FEATURE: Museums of Los Angeles – Part One

nsmentry1A museum’s history is often as complex and varied as the works of art in it. Each of the three museums in this series have their own websites that can give you their stories of creation and evolution, so there is no reason for me to repeat that process here. This series is from the point of view of a traveler entering the gates of a far away city. I arrive thirsty and hungry and ready for any and all temptations …I stand eager to be stimulated and seduced…and the gates open.


Most supermarkets have bigger parking lots than the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. It is the smallest building on the smallest campus of the three major museums in this series. Intensely compact, the Simon’s focus is a very high quality of art that never becomes the overgrown cultural smorgasbord that often leads to institutional mediocrity. From the moment you drive into the free, single-level open sky parking area, everything about the Simon fits and flows.

As you leave your car you are already in a garden-like setting and the paths lead to a welcoming arrangement of larger than life Rodin sculptures. Without yet having breached the front door, you have been engaged by the narrative of Western Civilization. You cannot look at these works without also seeing everything that came before and after, and without feeling the weight of your own sack of skin and muscle and bone.

I have intentionally avoided pictures of the inside of the Museum because photographs cannot do justice to the art nor the experience of making your own entrance. Step through the doors and you are inside the core of the Simon. It reminds me of a flower with the petals made up of the four wings and a large theatre. One level below is the South and Southeast Asian galleries. The core, the center of this flower is for special exhibitions. Today I have come to visit the four wings that hold the story of my own history. These centuries of human emotion are the mirror I will be gazing into.

The first wing is filled with the 14th to 16th Centuries. Early, High, Mannerist, Northern, Southern…a Renaissance is a Renaissance is a Renaissance…and it is not my favorite art but neither I nor the Simon can ignore it. The Museum’s collection does more than just give a prerequisite Renaissance experience. With a selectivity and quality it demonstrates the genius of the Renaissance artists without beating you over the head with the religious messages. Perhaps it is the size of the museum that keeps it all more intimate and accessible. If you came to overdose on the Jesus and Mary Show this is not the museum for that…for the Simon’s examples of secular humanism hold equal stage. Giovanni Bellini’s Portrait of Joerg Fugger is wonderfully alive…I wanted to step in front of Fugger and force him to look at me, to engage him with questions about his life.

One of the important elements in the entire Norton Simon Museum experience is the outstanding presentation of all the art. The height at which the art is hung and sculpture placed, the skill of of the lighting, and the flow of the groupings, for me it is the best of any museum in the city.  Never once did I find myself bobbing and weaving like a drunken prize fighter at war with glare and reflection on the art work.

The second wing throws us into the 17th and 18th Centuries…carried there by Guido Reni’s portrait of St. Cecilia. Reni overwhelms his religious subject with stunning technique that makes this artist the real center of the painting. Art for art is now an unstoppable wave and the Simon immerses the viewer in Baroque paintings from Italy and Spain and the North. Everywhere you turn life explodes. Jan (Johannes) Fyt’s Still Life with Red Curtain and Zurbaran’s Still Life with Lemon, Oranges and a Rose filled me with child-like awe at their skill. Thomas de Kayser’s Portrait of a Father and His Son; Marie Genevieve Bouliar’s Self Portrait; and Theresa, Countess Kinsky by Marie-Louise-Elisabeth Vigree-Lebrun all remind me that I am walking through a world of hearts that once beat as furiously as my own.

The last two wings contain the 19th and 20th Centuries and I cannot separate them because they are wife and mistress to our modern life. And here the Simon shines with outstanding art. Edgar Degas is everywhere…his paintings and sculptures swirl around you…taunt you. At first I was overwhelmed and then quickly I was glad. It felt as if this were his studio and his home.

I’ve often thought that the best Renoirs are always someplace else. Until today. But don’t look for the large grand canvases that have been reproduced on everything from coffee mugs to refrigerator magnets. At the Simon you will find small intimate Renoirs that will make you forget the “famous dead artist” and replace him with the living and curious and passionate and vulnerable Renoir.

My feet are no longer on the ground at this point…I am picked up on a Barbizon cloud and it carries me forward through the dreams of Corot and Monet and Seurat and Gauguin and Caillebotte and Lautrec…and at last I am at the feet of my personal Buddha, Vincent van Gogh. Even the Metropolitan in New York did not satisfy my eyes for his work. But at the Norton Simon there is a wonderful sampling and it is just large enough so that you can say “I met van Gogh today, and we talked awhile and then went our separate ways.” And for those who can only dream in modern media, take the time and you will come to discover that Vincent van Gogh is 3D…without the glasses.

I think Gertrude Stein would like the Museum’s view of the 20th Century…even the pictures she didn’t like. What would Picasso say to Sam Francis? What would Matisse think of Warhol? Would Modigliani and Braque agree? Perhaps it is because of the size of the Norton Simon Museum that this is a perfect place for making the walk from the Renaissance up to and through the last one hundred years. By the end of the journey you haven’t just viewed a history of the people of Western Civilization, you have also gazed into the mirror that this art offers and you have seen a reflection of yourself. And when our prejudices become an acid inside us, that is when we can turn and look back at the footsteps we have been walking in…and we can unflinchingly question ourselves and our lives, as every artist present in the Norton Simon Museum has also done.

This is a museum that has confidence and competence in its bones.  This is an art lover’s museum…and a museum’s museum.

- By John Ireland

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Not Your Typical Desk Chair

CharlesI’ve never quite understood why the decorative arts are overlooked, but unfortunately they are the forgotten stepchild of all art collections. Throughout the entirety of my four years of art history classes, the decorative arts came up only once and took the form of a humungous book that we were forced to purchase against our will, filled to the brim with photos of tables, chairs, chests, ottomans, buffets, dining sets, and headboards. At the end of the semester I re-gifted this behemoth to my mom for Mother’s Day and now it gathers dust on her coffee table. I fear that’s more exposure to the decorative arts than most people ever get.

As I crossed the threshold from busy, loud, smoggy Los Angeles into my personal Mecca, sanctuary, and glorious escape—aka The Huntington, I asked my good sport of a boyfriend why he thought the decorative arts didn’t get the recognition he or I thought they deserved. We agreed that maybe they are placed on the artistic back-burner because they are born, first and foremost, out of necessity, but I have always held the decorative arts in the highest esteem. Maybe I do because I believe that art is not only hung on a wall but rather all around us, from the way we garnish our homes to the very things on which we rest our tired feet. Furniture, just as much as painting or sculpture, represents and defines the visual culture of the times, and provides a platform for individual expression and audacious risk-taking. This holds true more than ever in the Huntington’s current exhibition, The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs, the first-ever display of Rohlfs’ exhilarating and unmistakably avant-garde late 19th / early 20th Century furniture.

Charles Rohlfs (1853-1936) is frequently classified with the other greats of the Arts & Crafts movement (think William Morris and the writings of John Ruskin), but while he was undoubtedly a leader in America’s first entrée into modernist design, his vision and execution resisted a generalized and conformed grouping. His lack of formal training enabled him to create unconventional and mind boggling shapes. Even though his work advocated truth to material and traditional craftsmanship inspired by the medieval, romantic and folk styles of decoration, his furniture reveals overwhelming individuality and character. His are the type of fixtures you’d swear were conceived over a late night of pipe tobacco, opium, and absinthe—and I mean in all the right ways.

The furniture of Rohlfs on display at the Huntington is impressively delicate and noticeably romantic. The most modernist piece, in my opinion, is his Desk Chair (c.1898-99). Subtleties like the parabola shaped seat, intricate cross bracing and complicated trapezoidal legs distinguish this chair as one of the exhibition’s highlights. It screams turn of the century, but just like all of his furniture, it takes the inspiration to a whole new level. The pieces looked awesomely futuristic and at times almost alien, even by today’s standard. In 1899, the experience must have been fantastical laced with a slight touch of terrifying. Similarly, his Hall Chair (c.1904) served as another focal point to this unprecedented exhibition, but took on a less contemporary aura and resonated something very to similar to Deco architecture.  I couldn’t help but compare the symmetrical, geometric, and cubist attributes of Hall Chair to the details of deco masterpieces such as the Chrysler Building (1928) or even the terracotta sunburst I’ve noticed in the Eastern Columbia Building (1930) right here at home. Clearly, Rohlfs was ahead of his time.

Upon seeing his work, one might think that Charles Rohlfs was a celebrated genius among his contemporaries, but beyond the surface lay a man whose career and ambitions were in a constant state of struggle. The exhibition does a beautiful job showcasing not only the product of an inventive mastermind but also poignantly tells the story of Rohlfs’ complicated and distressing legacy. He was in a perpetual state of debt, scrounging for enough buyers to support his growing profession, all the while thinking of bigger and better marketing strategies to keep his dream afloat. In 1907, amidst one of America’s most severe economic panics, he developed a plan to market his furniture to a larger audience by issuing cards with descriptions, illustrations, and prices of his work—all on display in the second half of the exhibition. Despite his efforts, he still relied heavily on commissioned interiors and therefore had to design with the client in mind first, his own motivations second.

Photos and pieces from his large scale commissions make up the final parts of the exhibit. The compromise between artist and patron is evident from the noticeable discrepancy between the furniture born out of inspiration and that born out of necessity.  The commissioned interiors show fixtures that are far weightier, solid and sturdy and that are clearly different from the delicate and elaborate details of his earlier work. Even though this look is more popularized, it remains distinctly Rohlfs.

Rohlfs remained productive and active throughout his life, far after the 19th Century’s House Beautiful movement first inspired Rohlfs to pour his ingenuity into the decorative arts. The final object on display is the last piece he ever created. “Lamp Made for Sterling Rohlfs” is a tribute to Charles’ son who tragically died in a 1928 plane crash. The piece, while intricate and expertly devised, speaks to Rohlfs’ unwavering dedication to his art and his family.

If ever there was a reason to brave the 110 freeway, The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs is it. Exhibitions like this don’t come around often, especially those on the decorative arts. I assure you, this exhibition will change the way you think of furniture, and make you utterly abhor your boring desk chair at the office.

-By Brittany Krasner

The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs is on display at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens through September 6th. Visit for more information.

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Portraiture’s Victorious Fight in the Modern Age

ingres38.JPGWhen most people think of portraiture, images of aristocracy adorned in their finest medieval robes atop a crackling grand fireplace in some remote European castle probably come to mind.  When I mention that I focused on 18th-19th Century portraiture in college, people look as if they’re about to fall asleep before I can finish the sentence.  But this past Saturday, I attended a lecture at Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum presented by John Klein, Associate Professor from Washington University in St. Louis, that reminded me of the magnetism and presence of portraits. In his lecture, “Matisse, Picasso and Beyond: How Portraiture Survived Modernism,” he examined the means by which the art of human representation prevailed through an era defined by its antipathy to historical convention.  Through the study of modernist masters like Picasso, Matisse and Giacometti, Klein arrives at a universal truth: human beings will always and forever be obsessed with themselves, others, and how others perceive them.

“Damn Portraits!” began Professor Klein, quoting Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres—an abrupt and honest exclamation that served as a perfect prelude to the difficult battle that portraiture was doomed to fight once the modern age descended on a timeless artistic tradition.  Ingres, like many artists of his time, despised portraiture.

He often complained that the overwhelming number of commissions from high society kept him from focusing on “more important” subject matter.  In the 19th Century, it seemed as if the only demographic that had an affinity for portraiture was the social elite.  When the 20th Century began, many creative figures decried the art form’s declining relevance.  Portraiture posed a series of difficult questions for the artist: How does one capture the complexity of human identity? How can an inner quality be expressed outwardly?  How can a still representation do justice to a personality trait that is defined by its movement? Modernism, says Klein, provided the platform that was so desperately needed: a movement that joined portraiture with the abstraction of the avant-garde.

grn_eyesThrough an array of examples, Klein revealed how artists like Picasso and Matisse were uninterested with the centrality of the sitter, which historically would have been fundamental.  In works like Girl with Green Eyes (1908), Matisse blended his sitters into a decorative pattern where no single component of the painting could dominate.  Picasso’s Gertrude Stein (1906), on the other hand, showcases both the artist and the sitter, serving as a visual statement of the height and legitimacy of both Stein’s and Picasso’s careers. Klein taught the audience that through the execution of her face, as was common with many of Picasso’s portraits, the artist imposed a mask-like quality that hardly resembled Stein’s genuine appearance. The primitivization of her face is a symbolic and telling mark of the beginning of an important aesthetic shift.

After the First World War, artists became increasingly cynical of humanistic values, and rapid advances in photographic technology threatened representational portraiture.  Expressive abstraction began to take hold, providing the artist with infinite ways to communicate power, status and legitimacy—and the line between art and vulgarity became harder to define.  Marcus Harvey’s Myra (1995) is an example of how modern portraiture could become a PR dream come true. Harvey’s portrait of Myra Hindley, a woman convicted of murdering multiple innocent child victims, is comprised of tiny flesh colored hands, hands meant to represent those of the children that she murdered.

180px-marcus-harvey-myraPortraiture’s many levels of expression, as in Myra, have the potential for endless symbolism and emotion.  I could feel the tension in the lecture hall when Myra came on screen, and I could see that the man next to me was trying to conceal his goose bumps.

Professor Klein’s lecture was most certainly a personal highlight of my many years of studying and appreciating portraiture. Regardless of one’s knowledge of art, he was able to communicate his subject with admirable passion and vigor.  Professor Klein carried the double-barreled theme of portraiture and its modernist survival from the turn of the 20th Century through the fall of Saddam Hussein. It was quite frankly one of the most fun Saturdays I’ve had in a while, and I don’t think I was alone.  The jam-packed lecture hall’s enthusiastic applause was proof enough that nobody was falling asleep before Klein could finish his sentences.

-By Brittany Krasner

The Norton Simon’s calendar of educational lectures will certainly expand your art related intellectual repertoire.  For more information on upcoming lectures, please visit their website.

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Portrait Day: Comtesse d’ Haussonville at the Norton Simon

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (French, 1780–1867), Comtesse d’Haussonville, dated 1845; Oil on canvas, 51 ⅞ x 36 ¼ inches (131.8 x 92); The Frick Collection, New York. Photo; Michael Bodycomb

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (French, 1780–1867), Comtesse d’Haussonville, dated 1845; Oil on canvas, 51 ⅞ x 36 ¼ inches (131.8 x 92); The Frick Collection, New York. Photo; Michael Bodycomb

School portraits.  You either loved ‘em or hated ‘em.  Mostly you love them now because they are a time-stamp of the then-you.  My silly senior photo was complete with red lipstick and black, thick bangs à la Louise Brooks.  Call it cliché or call it high school; once you discard those glasses, braces, and bad skin, portraits are a signifier of not only you, but also the world around you.  And who would have thought flannel shirts would have ever made their way back into school portraits nearly twenty years after Nirvana hit the airwaves…

The Norton Simon and The Frick Collection have a portrait they are dying to share with you.  And might I say, it’s not one of those awkward portraits of teenage yesteryear.  Instead, it’s a jewel of their collection– the Comtesse d’ Haussonville painted by none other than Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

The portrait of Louise-Albertine de Broglie, Comtesse d’Haussonville, depicts the young woman in her fashionable blue robe de petit diner standing before a fireplace and mirror.  Ingres’s treatment of  both her face and dress are expert as well as the way he manipulated the light and colors.

The face of the sitter, 27-year-old Princess de Broglie, is softly molded with a smooth, creamy complexion.  Eyes gaze contemplatively and calmly towards the viewer showing that she is “confident, thoughtful, and refined.” She was the daughter of the Duc de Broglie and the wife of Comte d’ Haussonville.

Her pose, an S-curve, harks back to ancient sculptures of deities and to canonical women’s portrait poses of the 19th century.  Her left hand cradled underneath her chin and her right arm resting across her waist forms an X-shape that invites the viewer to continue the compositional line downwards to admire the gorgeous and finely detailed drapery of her frock.  Her silk dress by itself is stunning with a multitude of delicate ruffles near the arms and pleats of the skirt.

The painting’s light comes from an unknown source.  It brushes down the Comtesse’s face, arms, and across her dress to form drapery of a caliber suited to ancient sculptors.  The cool light makes her golden jewelry glisten.

Furthermore, the colors are divine.  The entire painting is made up of a multitude of blues, from the rich, royal blue of the fireplace cover, the creamy color of her dress, to the dash of turquoise in her Cleopatra-style jewelry.  A shock of red hits the canvas in the form of a ribbon tied into her hair.

The furniture behind the Comtesse appears compressed and unusually positioned, although very luxurious.  Opera glasses and calling cards set upon the fireplace as well as  thrown away shawl on the chair next to her signals the beginning or, most likely, the end of an evening at the opera.

It is a sneak peek into the grandeur of Ingres – a master of painting.  Unlike your school photographer, Ingres is known for anatomical impossibilities that create a stronger composition and aesthetic value.  No Photoshop to be seen, try to spot the things that your school photographer could never do.

Ingres’s Comtesse d’Haussonville will close January 25, 2010.  For more information about the exhibition, please click here.

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Extra! Extra! Discover Beethoven’s Fifth

When it comes to recognizing classical music, we know you’re a pro.  You don’t even have to be in the same room when a British Airways commercial comes on to pinpoint their constant use of the “Flower Duet” from LakméAlain Lombard, Danielle Millet, Mady Mesplé & Orchestre du Théâtre National de l'Opéra-Comique - 100 Best Classics - Lakmé (Act I): Flower Duet We’d be the first to admit, however, that it can be difficult to catch every live performance of all the musical masterpieces in your listening repertoire– when LA Opera, the LA Phil, and the LA Chamber Orchestra are all on the same night as Top Chef, it leaves you in a very difficult position.  Having never heard Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony Alain Lombard & Orchestre national Bordeaux Aquitaine - Ludwig Van Beethoven, Symphony No. 2 In D, Op. 36 - Symphony No. 5 In C Minor, Op. 67 (Beethoven's Fifth) - Allegro Con Brio performed live, for example, is an unfortunate consequence that comes with living in a world of so many options.  It is also a musical crime.  However, LA Chamber Orchestra is here to help.

Their “Discover” concert series continues this Saturday, November 7 at 8pm with “Discover Beethoven’s 5th” at the Ambassador Auditorium.  The well-known, powerful, majestic symphony will be played in full during the second half of the concert after what could be considered the world’s shortest and most intense lesson on Beethoven and his music.  Perhaps we shouldn’t call it a lesson so much as a bonus – the first half of the concert will include excerpts from the Fifth alongside a number of Beethoven’s other symphonies, solo piano works, and our personal favorite – bits of his “Moonlight” and “Pathetique” sonatas.  Hearing all of these works performed live under the direction of Jeffrey Kahane will prove a truly grand experience… made all the better by the fact that Fine Arts LA has got some tickets to spare that we’re itching to give away to our faithful, music-loving readers!  Welcome to our latest Extra! Extra! raffle…

Some Extra! Extra! details you’ll want to keep in mind: by entering into this raffle, you’re automatically entered to win the next three we’ve got going on.  All we need is your first name, last name, and email address and voila – you’ll be blown away.

(Click here if you’d rather not risk it and want to buy your own tickets.)



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Making the Museum Dash

I know that a good portion of you have been itching to reenact the scene from Jean Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders where the main characters Arthur, Franz, and Odile dash through the Louvre in 9 minutes and 43 seconds. No doubt most museums would frown upon that type of behavior.  (But not us!  Actually, give us a call if you are about to do this…)

To stay within the good graces of the fine cultural institutions in this city, we have a proposal.  Instead of making a mad dash through one museum, this weekend you can gather a few of your best friends and have your pick of pretty much any museum within this land to sit, stroll, walk — or run!  This weekend, twenty-four Los Angeles and Orange County museums are opening their doors without charging any admission costs.  Zip. Zero. Nada! So making that mad dash from door to door and museum to museum is  much easier and won’t hurt your wallet one bit.  And since the bill isn’t on you, you can feel free to stop by those few museums that you have been meaning to.

See how many places you can motor through.  I know both Godard and Bernardo Bertolucci would be proud.

Please click here to see a list of participating museums and information.

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