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True Confessionals brings private spaces to the public eye

Professor of Art Marcella Hackbardt explores the hidden beauty of church confessionals.

In church confessionals, confessors offer their most personal sins to a priest in hope of redemption. These intimate rooms embody the space between what is private and what is shared. In her exhibition True Confessionals, Professor of Art Marcella Hackbardt occupies this same space by presenting photographs of confessionals from around Italy and displaying these closed-off, private spaces at the Gund Gallery.

“The confessionals first attracted me and provoked in me an artistic and critical response for their formal beauty, their narratives of sin, and their symbolic duality of hopefulness slash hopelessness,” Hackbardt said. She began this project in 2014 when she was the director of the Kenyon-Rome Program. During her sabbatical in 2015, she returned to Italy and expanded the project to contain more images in more locations.

Though confessionals are often tucked away in corners and hidden from view, they are the center of attention with this series of images. In many of the pictures, the confessionals are photographed head-on, directly in the center of the frame. Hackbardt has these understated wooden structures confront viewers, making them consider the object’s history and purpose.

The exhibition’s greatest strength is Hackbardt’s ability to present a variety of different perspectives on the same object. “There’s so much variety in how they’re portrayed because not one experience will be the same whether confessing or viewing,” Jess Lane ’20, a Gund Gallery Associate working at the exhibition, said of the ways Hackbardt presents confessionals.

“Santa Cristina, Parma,” for example, shows a boxy confessional center frame, with a faded red curtain blocking three quarters of the booth’s interior. The natural lighting of the room is dim, and behind the curtain, it is too dark to make out any shapes. Surrounding the booth is only a muted tan wall and a lamp shown fully in frame, placing the booth in an uninviting, confined space.

“Duomo di Reggio Emilia” is staged similarly, with a confessional center frame and a curtain covering part of the booth’s opening. This confessional, however, has a less intimidating rounded shape with ornate wood carvings and is illuminated by more natural light than the previous example. The curtain is a bright blue and pulled almost completely to the side, allowing the light to illuminate the inside. Surrounding this confessional are a white staircase and benches that are not captured fully in frame, contrasting the previous photograph’s contained atmosphere with a more open, freeing one. These differing images, adeptly placed next to each other by the exhibition’s curators, represent only two of the exhibition’s most interesting perspectives on these spaces.

Taking into account the exhibition’s religious elements, Lane believes this project is a particularly good way to introduce people into this aspect of art. “Religious art through photography lets you look at religion in a more accessible way,” Lane said. This accessibility and variety of Hackbardt’s exhibition give viewers a fresh perspective on a lesser known facet of religion. To Hackbardt, the exhibition has something to offer to anybody, regardless of their religious views. “Depending on your religious practices and beliefs, these wooden booths may suggest duty and hope, or absurdity, but they also predict with certainty the never-ending business of human digression, soul searching, wishfulness, and imagination,” Hackbardt said.

Marcella Hackbardt’s True Confessionals is on view at the Gund Gallery until May 28.

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