Exhibition Inquisition

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

Four Facts: Significant Objects

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Norton Simon Museum

As I was finishing up in this exhibition, I overheard a tour being given to what I presumed was a UCLA summer painting course.  “We have the Getty in our own backyard, but the Getty’s collection kinda sucks.  The Norton Simon’s is the really great collection of LA,” the teacher harped. I am paraphrasing.  While I detest uninformed and unnecessary opinions (especially from arts educators) about which museum has the “best” collection, I can’t deny the Norton Simon has a pretty amazing one, and I don’t even like ImpressionismSignificant Objects: The Spell of the Still Life presents a thematic cross section of the museum’s diverse collections and is an examination of “the ways in which these ostensibly mundane and insignificant subjects [harsh!] portrayed in painting and sculpture and works on paper are indeed significant.” Significant Objects does not present groundbreaking, paradigm shift-type discoveries or research, but is a huge success as a rich, educational opportunity for general audiences utilizing the permanent collection.  Permanent collection show hurray! Here are the facts:

Scholar's books and objects (chaekkeori), Korean, Joseon dynasty, 19th c - LACMA

A Korean wunderkammer lent by LACMA.

1) There are several loans—all from local museums though.  The Santa Barbara Museum of Art lent Ori Gersht’s Blow Up: Untitled 4 (2007) and Claudio Bravo’s Still Life (1981).  LACMA lent one of the few Asian works in the show: two painted screen panels from the Korean Joseon dynasty called chaekkeori (above).  The Getty Museum lent a contemporary photograph Sharon Core’s Early American–Still Life with Steak (2008) and two AH-mazing wood reliefs by Aubert-Henri-Joseph Parent, Allegory of the French Monarchy, (1789) and Allegory of the Constitution of 1791 (1791) (below).

Allegories are complicated; click the links.

2) Highlight: Claes Oldenbrurg’s Giant Soft Ketchup Bottle with Ketchup (1966-1967).  Remember when the Norton Simon collected contemporary art?—neither do I. I am too young to remember the Pasadena Museum of Art (what the Norton Simon used to be / it’s complicated / ask me about it later).  This big red softie was purchased with funds from the Pasadena Art Alliance (still a huge local arts funder) and the National Endowment for the Arts (…).

3) “One of the great still lifes in the European tradition [and] one of the signature paintings in the Norton Simon Museum.”  So reads the wall label for Zurburan’s Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose (1633) (below).  I heard a story once that Norton Simon (the collector) was aware of multiple versions of this Zurburan composition and wished to purchase the original upon which the others were based—one curator helped him to pick the right painting.  Scans of the painting later proved his version to be the original because of the significant revisions to the preparatory drawing found under the surface of the painting.

Norton Simon’s connoisseurship or lucky guess?

4) Included in the exhibition are eight pages from the museum’s Great Tulip Book.   All of eight of the highly-detailed tulips are white and red flamed varieties.  The obsessive works on paper were necessary financial records because the Dutch were crazy for tulips.  Originally imported from Turkey, the crazy Dutch were willing to pay 1,000 gilders in 1623 for the most sought after variety, the Semper augustus (below right center).  At the height of the market in 1637, a single Semper augustus bulb fetched 10,000 gilders.  For comparison, a fancy house in Amsterdam along a canal cost around 6,000 gilders.  (Ironically the Semper augustus’s desired “flamed” pattern was caused by a viral infection.) Of course the tulip bubble burst, and the episode is now known as Tulipmania, and regarded as the first speculation crisis of modern capitalism. (More irony: there exists a Semper Augustus Investments Group.)

“Broken” tulips.

I myself experienced Tulipmania while looking at these works on paper and possibly also an episode of Stendhal syndrome.  Mostly because a study of an Admiraels de gouda tulip (above far right) was included in the installation.  I came this close to lifting the framed work off the wall, putting it in my LACMA tote bag (it would have been concealed perfectly), and dashing to the bus stop.  No one would think to look for an art thief at a bus stop! I could do it while the gallery guard was distracted by the UCLA class!  I could totally get away with this!  Being an art thief is totally sexy right!?

I didn’t end up swiping the Admiraels de gouda even though in my craze I wanted to.  I decided to leave it on its gently-lit gallery wall for others to enjoy.  I can always look at the Admiraels de gouda in my own permanent collection.

Very permanent collection.

– H.I

P.S. Grandma, if you’re reading this, yes, I have a tattoo.

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