- A PARTHENON FOR L.A.
When oil mogul J. Paul Getty died in 1976, he lived just long enough to see the opening
of his eponymous Malibu museum, a detailed reproduction of a Roman villa to house his
impressive collection of mostly European art. Two decades later, the museum shut its doors
to make way for a new complex overlooking Brentwood, one that would be the culmination of
over sixty years of art collecting.
In December 1997, the Getty Center opened its doors, and the public got a close-up
glimpse of a massive complex that in previous years could only be seen in the distance,
rising on a hill above the 405 freeway. At a cost of $1 billion, the Center was a stunning
attempt to bring pre-Modern art to the masses, as well as the priciest public relations
gamble in L.A. history. Designed for a city often stereotyped as "cultureless,"
the Getty was to become a new Parthenon atop a West L.A. Acropolis and was to change the
way people viewed the arts in Southern California.
While the Center has not exactly achieved that high goalL.A. is still more
identified with a certain mouse than with High Culture tourismit has become
one of the countrys best art institutions, comprising seven buildings devoted to
research, acquisitions, preservation, and of course, the presentation of classic painting,
sculpture, and antiquities. At present, only the museum is open to the public, but this
alone merits at least a days worth of attention and awe.
When you ride in the tram from the freeway-adjacent parking lot (at which reservations
are required and cost $5 when you arrive, though many visitors take city buses or cabs),
you begin to realize the staggering proportions of the site and the effort involved in
getting the museum built. Modernist architect Richard Meier originally designed the
building with his standard white panels, though glaring reflections caused a Brentwood
revolt and forced Meier to re-imagine the structure with a more classical travertine
cladding. Other delays included design and budgetary disputes, with perhaps the most
interesting conflict centering on artist Robert Irwins concentric garden. Meier
perceived Irwins idea as interfering with his own grand plan and lobbied heavily to
have it altered. Luckily for visitors, he lost. When you wander through the geometric
curves and gentle descent of the garden, its difficult to understand what Meier was
so upset about. A leisurely stroll here provides an excellent introduction to the
Centers grounds, and gets you ready for the art treasures yet to come.
Needless to say, these treasures are astounding. With an endowment of $3 billion, the
Getty Trust must by law spend hundreds of millions each year to acquire new art, which
helps it outbid other museum heavyweights on the global art scene. In a celebrated case,
Vincent Van Goghs famed Irises ended up here after an Australian financier
bid $50 million for it and then defaulted on his payments, after which the Getty picked it
up for an unknown price. However, there are Impressionist masterworks here that nearly
match the Van Gogh picture in notoriety, including paintings of Monets haystacks and
Degas ballet dancers, and a portrait of Albert Cahen dAnvers by Renoir.
While such French works clearly attract the most attention, other rooms have equally
striking arrays of art. A series of Rembrandt images includes a picture of Saint
Bartholomew portrayed as a thoughtful, rough-hewn Dutchman, while nearby you can find
similarly notable works by Rubens and Goya. Nineteenth-century works include vivid
watercolors by William Blake, Romantic imagery by Caspar Friedrich, and
Turners influential Ships at Sea, Getting a Good Wetting, a masterpiece of
hazy lines and soft colors.
Although not abundant, Renaissance paintings are present at the museum, such as Andrea
Mantegnas Adoration of the Magi, an image of Christ by
Titians Venus and Adonis. Just as interesting are Mannerist portraits by
Pontormo and Veronese, both of which are precise character studies of late
sixteenth-century figures. Jumping back several hundred years, there are also a number of
intriguing illuminated manuscripts from the medieval era, which feature such biblical
scenes as the Passion and the arrival of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and also
portray the lives of early saints.
Sculpture is well represented in the museum, from the ancients through the nineteenth
century, and the collection includes artists like Benvenuto Cellini and Gianlorenzo
Bernini, who depicts a sprightly toddler bending back the neck of a dragon. Another
strength is the selection of decorative arts on display, which are arranged in period
rooms befitting certain styles in European history and will especially delight aficionados
of the Louis XIV era. Likewise, photography fans will be impressed by the exhibition of
new and old masters, with names like Stieglitz, Strand, Weston, Adams, and Arbus among the
Finally, not to be forgotten is the museums assortment of Greek and Roman art,
which now fills up several rooms in an exhibitions pavilion, but which will move back to
the newly refurbished Malibu museum in 2001. These are some of the institutions most
fascinating works, and you can view them quite easily, as most visitors choose to spend
their time in other rooms looking at the paintings. Highlights include a good number of
Athenian vases featuring images of war, athletic prowess, and regal proceedings, as well
as curious Greek drinking vessels known as kylikes (or kylix in the singular) with wide
brims and shallow bowls. The ancient sculpture on display is also fascinating, with
limestone gods such as Aphrodite reaching out to the viewer and mythical griffins biting
into a marble doe. One very curious work is known as the Getty Kouros, which is the
museums biggest mystery. Uncertain whether it is real or a forgery, the Getty puts
forward the curatorial facts to let the viewer decide.
Ultimately, whatever your verdict on the Kouros, you will likely judge the Getty
Center to be a rich, rewarding experience. Clearly, the museum has succeeded in being an
essential stop on any trip through Southern California, as well as a compelling
destination in its own right.
Located at 1200 Getty Center Drive in West L.A., the Getty Center is open Tues-Wed
11am-7pm, Thurs-Fri 11am-9pm, Sat-Sun 10am-6pm and is free. Arrive by bus or cab,
otherwise parking reservations are $5 and available by calling 310-440-7300.
Jeff Dickey is a media and print writer
whose most recent work, The Rough Guide to Los Angeles, was published in January by