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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

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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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