On the Hilltop
- Guide to the Getty Villa by Kenneth Lapatin et al
Getty, 131 pp, £8.50, June 2006, ISBN 0 89236 828 4
- History of the Art of Antiquity by Johann Joachim Winckelmann, translated by Harry Francis Mallgrave
Getty, 431 pp, £45.00, March 2006, ISBN 0 89236 668 0
- BuyThe Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing by T.J. Clark
Yale, 260 pp, £20.00, August 2006, ISBN 0 300 11726 4
Like many other plutocrats who are now remembered as great collectors, J. Paul Getty began acquiring works of art in a serious way when he began to die – that is to say, in his forties (he was born in 1892), which is when most of us start thinking up ways of not thinking about mortality. He bought glamorous pieces of French furniture and decorative art, a field in which it is relatively easy to buy reliable advice. He did less well with Old Master paintings, sometimes rashly employing his own judgment and sometimes influenced by insufficiently disinterested advisers. He founded a museum at his ranch house in Malibu in 1953, chiefly, it seems, out of a reluctance to pay taxes. For a long time public access was minimal. But in 1968 he decided to house the collection (which by then included an increasing number of Greek and Roman antiquities) in a reconstruction of the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum. He never saw the villa. And it was a surprise to the small staff when in 1976 the museum became the chief recipient of his enormous fortune.
The official Guide to the Getty Villa dwells, understandably, on Getty’s bland philanthropic declarations, but his ‘estate planning’ seems to have been largely negative. He didn’t want to give his money to this wife or that mistress, to this child or that grandchild. He had given no careful thought to how a museum suddenly endowed with many millions should be organised or directed and he may never have realised how important it was to protect such an institution from falling into the hands of people who were only equipped to run (or suited to front) giant corporations. An intelligent and analytical history of the Getty Museum and the Getty Trust would probably leave us more inclined to marvel at what has been achieved than surprised by the alleged misdemeanours of its recently departed boss, Barry Munitz, who resigned in February, agreeing to forego more than $2 million in severance pay and to return $250,000 to the Trust.
It was a spectacularly extravagant decision to commission Richard Meier in 1984 to build a new Getty Center – including the chief museum, the Research Institute and the Conservation Center – as a cluster of buildings on a hilltop in Brentwood accessible only (for ordinary visitors and most staff) by a steep tramway. Since its opening in 1997, the museum has proved extremely popular with visitors, for whom it is a challenge to get into the car park and an adventure to board a tram, jolt past the glass-eyed, velvet-nosed deer, and arrive on a platform from which they can marvel at the sprawling city below and spot the homes of celebrities on the neighbouring slopes. The plan of the center is bewildering but docents inform their flocks that an almost mystical geometry underlies the whole. The graph-paper grid in both the glass and the enamelled aluminium panels with which the buildings are clad also hints at recondite calculations. Light and often sweeping forms suited to an ocean liner or even a space station are contrasted with the inflexible mass of the ostentatiously functionless walls, composed of thick slabs of travertine transported from near Tivoli in old Europe (and laden with fossils).
The museum galleries unfold in a series of pavilions, views from which and of which still surprise after repeated visits, and a plan which makes it hard not to miss at least one important room. The paintings are in well-proportioned spaces with good natural light and well-chosen fabric on the walls, tranquil after the glitter of the decorative arts on the floor below: they are perhaps the most agreeable places to contemplate paintings in all of North America.
I meet visitors (especially from the East Coast) who claim to have been disappointed by the pictures, although the collection now includes many very great works, and, for sheer concentration of quality and well-calculated variety, the galleries devoted to Dutch and Flemish art of the 17th century are among the finest in the world. We do not meet many works with which we have a previous acquaintance as reproductions, so are not constantly excited by the idea that we are meeting the original, as is the case in the Uffizi or at the Frick.
The Getty Villa, where the Greek and Roman antiquities remain, has now reopened. Visitors here don’t seem to be in any doubt that it is full of masterpieces of Greek and Roman sculpture – after all, the governments of the countries in which (or off the shores of which) they were found are now insisting that many of them be returned. They must be right to ask but it would be a shame to see so much devoted effort to present ancient art in an intelligible way undone. The very name Getty suggests great wealth and unscrupulous greed, making it an easy target. The villa’s acquisitions can be studied online, whereas those made at an earlier date by institutions less efficient at documenting their holdings or less open to inquiries about them are much less easy to investigate. The valuable assistance the Getty Trust has given to scholarship and conservation science in many parts of the world has attracted relatively little publicity.
Vol. 29 No. 3 · 8 February 2007
From Thomas Crow
Nicholas Penny’s assertion that the ‘elite academics’ invited by the Getty Research Institute ‘rarely have any interest in the museum’ (LRB, 4 January) represents the fundamental premise of his general polemic against them: that these pampered academic art historians are indifferent to contact with actual works of art. Can he offer the slightest empirical foundation for his claim? Without that – and he could not produce it if he tried – that stale curator’s canard counts as nothing but unsupported defamation.
He writes as one for whom appearances are salient, down to the ‘well-chosen fabric’ that society decorator Thierry Despont imposed on the interior of Richard Meier’s design for the Getty Museum. The damask wall coverings delight him, but the surface appearances of the scholars’ existence, gleaned from second-hand accounts, attract only his resentful sneers and unearned condescension. Count his references to the (small) swimming-pool at their residence – while reminding yourself what a common domestic amenity this is all over Los Angeles – and it becomes clear that he aims to accomplish by petty innuendo what he cannot achieve through honest argument.
It is true that the Research Institute makes every effort to remove any unnecessary impediment to Getty scholars getting on with their work from the moment they arrive. And it has the advantage of an unparalleled staff and physical infrastructure in its pursuit of this aim. Scholars are in residence for a limited time, many for three months and the rest for no more than nine (and none for the ‘whole year’ at which Penny marvels). Before and after they face the same constraints and obligations that affect every working lecturer, curator, practising artist or independent scholar (the Institute has them all).
In Penny’s imagination, ‘guests of the Provenance Index’, experts in Dutch inventories but ‘unlikely to be well versed in Benjamin and Barthes’, look on with ‘bemusement’ at the pretentious post-seminar conversations (poolside of course) carried on by the Research Institute scholars. It should be noted for the record that the Getty Provenance Index is firmly a part of the Research Institute and thus entertains no separate guests. Numerous specialists in the history of collecting and the art trade have been in residence under its aegis (one nine-month cycle was devoted to these topics), but none in my memory disdained acquaintance with Barthes or Benjamin – knowledge of whose thought being no more than the mark of an adequately advanced education. In that Walter Benjamin provides some of the most profound philosophical meditations on the cognitive power of objects displaced in space and time, that choice of example is singularly inept. When Penny wheels on his plain-spoken man, the warder posing ‘uncomfortable questions’ as the curator makes his rounds of the galleries, we know we have entered the realm of a drearily familiar philistinism. (And how does he know that Alex Potts or T.J. Clark could not respond to this warder’s queries just as well as he could, if not considerably better?)
On the topic of Winckelmann’s History of the Art of Antiquity, the object of some years of work by the staff of the Research Institute, I searched in vain for the one judgment any serious reader would most want: that is, an assessment of the quality of the translation and the rigour of its philological underpinnings. If Penny did not feel equipped to offer one, perhaps he should have passed on the assignment.
Director, Getty Research Institute
Nicholas Penny writes: I have no objection to the Getty scholars’ having the use of a swimming-pool, and my account of the life around it and in the library on the hill is not ‘second-hand’. I was, for a while, privileged to be one of those scholars – invited by the founder of the Provenance Index before that institution was ‘firmly’ subordinated to the director of the Research Institute. I never claimed that anyone ‘disdained acquaintance’ with Benjamin, but merely noted the mild discomfort of the minority which may not have read him (or Barthes). The idea that the Institute has given little attention to the museum receives unexpected support from Thomas Crow’s letter, which shows him to be unaware that the damask (on which the curator of decorative arts insisted) is not employed on the walls of the upstairs painting galleries – the rooms I specifically commended.
I am unaware of having made any allegation that either Alex Potts or T.J. Clark is incompetent to converse with warders. My observations on the dangers of privileged isolation for scholars – whether academics or curators – were not part of a ‘general polemic’ against academic art historians. But there certainly are some academics who have little interest in contact with real works of art, just as there are many curators who are indifferent to ideas, and I suppose that the former must constitute Crow’s ‘serious’ readers: those who will, he is sure, find it to be of no interest that a book about sculpture says nothing about where the sculpture can be found.
Vol. 29 No. 4 · 22 February 2007
From Michael Williams
Nicholas Penny writes of T.J. Clark’s The Sight of Death that ‘if only he had been content with art criticism instead of art writing he could have given us a concise essay’ (LRB, 4 January). What follows is an ad hominem attack, highlighting an anecdote in which Clark attends a demonstration on the steps of the National Gallery that leads, in Penny’s mind, to an ‘after-dinner speech to old comrades’. (The recollection hardly takes up a page of the book.) He finishes by suggesting that the book is an elitist rumination for ‘the benefit of other professors on the [Getty] hilltop’. This seemed to me to be a travesty.
The subtitle of Clark’s book is ‘An Experiment in Art Writing’. He kept a diary of his prolonged exposure to, and examination of, two Poussin paintings – Landscape with a Calm and Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake – recording daily variations in light, both natural and artificial, and viewing the paintings from a full range of distances. Later, he revised the diary and added to it, but the feeling of its being written in front of these pictures is maintained. Clark’s confrontation with the authentic work of art – rather than all the surrogates that are now available – over a period of three months is the nub of this experiment. It is not just a formal or perceptual confrontation: Clark allows ethical, political and even (reluctantly) personal considerations, as well as the more usual historical and theoretical dimensions, to come into play. These non-formal dimensions are never allowed to be merely the starting point for a discourse on, say, ‘the politics of the image’ (Penny’s suggestion). Clark returns to the paintings and their material actuality again and again.
Penny does not seriously evaluate the experiment; and he doesn’t have much time for ‘art writing’. But this is art writing quite unlike Pater, or Stokes (for instance), trading in refined sensibility and effulgent phrase. Clark includes poems in his spectrum of responses but he is always anxious, wondering whether the phrase he has chosen fits the perception or idea that he is unravelling. There is a persistent intensity, that he might understand more, probe further. On the other hand he writes: ‘something in me flinches from the glamour of always probing deeper as a looker, piercing the veil, staking emotional ownership of the image.’ This self-awareness runs through the book. Clark has a restless, dialectical approach, and he does probe deeper.
Vol. 29 No. 5 · 8 March 2007
From Marcia Pointon
I hesitate to prolong the aftermath of Nicholas Penny’s entertaining but essentially trivialising review of The Sight of Death (LRB, 4 January). However, Michael Williams’s passionate defence of T.J. Clark perhaps merits an observation (Letters, 22 February). Clark is by no means the first person to record and evaluate changes in the appearance of paintings determined by varying qualities of light and different viewing positions. The most distinguished example of scholarship grounded in this kind of discipline that I know is Svetlana Alpers and Michael Baxandall’s Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence (1994). Of The Institution of the Rosary in the Gesuati, Venice, for example, they write: ‘The picture in a sense is a number of different pictures and would be hard to exhaust, but it is noticeable that it looks better in the morning, when the lighting from both sides is at its more complex and paradoxical, not in the afternoon, when the simpler and fully licensed west light source gives its plain reading.’ The authors’ memorable account of Tiepolo’s great ceiling in the Treppenhaus of the Prince-Bishop’s Palace at Wurzburg is a historical analysis predicated on looking over time:
Take, for instance, light near absolute zero – a grey December late afternoon with the very minimum light intensity for the paintings to be made out at all. These are not bad viewing conditions in the Treppenhaus, just special conditions. Indeed, Tiepolo kept for such a moment a special effect, not normally available. What happens is that heaven comes into its own.
University of Manchester
Vol. 29 No. 6 · 22 March 2007
From Jonathan Harris
T.J. Clark’s The Sight of Death is proving something of a hot potato. Nicholas Penny didn’t really want to handle it in his review (LRB, 4 January); Thomas Crow (Letters, 8 February) didn’t mention it at all in his riposte to Penny’s attacks on the Getty Research Institute (a bit odd given that Crow was Clark’s star PhD student and that he takes a socio-historical approach to art in his books on late 18th/early 19th-century French painting); Michael Williams’s defence (Letters, 22 February) makes no attempt to relate the book to Clark’s work as a whole (which is surely necessary in trying to make sense not just of Clark’s descriptions of the Poussin paintings but of the political references, both tacit and direct, that so irked Penny); and Marcia Pointon – hesitating to ‘prolong the aftermath’ of the original review – merely seeks to indicate that Clark’s visual analyses have some precedent in the Alpers and Baxandall book on Tiepolo (Letters, 8 March).
A really worthwhile review of The Sight of Death should engage with its relationship to Clark’s earlier books and the trajectory these have followed away from a direct and teachable historical-materialist method. Not that Clark has stopped being a kind of Marxist, but The Sight of Death is difficult because it isn’t recognisable as disciplinary art history. That is its strength and its challenge. Its complex, interwoven subjective and historical elements, which don’t add up to any comfortable ‘method’ or ‘theory’ of looking or of art, remain intelligible as part of Clark’s long meditation on how to bring contemporary socio-political perspectives together with hard looking at artworks from the past.
University of Liverpool