Sunday, October 14, 2018

Getty Visit

After my conference in Los Angeles I was free to visit museums and, being already in the neighborhood, I went over to The Getty Center.  In my young professional life the Getty Villa that now just houses the Antiquities’ Collection was the entire museum.  Since J. Paul Getty (known simply as Paul Getty) had not been back to the States since 1952 he never even saw the Villa which was completed in 1974! 

In the early 1970’s I remember one curator who said that Getty was so tight with his fortune that she had to buy her own pencils! But when Getty died in 1976 at the age of 83, it was a whole new ball game.  He left between 600 and 700 million dollars including 12% of Getty Oil stock to the institution.  This already made the Getty the richest museum in the country.  After years of legal fights between Getty’s heirs, and a dirty takeover fight in which Texaco finally won, the Getty became worth twice as much.  Today, it has an endowment of over 6 billion dollars!

Money causes its own problems and the Trust must by law spend a percentage of its worth every year. It therefore had to expand rapidly, adding a conservation institute and research institute, as well as other entities.  At one time they wasted their time and money trying to come up with a universal vocabulary for art.  One example: would a French 18th century chest of drawers be called a ‘commode’ (the French word) by all art historians or something else!  The expenditure everyone has seen one way or another is the Getty Center building atop a hill in Brentwood (part of L.A.).  The architect, an award winning one, of course, was Richard Meier and the museum complex opened in 1997 at a cost of about one billion dollars.

I don’t mind saying I initially hated the architecture and wasn’t a fan of the architect personally either. My first visit was shortly before the Getty Center opened and I was there with the President’s Cultural Property Committee out of Washington D. C.  Here we are on the plaza with a number of arts ministers from Central America who were more interested in what money they could get out of the Getty Trust than speaking to us about Cultural Property issues.

Time passes, and a couple of decades down the road and I must admit it is an oasis, a kind of art “never, never land”.   After the tram ride up the hillside and steps to climb (there is an elevator) you arrive at a large entry hall and then emerge onto the main plaza a complex called Buildings 1-4 or North, South, East and West.  I still got lost there but you can regain your bearings by following the art which is divided by periods and subject matter.  It is all very dramatic and makes the Getty a definite destination.  Personally, I come for the art and that is stupendous too.  Here a partial view of the plaza.

In the 1990’s there was a large influx of great curators that the Getty culled from museums around the country.  If you couldn’t find your favorite curator at your local museum, he or she had probably moved to the Getty. It paid off.  Getty was a passionate collector in the fields of Antiquities and French 18th Century Decorative Arts but not so much in Old Master paintings, one of the areas that the museum has developed since. The first director of the “New” Getty swore they would never collect photography until they bought their first marvelous collection thanks to a curator who came from the Metropolitan Museum. 

I had not been at the Getty for a very long time but knew the core collection, so I focused on newer acquisitions.  A good friend and one of the few from my active years who is still there, Charissa Bremer-David, Curator of Sculpture & Decorative Arts, insisted that I see the newly acquired Rothschild Pentateuch, which means literally "five books” in Greek, referring to what we call the Old Testament.  It includes some of the bible’s most famous stories and some or the oldest codes of law, with of course, the Ten Commandments. It belonged to the French/German Baroness Adelaide Rothchild who donated it to the State Library in Frankfurt am Main.  In 1950 it became part of an exchange for real estate between the German Government and a German-Jewish family that had relocated to New York.  In other words, a family that had lost its property because of Hitler accepted the manuscript as part payment for the loss.  Then the Getty acquired it…. such is the strange life of objects.  It is shown in a room with other Getty Manuscripts. The book was open to the Menorah of the Tabernacle, a page from Leviticus.

This was part of a single gallery exhibition called.  Art of Three Faiths showing examples of the Torah, The Bible and the Qur’an.  I am, however, just going to show my favorite image among these Getty manuscripts which comes right out of my teenage fantasy.  It is part of a secular manuscript done in Augsburg around 1560-70.  The book in which this appears would have been created for the occasion of a joust, illustrating the participants, their armor and heraldry.

I have always admired 17th century German Ivory Carving and in the Getty galleries I came across this covered goblet with mythological scenes created by one of the best artists of this technique, Balthasar Griessmann, when he was about 60 years old, around 1680.  Here, the procession honors Bacchus, Roman god of wine.  All the gods represented in this piece are so magnificently carved that you want to touch them… guess that is why the museum keeps them out of reach in a case!

Further along I discovered a small painting acquired just last year. It is by Francesco Mazzola, known as Parmigianino, (1503-1540).  This image of the Virgin and Child with St. John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene, dating 1535-40, is clearly meant as a private devotional work. Most unusually, the painting was done in oil on 7 sheets of paper which were then laid down on a panel.  The technique and the incredibly well-preserved condition gives an immediacy that jumps out at you.

“Tell us about J. Paul Getty” is the visitors’ most frequent request, Charissa told me over a lovely lunch in the museum’s nicest dining room.  So, after all these years, they have established a small area for an audio-visual display where you can read articles and listen to snippets about Paul Getty’s life.  It took me back to my own experiences of the man, and to the manor house in England where he proudly showed me the model of the original villa where small models of the works of art acquired were placed.

For me revisiting the Getty Center was surprisingly rewarding, seeing great art in a contemporary environment in the company of an old friend and memories of Getty himself.


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