The Spectacular Art of Jean-Leon Gérôme
This spectacle is the first retrospective of Gérôme’s work in forty years, which means this is the first time a generation has been exposed to Gérôme like this. The Getty’s reasons for the show are questionable since the Getty only has two works by Gérôme in its collection. Whatever the reasons, this show is an amazing spectacle of oriental color and classical characters. Gladiators, Vestal Virgins, residents of Pompeii, and even Caesar are all here. This show might even have been appropriately displayed over at the Getty Villa in Malibu instead of the Center.
Other than a major retrospective of French academic painter, the show is an exploration of the gross commoditization of Orientalism in art, showcasing the hypocrisy of European society’s fascination with Eastern culture with its harems and bath houses. Dialogues on race and culture whether intentional or not, are a major part of this show, from naked little boys to polychrome statues of naked (or is it nude) women.
The exhibition rooms are painted in an appropriate “oriental” palette, ruby maroons, and deep aquamarines are as decadent as some of the scenes in Gérôme’s paintings. The only problem I had with the color scheme was in just one particular instance where The Snake Charmer (1870) was displayed on a aquamarine blue, the clash of the mosaic wall in the painting against the wall it hung on was visual agony.
The exhibition runs the length of two large halls, at the end of the first hall in a small separated space of photographs from the Getty Research Institute’s library. The selection of photographs are ones taken of the during Gérôme’s travels to the Middle East and the Orient. Some of them directly relate to paintings in the exhibition, a photo of a tiled wall is the background in The Snake Charmer, another one shows the obvious inspiration for The Carpet Merchants (1887). The Getty Research Institute has been doing a great job at displaying its special collection of photographs, both at the Getty and elsewhere. There are some photos from the Getty’ collection in the current Eakins’s exhibition going on at LACMA (keep your eyes out for a post on that soon).
Down the second hall, full of more classical and Eastern scenes, one comes to the last room of the exhibition, which Christopher Knight of the LA times has rightly pointed out as particularly interesting. The room showcases Gérôme’s later transition to sculpture. Gérôme’s fascination with the artistic power of sculpture can be seen in his painting of Pygmalion and Galatea (1890). The myth serves as a theme for the room, which contains some of Gérôme’s sculptures. One of the sculptures is the awkwardly sticking polychrome Corinth (1903-04), from the collection of a certain J. Nicholson.
The last work in the show is hung by itself: Gérôme’s non-high-art piece, the advertisement Opticien (1902). The visual pun for “little dog,” in French “petit chien,” being devised here for commercial purposes. This work, while highly enjoyable and a much needed relief from the much heavier preceding paintings, is problematic for me. I don’t know how to resolve the fact that I think a retrospective should be a sincere display of the whole range of a single artist, but at the same time this work is soooo out there. I might have approved of this work had it been snuck into the exhibition somewhere in the middle. But as it stands at the very end of the exhibition, it draws too much attention to itself, and seems like an insincere inclusion when compared to the tone of the rest of the exhibition.
Other noteworthy remarks: Where did all of these works come from? A major contributor of works was the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, the Metropolitan loaned several works, some from personal collections (i.e. J. Nicholson), and of course work from the Museé de Orsay! As mentioned in the posts about the de Young’s exhibition of works from the Museé de Orsay, congrats once again Museé for effectively getting your pieces out there on display during your construction!
And a completely gratuitous additional painting, only because I have an obsession with tulips.