On the Hilltop

Nicholas Penny

  • 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
  • The 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.

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