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Villa Shines Through Getty's Clouds

January 26, 2006|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Visiting the new Getty Villa is a bittersweet affair. The pleasure comes from witnessing an exceptional museum idea executed with verve and skill. Alloyed to that delight, however, is the pain of the project's larger context.

The concept of a sizable museum devoted solely to the art of ancient Greece, Rome and Etruria (the region of modern Tuscany and Umbria) is inspired. For one thing, the modern notion of an art museum as a place of public enlightenment grew, like America itself, from the 18th century European revival of classical ideals.

For another, when it opens to the public Saturday as a museum devoted to art of the ancient Mediterranean, the villa will be unique in the United States. It's a smashing ensemble.

But the villa's Greek and Roman art tells a story, and it's a tale of the rise of civilizations and the fall of empires. First Athens became an imperial power, then Rome. As they did, each society sowed the seeds of its own destruction.

Two dozen centuries ago, the Athenian general Thucydides said that when empires expand, they deteriorate into tyrannies abroad and at home. Athenians doomed the democracy they invented, while the eventual ruin of Rome's republic was never in doubt. Forget the gods or fate; in Thucydides' estimate, human nature was the cause.

There's a lesson buried there, and the villa project teases it out.

The original building -- a modern re-creation of a 1st century Roman country house, which opened at the edge of Malibu in 1974 as the J. Paul Getty Museum -- is now wrapped in structures carved into the narrow canyon walls and striated like layers of earth. The deft design alludes to an archeological excavation. What's being dug up, however, isn't just old Greek pots and antique Roman statues.

Like a ruined temple discovered in the jungle or an ancient tomb unearthed from beneath the sands of time, an art museum appears to be the primary artifact being exhumed. An emblem of modern reason and enlightenment emerges at the far edge of the American continent, as if from a lost world.

The disinterred Getty Villa is gorgeous, vulgar, filled with astounding treasure, tainted by corruption, often brilliant, more than a little decadent -- not unlike the vivid twilight of empire itself. As redesigned by the Boston-based architectural team of Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti, the extraordinary complex exudes an unmistakably elegiac aura.

Shuttered nearly nine years ago for transformation, the villa features one of the nation's largest and finest collections of classical art. Altogether some 1,200 antiquities are on view.

Incomparable works include the famous Getty Bronze -- a magnificent Greek figure of an audacious young athlete crowning himself in glory -- and the Lansdowne Herakles, a beefy Roman statue that was the late oil tycoon's first major purchase.

They are joined by superb vase paintings, exquisite small bronzes, excellent Cycladic sculptures, impressive funerary objects and a startlingly fine collection of ancient glass -- recently acquired and having its debut. A commanding, larger-than-life cult statue of Aphrodite, goddess of love, may be the greatest Greek sculpture in America.

It may also be stolen. The statue is one of 34 works on view claimed by the Greek and Italian governments to have been looted. The charges are serious and troubling. But they form only part of the framework for this unprecedented artistic enterprise.

In a second-floor gallery, an astounding marble sculpture shows a ferocious pair of griffins attacking a fallen doe. Griffins combine the lethal features of a lion, a snake and an eagle. Here their spiky talons and beaks tear at the tender flesh of a supine deer. Her placid, elegant head is a stark contrast to the muscular monsters flanking it.

Traces of original multicolored paint, which has miraculously survived for millenniums, retain echoes of the work's archaic extravagance. The dramatic S-curves of the griffins' upraised wings suggest to scholars that this sculpture once formed the base of a ceremonial table. The doe's bloody fate may imply what was carried out on that long-lost tabletop. Griffins, lords of heaven and earth, guarded ancient tombs.

A Getty handbook aptly describes the wondrous sculpture as "the embodiment of deadly beauty." Brutality is fused with loveliness, cruelty with exquisite grace. The work was made in a Greek outpost in southern Italy, about a century after Athens fell.

The griffin sculpture is one of 14 pieces on that subject in the room. They date from 1400 BC to AD 100 and range in origin from Greece and Crete to far-flung corners of the empire -- Spain, Persia and Central Asia. The Getty's collection is not installed according to chronology or region, which is the norm. Instead, most items are installed by theme.

One ground-floor gallery is devoted to stories from the Trojan War. Another features Dionysus and the theater. Others host gods, goddesses and similar creations from mythology.

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