The east side of the ever-changing County Museum of Art may still look like a construction site--which it is while the new Pavilion for Japanese Art nears completion--but the southwest corner of the museum grounds is now an island of tranquility. Those who are weary of the upheavals that have accompanied the museum's expansion program will find a respite by simply descending the stairs from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Sculpture Plaza to the brand-new B. Gerald Cantor Sculpture Garden.
Starting Thursday, the garden will be open to the public--including non-paying visitors who can wander through the museum courtyard and down into the quiet retreat without buying a ticket.
The Cantors are Los Angeles collectors who are said to have amassed the world's largest private holding of sculpture by Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), the preeminent figure of the French Romantic School. They have given eight large Rodin bronzes to the museum since 1973, plus five other sculptures by two of the French master's followers, Emile-Antoine Bourdelle and German artist Georg Kolbe. All 13 will be installed in the garden along with Bourdelle's "Herakles Archer," which is a gift of Marguerite Brunswig Staude.
"This very elegant garden is Southern California's major source for the study of 19th-Century sculpture," said museum director Earl A. Powell. "We have a very distinguished sculpture collection, and the Cantors are almost singularly responsible for building (the 19th-Century part of the collection). Aside from being important for what it is, the garden will provide an important contrast for the contemporary sculpture garden," to be opened next year on the east side of the museum.
All the Rodins have been displayed at the museum in the past, but they have been in storage for about five years. "Monument to Balzac," the imposing figure that once stood in front of the museum--rather like a beacon of wisdom--will have a prominent place high on a pedestal at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Ogden Drive. The massive figure was lying on its ear earlier this week, but by the time you read this it should be upright and in clear view of Wilshire traffic.
"We wanted people--even in cars--to be able to engage the garden from outside," Powell said.
The other Rodins stand along a meandering path that ends in a small patio. On one side of the walkway, three bronzes--a chastened "Eve" who hangs her head and hugs herself, a nude male called "The Shade" and a male torso of a falling man titled "Marsyas"--are all adapted from Rodin's ambitious project, "The Gates of Hell."
This tragic view of mankind's spiritual dilemma was commissioned in 1880 as a portal for Paris' Museum of Decorative Arts, but it was left uncast, as a plaster model, at Rodin's death. (Arguments persist about whether the artist had completely finished the piece, but it was posthumously cast in bronze.)
While still working on the "Gates," Rodin completed various treatments of individual figures. "The Shade," for example, is one of three similar figures that stand on top of the doors.
On the other side of the path, a 7-foot figure of Jean d'Aire and monumental heads of D'Aire and Pierre de Wiessant are adapted from Rodin's "Burghers of Calais" monument. The City of Calais commissioned Rodin to design the piece to commemorate the bravery of six leading citizens who volunteered to sacrifice themselves to England during the Hundred Years War but were spared just before their execution. (Rodin completed the monument in 1886, but it wasn't installed until 1895 and then in a location that he didn't approve.)
"Orpheus," now nestled against the horizontal spread of a Melaleuca tree, deals with another well-known Rodin theme. Deprived of his beloved Eurydice, the nude Orpheus falls to one knee while clutching his lyre in one hand and throwing the other arm into the air.
Bourdelle's "Herakles Archer," with his bow drawn, dominates the cluster of bronzes in the patio area. Around him are Bourdelle's "Monument to Rodin" and "Head of the Figure of Eloquence From the Monument to General Alvear" and Kolbe's "Lucino," "Large Seated Woman" and "The Night."
Bourdelle (1861-1929) was an assistant to Rodin in his studio from 1896 to 1900, but he reacted to his master's romanticism with a more classical approach to form. Kolbe (1877-1947), a German artist trained as a painter, met Rodin in Rome and decided to become a sculptor. He is known for classically proportioned nudes and portrait heads.
The landscape design for the garden is the work of Hanna/Olin Ltd. of Philadelphia. The firm was charged with the responsibility of creating a neutral environment for the sculpture while restoring the character of the museum's original sculpture garden, created in the '60s. According to museum officials, the garden itself is something of a historical artwork. It represents a period in California landscape architecture that is now considered the first modern style to evolve since relatively fussy 18th-Century English gardens and 19th-Century cottage gardens.
The same firm will design the contemporary sculpture garden.