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Getty Buys Manet’s “Le Printemps”

Last night the Getty Museum paid $65,125,000 for Manet’s Le Printemps (Spring) at Christie’s New York. Incredibly, it’s the second Manet portrait the Getty has bought this year—the other is a pastel—and the third in the past three years.

Le Printemps was conceived as one of four portraits of fashionable women representing the seasons. Manet completed only two, the other being Autumn in the Fine Arts Museum of Nancy, France (below).

The $65 million price is the most the Getty has ever paid at auction. It’s rumored that the museum paid $70 million ($90 million in today’s dollars) for Titian’s Portrait of Alfonso d’Avalos in a private sale. The $54 million auction price for van Gogh’s Irises (paid by Alan Bond, who owned it before the Getty) would be about $110 million in today’s money. That figure however deserves an asterisk for some very creative financing.

Despite its buying power, the Getty has mostly avoided the cliché people’s choice: colorful Impressionist paintings of young women in landscapes. Of the museum’s four paintings by Claude Monet, three are near-monochrome views of gray or wintry weather. You might not know that Monet ever painted a human figure or a green leaf. The “prettier” sort of Impressionist paintings often command stupendous prices from private collectors. I suspect that, either by design or happenstance, the Getty found more value in other parts of the 19th-century market.

But Le Printemps is about as feel-good appealing as an Impressionist painting gets. It will be one of the museum’s signature paintings and ought to take some of the selfie-heat off Irises.

LACMA Has Big News

On Thursday at 10 AM LACMA is set to announce the “largest gift of art… in its history.” The donor, so far unnamed, is giving works by Manet, Degas, Monet, Pissarro, Bonnard, and Picasso.

This comes the day after L.A. County Supervisors agreed in principle to supply $125 million toward the Peter Zumthor redesign.

When Art Outgrew the Convent

Getty installation of "The Victory of Truth over Heresy" (Tapestry (c) Patrimonio Nacional, Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales, Madrid)

Rubens’ Triumph of the Eucharist was the artist’s most ambitious tapestry cycle. Four examples, each 16 feet tall, are now on view in the Getty Center’s Richard Meier-designed Exhibition Pavilion. You might assume they’d look even more stately in their home, the Convent of Las Descalzas Reales, Madrid. Well… not necessarily.

Though the tapestries were commissioned for the convent, the building has been remodeled extensively since the 17th century. Thus the tapestries can no longer be shown as Rubens intended. Today they’re presented in a former dormitory and—d’oh!—the walls aren’t quite tall enough. The tops of the tapestries overlap the ceiling, and the bottoms graze the floor.

Before traveling to the Getty, “Spectacular Rubens” was shown at the Prado. Even there it was a tight fit (left).

The first American to collect Rubens in a big way was circus impresario John Ringling. In the 1920s he learned that the Duke of Westminster was trying to sell four oil-on-canvas cartoons from The Triumph of the Eucharist. The cartoons are the full-size models used to direct tapestry weavers. Usually watercolor on paper, cartoon were cut into strips and discarded during the weaving. But Rubens’ studio produced full-sized oil paintings for some of the Eucharist tapestries.

Westminster’s cartoons had been put up for action unsuccessfully, drawing total bids of $10,000. Not many American collectors had the space, or the desire, to show 16-foot tall peans to Catholic dogma. The Duke was trying to arrange a private sale, asking about $100,000 for the set. Ringling’s advisor Julius Böhler ticked off the reasons not to buy them: they were too big to show in a home or museum; they were studio works not by Rubens’ own hand; baroque religious art was out of fashion; and finally, at $100,000 they were overpriced.

Ringling bought the cartoons anyway. He had his architect design a soaring room to show them in the museum he built in Sarasota, Florida. It remains one of the more spectacular rooms in any American museum. Ringling’s example inspired other museums to collect Rubens—and to think big in architecture, well before Tony Smith.

Lucas Museum to Look Like Jabba the Hutt

Beijing- and L.A.-based architect Ma Yansong has been chosen to design Chicago’s Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. You’ll recall that that the Lucas Museum’s original, Beaux Arts design (by Dallas-based Urban Design Group) was booted out of San Francisco for being too boring to look at. That shouldn’t be a problem with Ma’s design, which some are comparing to Jabba the Hutt and Disneyland’s Space Mountain (it’s to be 115-feet high). In the Architectural Record, Fred Bernstein asked:

“Is form following function when a building meant for artworks that tell stories—the “Narrative Art” in the name refers to everything from Norman Rockwell paintings to designs for animated films—incorporates so many images from science fact and fiction? Is this, in the Venturi lexicon, more duck than decorated shed? More Hutt than decorated hut?”

Despite Chicago’s tradition of architectural innovation, not all rank-and-file Chicagoans are on board with the museum design.  Comments to a Chicago Tribune article liken the new museum to “the world’s most epic skateboard park”… “the Sta-Puft marshmallow man took a dump”…”all the piled up snow we love to see gone by April”…”a colossal joke on America… man, there is a limit to what the eyes may be subjected to.”

Gilbert Gold Returns to L.A.

Snuffbox with Flowers, c. 1765 Photo (c) Victoria and Albert Museum

Arthur Gilbert was the loosest cannon on LACMA’s board of trustees. He made no secret of his opinion that contemporary art was “junk” and that LACMA was too focused on the contemporary (long before Govan). In 1975 Gilbert promised his collection of silver, micro-mosaics, gold boxes, and furniture to the museum. Two decades later he rescinded that gift and deeded his collection to his native Britain.

In recent years Gilbert’s second wife, Marjorie, has promoted long-term loans of Gilbert objects to LACMA and has made gifts of pieces not donated to the British state. The most spectacular result of this detente is “Close-up and Personal: Eighteenth-Century Gold Boxes from the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection.” On view through March 1, 2015, it’s easy to miss. The works are small, occupying vitrines in a permanent collection gallery in the Hammer building. Yet the loan includes some of the finest gold snuffboxes ever created—and these were taken very seriously in their time, valued as much as Chardins. At top is Frederick II’s Snuffbox with Flowers, c. 1765.

Fanboys disappointed with Jony Ive’s Apple Watch ought to check out a gold and agate box/automaton watch by James Cox. No fitness app, but it holds snuff.

James Cox, automaton snuffbox and watch Photo (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

LACMA isn’t the only beneficiary of Gilbert largesse. The Marjorie W. Gilbert 2001 Trust has promised the Getty Museum a Roman musical clock attributed to the workshop of Giuseppe Valadier, c. 1790, and two Chinoiserie porcelain inkstands. The clock is on view in the Getty Center’s 19th-century decorative arts gallery.

Season of the Witch

One of the remaining distinctions between art museums and theme parks is that museums don’t program around Halloween (much). Still, a couple of witchy acquisitions have been announced this October: Henry’s Fuseli’s The Three Witches at the Huntington and Jordan Wolfson’s slutty android in witch mask for the Broad Art Foundation (below). Another museum-to-be, that of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is presenting “Hollywood Costume” with the gingham pinafore of film’s most famous witch hunter, Dorothy. But this year’s ultimate Halloween show is  “Cameron: Songs of the Witch Woman” at MOCA Pacific Design Center.

Cameron was not just an artist, mystic, and underground film diva. Her friend Scott Hobbs recalls that Cameron wore black, drove a hearse, and gave interviews as a “witch” to L.A. TV stations on Halloween. I have tried to find Cameron’s video (or newspaper) Halloween interviews online, with no luck. If any reader can find them, let me know and I’ll share them.

Cameron took a feminist-realist attitude to the passing of youth and beauty. She told a friend who’d had plastic surgery: “You can erase the lines, but not the pain!”

(Top of post: Cameron’s Black Egg, a self-portrait. Below, one half of Cameron’s Witch Diptych).

Eli Broad Buys “the Most Terrifying Robot Ever”

The Broad Art Foundation has acquired L.A. artist Jordan Wolfson’s Female Figure (2014), an Uncanny Valley-girl android that twerks in front of a mirror. It’s part of a recent effort to add crowd-pleasing interactive works for the Broad’s Grand Avenue museum (now set to open fall 2015.)

Female Figure was shown earlier this year at New York’s David Zwimmer gallery and Art Basel. I won’t try to top this description by the U.K.’s Daily Mail.

“Is this the most terrifying robot ever?…

“From creepy clowns to demonic serial killers, ‘possessed’ dolls have been the subject of many a horror film. Now an animatronic life-sized doll with a scary face and even more frightening dance moves might give you nightmares.…

“It uses facial recognition technology to seek out viewers in the gallery and stare at them with its terrifying green, masked face. … It is assumed that the doll follows people with its terrible eyes to make them feel uncomfortable if they are trying to view it as a sexual object.… The animatronic doll dances along to distorted versions of songs including Robin Thicke’s hit, Blurred Lines… However, the robot is far less glamorous as ‘she’ appears to be slightly grubby and has a mask capable of unnerving most adults.”

There are several videos of Female Figure on the web, including Vernissage TV and a MOCAtv mini-documentary.

A Pop-Up Bosque

Announced just this February, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s 24,000-sq. ft. green space next to the Broad looks to be complete in construction cam photos. The small planting (“bosque”) of century-old Barouni olive trees went up a lot faster than the long-delayed Broad (and because it’s still an active construction zone, the park isn’t open).

UPDATE. A new Broad press release says the park “will be completed in November 2014 in advance of the museum’s debut.” Since the museum opening is set for a still-approximate “Fall 2015,” it sounds like the park will be open before then.

Archibald Motley at LACMA

“Archibald Motley: Jazz-Age Modernist,” now at LACMA, could be mistaken for two shows. Motley came to attention in the 1920s with riveting portraits of persons of color (above, Woman Peeling Apples, 1924). Not long afterward Motley’s output shifted to the work he’s mainly known for: colorful, cartoonish crowd scenes of black nightlife in Paris and Chicago (below, Saturday Night, 1935). It’s possible to feel that Spike Lee had turned into Tyler Perry.

One key to Motley’s career arc is the “New Negro” movement. The African-American intellectual Alain Locke called for blacks to create literature and art presenting their race in a dignified manner. Motley’s early portraits exemply this and prove that “dignified” does not have to be boring. Below is Motley’s 1933 Self-Portrait (Myself at Work). It recalls the the New Objectivity of Germany (which, by the way, will have a LACMA show next fall). Germans of the period favored occupational portraits with a magic-realist slant. While the French developed surrealism, the New Objectivists—and Motley—understood the power of the Dutch proverb, “Be yourself, and you will be strange enough.”

The New Negro was often blackish. Harlem Renaissance literature explored the “talented tenth” of educated and affluent blacks, and the nuances of skin tone within the black community. Locke himself adopted a Barnabas Collins umbrella in sunlight, to preserve his light complexion.

Many of Motley’s female sitters are mixed-race, a fact that is underscored by Motley’s titles: Octaroon, Mulattress with Figurine and Dutch Seascape. Motley had some white and Native-American ancestry, and he married a white woman when this was illegal in most states. The artist’s wife is the subject of two impressive portraits from 1930, one nude and one dressed to the nines. Motley’s zaftig missus, of German ancestry, fills the space like Dr. Mayer-Hermann of Otto Dix’s New Ojectivity 1926 masterpiece. In the full-dress portrait, an out-sized fox stole destabilizes the composition, like seeing a beautiful woman make a phone call with a phablet a couple sizes too big.

With the comic nightlife scenes, Motley inverts the New Negro premise. Figures are reduced to ethnic caricatures and shown engaging in popular, “stereotypical” entertainments. A gallery text connects Motley to hokum, a jazz term for a lowbrow joke insinuated into serious music or art.

One example of hokum is Motley’s Card Players. It’s a Bronzeville send-up of Cézanne. But it’s not just an art-history joke; the still-life of cards and tobacco is perfect, as is the sense that the tabletop is not quite right. Motley has reinvented the most important and subtle elements of the Cézanne.

Saturday Night takes the Cézanne game with perspective to another level. The nightclub is a haunted shack where gravity is suspended. Dancer, waiters, and customers struggle to remain upright—a problem for the artist and just about everyone else in 1935.

Museum Without Walls

The mythic “Los Angeles County Museum of Contemporary Art,” known only from mentions in East Coast media, makes another appearance in the New York Observer.