The J. Paul Getty Museum. Getty Center.
Reviewed by Carmen Bosch-Schairer
Published on H-Museum (September, 2002)
In December 1997 the new J. Paul Getty Museum opened its doors. It is the heart of the Getty Center, an imposing complex built by the Richard Meier, internationally renowned architect, on the slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains overlooking the city of Los Angeles. Beside the museum it houses the Getty Research Institutes, a library, an Auditorium for various presentations, restaurants and buildings for staff. <p> I will now give a report on the history of the Getty Museum, its collections, and the architecture of the Getty Center, along with a critical assessment. It is the third museum for the still growing collection of fine art and decorative art founded in the late 1920s by J. Paul Getty, Californian oil magnate and businessman. In 1976 he bequeathed it to the Getty Trust together with a huge property with which to enlarge it systematically. <p> After two preceeding domiciles in Pacific Palisades and Malibu had become too small, the museum can now present its exhibits comfortably in four two-story pavilions, while another pavilion is reserved for temporary exhibitions. Modern presentation techniques provide optimised conditions for visitors. Paintings and other artwork are on show on the upper levels, where there is daylight. A computer-supported system regulates the light according to weather and day time. Decorative art and furniture are presented in rooms about the size of their original surrounding in order to provide an authentic impression. So-called "Art Information Centers" in each pavilion offer written information, videos, computers where you can surf the museum's website and dedicated volunteer staff to answer any question. Besides the visitors' service offers guided tours in English and Spanish for individuals, school classes and families, lectures, workshops etc. Apparently, it is aimed at making as many people as possible share the experience of a fine collection and boost public estimation for art. Both entrance and service offers are free. You are not even asked for donations. <p> The Getty Museum in its present shape provides an overview over the most important epochs of European art from Graeco-Roman antiquity unto classic modern art around 1900. Many acquisitions have been made since J. Paul Getty's death in 1976, among them many masterpieces, but the character of his private collection still shines through: He preferred antique art and decorative art of the seventieth and eighteenth centuries, and that's where the collection still has its strength. Getty as a collector was both enthusiastic and economic. On a Grand Tour through Europe as a young man, in 1913, the successful businessman developed a predilection for European art and civilisation. He then made a habit of spending part of the year abroad whenever possible. When famous collectors like Hearst, Mellon or Rothschild withdrew from the art market during the world economic crisis, causing prices to fall, Getty took advantage of the situation to buy paintings from artists like van Goyen and Rembrandt. <p> In 1936, he started buying decorative art on a large scale-- since fear of war kept down auction prices. After the war Getty continued his collecting activities. His new priority became antique sculpture, starting with the "Lansdowne Herakles," a Roman copy of a Greek statue of Herakles, second quarter fourth century B.C. and several objects from the Earl of Elgin's collection, among them the "Elgin Kore," from the early fifth century B.C. Until his death, Getty retained a preference for Greek and Roman art. Another major field of interest became Italian renaissance painting. After the war, Getty donated prime objects of his collection to Californian museums, such as Rembrandt's portrait of Marten Looten, 1632, or the so-called Ardabil-Carpet, a precious Persian carpet of the sixteenth century A.D. However, he eventually decided to present the highlights of his growing collection himself and in 1954 he opened the first Getty Museum in his Ranch in Pacific Palisades, L.A. At the same time he founded a trust whose purpose was to be the "diffusion of artistic and general knowledge", and which today is responsible for the Getty Center with the Getty Museum. <p> Getty was a tactical but at the same time a passionate collector. He did research on his acquisitions and published several books about his experiences as an art collector. Without false modesty he compared himself to other great patrons of art like the Roman emperor Hadrian or his contemporary W.R. Hearst and confirmed this assessment by building a new, grand museum for his collection, a recreation of the Roman "Villa dei Papiri" from Herculaneum in Malibu, L.A., between 1970 and 1974. Getty wanted the "Villa" to be his gift to the people of California, where the best pieces of his collection should be presented completely free and with generous opening hours. Since it was his conviction that no city, state nor even the federal government in Washington would be in a position to grant such a generous offer, he left the museum in the hands of the Getty Trust and on his death in 1976 bequeathed it oil shares worth $700 million. It was then that Getty's private collection grew into an internationally significant museum with a strong department for visual arts education, research institutes for conservation and the preservation of national heritage, a comprehensive art library etc. The collection was systematically enlarged, often by acquiring specialised private collections. Under these conditions the "Villa" had become too small after ten years. The Getty Trust then developed the idea of a campus for a spacious new museum building along with research and education capacities: the Getty Center on the outskirts of Los Angeles. John Walsh, then museum director, and the architect Richard Meier conceived the complex which was executed from 1989 to 1997. <p> The Getty Center is situated in a vast park. Visitors can reach it via the electric tram which connects the site with the parking area. Enormous substructions of Italian travertine support the campus on its lengthy slope. Richard Meier chose a grid of thirty-inch squares as basis for the whole complex, while the buildings are mostly variations of the cube. However, Meier's design is not dogmatic. The museum entrance, with its horizontally structured facade, rhythmically sways back and forth, and the Research Institute has been shaped as a rotunda. There are other exceptions as well. The outside appearance is characterised by white square enamelled aluminium plates and the light tone of the travertine, partly neatly cut, partly roughly hewn. Inside white dominates as well. Large windows open the facades on the north sides, while solid walls keep the Californian sun out on the south. <p> The architecture of the Getty Center is defined by numerous voids which break up the cubic system, too. Courtyards, light-shafts, miniature plazas between diagonally placed or underneath propped up parts of a building, openings in the walls which frame the sky and portals which frame the views --all this adds space to the architecture. The effect is that of baroque volume and at the same time of filigree structure. While the right angle prevails there are nevertheless picturesque views, shady corners, meditative and communicative zones, accentuated by plants, stones and water. Water channels, brooks, fountains and pools permeate the architecture and the gardens and make the semi-arid climate more tolerable. Much attention was given to the shaping of the exterior, especially to the Cactus Garden on the south side and to the Central Garden with its maze of azaleas amid a pool, the latter being conceived by the artist John Irwin. The gardens and the park are composed of vernacular and exotic plants, among them more than 10,000 trees. There are multiple formal and symbolic relations between details of the architecture and of the gardens. The rotund Central Garden e.g. which is twisted into the ground answers to the towering rotund Research Institute. Plants with warm or cool colours indicate the south or north sides respectively. Specimen of Mediterranean vegetation--lavender, stone pines etc.--and the omnipresent Italian travertine from a quarry that had already been used to build the Coliseum in Rome evoke the spirit of antiquity, the epoch which figures so prominently in Getty's collection. The gardens of the Getty Center are meant to be works of art in their own right which together with the architecture form a congenial and representative environment for an outstanding collection. <p> I now turn to the holdings of the J. Paul Getty Museum, drawing from the museum's catalogue for dates and attributions (i.e. <i>The J. Paul Getty Museum. Handbook of the Collections</i>, 2001). <p> The exhibits, a considerable part of the Getty Museum's collection, are displayed in four pavilions, according to chronology and genre: from Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo, to modern Art until 1900. <p> Antiquities Greek and Roman antiquities are here only until the present reconstruction of the "Villa" in Malibu will be completed. Afterwards they will return, together with the Research and Conservation Institutes, and form an independent museum of antiquities with its own research department and educational as well as entertaining programs for the public. Assembled between 1939 and 1970 they form one of the most eminent collections of ancient art in the States. While Getty had concentrated primarily on sculpture, other genres were added after his death, viz. Cycladic marble figurines, vase painting which is now the most important group, Roman bronzes and small scale works of art like gems, jewellery and glass objects. Recently the collection Lawrence and Barbara Fleischman with important objects from Bronze Age to late antiquity was added. Although only a small number of antiquities can be presented, they are still impressive. There are monumental sculptures like a godess from South Italy, late fifth century B.C., made of marble and limestone. Then there are life-size sculptures, e.g. the aforementioned "Lansdowne Herakles", the Roman copy of a Greek original of the school of Polyktet, mid-fourth century B.C., which was found in Hadrian's villa at Tivoli, or a Greek bronze sculpture of a victorious youth (feet lost), late fourth century B.C., which reflects the style of Lysippos. Most astonishing is a West Greek group of three almost life-size terracotta figures, a seated poet and two standing sirens perhaps from Taranto, ca. 310 B.C. <p> The collection is mostly of good, partly of outstanding quality. Getty's favourite piece, the "Lansdowne Herakles," is somewhat disppointing, lacking tension in its pose and expression in his appearance, perhaps the Roman copyist's fault. The spectacular life-size Greek bronze of a youth is remarkable for the slender, manieristic fingers which contrast to the smooth, only lightly modelled surface of his body. He resembles the Marathon boy in the National Museum of Athens, but hasn't quite got the same marked ponderation and dynamic impulse in his stance. The terracotta group, a West Greek work from South Italy, seems to be pretty singular. It has been suggested that the seated figure be Orpheus since he held a now lost harp in his lap. The voluminous bodies, their natural poses, the theatrical gestures of the sirens--all this is astonishing in the context of Greek sculpture of the late classical period, even if one concedes independent developments in Graecia Magna. <p> Vase painting, a great deal from Athens, covers the period from late sixth to late fourth centuries B.C., with numerous examples. Among them, are huge amphoras, which were given as prizes at the Panathenaic games. A remarkable piece is a lekanis, a shallow marble basin with rather well preserved painting in blue, red and ochre, representing Thetis with Nereids. It is dated in the late fourth century B.C., from the provenance of South Italy. The catalogue points out that the basin is unique in that it gives an impression of Greek polychrome painting that has more or less disappeared. There is a great number of mostly Roman bronze objects of the first century B.C. to the first century A.D., busts and small scale sculpture. While the quality is not always convincing there are pieces of outstanding beauty like a head of young Dionysos, first half 1st c.A.D. <p> <cite>Manuscript Illumination</cite> <p> Medieval art is represented by book illumination. In 1983 the comprehensive manuscript collection of Peter and Irene Ludwig was acquired and formed the basis of this department. It comprises the epoch from the ninth to the sixteenth centuries A.D., and presents artists of all important centres of book illumination like the Boucicaut-Master, Jean Fouquet, Simon Marmion, Simon Bening or Joris Hoefnagel. They worked for patrons like the Duchess of Burgundy, Margarete of York, Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg or the Emperor Rudolf II. A fine example of Byzantine origin is a new testament from 1133, the Comnenian period. The evangelists' portraits on gold ground still follow the model of ancient Greek art. However, the pictorial style has become linear and the figures appear flat, yet the psychological characterisation of gesture and mimic are stupendous. <p> Books of hours abound, most of them from France and Burgundy. The elegant, refined style of the Limburg brothers can be seen in an example with illustrations of the Spitz-Master, from the first quarter of the fifteenth century. A prayer book of Charles the Bold, 1469, attributed to the Master of Mary of Burgundy, shows exuberant ornamental borders. On the whole the illuminated manuscripts are of good, but with a few exceptions not superior quality. <p> <cite>Painting</cite> <p> J. Paul Getty had always collected paintings from all epochs up to the modern classic period, but not really seriously, since he realised that most of the best works were already in the possession of museums and that the market had to offer only second rate quality. Among his most ambitious acquisitions are Rembrandt's portrait of Marten Looten (1632), which he donated to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Gainsborough's portrait of James Christie, founder of the well-known auction house (1778). Already ten years before his death Getty handed over responsibility for the museum's painting department to the Trust which pursues the aim to form a small, but high class collection. Getty's priorities had been Italian baroque and renaissance painting as well as portraits and genre scenes from the Netherlands. The Trust has added a broad spectrum of Dutch, French and English painting with occasional outlooks to other European nations. So the painting department contains Italian altar panels by renowned artists from the Trecento onward, such as Bernardo Daddi's Saint Mary Triptych, ca. 1330, in the tradition of Giotto and Massaccio's Saint Andrew, 1426, with the physical volume typical of that artist. Mantegna, painter to the Gonzaga court, is present with a much darkened tempera painting of the Adoration of the Magi (between 1495 and 1505). The bust-high figures are tightly packed in the manner of Roman reliefs. Since the canvas seems to have been cut on all sides, the composition appears unusually intense and dramatic. There are works by Pontormo, del Piombo and Guercino, portraits of nobles and popes which testify the reception of Titian. A rather mediocre version of "Venus and Adonis" by Titian himself and his workshop, ca. 1555-1560, suggests that the workshop's share was indeed considerable. <p> Early Painting from the North is represented by a beautiful Annunciation by Bouts (1450-1455) and a "Madonna and Child in a Window" (1485-1490) by Schongauer. An uncommon feature in the context of such an intimate window scene is the hovering angel holding crown and scepter as is the translucent white with which he is painted on a dark background. <p> The Baroque period is illustrated among other works with a large Entombment by Rubens (ca. 1612), an expressive piece of counter-reformatory zeal, and a whole figure portrait of Agostino Pallavincini in the purple robe of an ambassador to the pope (ca. 1621) by van Dyck, which still reflects the influence of Titian beside that of Rubens. <p> The collection possesses several works by Rembrandt, mostly of the 1630s: "The Abduction of Europe", "Daniel and Cyrus before the Idol Bel" an "Old Man in Military Costume", the "Abduction" being the weakest. A painting in his mature style from 1661, a man in half figure, weary and absorbed in thought, is extraordinary. Identified as possibly Saint Bartholomew, because of a knife in his hand, the elderly man sits there in apparently contemporary dress, his short hair parted on the side, with his chin resting in one hand (not completely convincing anatomically). The painter is reported to have taken his neighbours as models for saints' portraits in the early 60ies. Even more astonishing is the pasty colour that does not smoothen the modelling of the form and the traces of the brush strokes. Painting itself becomes the subject of the picture, in a manner which one expects rather in the nineteenth than in the mid-seventeenth centuries. <p> French Baroque painting can be viewed in works by Georges de la Tour and Poussin. The first has delivered an example of his cold and close eye on people from the social periphery in a genre painting of quarrelling street musicians (ca. 1625-1630). The latter's "Landscape with a Calm" (1650/51) and Holy Familiy with Anna, the boy John and putti (1651) are somewhat overloaded with effects. <p> By David, protagonist of French Classicism, there is apart from a mythological scene (Farewell of Telemachos and Eucharis, 1818) with sculpturally modelled bodies a beautiful portrait of Suzanne Le Peletier (1804). Géricault represents Romanticism with rather atypical works, among them an ecstatic scene in a boudoir (Three Lovers, 1817-1820). The collection of French impressionist painting boasts several chef-d'oeuvres: Millet's "Man with a Hoe", 1860-1862, Renoir's "Promenade", 1870, a "Sunrise" by Monet, 1873, one piece of a series of early morning impressions in Le Havre, which became paradigmatic for the impressionist way of painting, and finally Manet's "Rue Mosnier with Flags," 1878. <p> The Getty Museum possesses two paintings by Cézanne, a "Still Life with Apples," 1893-1894, and the half-length portrait of a "Young Italian Woman at a Table," ca. 1895-1900. Both works belong to Cézanne's mature oeuvre. The "Italian Woman" is remarkable in more than one respect. The young female in a three-quarter profile is fitted diagonally in the polyperspective space defined by the room corner and the table. There is no doubt about her physical presence, even the puffy sleeve of her blouse swells towards the onlooker. At the same time, the white of her blouse, the blue of her frock, the table cloth's red and green and the reddish brown of the walls form the basic accord of a tightly woven, plane colour composition. The painting appears both flat and three-dimensional, a paradox simultaneity which together with the warm, sensuous colouring bestows a particular quality upon it. <p> In its endeavour to collect famous names the Trust acquired characteristic works of good quality by El Greco, Goya, C.D. Friedrich, Turner and van Gogh which represent the painting of their respective time and nation. The department closes with a wall high Ensor, depicting "Christ's Entry into Brussels, 1889" (1888), one of the most ambitious but not necessarily most convincing painting by the Belgian proto-expressionist. <p> <cite>Drawings</cite> <p> Started only after Getty's death the collection of drawings has now grown to more than 600 sheets and sketch books which document the West European development from the fourteenth to nineteenth centuries A.D. It comprises all distinctive names, among them Dürer, Leonardo, Raphael, Veronese, Rembrandt, Rubens, Ingres, Cézanne. Since drawings are sensitive to light they are only on show alternately for short periods. <p> Noteworthy is the only nature study by Schongauer, peonies in gouache and water colour, ca. 1472-73. Before Dürer nature studies are rare. Only with this artist they have been handed down in greater numbers, not least due to a new appraisal of fine art. Dürer's famous "Stag Beetle" in water colour and gouache, 1505, testifies to this circumstance. <p> <cite>Decorative Arts</cite> <p> Getty's guidelines as a collector have already been mentioned. While the market for paintings was tight, it offered first class antiques for an adequate price. Until 1960 he had acquired French furniture, carpets, tapestries and objets d'art more or less spontaneously and unsystematically. But after envisaging a new museum in 1974 he revised his buying strategies and specialised on the period between 1643 and 1792, from the early regency of Louis XIV to the late years of Louis XVI. Since Getty's death other European countries like Germany and Italyhave been considered, too. Only top quality objects are bought which accounts for occasional conflicts with national curbs on export. <p> Despite the spacious museum in the Getty Center, only one fifth of the copious collection of decorative arts can be displayed. Even so it is one of the main attractions which is spread out in 15 rooms altogether. Among the exhibits are original wall panels mostly of the eighteenth century which are fitted in several rooms. An earlier example dates from ca. 1650 to 1660 and is painted on gold ground in the manner of Le Brun, painter to the court of Louis XIV. Tapestries from the manufactories Beauvais and Gobelins for the King himself and members of the royal family give evidence of the stylistic development, from mid-seventeenth to late-eighteenth centuries. <p> Rococo porcelain from Chantilly, Sèvres and Meissen abounds. There are vases, sculptures and ornamental frames, e.g. the frame for a wall clock by Charles Voisin with colourful blossoms and animals in rich porcelain, enamel and bronze work from Chantilly (ca. 1740). Chinoisery plays a major role according to the fashion of the time. <p> Exclusive furniture for the households of the court, but also for connoisseurs like the Bavarian Elector Maximilian II., produced mainly in Paris by masters like André-Charles Boulle, Bernard II van Risenburgh, David Roentgen and others is displayed in great variety: desks, commodes, tables, cupboards and beds as well as clocks and optical instruments. Among the numerous lavishly decorated pieces there stands out a particular rarity, an elegant, unpretentious reading and writing desk of walnut and oak, veneered with ivory, horn and various sorts of wood and gilded, which had been part of Louis XIV' personal belongings (ca. 1670-1675). <p> <cite>Sculpture and Works of Art</cite> <p> Since 1984 the Getty Trust collects sculpture from early Renaissance to the end of the nineteenth century as well as small size objects, which are summarised under the name "works of art" and are made of materials like ceramics, glass and metal. <p> Many well-known names are present--Antico, Cellini, Giambologna, de Vries, Bernini, Girardon up to Canova and Carpeaux--but rarely with significant works. However, the quality as a whole is good. <p> A curiousity are the mosaics which document the reception of this ancient genre not only to decorate table tops but also to lay portraits. A mosaic portrait of stone and marble of Pope Clemens VIII (around 1600) was ordered by the Grand Duke Ferdinando I of Florence and produced in his "Galleria de' lavori in pietre dure." The seventeenth century, with its counter-reformatory zeal, took an interest in the mosaic as an early Christian art technique. This is documented by a portrait of Camillo Rospigliosi, knight commander of the Order of Sant Stefano, delicately modelled with tiny pieces of stone and attributed to the sought-after mosaicist Giovanni Battista Calandra. <p> <cite>Photography</cite> <p> Founded also in 1984 the department of photography is for the time being the Getty Museum's only concession to the art of the twentieth century. As with the medieval manuscripts the bulk stems from the acquisition of eminent private collections, viz. those of Samuel Wagstaff, Arnold Crane, Bruno Bischofberger and Volker Kahmen/George Heusch. The photographic collection has major holdings of the English pioneer Henry Talbot Fox and his circle, from the early years of the nineenth century, and their experimental photography from the first half of the twentieth century. <p> Two daguerreotypes from this collection deserve mentioning: the portrait of Louis-Jaques-Mandé Daguerre taken by Charles R. Meade (one of the fathers of the new art technique) in 1848, and the anonymous portrait of Edgar Allen Poe (1849). Early examples of photo reportage include Alexander Gardner's photograph of President Abraham Lincoln on the battlefield of Antietam, in 1862, and Dorothea Lange's socially critical photo series, documenting the suffering of rural laborers in California during the Great Depression in the 1930s. <p> There are examples of early experimental photography such as exposures without camera on light sensitive paper (Hippolyte Bayard, Anna Atkins and others, mid-ninteenth century) or Edgar Degas' female nude seen from the back, 1896. They mark the beginning of a structure-orientated photographic tradition which is represented by Alfred Stieglitz, Kertész, Albert Renger-Patzsch and others. <p> <cite>Personal commentary</cite> <p> The new Getty Center with the J. Paul Getty Museum is an outstanding museum site and one of the main attractions in Los Angeles, even though there is no shortage of noteworthy museums in that city. California now has a new cultural highlight. <p> The collections are of good, but (with a few exceptions) not of extraordinary quality. One needs to think only of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which has the advantage of having started its collection almost one-hundred years earlier. But make no mistake: The Getty Museum provides a solid survey on the development of fine art in the Old World, and attractive outlooks on special fields of interest, such as decorative art. For a private museum, which has been dependant on the collections of one patron alone, this is a remarkable achievement. Still, I do not think Getty's collection will attract the tourism of international museum and architecture visitors. Richard Meier's campus impresses as a solution for a specific and extraordinary site, yet is rather a variation of his repertoire than a vision.
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Carmen Bosch-Schairer. Review of , The J. Paul Getty Museum.
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