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The strangest roomful of art in L.A. right now

July 15, 2010 | 12:30 pm

Gerome Pygmalion Easily the strangest roomful of art in Los Angeles right now is the final gallery of the Getty Museum's recently opened exhibition of fancy-pants painting and sculpture, "The Spectacular Art of Jean-Leon Gérôme." The first survey in more than 40 years of the once-celebrated, long-derided French academic artist culminates in his transition from established painter to wannabe sculptor.

"I only came late to sculpture," Gérôme once said, "and it is my great regret."

Ours too, but not in the way Gérôme meant. The display looks like a clearance sale at Franklin Mint. The gallery presents an array of often hyper-realistically painted femme fatales in plaster, wax, marble and gilt-bronze.

It includes, among others, a florid portrait of actress Sarah Bernhardt, tiny cupids climbing her shoulder; a life-size, pseudo-antique figure of a twisting nude, one hand coyly clutching a hidden ball; and a bust of the screaming war-goddess, Bellona, sparkling with Lalique-glass eyes. Anchoring the room is Gérôme's famous 1890 painting of Pygmalion and Galatea (pictured), showing an artist's full-length sculpture of a lithe nude coming to miraculous life, the carver's fervent kiss causing her cool white marble torso to be overtaken by a warm pink blush. It demonstrates his illusionist aspirations as a sculptor.

In 1904, several months after the artist died, a selection of these late tinted-marble and ivory-bronze sculptures was shown in New York at Tiffany & Co. Soon thereafter the upscale Gilded Age market for academic art collapsed, but in the last hundred years it has inched back. Take the tinted plaster model for "Corinth," Gérôme's final work and on view at the Getty. The allegorical nude represents a "sacred prostitute" from an ancient Peloponnesian city, though she looks pretty much like a Belle Epoque Parisienne. The sculpture was bought by Paris' Musee d'Orsay in 2008 for more than $560,000. 

Matisse Back I moma MoMA Matisse_2 But here's the thing: Just two years after Gérôme sculpted her, another artist working in Paris was busily dismantling conventional sculptural ideas, rebuilding them from the ground up. Henri Matisse's radical inventions were the subject of a brilliant show at the Art Institute of Chicago in the spring; it opens Sunday in New York at the Museum of Modern Art. Matisse was as profoundly inspired by classical art as Gérôme was, but he put that inspiration to very different uses. (My review of the Chicago show is here.)

Compare, for example, Gérôme's life-like painted view of Galatea from behind with Matisse's dramatically modeled bronze-relief, "Back I" (pictured), begun in clay in April 1908. One artist is barely tinting a pretty photograph. The other is virtually challenging Genesis in the creation sweepstakes. It's easy to see why Gérôme soon disappeared down art history's memory hole, while Matisse became -- well, Matisse.

Changes in sculpture came fast and furious. Four years after "Back I," and just eight years after "Corinth," Matisse-rival Pablo Picasso cut up some cardboard, glued the pieces together and added string and wire to form a sculptural image of a musical instrument. With its voluptuous curves and jutting orifice, his astounding "Guitar" has overtones as sexy as any antique temple harlot -- albeit crafted from an unprecedented technique of assemblage, applied to the crummiest of modern materials.

With Matisse and Picasso, modern sculpture changed for good -- not to mention for the better. The Gérôme retrospective's final room looks so bizarre today because it shows, by default, just how earth-shattering a move those other artists made.

(Incidentally, if you want to make the comparison yourself, go from the Getty's Gérôme show to the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden at UCLA, which has a set of Matisse's four "Back" reliefs. It's about three miles east of the Getty Center, off Sunset Boulevard.)

--Christopher Knight

Follow me @twitter.com/KnightLAT

Photos: Jean-Leon Gérôme, "Pygmalion and Galatea," 1890; Credit: Getty Museum; Henri Matisse, "Back I," 1908-09; Credit: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund.

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Comments () | Archives (11)

Wonderfully insightful, and wonderfully written.

Where are the other comments that were here?

I got news for you, dude. You can't compare the classic painting with the modern sculpture just like that! That painting is a highly wrought work, whereas the Matisse, though groundbreaking, is just a genius work that could have gone a million ways for Henri- too crude. That "tinted photograph you have mentioned is actually a famous masterpiece. Not so insightful after all.

Personally, I'd much rather have the Galatea and Pygmalion painting as opposed to the Back I sculpture. The painting is amazing in it's beauty and there seems to be a lot of things to look at it and study in the background. I could spend hours looking at that. The sculpture, in my eyes, looks distorted and is not something I would enjoy seeing. Give me beauty anyday!

They're just different approaches to art. Surely over 100 years after modernism began, there's no longer any need to affect this snide and sneering tone toward the more traditional forms it displaced. Matisse was great but he never could have done what Gérôme did, any more than vice-versa. (Though Picasso might have been able to, had he wanted.)

Wow. I really much prefer the Gerome to the incredible hulk. I marvel at Gerome's fabulous skill detailing his exquisitely brilliant imagination -- I'll take that to the nearsighted smudgings of impressionists any day, nice and colorful though they may be. By the way, Mr Knight, aren't you aware that many of the impressionists copied photographs? http://www.fogonazos.es/2006/11/famous-painters-copied-photopraphs_06.html

Sigh. As Debussy once said: "This may seem incomprehensible; but one must not forget that a work of art or an effort to create beauty are always regarded by some people as a personal affront."

"There's a real task on our hands, Andy. Modern art critics and their supine followers like the flat and the shallow. They like it as they like soft drinks and factory-made bread."

~ N.C. Wyeth - letter to Andrew Wyeth Feb. 16, 1944

I recently saw the exhibition by Gerome at the Getty Center and the violence portrayed against women was overwhelming but in a “beautiful” way so most people don’t realize what they are looking at and really the exhibit did nothing to point out the patriarchy that popularized these themes and made Gerome a wealthy and popular painter of his time. It is a big VEIL. Dosn't the Getty know that slavery and violence against women is STILL a major problem with our culture? Your review and the intelligensia at the Getty missed an opportunity to discuss this point. BTW the photography exhibit on the ravages of war has enough images to make you sick. What is going on over there?

I was really surprised at seeing Gerome's work in person. I've admired his art and I was excited to finally see it with my own eyes at the Getty - his paintings were the whole reason for my trip out there - but it ended up being my least favorite exhibit I saw that day. I guess I was really taken aback at how tight, outlined, and crisp all of his figures were... his work was really, really controlled and so it rung a little hallow for me in person. It's very beautiful and he obviously displays strong technical ability, but it felt easy to take in a painting quickly and move on to the next.

I actually prefer the reproductions of his art because they seem to diffuse his strokes a little and tone down the colors.

(...of course, I don't paint as well as he does so that might render my opinions invalid.)

Dear Mr. Knight,
I recommend you to read Gerald M. Ackerman's books/articles on Gérôme.It would be useful for your modernist mind.

Dear Pedro Xexeo: Prof. Ackerman has written more on Gerome than just about anyone, but I do prefer Albert Boime's work.


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