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Art Review : Huntington's Peek at Private Collections


The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino has been throwing itself a dignified party of special events on the occasion of its 75th birthday.

The latest is "In Celebration of Collecting," an exhibition of more than 100 art objects loaned by 40 folks friendly to this bastion of Anglo American culture.

The show, organized by director of art collections Edward Nygren, resonates of local history. Most germane is the evocation of the now-defunct Cold War period when Los Angeles got serious about culture. Civic movers wanted to establish a first-rate general history-of-art museum. Pessimists said it couldn't be done because all the great art was taken. Optimists forged ahead anyway.

Three decades later, the area has a vastly improved County Museum of Art, the Norton Simon, J. Paul Getty and--under the auspices of UCLA--the Fowler and Hammer museums, not to mention a Museum of Contemporary Art. It didn't all happen under one roof, but it happened.

The Huntington, established in 1927, was already a beloved icon when all this unfolded. Then it started to grow, too, adding buildings and collections. All of this might be seen as a kind of cultural self-aggrandizement, but it's not. The fundamental purpose of such institutions is to coax important works of art into the public arena where they belong.

Now hard times raise the old question about whether there is anything left to further fertilize growth. The answer provided by this melange of material is pleasantly affirmative.

True to the nature of such events, this one is a bit of a grab bag that bounces from Apache playing cards to Tiffany lamps, a handwritten manuscript of a novel by W. Somerset Maugham and a bronze Lincoln by Daniel Chester French. Yet the exhibition misses looking like an upscale swap meet thanks to deft installation and intrinsic quality.

Older works are in the Huntington's main gallery building. If one is inclined to dub the best of them "small masterpieces," that has more to do with their size than their stature. Thomas Gainsborough's "The Market Cart" energizes a picturesque scene by keeping the eye level very low, making the contrast between earth and sky dramatic. It was a device beloved of painters of the Dutch flatlands--witness the brooding "A Yacht and Other Vessels in a Calm" by Willem van de Velde the Younger.

A couple of American landscapes have compelling expressive qualities. Thomas Hill's "Angler in a Forest Interior, California" has a wonderful crystalline light that suffuses a slightly risible gentleman angler. There's an epic spookiness about William Bradford's "Caught in the Ice."

Aesthetically this section is laced together by very small works of opposing temperament. A drawing by Parmigianino and a bas relief by Clodion combine Mozart-like precision and lyricism that extend to modern images by Edouard Vuillard and Mary Cassatt.

As if to make the point that small is not necessarily delicate, there are hauntingly forceful pictures in contrast. William Blake's "Death Pursuing the Soul Through the Avenues of Life" is a waking nightmare. Edvard Munch's "The Kiss" gets as much of its force from the raw cutting of the woodblock as from its subject. George Bellows' "Dance in a Madhouse" makes you glad you're not there.

Art of recent times makes up the exhibition's other half. A glance at the ensemble in the Virginia Steele Scott galleries reveals a possibly unintended theme. This work seems to speak of the influence of primitive art on the modern sensibility. The notion is probably planted by the presence of some vintage paintings by people of the Sioux and Shoshone nations, but it plays out in unexpected ways.

Since much of the work is American, the theme appears to be that we didn't really need to learn about primal art through its influence on European modernism, it was already here. Suddenly Lisette Model's "Coney Island Bather, Standing" looks like the Venus of Willendorf. Max Weber's sharded "Connecticut Landscape" appears a domestic product and Joseph Stella's "Tropicalia" like the souvenir of Barbados that it is.

As if to reassure us that this is at least a semi-civilized place, there's a lovely Whistlerian landscape, "Morning Light on the Sound" by Leon Scott Dabo. Early Southland art is represented in a melancholy tonalist "Golden Hour" by Granville Redmond and a slightly Art Nouveau "At Sundown" by Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel.

* Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, through Aug. 27, closed Mondays, (818) 405-2141.

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