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Professor Hallie Cohen Takes a Close Look at Roman History, Culture with New Exhibit

As an interdisciplinary thinker and film lover, Art and Art History Chair Hallie Cohen has long been fascinated by the Italian poet, activist, and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. Pasolini was an influential but controversial figure in postwar Italy; openly gay and an avid Marxist, he garnered a reputation for socially critical work that drew as many enemies as fans. He was murdered in 1975, though the details of his death remain unclear.

Cohen had been watching the 1962 Pasolini film Mamma Roma a few years ago when she was suddenly struck by the number of references to famous paintings peppered throughout the movie. One scene held echoes of Da Vinci’s mural The Last Supper; another invoked Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ. “I had this moment of recognition,” Cohen said. “It turns out Pasolini studied art history early on in his career, so you’ll see references to it and Ancient Rome in his films.”

Intrigued, Cohen had the idea to continue the art-history-film loop in Pasolini’s work by traveling to Rome to study and paint locations included in Mamma Roma, as well as in the work of another revered Italian filmmaker, Federico Fellini. Together with her husband, the novelist and essayist, Francis Levy, they applied to the American Academy in Rome’s Visiting Artists and Scholars program. This began a long relationship where they spent the last eight January breaks in Rome, working on the project.

Now, she’s sharing the results of her exploration in her new exhibit, Mi Ricordo: Roman Watercolors, on display at The Hewitt Gallery through May 1. The show—Cohen’s first at the gallery, where she also serves as director—includes a series of 12-foot x 5-foot ink paintings that transport viewers to Roman landscapes depicting antiquities such as the Aracoeli steps, Aqueduct Park, and the Mausoleum of Hadrian. They weave in literature, poetry, and architectural references along the way, with voiceovers by Levy offering historical and contemporary context.

We spoke with Cohen about her artistic process and what students can learn from the show. Join her at the exhibit’s opening reception on February 29, which includes a panel discussion on the work and its influences.


In addition to your great admiration for Italian filmmakers, you seem to have an affinity for Rome. Why is that?
There are many reasons, some of them personal. In college, I spent my junior year in Rome. I was a student at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, which had just begun its study abroad program the year before. I’d never traveled overseas before, and it was a transformative experience for me to live, work, and learn in another country—which is why I encourage MMC students to take advantage of our study abroad program when they can.

Interestingly, I didn’t return to Rome for another 40 years; I chose to travel elsewhere. I think that’s partly because I’d put the experience in a bit of a bell jar—it had been so impactful that I didn’t think it could be reproducible as a tourist. And, since I often traveled with my husband, part of me also said, you know, this is mine. This was my life before my family.

What changed?
I’d met some people who had done the American Academy in Rome’s Visiting Artists and Scholars program, and they raved about it. So, I said, well, let’s give it a try. We ended up being accepted to the program several times.

Aside from that, Rome, for me, is almost a psychoanalytic experience because it has so many layers. You have early layers; you have the whole Roman Empire layer. You have the Renaissance layer, the Baroque layer, and the contemporary layer. There’s also compelling scholarly research into Rome right now looking at it as a hub of immigration and uncovering other cultural influences outside the Western world.

This is all very important to me because of my cross-disciplinary interests and interest in how contemporary practices interface with history.

Tell us about your time in the Visiting Artists and Scholars program at the American Academy in Rome. What was the experience like for you?
Each time I’ve gone, it’s been fantastic. It’s an intellectual and creative community, very collaborative, and you get to meet some fascinating people—fellows at the academy, residents at the academy, people who are very engaged in their work, whether they’re art historians, landscape architects, or musicians. The Pulitzer-Prize-winning science writer Elizabeth Kolbert [who delivered last year’s Barry Commoner Lecture on the Environment] was there one year. I sat next to her at dinner.

The paintings in Mi Ricordo are 12 feet long. What inspired you to use such a large canvas?
The scale was generated really by the opportunity to have such a large studio space at the American Academy in Rome. They give you keys only when you get there, so you never know which studio you’ll get. Once I saw the space, I decided to use it fully. I was also in the studio where the famed artist Philip Guston once worked, whom I had long admired. It was inspiring.

Did you encounter any challenges in working with paintings of this size?
The bigger challenge was working with the particular material I paint on—Yupo, a synthetic paper with an impermeable, nonabsorbent surface. I’ve used it for many years, and it both resists and challenges your paint application. So, in addition to the traditional painter’s brush, I also use cotton balls, Q-tips, and paper towels.

Why use such a difficult material?
When we do our work we create systems that come with challenges. In some ways, it distracts me. Being engaged in the physicality of that challenge relieves me from becoming neurotic about what I’m doing, and that opens up a lot of creative choices that I might not have presupposed. The paper also gives me a particular surface texture, which I use to create a sense of history and layering, of connecting and disconnecting.

What are you hoping students will take away from Mi Ricordo?
I hope it encourages them to delve into their imaginative lives and also to research and learn about a wide range of subjects that can inform their artwork. In other words, to study history, to study philosophy. That brings us back to what we always say at MMC about the importance of a liberal arts education. And hopefully, they’ll pay attention to the connections the work makes between literature and history. My New York City Seminar class is called “Curating the City,” and the mantra that I teach students is close looking. We think we know things, but unless we look closely, we miss a lot and use our assumptions rather than what we can glean from what we see.

If you ever meet a student who’s had me as a teacher for that freshman seminar, and you say close looking, they’ll go, ‘Oh my God, I know where that’s from. That’s Hallie Cohen.’

Published: February 28, 2024