For a century at least, Hollywood actors, agents, and moguls have been buying School of Paris modernism. A few assembled great collections; many more assembled weak ones; and the one constant was hand-wringing over Hollywood’s failure to support L.A. museums. TV and film executive Jerry Perenchio is set to change that paradigm with his conditional bequest of an Impressionist and modern collection to LACMA. (Above, Edouard Vuillard’s “Sacha Guitry in His Dressing Room,” 1912, owned by Perenchio.)
The twist: The museum must fund, construct, and open its planned ($600 million-ish) Peter Zumthor building on schedule (c. 2023)—or else the gift may be rescinded. Back in 1971, Perenchio put up $5 million to get Muhammad Ali into the ring with Joe Frazier. Get ready for the Capital Campaign of the Century.
It’s not just a question of raising the money, formidable as that challenge is. The clock is ticking… Any delay could potentially invalidate the gift: an earthquake, a stock market crash, a construction workers’ strike, fossil discoveries on site, etc., etc. This week every museum director must envy Michael Govan, but they’re also praying their own donors don’t get the idea of gift-wrapping an ultimatum.
What could the Perenchio bequest mean to LACMA? The museum says it’s set to gain “at least” 47 works by 23 artists. It has released images of 10 works, and the press release identifies a few more by name. Some of those works are already well-known, having been lent to exhibitions and widely reproduced. It is possible to say that, in quality, Perenchio’s collection is in a league with those of Norton Simon, Walter Annenberg, and Leonard Lauder. The bequest would give LACMA its only major works by Manet and Caillebotte; its most iconic pieces by Monet, Degas, Bonnard, and Léger. It would double, or nearly so, the museum’s representation of Pissarro and Magritte. A 1909 cubist drawing, Picasso’s Head of Fernande, is one of the choicest of modern drawings, poised on the cusp of art history.
An obvious question is how the Pernechio works relate to the Janice and Henri Lazarof collection, acquired by promised gift and purchase in 2007 and also touted as a game-changer. Chronologically there is considerable overlap between the Lazarof and Perenchio collections. The Lazarof collection is bigger (130 v. 47 works) and ranges well into the mid 20th century. But—going by the images released—Perenchio has more star works, those rivaling the best of their kind anywhere.
Here’s a tentative survey of how the Perenchio bequest could one day augment LACMA’s collection.
Monet: LACMA presently has four Monet paintings. Perenchio would add three, making seven—and the three Perenchio Monets would be the ones visitors remember. LACMA stands to have the biggest and best holding of Monet west of Chicago.
Manet: LACMA has no paintings or drawings by Manet. Perenchio is bequeathing a major pastel portrait of M. Gauthier-Lathuille fils (below left). Because of the pastel medium, it can’t be on permanent view, but it’s a Manet worthy of a great museum. If Monsieur’s face looks familiar, he’s the earnest lover in Manet’s painting Chez Père Lathuille.
Degas: Perenchio proposes to donate two drawings and three posthumous bronzes by Degas. One of the drawings is the widely analyzed and reproduced Au Café Concert: La Chanson du Chien (1876). Though it’s a modest-sized work on paper, it ought to upstage LACMA’s one Degas painting, the Bellelli Sisters. The bronzes would double the museum’s holdings, and one of the Perenchio works is the nude version of the Little Dancer.
Caillebotte: LACMA has nothing by Caillebotte, the once-forgotten Impressionist whose few best works now command eight-figure prices. In 2011 the Boston Museum of Fine Arts paid $16 million for Man at His Bath (selling a Monet, a Renoir, a Gauguin, and five other paintings to defray the cost). Perenchio’s Caillebotte, A Soldier, must be a response to Manet’s Fifer. It might be the third most important Caillebotte in America (after those in Chicago and Boston)?
Pissarro: Perenchio’s three paintings would augment the three in the Lazarof collection and the bird’s eye urban landscape, La Place du Théâtre Français, that the De Sylvas gave the pre-LACMA County Museum. That would make 7 Pissarros in all—not bad, considering that Impressionist-rich Art Institute of Chicago has 10.
Cézanne: Perenchio’s juicy Cézanne landscape, House and Tree (c. 1874) was a stand-out of MoMA’s 2005 “Cézanne & Pissarro” show. So was LACMA’s Sous Bois of the 1890s. Were they one day united at LACMA, they could offer a super-concise survey of Cézanne landscapes, albeit without a Mont Sainte-Victoire. They would join a still life and a figure already in the collection.
Picasso: It remains a scandal that LACMA doesn’t have a cubist Picasso painting. The Perenchio gift won’t remedy that. It does include a painting of Marie Thérèse-Walter and six Picasso drawings, including the key 1909 Head. That relates to LACMA’s bronze Head of a Woman, from an edition cast half a century later. The Perenchio Picassos stand to complement the Lazarof holding of 20 Picasso paintings, drawings, and watercolors. (The museum’s most notable Picasso paintings will likely remain the blue-period portrait from the Bright bequest and the mini-Guernica, Weeping Woman with Handkerchief, donated by Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mitchell.)
Bonnard: LACMA has just one Bonnard painting. Perenchio has two, one of them Après le Repas (1925). It has a fine old Hollywood provenance, having been owned by industry power couple William and Edith Mayer Goetz (Edith was daughter of Louis B. Mayer). When Après le Repas was sold along with most of the Goetz collection at Christie’s in 1988, a LACMA press officer told the L.A. Times: “It was not a collection we were expecting to receive as a gift.”
Léger: Perenchio is bequeathing two figurative Léger paintings and a late ceramic relief. Woman with Bouquet (1924, bottom left) will be the only fully realized example of Léger’s pneumatic-Art Deco style at an L.A. museum. It will complement LACMA’s more cubist Légers such as the 1918 The Disks, from the David Bright bequest, and the 1925 Composition in the Lazarof collection.
Magritte: LACMA has two Magritte paintings; the Perenchio gift would double that to four. Below center and right are Stimulation Objective No. 3 (1939) and Liaisons Dangereuses (1935). Thanks to the preeminent importance of Treachery of Images, already in the collection, LACMA’s representation of Magritte stands to rival MoMA’s holding of seven Magritte paintings.
Bottom line: Compared to other big American museums, LACMA’s holdings of impressionist and modern art have been anemic. That reflects the museum’s relative youth and an ego-driven history in which Norton Simon, J. Paul Getty, and Armand Hammer founded private museums rather than supporting the public one.
The Perenchio bequest won’t put LACMA on a par with Chicago or the great East Coast institutions. It will let LACMA’s early modern collection stand up to those of the Simon and Getty. Unlike those institutions LACMA presents contemporary art in the context of global art history. For that the Perenchio bequest would be pivotal. Today’s transnational postmodernism remains indebted to the avant garde revolution that occurred in Europe during the period that Perenchio has collected.