Art is a place to be, a place that tries to reach us, provoke us. It swallows the rules, the clocks, the to and fro, and waits for us to respond.
Much of Naples itself is art – ancient, modern, faded, alive – but it does not have the quiet, the spaces between, that the Madre brings to its displays. This is the luxury of a visit to the Madre, the chance to leave the hectic city and step into its calm.
The name, Museo Madre, stands for Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Donnaregina – Donnaregina being the name of its building, which used to be part of the old 13th century monastery complex Santa Maria Donnaregina.
It might sound strange to locate an art gallery in such a historic setting but it works. The high-ceilinged space of the palazzo absorbs the new ideas with old grace. They fit together with ease, neither interferes with the mood of the other, nor do they disturb their revered neighbour, the churches, old and new, of Donnaregina.
Today, if you visit the next door church, now museum, you would never know that floors filled with contemporary art are only metres away.
We visit the Madre during the week after Easter in 2016 – it’s quiet, and the space feels like it’s ours for the day.
On the first floor, above Buren’s kaleidoscopic project in the entrance hall, white, airy rooms are each dedicated to a single work by one artist.
We walk through room after room, surrounded entirely by each artist’s uninterrupted intention. We circle the detailed tiles of ‘Ave Ovo‘ by Francesco Clemente; we drown in the floor of Anish Kapoor’s ‘Dark Brother‘ black rectangle; we are alone with the huge anchor of Jannis Kounellis; and we have the time to be still with Mimmo Paladino’s figure, face to the wall.
Outside, through the museum windows, Naples poses for attention – she flaunts herself shamelessly, undeniably eye-catching … but the Madre wins us back.
On the second floor there’s more than one artwork per room.
A painting of Jim, the Afro-American slave and friend of Huckleberry Finn in the novel by Mark Twain, is large and striking. Jim sits on the ground alone, painted in bold dark strokes over pages torn from Twain’s novel. The sign tells us that the artist is Tim Rollins and KOS (Kids of Survival) whose workshop, in a deprived part of New York, links reading and creativity together to build understanding and empathy.
From the second floor we make our way up once more – this time on to the terrace of the museum. Here it feels as though we’re part of a final canvas, the one on which the city itself is painted. Through the elegant legs of Mimmo Paladino’s horse we see the pink-red, art-filled bulk of the Museo di Capodimonte.
To one side there is the tangenziale, the bypass road, that lifts traffic above the city.
In the far distance is Vesuvius, and round again to its right, beyond the television aerials and washing, is the dome of the Capella di San Gennaro, guardian of the city’s hope and wealth.
Within touching distance, is the 14th century church of Santa Maria Donnaregina Vecchia, part of the old monastic complex that gave the museum its name.
There is space, freed by a huge sky and views to the sea, and there is art in stiff-limbed words on the railing: “IL MARE NON BAGNA NAPOLI” (The Sea does not Bathe Naples), the title of a 1953 book by Anna Maria Ortese about the difficulties in post-war Naples. The words, positioned by artists Bianco-Valente, underline the view from the Madre’s terrace … a reminder of how hard life in Naples can be.
We end our visit to the Madre with a glance over the edge of its terrace … and are left wondering.
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2017