“Connecting Seas” at the Getty Research Institute

The Getty Research Institute is debuting its expanded exhibition space with “Connecting Seas: A Visual History of Discoveries and Encounters.” The original L-shaped gallery (800 sq. ft.) is now joined by a larger (2000-sq.-ft.), more appealing room (above). Split-level, and with carefully filtered natural light from the outside and inside of the circle, it feels more like a part of the Meier building.

The two galleries are on opposite sides of the entrance lobby. “Connecting Seas” spans both rooms; with 150 objects, it’s larger than most of the Getty Museum’s exhibition pavilion shows.

As the subtitle promises, this a global history in pictures, from the Renaissance to nearly the present day. The trebled floorspace allows the GRI to treat the exploration/exploitation of Mexico, Brazil, subsaharan Africa, India, and East Asia as parallel phenomena, recorded in similarly deluxe books.

The centerpiece of “Connecting Seas” is the Description de l’Égypte, Napoleon’s megalomanic 23-volume print Wikipedia of Egypt. The GRI owns the whole set  and manages to show them in the new gallery. One volume is open to a photo-realistic print of a Theban mummy’s head, hand-colored on the plate by Pierre-Joseph Redouté (better known as Marie Antoinette’s botanical painter, “the Raphael of Flowers.”)

The exhibition ends with a grouping of politically incorrect games and advertisements, intended to instruct the desired European demographics on the wonders of colonialism. One is a set of silhouette cards advertising De Beukelaer chocolates. Kara Walker cited the ads as inspiration for her art, and she’s represented with a pop-up book. That’s one example of how the past, in all its banality, remains relevant.

Ultimately “Connecting Seas” is about the Enlightenment impulse to catalog the wide world (an impulse of which the GRI itself is part). Ambivalence about that project is nothing new, and one of the show’s strengths is how cleverly it juxtaposes views and media. Near the Description de l’Égypte is James Gillray’s 1799 cartoon Siege de la colonne de Pompée: Science in the Pillory. After the crushing French defeat in the Battle of the Nile, Napoleon’s scholars have climbed to the top of Diocletian’s Column. Some attempt to escape with artificial wings, a balloon, or an umbrella. Scientific publications, including a table of logarithms and Volume LX of the Encyclopédie topple to ground. At lower left, a Mameluke archer is bonked on the head with a Projet de Fraternisation avec les Bedouins. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “History, read it and weep!”

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