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Crowd-Pleasers at the Getty : Art: Scorned by critics but loved by museum visitors , six antique revival works--including a painting by one artist called 'the worst of the 19th Century'--are on view through the end of the month.

August 08, 1993|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MALIBU — Paintings that J. Paul Getty loved and the art world hates are on display at the Getty Museum.

Until the end of August the museum is exhibiting a small group of antique revival paintings, art from the late 19th Century that reflects the same nostalgia for imperial Rome that may have prompted Getty to plant a Roman villa in the hills of Malibu.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is "Spring" by Lawrence Alma Tadema, a Dutch-born English painter who died in 1912. Four years in the making, "Spring" (1894) is a lavishly detailed depiction of a procession through Rome of little girls laden with flowers. A major visual influence on Cecil B. DeMille's "Cleopatra" and other early toga flicks, "Spring" is one of the most popular--and problematical--paintings at the museum, staffers say.

According to Dawson Carr, the Getty associate curator of paintings who proposed the mini-exhibit, visitors adore the painting, as Carr discovered when it was taken down and put in storage a few years ago. "When it was down, I don't think a week went by that I didn't field a call from an irate museum visitor who wanted to know where it was."

Popular, shmopular--most art critics think Alma Tadema was born to be stored. Although a few art historians are begin ning to write respectfully about Alma Tadema's best work, the vast majority regard him as the painterly equivalent of Barry Manilow--a popular artist with a second-rate sensibility.

"If you're really sophisticated about art, you're embarrassed to like these pictures," said Jill Finsten, the Getty's acting co-head of education and academic affairs, of the six paintings on display. Even people who do like them, do so defensively. Allen Funt of "Candid Camera" celebrity was a major collector of Alma Tadema until forced to sell his collection in the early 1970s, but even Funt used to quote critic John Ruskin's description of the artist as "the worst painter of the 19th Century."

"Alma Tadema never wanted to be a poor, starved, misunderstood genius," Finsten said. And he wasn't. He meticulously painted accessible pictures for the middle class and made a fortune doing it. Prints of his paintings sold by the thousands, and Liberty of London even sold dresses based on his paintings and the costumes he designed for the stage.

Louise Lippincott wrote the book on "Spring," a monograph actually, when she was the Getty's associate curator of paintings. Now curator of fine arts at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Lippincott won't say it's a great painting, but she deemed it "a fascinating image."

She pointed to several weaknesses. "The spaces don't make a whole lot of sense," she said, and the individual elements, while beautiful, "don't all hang together."

Finsten said the small "interactive" or educational gallery where the six paintings are displayed has been packed since the show opened. In her view, the paintings, whatever their ultimate aesthetic value, are wonderfully provocative, which is the whole point of educational galleries. A couple of the paintings are mildly titillating, featuring Roman maidens, Finsten quipped, "who are unaware that their dresses are transparent." But the works are also provocative in the larger sense, raising questions that range from "What is art?" to "Who gets to decide?"

J. Paul Getty bought the three featured paintings by John William Godward and Ettori Forti's "Pleasant Conversation" during an intense period of collecting that began in 1938. The exhibit also includes Roberto Bompiani's "A Roman Feast."

"This is Mr. Getty's taste," Finsten said during a tour of the small show. That taste was essentially conservative, middle class and as Victorian as the poems of Rudyard Kipling. Apparently Getty chose these paintings, at least in part, because he resonated to their romantic vision of an ancient world in which everything is splendid and squalor does not exist. Dust doth not cling to the bare little feet of Alma Tadema's flower girls.

Getty acquired "Spring" at auction in 1972, after his agents outbid Funt. The price was $55,000 (important Alma Tademas are now selling for close to $1 million, experts say).

Burton Fredericksen, now a senior research curator at the museum and director of the Getty Center's provenance index, recommended the purchase to Getty. Fredericksen saw it as part of a small collection of paintings depicting the ancient world that would complement the museum-in-a-Roman-villa that Getty was then building in Malibu.

Sharp-eyed viewers will find architectural details and other elements in the paintings echoed in the museum, which is a re-creation of the Roman Villa dei Papiri outside Herculaneum, buried in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79.

"This is the link with the antiquities collection and the villa," Finsten said of the antique revival paintings.

Getty, who was living near London in 1972 and never returned to the United States after 1951, never actually laid eyes on "Spring" or, for that matter, his museum, which opened in 1974.

But, according to Gillian Wilson, the museum's curator of decorative arts who knew Getty, the oil tycoon and art patron loved to screen film made during the construction of the museum. He took particular pleasure in the section showing the pouring of the villa's concrete roof, playing the film backward so the concrete seemed to flow into the concrete mixer instead of out of it.

"Picturing the Ancient World: Antique Revival Painting" continues at the Getty through Aug. 29, except for the week of Aug. 16-23, when the gallery will be closed. The museum is at 17985 Pacific Coast Highway. It is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free, but advanced parking reservations are required. Information and reservations: (310) 458-2003.

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