The city’s invisible family photographs

The Galleria d’Arte Moderna Sant’Anna is housed in what was once a Franciscan friary. I can’t remember entering it, or how it presents itself to the street; I can simply recall being in it, and how it looks inwards, from all sides, onto its cloistered central courtyard. Where once a lush and intensively cultivated garden would have grown, supplying the monks with medicinal and culinary herbs, fruit and vegetables, the gallery gazes onto four rectangles of scorched and barren grass. Here is a twenty-first century manifestation of that hot-climate melancholy so attractive to English Grand Tourists in the eighteenth century, and so important to the growth of the Gothic and Romantic tendencies in literature. That most urbane of institutions, the contemporary art gallery, is haunted palpably by a tragic and superstitious architectural history.

The building has at some point been sympathetically restored, to high standards of craftsmanship, and the museum is well appointed, its galleries airy, its collection hung to good effect. Whatever the source of the funding for its fitting out, it has not extended to an adequate maintenance budget, however. This is the perennial catch-22 of funding in the heritage sector, where capital funds are often available on application, but a commitment to operational funding is something of which public arts bodies are extremely wary. I am of course speculating, but the building appears run down in places, with peeling paint and quite serious-looking cracks in the masonry, and in several of the galleries whole banks of lighting were out, rendering much of the work too dim to view. This is nothing unusual in Britain, where most provincial museums and galleries are struggling to stay staffed and maintained, but Palermo, although it is not a large city, clearly does not regard itself as provincial. There is a feeling of wrongness to the gallery’s condition: a great civilisation in decline, a champion boxer staggering under the punches of a younger, faster interloper.

The majority of the collection is from the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. This is archetypally the time of ‘modern’ art, which in the established narratives of art history begins in France, with Impressionism, or with some of its Realist precursors such as Courbet and Manet. But while the Impressionists were active in Paris, Palermo’s painters (if this collection is representative) were producing the kind of Academic neo-Classicism against which modern art defined itself, and it’s hard to square their presence here with the ‘Moderna’ in the gallery’s title. In the twentieth century, when France (still the official centre of the art world) was filled with experiment, with post-Impressionism, Cubism, abstraction, and so on, Palermo was producing Impressionism. This is really the definition of the provincial, but again, as with the condition of the building, it jars weirdly against the Palermo that exists outside this cloistered space, which is too busy living fast to admit of any distance from the centre of the action.

There is some interesting post-Impressionist work, from later in the last century, but we had to seek it out among a collection of later paintings whose technical and creative quality is often poor. If this was all that GAM had to offer then the impression it left would have been a sad one, as of the city’s old family photographs, carefully arranged in albums that are never opened, filled with faces that nobody now living could identify. Paintings too uninteresting for anyone to bother replacing the bulbs that once lit them, or perhaps to those who invigilate the galleries, it is impossible to perceive that paintings so unassuming and so familiar to the eye are no longer physically visible. But this is not all that is to be found here. There is an equally well-appointed temporary exhibition space, and I remember very well how I entered that. I’ll talk about that some other time.

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