CYCLING IN VENICE IS A REAL ART

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Bicycles can be found in the most unexpected places. At the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, for example.

Two of the paintings on display have bicycle as their subject: At the Cycle-Race Track (Au Vélodrome) 1912 Oil by Jean Metzinger and The Cyclist (Il ciclista), 1916, by Mario Sironi. And more, the museum organized an exhibition on cycling a while ago.
The director of the museum, the British Philip Rylands, has his ideas on art and sport.

You have organised a while ago an exhibition on Cycling. Do you think sport and art can have something in common? And if yes, what do they have in common?  

This is a very interesting question. It is true that a Cubist painting in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection is in fact a portrait by Jean Metzinger of the 1912 winner (Charles Croupelandt) of the Paris-Roubaix cycle race, the celebrated gare d’enfer, and this was the subject of a centenary exhibition in 2012 at Peggy’s museum. One of the greatest of all Futurist paintings is Umberto Boccioni’s Dynamism of a Cyclist in the Gianni Mattioli Collection. And one can think of other images of sport, Giambattista Tiepolo (Hyacinthe’s death by a tennis ball), Edgar Degas (horse racing), Eakins (rowing), Bellows and Archipenko (boxing), Robert Delaunay (rugby) and Le Douanier Rousseau (soccer, ballooning, fishing). For Cubist and Futurists, sport provided subject matter for images of la vie moderne. Nevertheless sport and art have, at least apparently, little in common, neither their audiences nor their protagonists (though Eduardo Chillida was a professional goalkeeper for San Sebastian) – painting and sculpture can be used in the service of illustrating or commemorating sporting achievements (think of ancient Greece); art can be competitive, going back to the Italian High Renaissance (Jacopo Sansovino’s victory in a competition to replicate the Laocoon in Rome in the early 1500s is a an early example, or again, today, the Turner and Hugo Boss Prizes). Where however they might share something is on a very high and abstract plane: each take their fans out of the practicalities of their daily lives (with the corollaries of setting aside anxiety, insecurity, of concern or distress on the geo-political level – the news! – or the personal level of constant striving) into an another place, where they can vicariously share in the physical challenges and emotions of sport or the creativity and, if possible beauty, of art.

 You have been running an important museum in Italy for many years. You have been a ‘pioneer’ as a foreign museum director in the country of culture par excellence. What do you think about the recent nomination of foreign directors in many Italian museums?

I’m absolutely in favour, as I am confident that their selection was predicated on merit. As almost all commentators have observed, much depends on whether the public administration can unloose the bonds of bureaucracy and endow the directors with its trust, not to mention the money, so as to release the great cultural potential of Italy’s already great museums.

Have you had any difficulties or problems in a city very conservative like Venice in your position?

None that I am aware of. Is Venice conservative? If conservative refers to the conservation of the city then we must all hope that it continues to be very conservative indeed. It is true that the historic character of Venice’s island urban plan means that the Peggy Guggenheim Collection is cramped for space: in very specific ways—for educational programmes, for conservation, for storage and the moving of art, and for exhibition. But from another point of view the museum’s small scale is an advantage too.

What is the Italian museum you would like to run one day?

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection has always been for me a perfect museum to have taken responsibility for, and I would aspire to no other.

And abroad, where would you like to work?

As an Englishman one would feel very much at home in Tate Britain in London.

Which country do you consider most interesting at the moment as far as art in concerned?

Hard to say, isn’t it. One would have to have a global knowledge. Italian post-war art is hot at the moment, and rightly so. Londoners may be justified in thinking, as they do, that London is the greatest city in the world. But what is most vivid nowadays is how museums, collectors and dealers are all breaking away from the North American-European axis of modern art—a process in which the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, led first by Thomas Krens, and now by Richard Armstrong, can proudly claim to be, and to have been a pioneer—in order to encompass al the continents.

What are your immediate plans for the Guggenheim?

The immediate plan is an expansion into a neighbouring building, which will alleviate a little the space problem I have mentioned  (the current phase will be accomplished, with much help from one’s friends, by the end of 2016). It would be gratifying to find a sponsor that would guarantee the perennial future of a recent programme for enabling the blind to ‘see’ the museum, or a sponsor that would fund forever our great internship programme. If art were sport, the long term plan is to maintain the Peggy Guggenheim Collection’s place high in the Italian museums league table—for its collections, its visitors numbers, its exhibition and educational programs, and for the quality of the visitors’ experience: as, in fact, Peggy Guggenheim herself would surely have wanted.