Exhibition Inquisition

The stuff you look at, but don't see.

Paris: Life and Luxury

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Getty Center

Oh how the rich suffer!

NOTICE: This is the last week to see Paris: Life and Luxury, at the Getty Center. I’ve seen it twice, and am going back a third time this weekend.  There is a lot to see; there is also a lot to read, lots of walltext, and a lot of it is hilarious.  Beginning with the intro walltext, which explains why most people are unfamiliar with French decorative art from this period:

Largely unfamiliar and underappreciated today, over shadowed as they are by the tumultuous social and political events of the French revolution of 1789.

Oh my god, this stuff is so underappreciated! Who doesn’t love Rococo?  If an 18th century French peasant saw all the wealth/golden filth in this exhibition, the Revolution would have happened a WHOLE lot sooner.  This kind of “let’s pity the insanely rich with all their dec. arts” language flows endlessly throughout the didactics.  The exhibition follows, “the prosperous and enormously influential sector of the elite society,” through a daily routine in their “fashionable pursuits of the day.”  Give me a break.  The following words were used ad nauseum: “elite,” “elegant,” “affluent,” “wealthy,” “prosperous,” “luxury,” “prestige,” and “leisure.” There was even a convenient dictionary on display opened to the word “luxe.” The label for the book (a treasure from the Getty Research Institute) explained “luxe” originally had a negative connotation of “excessive sumptuousness,” but the connotation was shaken off during this period.


The first room is a bedchamber complete with a massive bed on view for the first time, a familiar enamel clock, and a magnificent mechanical reading table (featured in the above video) all owned by the Getty.  This also a big loan show; in the first room, is a painting from the Met, Jean-Marc Nattier’s Mme. Marsollier and Her Daughter (1749).  An ART INFO blogger recently freaked out when she though the painting had gone missing from the Met; it has been in LA this whole time.  (A fact she would have realized with a simple google search; as the painting was featured prominently in Christopher Knight’s review of the show. She has since deleted her freakout post.)  And what bedroom is complete without a chamber pot; this too owned by the Getty.

Ah, to be so rich and take a shit in this.

Other Getty works sing in other rooms, including Maurice-Quentin de La Tour’s massive pastel Portrait of Gabriel Bernard de Rieux.   Miraculously the portrait is still in its original frame, a work of art itself, and with its own label.  Other works on loan include garments lent by LACMA, from its recently acquired European fashion collection.  Way to go LACMA for pimping out your collection, the loan is timely and perfectly fit.  (The Fashioning Fashion catalogue is available for purchase in the show’s gift shop.)

My favorite room was on the practice of art collecting. This room showcased the Getty’s ability to secure loans.  The room had loans from international museums like the Louvre, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, and the National Gallery in London; to museums all over the country like the Art Institute of Chicago, the Met, Museum of Fine Arts Houston (where the show is headed next); and also local institutions like the Huntington and LACMA.  LACMA had even loaned out its Venus Ordering Arms from Vulcan, by Jean Restout, which was only donated to LACMA last year by the one and only Lynda Resnick.  I wonder if Lynda likes seeing her old painting hanging in museums all over town.

The little cauliflower, crawfish, and dead bunnies are so cute.

The room on dining was another treasure, filled with tapestries, a cycle of gastronomic paintings by Jean-Baptiste Oudry from the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, and some of my favorite objects (above) in the Getty’s collection, the silver “La Machine d’Argent” or Centerpiece for a Table (surtout de table).

Later rooms are devoted to themes of the scientific pursuits in the home, music, money, playing games, and party time.  A big wow moment is in the last room where the reunited companion paintings by De Troy hang: Before the Ball and After the Ball. The Getty only owns Before the Ball; After the Ball is owned by a private collector.  The Getty came close to getting its hands on After the Ball, but was the underbidder at auction; many people were critical of the museum for its unsuccessful attempt, but come on guys, the Getty isn’t literally sitting on an oil field.

Before and After (the Ball).

The last room also has an itsy bitsy section on religion; the wall text explains this period was not as secular as most people believe.  “Before retiring for bed, the members of the household would say their prayers, asking God for his protection and mercy.”  After all the excessive frivolity of the day they sure needed to ask for mercy.  Who knows whether their prayers were answered once they headed off to the guillotine…

With all the ridiculous language the show seems to be celebrating a lifestyle, rather than the artwork on display. Why celebrate this frivolous lifestyle, which ultimately led to revolution?  Particularly now, in a time of global economic recession, why celebrate a lifestyle maintained by so few, and whose wealth comes from the exploitation of others?

What should really be celebrated is the amazing craftsmanship and artistic expression seen in French decorative arts.  The fact the Getty has such an amazing trove of these objects (thanks J. Paul) is the reason the show was organized in the first place.  Hopefully not many people read labels and walltext.

- H.I.

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