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.

It is not true, as the Sunday Telegraph breathlessly reported on 18 December 2005, that the ‘once decorous world of art and antiquities’ has dramatically altered (it has always had a greedy and corrupt side) and it is certainly not true that the ‘abundance of ancient artefacts’ has established ‘a new vogue’ among collectors. Greek and Roman antiquities are a very much lower priority for public collections than was the case half a century ago. Nor is such art as central as it was to the teaching of art history. Whatever sympathy we have for archaeologists and their understandable concern for ‘findspots’, it’s easy to wonder whether some of them are hostile to the very idea of a museum. ‘Buying antiquities, collecting antiquities in any way – whether it be licit or illicit antiquities – creates a demand for more antiquities’ that is ‘devastating for archaeology’: so a professor at the University of Cincinnati told the New York Times on 3 April. Clearly, lecturing and writing about classical art could also have a dangerous effect. Not to mention displaying it so that its beauty is apparent and its significance is intelligible, which is just what the Getty Villa has done. It is the single most important institution for promoting the appreciation and understanding of such art.

The US government is not noted for its respect for international treaties or agreements, whether on war crimes or the environment, so it is curious to see how many of its museum directors are prepared or preparing to agree to restitution. One explanation is that all museums are increasingly involved with loan exhibitions that entail collaboration with foreign institutions. You can’t get loans from Italy until you return the stolen goods. But loan exhibitions also supply a solution. Illegally excavated and exported works will be retained, but as long-term loans; and generous loans will also be made in the other direction to pre-empt demands for restitution. Since the idea of a permanent collection has in any case begun to disappear such arrangements may work. Nowadays curators often profess to be unhappy, and justifiably fear that they may be frowned on, if they don’t have a ‘show in the works’. If you tell someone that you plan to visit a museum – even one in another country – you are asked ‘what’s on?’ It is increasingly common to find that space which used to be devoted to a museum’s own holdings is now given over to temporary exhibitions.

What we have at the Getty Villa is a permanent collection that has the appeal of a show, not just because it opened recently but because at least some of it may soon disappear. At first, the villa looks much the same as it did a decade ago, but it has been transformed under the supervision of the architectural firm of Machado and Silvetti, not only by remarkable concealed engineering, much of it devised in anticipation of earthquakes, but by numerous, often subtle changes in the galleries, and by the addition of service buildings that combine studious modesty with conspicuous durability, in being Californian and contemporary but also, on occasion, Roman. They are learned, but in a carefully casual way, and accessible. This blending of incongruities is especially impressive in the villa itself, where facilities for the handicapped and exit signs are seamlessly integrated with the rather lifeless imitation of Roman trompe l’oeil architecture.

Shuttered concrete and opus incertum (crazy paving) is juxtaposed with the translucent alabaster that the Romans used for windows. The varied textures are intended to recall the strata of volcanic deposits, and a little pile of travertine blocks in the Education Court alludes to the villa’s big brother in Brentwood. There are so many quotations that we forget whether we are inside inverted commas or not, but we certainly understand that the millionaire’s folly is – or is earnestly meant to be – something else. The official guide relates it to many previous acts of serious archaeological reconstruction. A lot of space (some of it ‘fun interactive space’) is devoted to educational activity, but a little make-believe survives both the pedagogical signage and the postmodern irony. A stroll in the outer peristyle has as much charm if you are reminded of Hollywood as it does if you fancy yourself in Herculaneum.

Inside the villa the collection breaks decisively with the conventional chronological model exemplified by the recently refurbished ground-floor rooms in the Metropolitan Museum, or by the Glyptothek in Munich, which remains the most perfectly satisfying of all modern museums of sculpture. These galleries are the equivalent of – and a complement to – those great histories of ancient art that began with Winckelmann’s Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums of 1764. The villa is different. Cycladic statuettes and Roman Egypt are separated, but for the most part the galleries are arranged thematically ‘in order to highlight the original contexts and meanings of the objects’ – their connection with the theatre, or with sports, their character as votive offerings or cult objects, as luxury goods or collectors’ trophies. There is a concern for artistic quality but it is mercifully emancipated from the obsessive focus on a century or so of supposed moral and aesthetic perfection in Greece, which results in Roman art’s being treated as a postscript. Continuities rather than changes in ancient art tend to be emphasised.

To some extent this approach must have been prompted by Getty’s decision to re-create a Roman villa. The plan of such a building is hard to reconcile with a ‘time-line’, and a Roman setting would be an odd one in which to perpetuate the usual marginalisation of Roman art. In addition, the villa returns to the idea – largely abandoned in public museums during the 20th century – that great art gains from a setting made of rich materials. On the whole it is a success, though the scale is inadequate to evoke the great shrines of the ancient world, the decision to devote the central gallery to sculptures of women and children is a mistake, and the white of the labels often makes the marbles look dingy.

Among the many worthwhile projects of the Getty Trust is its support for art-historical publications. The Getty Research Institute publishes translations of key texts and documents in the history of art, among them a new translation of Winckelmann’s Geschichte (it is the first English translation of the first edition). The translator’s foreword announces that ‘appreciation for the incomparable artistic achievements of sculptors of the high and late classical periods of Greece is now universal.’ Twenty years ago, few readers would have raised an eyebrow, but not many academics today would dare use words such as ‘incomparable’ or ‘universal’, or even ‘high’. Furthermore, lingering over classical beauty isn’t encouraged. Alex Potts, who contributed the long introduction, is more concerned to provide us with excuses for reading Winckelmann than with reasons for doing so. ‘It would be misleading,’ he says, to claim that Winckelmann’s writing prefigured ‘a potentially reactionary aestheticising of history’. He is more complicated than his admirers ‘in the later German cult of things Greek’. We should not confuse his idea of the beauty of Greek sculpture ‘with dominant 18th-century norms of tasteful gratification and high-minded idealism’, nor with ‘the conventionalised image of a purified yet naturalised classical ideal that on occasion catches people’s fancy in our own equally socially inequitable but now rampantly consumerist society’.

Much that Potts writes here (and elsewhere) on Winckelmann’s intellectual origins, his career as a writer, the sources of his ideas about environmental influence and about the superiority of Greek civilisation will be found very useful. He is not on the whole controversial, although his generalisations can be unfortunate: to claim that, prior to Winckelmann and the Comte de Caylus, ‘scholars specialising in the study of antiquities and ancient texts generally had little direct contact with the contemporary art world’ is to neglect Alberti, Palladio and Borromini, to say nothing of Mantegna, Raphael, Rubens and Poussin. When examining Winckelmann’s influence, Potts is concerned with Hegel, Goethe and Pater, but not Cicognara, whose history of ‘modern’ sculpture was conceived as a continuation of Winckelmann; nor with later writers on ancient art such as Furtwängler, Beazley or Rhys Carpenter, whose focus on minute details belongs to a tradition that started with the great German scholar. Although Potts rightly emphasises Winckelmann’s keen engagement with particular works of art, he seems to take it for granted that they are not worthy of serious consideration today (although they may ‘catch some people’s fancy’).

Winckelmann’s notes have been made far more manageable, and there is an admirable bibliography of his sources. But it is less important to know which author Winckelmann is citing than it is to know which statue he is writing about. What is the ‘presumed Genius’ found in Pesaro in 1530, one of the ‘most beautiful bronze works that has come down to us’? Winckelmann writes that this statue was falsely supposed to be Etruscan on account of the styling of the hair, which can in fact be paralleled by heads engraved on gems fashioned out of hard stone and bronze and found at Herculaneum. There is no indication of where we can see this statue (the Archaeological Museum in Florence), what it is called (the Idolino), and where it is illustrated. Nor are we told what comparative material the author is referring to. On almost every page the reader who is actually interested in ancient art will be frustrated. Certainly it would not have been easy to identify everything, but the curators in the villa and their contacts would have been able to identify most works in a day or two. A little research might be needed to locate the fine basalt tiger ridden by an exceptionally beautiful marble child which, when Winckelmann was writing, could be seen in the Villa Negroni, but it would have been easy enough to point out that the ‘beautiful dog in marble’ which Winckelmann says belongs to a sculptor in Rome was recently acquired for the British Museum.

In a key passage, Winckelmann describes how art ‘fell’ under the Antonines, but has to concede that the head of the youthful Commodus ‘on the Campidoglio’ is wonderfully accomplished. Surely the reader should be told that Campidoglio is a reference to what are now known as the Musei Capitolini. Antonine portraiture should be a special interest for the Getty, since some years ago it bought an extraordinary bust of Commodus, formerly in Castle Howard, in the belief that it was a 16th-century sculpture; the bust is now claimed by all the leading authorities on Roman portraiture as one of the finest of all surviving Roman busts.

Connoisseurship in ancient art is now a completely separate field from that of European painting and sculpture of the Renaissance and later periods, a division perfectly demonstrated by the acquisition and contested dating of the bust of Commodus, about which the Getty organised a fascinating colloquium earlier this year – a colloquium divided between the villa and the Brentwood complex (where the bust remains for the moment). But there are divisions at Brentwood too. The scholars invited to work in the Getty Research Institute, in some cases for a whole year, live in a two-storey apartment building set around a swimming-pool beside Sunset Boulevard. Every morning a bus takes them, their spouses and their laptops up to the summit, where they pass via central security into the clinical labyrinth of the GRI. There, they find in their offices piles of books which they have ordered online. Seminars are held for the elite academics among the guest scholars and they continue their discussions beside the pool, to the bemusement of the guests of the conservation scientists or the Provenance Index, who may be experts on shellfish dyes or Dutch inventories, but are unlikely to be well versed in Benjamin and Barthes.

These elite academics rarely have any interest in the museum, so it is refreshing to find that one of the most eminent among them, T.J. Clark, was diverted from his vague plans to work on modern art (‘It was not clear what would occupy my time . . . the most likely bet was Picasso between the wars’) by one of the most beautiful paintings in the Getty Museum, Poussin’s The Calm, and by Landscape with a Man Bitten by a Snake, then on loan from the National Gallery in London.

The guest scholars are allowed to remain after most of the staff and the other readers have gone home. Alone with the purring machines, watching the raptors wheel overhead and the vibrating lights on the freeway snaking through the hills below, the disturbing thought arises as to whether it is good to be so removed from those uncomfortable questions that warders ask curators doing their rounds or undergraduates ask professors in the universities where the two still meet. Unfortunately – and I wonder if the Brentwood altitude may be to blame for this – Clark has not written a book about the Poussins but rather a book about himself writing a book. ‘I am acting like an art writer. I am finding my range’; ‘I mean to make poems . . . and yes, I do think a good poem about Poussin would be the highest form of criticism’; ‘Anne suggested the other day’; ‘I don’t understand how paint losses and chemical changes have affected things here (and I shall have to try to find out).’ If only he had been content with art criticism instead of art writing he could have given us a concise essay based on the many acute observations here on light, colour, handling and composition in Snake (as he rather alarmingly abbreviates it).

There is some art history here too. But more is needed. Both pictures come from a remarkable group belonging to a friend of Poussin called Pointel, about whom little is known except that he was a silk merchant and banker. After Pointel’s death the paintings were appraised by another artist, Philippe de Champaigne. This was not an occurrence ‘unique in the 17th century’, as a visit to the Getty Provenance Index (the most impressive scholarly enterprise to have flowered under the Getty’s protection) would have revealed. Clark quotes the succinct entries and the valuations in Pointel’s posthumous inventory and, in a poem, ponders what these paintings may have meant to their owner. He makes no comment on the fact that they were almost all described as ‘sans bordure’, or unframed, which probably means that they were not hung for the owner’s contemplation but stacked up. This suggests that Pointel may have been a dealer, agent or investor rather than a collector or connoisseur.

In the middle of this peculiar book Clark drifts from the diarist’s self-communion to an after-dinner speech to old comrades and delivers his ‘inevitable 1960s anecdote’. Standing on the steps of the National Gallery, at the ‘edge of a demonstration’, he discusses ‘the (sad) necessity of iconoclasm in a revolutionary situation with my friend John Barrell’. They wonder what they would do ‘if we ever found ourselves part of a mob storming through the portico’. Now, decades later, he ‘finds himself’ in the Getty Museum – in the very institution that radical art historians in California’s universities once instructed their students to shun. He is on the run, it seems, from the world below, this admirer of Morris and Benjamin, and Poussin’s paintings provide a salutary antidote to the ‘present democracy of the virtual’. He makes cryptic notes about what he loathes: ‘the spectacle . . . internalised, privatised, “personalised” – miniaturised, domesticated, speeded up, put at every infant’s disposal – with the image doses more and more self-administered by interactive subjects, each convinced that the screen was the realm of freedom’. How one wishes he would write a polemic on the ‘politics of the image’ – not an erudite rumination for the benefit of other professors on the hilltop, but something for a larger public.