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Showcases in Getty's Castle

Museum Sparing No Expense in Decorative Arts Section

November 14, 1996|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES ART WRITER

The Getty Center may look like an ultramodern castle on a hill, and for the most part it is. But in the case of the new J. Paul Getty Museum, the center's main public attraction, what you see from the freeway is not necessarily what you will find inside. When the first visitors enter the museum at its opening late next year and make their way to the 15-room section devoted to decorative arts, they will leave the clean, cool ambience of Richard Meier's architecture and plunge into an environment of opulent bliss.

Here, in the terrain of decorative arts curator Gillian Wilson, walls will be swathed in damask and faux marble or covered with carved and gilded panels, bordered by elaborate moldings and inset with dazzling mirrors. Destined to display tapestries, silver candelabra and intricately crafted furniture with velvet upholstery, these are the "tarted-up" galleries that some Getty people find "deeply embarrassing," Wilson says with a sly smile.

Even so, the museum is sparing no expense or effort to create authentic settings for its decorative arts holdings. Indeed, the settings are part of the art. Working over the past nine years with interior designer Thierry Despont, Getty decorative arts and sculpture conservator Brian Considine and a host of crafts people in the United States and France, Wilson has overseen the evolution of the new galleries from a mere "footprint" to lavishly appointed rooms--now in various stages of progress.

The most stunning examples are four 18th century French rooms, each typifying a different stylistic period: Baroque, Regence, Rococo and Neo-classical. Designed as the visual centerpiece of the decorative arts complex, the rooms are composed of elaborately carved and gilded wood panels that have been painstakingly researched and restored.

Panels of the Regence and Neo-classical rooms were sent back to France, where joinery was stabilized, carvings were restored and missing elements were re-created. The Regence panels were sent on to Bordeaux for painting and gilding.

Now a team of French gilders, from the Atelier Robert Gohard of Paris, is winding up a three-month tour of duty in Brentwood, applying gold-leaf to carvings in the Rococo room and touching up gold details in the three other rooms. Following a practice handed down from ancient Egyptians, the gilders use soft brushes to lay tissue-thin sheets of gold on surfaces covered with gesso (a mixture of calcium carbonate and rabbit skin glue) and red clay, then burnish the gold to emulate the original gilding.

The pale blue Baroque room and the multicolored Neo-classical room were purchased in 1986 for the new museum and they will be unveiled there next year. The white and gold Regence and Rococo rooms, on the other hand, are not new to the Getty. They were installed at the museum in Malibu, "but not properly," Wilson said. Moved to spaces with better proportions and much higher ceilings--and treated to some additions and rearrangements--they will represent their periods more accurately and display the Getty's French furniture in a correctly scaled room, she said.

Determining the rooms' original arrangements, decorative details and color schemes has required extensive detective work. "The panels of period rooms are usually moved from their original installations, frequently several times, and they are generally modified along the way," Considine said. To get back to the beginning, Getty conservators compared types of wood used in the panels, tool marks, joinery and hinges.

In some cases they explored the panels' "painting history," tracing layers of paint in microscopic samples, he said. Two panels may look alike, but if one has three coats of paint and the other has additional layers under the top three, the panel with more layers of paint is probably older and its first coat of paint is likely original.

All four of the Getty's rooms were built for ho^tels (private homes) in Paris. The Rococo room, made around 1750 for an unidentified ho^tel, is "100% complete," Considine said, but each of the others presented particular challenges.

The Baroque room was constructed in 1719 as the library of the Ho^tel Le Bas de Montargis, but it was removed to a country manor in 1841 and transformed into a salon. When the Getty purchased the panels, most of them had been stripped, varnished and waxed. Fortunately two unneeded corner panels had been stored untouched, so they still bore their original pale blue paint and gilding. Now installed at the museum, the corner pieces remain intact, while the other panels have been restored to match them.

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