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Collagist connects to Pompeii through the fall of a villain

John A. Schweitzer stands with one of his Vallum Hadrianus collages and a wall suggesting that of Hadrian. HEATHER SOLOMON PHOTO

John A. Schweitzer knows that time is the greatest nemesis, and he’s chosen one of the all-time enemies of the Jews to prove it. 

The Roman Emperor Hadrian, may his bones be crushed – which is the curse that traditionally follows any mention of his name, in the same manner as a gragger drowns out that of Haman – killed half a million Jews as of 135 CE. He forbade Jewish religious practice and burned the Torah on the Temple Mount, among other horrors.

This was the emperor against whom Bar Kochba led his uprising.

Hadrian’s hubris had no bounds. Schweitzer, who holds an honorary doctor of laws and is a member of the Ontario Society of Artists and Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, realizes that even cherished honours are mortal conceits.

He diminishes Hadrian by referring to the crumbling vestiges of Hadrian’s Wall in the title and in the content of his 2010 collage series Vallum Hadrianus.

From the series, eight are on show until Sept. 5, hosted by the Boutique and Bookstore in the indoor display window on Level 1 of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Schweitzer recognizes the connections between fleeting Roman power and, relating to the current Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) feature exhibition Pompeii, the fragility of life when the ancient city was buried by Vesuvius’ eruption.

Many of these connections are made through metaphor and you’ll notice right away that the enclosed space containing the wall of collages is akin to the entryway niche or lararium dedicated to Roman household gods described in the Pompeii show. **

“As such, the space becomes a metaphor for containment, inclusivity, a microcosm representing a macrocosm,” says the artist.

He refers to Hadrian’s self-deification paralleling the god Apollo in a work titled The Coinage of Hadrianus Olympus. In it, a photo of a marble profile salvaged perhaps from a travel brochure is given the aura of a yellow paint stroke to signify the Sun God.

This is juxtaposed with an Italian thousand-lira note that has since given way to the Euro, thus making it as extinct as the emperor himself; a train ticket to Taormina that refers to Hadrian’s relationship with his lover Antinous around whose memory he formed a cult; and a handwritten letter from the Dow archives that parallels Hadrian’s “personal as well as public persona.”

Schweitzer’s methods of collecting found objects for his collages, such as paper ephemera such as wine boxes, corrugated cardboard, fabric, slivers of wood and even the vintage frames they’re in, manifests itself in a circular piece of corroded scrap metal he plucked from the street.

Adhered within the composition, it is reminiscent of the coins you’ll see at the start of Pompeii, stamped with centuries of emperors’ likenesses. Here the “coin” has yielded to time and is faceless.

“There are limitations to human existence,” says Schweitzer, who is in his 40th year of making art that comments on life.

Past series have been inspired by Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin who was driven by the Nazis to suicide, Virgil’s Aeneid, the Fresh Kills landfill site on Staten Island as related to 9/11, and the artist Hans Hofmann, to name a few. Roman imperialism, as represented by Hadrian’s 117-km barbarian-blocking wall that still stretches across England’s northern frontier, is ever pertinent.

Six years ago when he created these collages, Schweitzer could not know about current barriers erected against refugees, yet his work, in its timelessness, finds a voice today.

“And aside from political and metaphorical implications, what drew me to Hadrian’s Wall was my interest in binary oppositions, nature versus man-made, nature-culture. If you travel to northern England, you can see evidence of the wall but in some stretches, nature has swallowed it. Despite his every effort, Hadrian, too, is dust to dust.”


This article has been modified from the original version posted Aug.18 to correct some errors.