Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Ars Gratia Artis

Azusa, California

Thursday, February 17, 2011

I've visited two very fine art museums so far, the Norton Simon and the Getty Center. Each of these collections could stand alone as a rival to just about any museum in the interior of this country, at least for European paintings.

I happened to hear about the Norton Simon Museum from a little piece by the NPR veteran Susan Stamberg. They played it during one of the endless fund drives they have on public radio. And since they have more of everything here in California, they have more public radio stations and more fund drives. Born in Portland, Oregon, Norton Simon (1907-1993) was a businessman who grew up in San Francisco and started out in sheet metal and orange juice in Fullerton in the 1920s, then sold the juice company to Hunt's foods and took a controlling interest. Over time he came to control a diverse array of businesses through his holding company, Norton Simon Inc. They included Hunt's, McCall's Publishing, The Saturday Review, Canada Dry, Max Factor, and Avis car rentals. With the jillions of dollars he made he began collecting works of art, and over only thirty years he amassed over four thousand paintings and sculptures.

He built the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena in 1974 on the site of what had been the Pasadena Art Institute. As museums go this one isn't huge, but it is chock full of really good stuff, and I'm a bit prejudiced in its favor because there's a good deal of 16th and 17th century Dutch and Flemish painting, which is my favorite. It takes a couple of hours to see everything on display, which is only a fraction of the entire collection, as I understand it. High points in the collection were a few Rembrandts, some Dutch still lifes, some Van Goghs, and dozens of miscellaneous Impressionist paintings. Also some early 20th century things from Picasso, Klee, and Kandinsky. In front of the building there are a few Rodins and in back a sculpture garden. The guy knew his stuff and only bought the best. His approach to art was probably like his approach to business, in that he acquired established things and didn't speculate. The museum is well worth a visit and very accessible if you have time for only one museum on one afternoon in the LA area.

But of course I have much more time than that, which brings me to the next one, the Getty. Jean Paul Getty (1892-1976) needs less of an introduction than Norton Simon, I suppose. Unlike Simon, he made his fortune the old fashioned way--he inherited it from his father, George Getty. Well, that's a bit of an oversimplification. The senior Getty had made some money as an insurance lawyer in Minneapolis, where the son was born. Then he took the family down to Oklahoma where he invested in oil and became very wealthy, and finally brought them to LA. He lent young J. Paul the money to start his own oil company, and the son made his first million in his early 20s. But he wanted to retire and become a playboy, which really seems like the right move for the son of a wealthy oil man, but which ticked off the old man. The father died in 1930 convinced that the son would ruin the family business, and left him a piddling half a million. But he did okay on his own, as it turns out, making it through the Depression while systematically acquiring oil companies. Then in 1949 he paid the king of Saudi Arabia a few million for a 60-year lease on some property there and began drilling. Nothing happened for several years, but when it did, it really did. In the 1950s he became the richest man in America, and when he died he was worth $2 billion, back when a billion dollars was a lot of money. He is famous for having said, "The meek shall inherit the earth, but not the mineral rights."

Since J. Paul Getty was one of the richest people in the world, it is appropriate that the Getty is the richest museum in the world, the beneficiary of the billion-dollar-plus Getty Trust. It comprises two museums, the Getty Center, in Brentwood in LA, and the Getty Villa, in Malibu. The latter contains Greek and Roman antiquities and the former, which I visited, contains mostly European works of art from the Middle Ages to the present.

The Getty Center is more than just a building housing paintings. On Tuesday I arrived there after an hour-long torturous drive through Los Angeles on the freeways. Though I left later in the morning so as to miss rush hour, I realize that there is no time during daylight hours when the traffic into or immediately out of the city is light. Occasionally I would get up to forty or fifty miles per hour, only to come to a standstill in a mile or two at some merger of two highways. Sic transit Los Angeles transit. (My brother will finish that one, I'm sure.)

The museum is at the top of a hill, and I entered at the bottom, where I was directed into a large parking structure and asked to pay fifteen dollars. I wondered if this were just the beginning of the charges, but it turns out it covered admission, too. After parking I got into a small shuttle tram that runs slowly up the hill every five minutes or so, and began the ride to the summit. Unfortunately it was a cloudy and misty day, so I missed most of the spectacular views from the top, which I was told include, on a clear day, the Pacific Ocean on one side and on the other the mountain to the west of Palm Springs where the tramway runs. As it was, I saw downtown LA and the surrounding areas of Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Brentwood, and Pacific Palisades. Nice real estate. The Getty Trust bought this hill and a couple around it, 750 acres in all, on which to build the museum, which was completed in the late 90s. Architecturally I can only describe it as pleasing and white and modern and huge, consisting of several loosely connected two- and three-level exhibition halls around a huge courtyard, with an amazing garden outside it, designed by artist Robert Irwin. There are numerous balconies from which to views the gardens and the countryside. A few hundred years ago this would have been the perfect place for castle.

I began by viewing the paintings from the Middle Ages to the 18th century, my kind of stuff. Medieval altarpieces, illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, then the Netherlands painters. And there were some heavy hitters--Rembrandt, Hals, Rubens, van Ruisdael, Bruegel, van Dyck, and Steen, to drop a few names. It makes you wonder how the hell so many different museums can have even a single painting by some of these old masters, much less three or more. They were busy as hell. Picasso I can see--the guy churned out stuff with obsessive speed and lots of it was little more than a couple of brush strokes on a piece of notebook paper. And Andy Warhol made prints by the hundreds. But considering the time it takes to paint a huge canvas in oils, well, I'm amazed. I know they had apprentices and helpers, but still.

After moving through a few rooms of 18th century French decorative arts--gilded and inlaid furniture and all that--I visited the relatively small showing of Impressionist paintings. The obligatory van Goghs (again, how the hell did he paint so much in so short a time?) and some by Degas and a few others. I never cared much for that era of painting, though most people love it. Van Gogh is cool with his use of paint and crazy colors, and Gaugin and Rousseau, but all those pastel boys leave me cold. Give me a still life with dead animals and fruit any day. Or in French painting, some gigantic tableau by Jacques Louis David. One I should mention from that era, for the sake of my cousin Cathy, was "Demolition of the Chateau of Meudon," by Hubert Robert. Another honorable mention goes to a pair of small oil paintings by William Hogarth entitled "Before" and "After."

Then I took a tour of the grounds and the cleverly-designed gardens, led by an energetic if rather dippy docent. This afforded me the opportunity to view the museum buildings from various angles. As for the collection of paintings, I would have to say that although the Getty had more stuff, the Norton Simon packed more punch. Much of the experience of visiting the Getty Center involves the beauty of the buildings and grounds. See both museums if you can.

I took the tram back down the hill and drove out of the parking lot onto the 405 to face the afternoon traffic. This time I went north to take the 101 and the 134 to the 210, going through Burbank and into Pasadena. Much better than trying the 10 again. You see, I'm beginning to talk like them. It's all about the traffic. About half the people here were born somewhere else, and although that percentage is decreasing, it's still an easy place to slip into. Just like Norton Simon and J. Paul Getty did.

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