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At the Getty, it's Degas in the abstract

April 03, 2005|Suzanne Muchnic

Spring break and Easter weekend brought the expected crowds to the Getty Center. And, as usual, many visitors made a beeline for the museum's most popular gallery to see Vincent van Gogh's "Irises" and paintings by French Impressionists such as Paul Cezanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet.

The favorites were there, but so were two surprises.

One is a new acquisition, "The Milliners," a late work by Edgar Degas purchased from Acquavella Galleries in New York for an undisclosed price. Displayed beside "After the Bath," a much more detailed Degas, the portrayal of two hat makers looks startlingly bold, almost abstract.

"The fact that the painting is so extremely modern is one reason it was attractive to us," says William Griswold, the museum's acting director. "It is incredibly powerful and eloquent. The face of the older woman almost prefigures the work of Picasso."

"The Milliners" is also "a picture that was finished not once but twice," Griswold says. Painted over a period of about 25 years, from around 1882 to 1905, it began as an image of bourgeois shoppers -- like Degas' better-known pictures of Parisian hat shops -- and ended as a poignant portrayal of the women who labor to outfit them. As the subject matter changed, hat stands holding elaborately decorated concoctions became shadowy, tree-like shapes rising on a table strewn with colorful ribbons.

The second surprise at the Getty doesn't just verge on abstraction; it exemplifies painting as pure form and color. "Number 1, 1949," a drip painting by Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock, is on loan from the Museum of Contemporary Art through June 12 as part of "Interjections," a series of exchanges between the two L.A. institutions. In return for the Pollock, the Getty has loaned "Starry Night," an 1893 painting by Edvard Munch, to MOCA.

The goal of the exchange, museum officials say, is to encourage visitors to see artworks in a new light and make art-historical connections. The Pollock hangs next to Monet's shimmering impressions "The Portal of Rouen Cathedral in Morning Light" and "Wheatstacks, Snow Effect, Morning." At MOCA, Munch's moody landscape keeps company with soft-edge abstractions by Mark Rothko.

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