whose reflective surface doubles the image in the mirror on the wall behind. The visual ambiguities of the mirrored images, shadows and reflections create a mise-en-abîme effect that heightens the works’ sense of mystery.
Raven presents a seemingly taxidermied bird in profile perched on a stump, its stark shadow looming on the back wall. Besides referencing the original function of the Uccelliera, Raven prompts a host of associations, from Edgar Allan Poe’s poem and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds to your uncle’s hunting trophies. What prevails in each of these watercolors is a sense of déjà vu: you are comforted by a certain familiarity yet remain unsettled, unable to quite place what you are seeing.
Photo: Hans Op de Beeck: Lounge, 2009, watercolor on paper, 521⁄2 by 803⁄8 inches; at Villa Borghese.