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Museums Wrapping Up a Very Good Year

Gifts and acquisitions enrich their collections and expand the array of works available to the public.

December 22, 1996|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Ancient and ultramodern, monumental and tiny, created in oil, bronze and videotape, an eclectic parade of artworks has joined the collections of Southern California's museums during 1996. Items have arrived singly and in large groups. Some made splashy entrances; others slipped in quietly. A few were acquired for many millions of dollars. Many more were gifts of individual patrons, foundations and support groups. Still others will roll in before the end of the year as donors sort out their financial affairs.

Regardless of physical description, market value and circumstances of ownership, the additions have enriched the artistic coffers of local institutions while expanding the array of art they can offer to the public.

The ever-acquisitive J. Paul Getty Museum outdid itself last spring with three spectacular additions: Fra Bartolommeo's High Renaissance masterpiece "The Rest on the Flight Into Egypt With Saint John the Baptist"; Paul Cezanne's "Still Life With Apples," an unusually finished, mature work; and the Lawrence and Barbara Fleischman collection of Greek and Roman art, consisting of 300 objects from ancient Greece, Rome and Etruria.

The Fra Bartolommeo was a $22.5-million purchase; the Cezanne set the museum back $25 million. The Fleischman collection, valued at $60 million, was largely a gift, but the Getty paid an undisclosed sum for the balance.

With news like that, all else pales, even at the Getty. One major acquisition that got relatively little notice is Giovanni Boccaccio's "The Fates of Illustrious Men and Women," an illuminated manuscript by an anonymous 15th century Parisian painter known as the Boucicaut Master.

The 16-by-12-inch book, bought at an undisclosed price from a private collection in the United States, contains 52 miniatures illustrating Boccaccio's tales of rulers and heroes such as Samson, Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. In terms of the Getty's compendium of art history, the manuscript forms a bridge between medieval illuminations and early Renaissance painting.

Among other new Getty possessions, the photography department is the proud owner of an 1846 daguerreotype, "The United States Capitol," by John Plumbe. Presenting an oblique view of the Capitol with the White House in the background, the historic image is part of a series documenting Washington's principal buildings.

The Getty has also acquired "A Lady Walking in a Garden With Her Child by Her Side," a richly worked chalk-and-pastel drawing by English artist Thomas Gainsborough, and a compressed-action photographic portrait of Dada collagist Kurt Schwitters by Russian Constructivist El Lissitsky, who used a long exposure to depict Schwitters speaking.

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At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gifts of Old Masters from the Ahmanson Foundation got top billing this year, as is customary. They include two early Italian Renaissance paintings: an unusually complete, delicately detailed triptych, "The Virgin and Child With Saints and the Annunciation" by Sienese artist Giovanni di Paolo, and an altarpiece fragment by Florentine painter Gherardi di Jacopo, known as Starnina.

The folding triptych, measuring 25 3/4 by 21 3/4 inches, was made for private devotional use, which may account for its fine condition. The Starnina fragment, depicting St. Stephen and St. Bruno, is part of the base of a church altarpiece. The central panel is in a private European collection, but LACMA owns two other parts. Another fragment of the base was donated to the museum in 1947.

Among gifts of decorative arts are stoneware pieces by John Mason and Peter Voulkos, thanks to the Smits Ceramic Purchase Fund. Drawings by Impressionists Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas were bought by the Wallis Foundation Fund in memory of film producer Hal B. Wallis. Another film industry personality, actor and LACMA trustee Steve Martin, donated Bay Area artist David Park's 1957 painting "Two Women."

Other artworks were presented to the museum in honor of retired curators. The Far Eastern Art Council bought six leaves from the early 17th century Chinese album "Zhi Yuan Tu" in honor of George Kuwayama, head of LACMA's department of Far Eastern art from 1959 to '96. Pratapaditya Pal, senior curator of Indian and Southeast Asian art from 1970 to '95, is remembered by "Dancing Vajravarahi," a 14th century Tibetan statue donated by the museum's board of trustees.

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Downtown, the Museum of Contemporary Art has been remarkably successful at attracting substantial art gifts since it was founded in 1979. The big news in 1996 was Marcia Weisman's bequest of 83 works on paper, valued at $6 million to $8 million. Willem de Kooning's 1952 pastel-and-charcoal drawing "Two Women With Still Life" is the star, but it's in good company with pieces by Abstract Expressionists Arshile Gorky, Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock and Pop artist Jasper Johns. Weisman also bequeathed an undisclosed sum to help MOCA establish a study center for works on paper and appoint a new curator, Cornelia H. Butler.

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