Exhibition Inquisition

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

Cult Statue of a Goddess (aka Aidone Aphrodite, aka Venus of Morgantina)

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Restitution Issue: J. Paul Getty Museum

Sure LA is hot right now with contemporary art, but some of its older holdings are getting a lot of press.  I’ve decided to take a minor tangent from exhibition critique and do a series of posts on issues of restitution in major LA institutions.  Some of these issues have been resolved, some are still being disputed, and some aren’t even creating waves (at the moment at least).

Now you see her, now you see something else.

At the end of 2010, a small party was held at the Getty Villa in Malibu.  This event wasn’t exactly a celebration; it was a farewell party.  The Getty finally had to say goodbye to the now infamous Cult Statue of a Goddess.  The larger-than-life-sized acrolithic sculpture had dominated the “Gods and Goddesses” room of the Getty Villa as long as I can remember.  Even though I knew she’d be gone by the time I got back to LA, I still wasn’t prepared to miss her so much.  In her place the Getty has placed the Mazarin Venus, a smaller and less-clothed sculpture.  While she is pretty, she doesn’t anchor the room quite like Cult Statue of a Goddess did.  This may just be my biased opinion, but the Mazarin Venus just isn’t as demanding a presence.  This will probably be a temporary issue; according to an LA Times piece: “Karol Wight, the Getty’s chief antiquities curator, said Zeus will be promoted to top star of the “Gods and Goddesses” gallery where the cult statue holds sway. Plans call for reconfiguring the room.”

A less-clothed Venus, and with hairbow.

The statue’s journey back to Sicily, marks the conclusion (possibly not) of the Getty’s formal restitution agreement with Italy (signed in 2007).  A total of 40 objects were restituted, the majority of them returned several years ago.  Part of the agreement allowed for Cult Statue of a Goddess to remain in Southern California until 2010.  The whole story (a collection of Getty press releases on the issue) has been spun by the Getty to seem a success.  After the ouster of several high employees at the Getty, new leadership moved in, and immediately needed to handle the antiquities situation.  Michael Brand (the now ex-director of the J. Paul Getty Museum), was vital in the resolution of the issue.

The resolution was that the Getty would return 40 objects from its collection to Italy (including Cult Statue of a Goddess).  This might seem like the Getty got the short end of the stick, but that’s not the way the Getty spun it.  Italy’s end of the agreement involved a loan program with the Getty; Italian masterpieces would be sent to the Getty for exhibition, strengthening its already strong exhibition program.  Cult Statue of a Goddess isn’t the first well-publicized work restituted to Sicily by a major US museum—all things considered, the Getty faired pretty well.

Last summer, I read Sharon Waxman’s Loot.  Okay, it was salacious, and I read it mostly for the juicy parts about Getty employees knocking boots in the museum galleries (can you blame them?).  Some criticized the book for Waxman’s lack of an absolute opinion on the issue of restitution.  But this was where I agreed most with Waxman, each instance of restitution and contested antiquities should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.  Loot was written towards the end of the Getty’s antiquities scandal, but I think Waxman would agree the agreement between Italy and the Getty was mutually beneficial and ultimately a success.  Sure, the Getty lost millions and millions of dollars worth of artwork (Cult Statue of a Goddess alone cost the Getty $18 million in the late 80s, the equivalent of $33.3 million today), but at least they didn’t leave empty handed.  Exhibitions of loaned objects from Italy have been amazing; the Chimaera of Arezzo exhibition for example was the first time the Etruscan bronze was seen in Los Angeles.

Now you’ll have to travel to Sicily to see her (and shell be behind glass).

I know she’s gone, but I do lament the return of Cult Statue of a Goddess.  More than a million people visit the Getty every year.  It’s a major cultural and tourist attraction in a major international city.  So where is the Cult Statue of a Goddess (now called the Aidone Aphrodite and also the Venus of Morgantina) going now?  She’s going to the Archaeological Museum in Aidone. While a special place in the museum is prepared for the statue, the Goddess/Aphrodite/Venus will be shown in Palermo at the Palazzo dei Normanni.  Sure masses of people will travel to those locations to see the statue when it is first put on view, but will they continue to visit her?   Will she become just another statue of a goddess?  Or will she become more?  I’m not saying she won’t, but in LA she was definitely more than just another statue.

– H.I.

He has his own climate-controlled room, come on! Hands off.

P.S. Now that the Getty has fulfilled its side of the agreement, Italy must also uphold its end of the agreement.  One of the stipulations of the restitution agreement was that Italy’s claims over the Getty Bronze were to be dropped.  But a year ago, an Italian judge ruled Victorious Youth (as the bronze is also known) to be the property of Italy and demanded the Getty hand it over.  There hasn’t been any news since the ruling, but this doesn’t mean Italy has given up.  The issues around the Getty Bronze are completely different from those around Cult Statue of a Goddess.  She was most likely illegal dug up in Sicily in the 1970s and sold to a London company which resold it to the Getty.  Victorious Youth, however, was found in international waters, which makes Italy’s claim to the statue questionable.  And don’t even get me started about how Italy funds doesn’t fund the preservation of its cultural and artistic treasures.

2 Responses

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  1. Getty was a Nazi! He stole money from me! BAHHHH!!!! RAGE POETRY!!!!


    February 8, 2011 at 4:19 PM

  2. My family and friends are traveling to sicily soon, with a major goal being the touring of ancient punic and greek sites. Aidone, Morgantina, and yes, the ” Getty” goddess are a much anticipated visit. So, though there may not be “millions” seeing her, those who do may be seeing her with much more appreciation in situ than hoardes of passersby in a marble forest.

    Mark Epstein

    January 17, 2012 at 8:20 AM

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