‘The Death of Petronius’: New mural in La Jolla blends local scenery with ancient imagery

The new mural "The Death of Petronius" is on view in The Sahm Seaview Room at the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla.
The new mural “The Death of Petronius” is on view in The Sahm Seaview Room at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

The photographic scene by Eleanor Antin was staged at the Salk Institute and is on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art.


“The Death of Petronius,” a comment on decadence, is a new mural now standing in The Sahm Seaview Room at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla.

The mural is from a 2001 photographic series of 12 images called “The Last Days of Pompeii” by Eleanor Antin. It becomes the 44th work installed by Murals of La Jolla, a project of the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library.

“The Death of Petronius” is visible through the windows of the Seaview Room during daylight hours, with access on the far right of the building (facing MCASD). The Seaview Room is adjacent to The Art Park on the north side of MCASD at 700 Prospect St.

The mural also can be reached through the onsite cafe, The Kitchen, from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays.

Murals of La Jolla currently has 16 murals on display at various locations in the community. It commissions three or four per year with the aim to make art public and visible.

“The Death of Petronius” is inspired by the ancient Roman writer and depicts Roman figures in leisurely activities beside a pool.

The scene was staged at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla using favorite actors and friends of Antin, a writer, performance artist, filmmaker and photographer who was one of the earliest visual arts faculty members at UC San Diego, where she taught for about 40 years beginning in 1970.

Italian cypress trees were brought in to augment the scene and make it more Romanesque. “It’s an invented landscape,” Antin said.

“I was in love with this ancient world,” she said.

The mural is distinct from the other images in the Murals of La Jolla program, said Kathryn Kanjo, executive director of the Museum of Contemporary Art and a member of the Murals of La Jolla Art Advisory Committee.

“Antin’s stylized work presents as a stage set, a film still and a salon-style painting,” Kanjo said. “The imagery recalls grand 19th-century depictions of the Roman Empire [in which] costumed figures strike poses in a commanding setting with an expansive vista.”

The photograph, she said, “seems to beckon viewers into the leisurely scene of abundance.”

The mural is a comparison of the consumerism of current society with that of Pompeii, which was similarly decadent, said Antin, who lives in Carmel Valley and whose work has been shown in museums and galleries around the world.

She said Murals of La Jolla is a “good program” and that she wishes she had been asked to participate earlier.

“Eleanor Antin is an icon of contemporary art,” Kanjo said. “Her biting wit and incisive critique helped define feminist art in the 1970s by questioning how we create our ‘selves’ and perform our roles.”

To compose scenes like those in her photographic series, Antin said she is “always in some state of heightened nerves.”

Though she sketches scenes before a shoot, she often adjusts onset.

“The images get built as I’m doing them,” she said. “And there’s always a kind of trepidation and nervousness” until the image is shot.

“It’s thinking under high pressure. … But I think I seem to thrive under that.”

When she’s about to take a photo, Antin will yell “Action!” instead of “Freeze” to ensure the actors maintain a sense of life to their poses and expressions. “That’s important to me,” she said. ◆