Philip Rylands – A Life in Art

D.R. : Professor Rylands, you arrived in Venice in 1970 as a university student, you studied Titian’s era, you graduated in Cambridge with a dissertation on Palma the Older. Since 1980, you have been managing Peggy Guggenheim’s Collection, which bowled over classic art with its artworks, by presenting the most extreme tendencies in contemporary art, from Picasso to Pollock, from Fontana to Rothko. Do you believe that a knowledge of history of art is still essential to deal with and to understand trends in the contemporary?

P.R. It’s hard not to observe that the history of art finds extraordinarily little relevance or continuity in contemporary art production in all its manifold forms and variety. Today contemporary art is so often fuelled by a social and moral conscience that sets as its goal the fight against injustices of all sorts, with the conviction that artists can do something to make the world a better place, whether through installation, performance, video or mixed-media assemblage. There is much space here for references to post war social and political history, but the history of art, whether Cézanne and the post-Impressionists, or even less Velazquez, Rubens and Paolo Veronese, is emarginated from the new in art, unless sporadically through post-modern citations or appropriations that are more less superficial and ironic.

The Collection is preparing for the great artistic showcase of the Biennale, by announcing its important retrospective on Mark Tobey. Giulio Carlo Argan presented Peggy’s collection during the 1948 edition, igniting a reassessment on avant-gardes and thus, a debate on contemporary art. What are your connections today with this great Venetian institution?

A survey of the Biennales from 1948 (the year of the Impressionists, curated by Roberto Longhi, and of the first ever presence of Picasso) to 1962 reveals a process of retrieval of the avant-gardes that were overlooked by the Biennale prior to World War II, one after the other—and this entire programme was synthesized in the works that Peggy Guggenheim selected from her collection for exhibition in the Greek Pavilion in 1948. It was already more or less all there. Professor Argan struggled heroically to understand Peggy’s collection in his preface, but he wasn’t completely successful. Indeed if one reads it again today, with admittedly the benefit of hindsight, it is inconclusive and muddled.

In latter years, the Collection has dedicated much commitment to youngsters, launching the Kids creative Lab, a highly successful, important educational project addressed to schools, dedicated this year to sustainability and safeguarding. According to you, what could be done further in Italy to get youngsters closer to museums?

The recent success of Kids Creative Lab, leaving aside the vital role played by OVS with its capillary reach across the whole of Italy that involved this year over 1,400,000 primary school children, relies on the enthusiasm and goodwill of the wonderful teachers, who in turn benefit from the fact that the project is free. Thus the key to the success of such a project is that it is freely addressed in the first place to the teachers, and this is also true of another educational project, ‘A scuola di Guggenheim’, which the Peggy Guggenheim Collection has been doing with the support of the Regione del Veneto for fourteen years, and which involves Veneto schools of all levels, not just primary schools. What more can one do? This is already a great deal, and I think most museums in Italy have understood that educational programmes are a long-term way of fulfilling their social mission.

You have recently announced your farewell to the Collection. Let’s suppose Peggy were still among us, and that in order to thank you for your considerable engagement over these years she were offering you the opportunity of choosing an artwork among those in the Collection. Which one would you select?

Despite the high density of 20th century masterpieces in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, I would have little hesitation choosing Vasily Kandinsky’s All’insu—its exquisite colours and shapes, its refined technique, and its balanced composition, perfectly representing one of 20th century art’s most extraordinary discoveries, that of abstraction. Kandinsky being among the five or six greatest artists of the first half of the 20th century in my opinion, the ownership of a work by him would be a huge luxury.

One last question, you are English, although we might say that Venice is your city of election by now. Apart from Ca’ Venier dei Leoni, does a place exist in this town which you particularly love or that reminds you of something you are fond of?

In 1970, on my fist visit to Venice, I spent several hours in the Church of the Frari, making a careful drawing of St Jerome by Alessandro Vittoria, absorbing unconsciously the pinkish light reflected from the red intonaco and the Verona marble pavement, as well as the scent of wax and incense. The magnificent altarpieces by Giovanni Bellini and by the young Titian, as well as by Giuseppe Salviati, Bernardino LIcinio, Bartolomoo and Alvise Vivarini, became for me a microcosm of the Venetian Renaissance.