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Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history

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Van Gogh show

1957_0622_van_gogh_lax

June 22, 1957
Los Angeles

Are you kidding me? Is that Van Gogh's "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" ... on the ground? ...at LAX?

Why it certainly is.

The Times described the exhibit at Barnsdall Park as the first major showing of Van Gogh's works in Southern California. The show, which ran from July 3 to Aug. 4, 1957, was presented by the Municipal Arts Department in cooperation with the Wildenstein Galleries of New York.

The show featured 38 paintings, drawings and prints by Van Gogh, The Times said, including "The Zouave" (Van Gogh did several and it's unclear which one was in Los Angeles), "L'Arlesienne," "La Berceuse" and something titled "Cypress and the Flowering Tree" that I cannot readily identify. Almost as an afterthought, The Times mentioned that the exhibit also featured works by Degas, Gaugin and Renoir.

1957_0622_van_gogh02_2

Now if you thought it was scary to have an original Van Gogh out in the smoggy air of 1957 Los Angeles, take a look at the gallery, which appears to be some sort of converted greenhouse. Tell me that's not a glass ceiling. Tell me that's not sunlight beating directly down on the paintings. Please.

Whew, it's not.

But the gallery is still not great. According to a letter to The Times complaining about the show, the exhibit was staged in a building with a translucent ceiling that made it miserably warm for the viewers--so much for climate control.

Aha. A little research shows that the gallery was designed in 1953 by Frank Lloyd Wright for a 1954 exhibit of his architectural drawings and models, and erected next to Hollyhock House. It was later suggested that the translucent roof on the building be covered with aluminum paint to reduce the heat. The building was demolished in the late 1960s. The current Municipal Art Gallery, desighed by Stephens and Wehmueller, opened in 1971. 

The Van Gogh show was extremely popular, with visitation averaging 1,650 a day. The exhibit was kept open to 10 p.m. to accommodate the crowds, with 3,979 attending on the final day. Total visitation was 59,061, according to Municipal Arts Department Director  Kenneth Ross, shown in the top photo at left with guard Gerald Roggeman.

ps. The first version of "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" sold in 1990 for $82.5 million. Its whereabouts are unknown. 

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