L.A. has a reputation as a ‘cultural wasteland’. I like to point out that L.A. is the adopted home of musicians Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, and Henry Rollins. The city became the new Paris in ways that perhaps owed more to its distance from Hitler than the proximity to Hollywood. In modern times artists no longer congregate. Art still does.
The Getty Center sits atop a mountain with a stunning view of the city. The experience of taking the tram uphill and then shuffling through the grand entrance is reminiscent of going into Disneyland. The star of their collection is Van Gogh’s Irises. You’ll also find a sumptuous banquet of Renaissance masterpieces that overflow from Europe’s museums, headlined by Titian’s Venus and Adonis. The Center houses one of the largest collections in the world of daguerreotype, stereographs, cartes-de-visite, and prints of all types. With all that, the primary feature is the complex itself. Stone walls meander and gardens nestle in curves. Indoors high ceilings and gigantic glass walls make you feel small and water flows through surprising places in the manner of a Congo River Golf course.
If the city of L.A. does have an arts district it’s the Miracle Mile, next to the La Brea Tar Pits. It’s less scenic than the more ballyhooed Getty Center. It didn’t even stand out against the city’s non-skyline until the 2008 installation of Chris Burden’s Urban Light. Between this work and Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles may eventually become as recognizable as its name. For now, its beauty is on the inside. Room after room houses an eclectic display of mostly modernish (after 17th century) painting and decorative art. My own favorite is called “The Baptism” by Julius LeBlanc Stewart. I looked very closely at it and couldn’t find a single errant brush stroke to suggest I wasn’t actually peeping in on a private Vanderbilt family gathering. The most distinctive part of LACMA is the Japanese Art Pavilion. You walk up five floors that lazily turn upwards, pausing at sparsely populated alcoves of traditional Japanese art. A noble attempt to turn a museum into a garden.
The Huntington library is one of the most beautiful public buildings in America. Its galleries are housed in mansions with a level of taste disparate with the amount of wealth involved. The interiors are simple white and mostly sunlit. The most famous on the grounds is Thomas Gainsborough’s shimmering ‘The Blue Boy’. What drew my eye, amidst a room full of striking John Singer Sargent portraits, was George Romney’s picture of Emma Hart in a straw hat. Emma was a mistress to the rich and powerful in 18th century England. Men like Charles Francis Greville and Horatio Nelson who could afford to keep the most beautiful women. She was portrayed by Vivien Leigh in the biopic ‘That Hamilton Woman’.
The real treat at Huntington is the grounds themselves. I’d normally advise you to stay indoors in L.A. due to the strong sunshine, but the Huntington’s dozen plus gardens are a life-affirming experience. They’d make Andrew Marvell marvel. Some highlights:
Los Angeles: Not exactly a “cultural wasteland”, is it?