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Jeff Dickey

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 goal––L.A. is still more identified with a certain mouse than with High Culture tourism––it has become one of the country’s 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 day’s 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 Irwin’s concentric garden. Meier perceived Irwin’s 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, it’s difficult to understand what Meier was so upset about. A leisurely stroll here provides an excellent introduction to the Center’s 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 Gogh’s 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 Monet’s haystacks and Degas’ ballet dancers, and a portrait of Albert Cahen d’Anvers 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 J.M.W. Turner’s 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 Mantegna’s Adoration of the Magi, an image of Christ by Correggio, and Titian’s 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 many notables.

Finally, not to be forgotten is the museum’s 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 institution’s 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 museum’s 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 Rough Guides/Penguin.


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