Milan's Fondazione Prada: art with serious style
Milan's recently unveiled Fondazione Prada oozes style and substance
If the 2000s are to be remembered for the rise of the art fair, this decade should be remembered as the time of the private art foundation.
Wealthy individuals and businesses supporting the arts may have a long history, but the new breed of patrons is more interested in investing their cash and considerable connections on creating a new paradigm for experiencing art that combines art gallery, museum and social space in a world away from the typical modernist white cube environment.
Step forward the inimitable Miuccia Prada, whose newly unveiled Fondazione Prada, designed by Dutch "starchitect" Rem Koolhaas, extends the appreciation of art to include innovation, design and culture, literature and cinema.
The foundation itself has been influential, presenting exhibitions, commissioning and collecting artworks for more than two decades. Its new permanent home, however, creates a fresh impetus to its work while filling a creative void in Milan, a city that is famous for its avant-garde fashion and furniture design, but still lacks a public museum dedicated to contemporary art.
"In our country for many years, people concentrated only on the preservation of the artistic heritage and it seemed there was no space for contemporary art," says Dario Franceschini, Italy's minister for culture and tourism.
"This is an important project for both Milan and the whole country. It's a gift to Italy."
The choice of location on the edge of a somewhat gritty industrial area to the south of the city centre may have surprised some fashionistas, but it has delivered a vast space of 205,000 square feet comprising a disparate mix of seven former distillery buildings and three new structures.
For a curator, the different types and sizes of buildings is unusual and allows works to be presented in creative new ways, says the archaeologist and art historian Salvatore Settis who curated "Serial Classic", the core exhibition on show over two floors of the centrally located new Podium building that is flooded with natural light. It runs until August 24.
Here, about 70 works mix ancient Greek works and Roman reproductions of lost original statues in a sophisticated exploration of originality and imitation. Many of the classical statues are on loan from more than 40 renowned institutions, including the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The most notable on display is the torso of Penelope dating to 450BC, on loan from the National Museum of Iran.
The ancient sculptures are displayed in groups and, rethinking the typical museum pedestal, are presented over a series of low travertine slabs atop transparent acrylic bases designed by the project architects, OMA.
The show highlights how, although there were once thousands of bronze statues in Greece, many were eventually melted down and reused as building materials during the Middle Ages. According to Settis, only about 2 per cent remains of the artistic heritage of antiquity.
Luckily for us, however, it appeared that the Romans developed a passion for Greek art and had many copies made of Greek statues. These survived far better than their prototypes, giving us an idea of what the lost originals looked like.
The exhibition also illustrates how ancient marble statues were often given silver teeth or eyes made of stones or glass paste, and presented in life-like pigments, most interestingly through the presentation of several important replicas of Polyclitus' Doryphorus.
Also at the centre of the new creative complex is an existing industrial building called the "Haunted House". Covered entirely in gold leaf, it houses two works by Louise Bourgeois and a permanent installation conceived by Robert Gober that appears much like a pavement grate above a creek of running water. Peer inside to see a red glass heart amid sticks, rocks and dead leaves - all beautifully handcrafted sculptures.
The North and South Galleries flank the site. The former is home to the "In Part" exhibition (until October 31) focusing on the theme of the synecdoche (where a part refers to the whole), to explore the idea of the fragmented body.
This show features works by a wide range of artists including David Hockney, Yves Klein and Robert Rauschenberg. Of note are the collaged and defaced portraits of Llyn Foulkes and in the superimposition of figures in the painting of Francis Picabia.
Other standouts include the Vénus restaurée of 1936 by Man Ray, a fragmented plaster cast of a classical sculpture of the torso of Venus "restored" by binding it in ropes. Charles Atlas' video portrait made between 1992 and 1994 in collaboration with the late British performance artist Leigh Bowery is a particular highlight. Here, a somewhat melancholic and heavily made-up Bowery sporting pierced cheeks and a set of enormous fake lips lip-synchs to Aretha Franklin's 1967 song Take a Look.
Meanwhile, the South Gallery and Deposito warehouse host "An Introduction" (until January 10) of about 70 works curated by Germano Celant in collaboration with Miuccia Prada showing the inspirations that led Prada and her husband, Patrizio Bertelli, to create the fondazione.
The couple's eclectic taste in modern and contemporary art ranges widely from Elmgreen & Dragset, Lucio Fontana and Jeff Koons to Piero Manzoni and Gerhard Richter, culminating in a display of cars reworked as art objects by artists such as Carsten Höller and Rosemarie Trockel, Gianni Piacentino and Sarah Lucas.
There is almost too much to take in at one visit, but the Cisterna, a tall cistern featuring three enormous vertical spaces of the original distillery from 1920, is not to be missed. The chambers are home to the innovative "Trittico" project (until January 10) curated by the Thought Council, comprising a group of expert scholars, historians and curators who advise the fondazione on developments in the contemporary art world.
The project will present works from the extensive Collezione Prada, focusing on three works at a time to highlight the relationship between often seemingly dissimilar artists and their juxtaposed work to create a very different experience of experiencing art.
For the opening event, for example, Damien Hirst's thought-provoking Love Lost installation of a large square fish tank filled with swimming fish and a gynaecologist's chair is the perfect foil for Eva Hesse's Case II and 1 metro cubo di terra (1967) by Pino Pascali, all reflecting the shape of a cube.
The complex - which covers about 120,000 sq ft - also includes a cinema that transforms into an open theatre. It debuted with Roman Polanski: My Inspirations, an analysis of some of the films that have most influenced him such as Orson Welles' Citizen Kane and Laurence Olivier's Hamlet. The dedicated film festival will continue until July 25.
"We want to find new ways for sharing ideas and think about how a contemporary art institution can engage with many other elements and stimulate thinking in different ways," Miuccia Prada said during the opening event.
Thankfully, this inventive new way of thinking about art does not appear to include the undisguised commercialism that often pervades other private foundations.
Both Miuccia Prada and her husband are adamant the Prada fashion world and the fondazione will remain two separate entities. The proof of their commitment: instead of being herded through the ubiquitous tacky museum/gallery shop, visitors head to Bar Luce, a Milanese-inspired cafe designed by film director Wes Anderson.
At last, art with some serious style.