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Hearst, off the hill

LACMA exhibits the treasures (and, yes, they are treasures) that William Randolph Hearst amassed to adorn his palatial estates.

September 07, 2008|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

"A COLLECTION of everything. So big it can never be cataloged or appraised. Enough for 10 museums. The loot of the world."

That's the description of the art collection in "Citizen Kane," Orson Welles' masterpiece inspired by William Randolph Hearst. And the 1941 film has left an indelible impression of a voracious accumulator who focused on quantity, not quality.

Art history has been no kinder to Hearst, whose mining inheritance financed a media empire and an enormous art collection that filled six palatial dwellings -- including Hearst Castle, the 250,000-acre, 165-room estate that overlooks San Simeon on the Pacific Coast. A bulk buyer of art and antiquities, he is often characterized as a vacuum cleaner who swept through Europe, sucking up everything that looked suitably old and ornate -- be it good or bad, real or fake.

"The Art Dictionary," a 34-volume scholarly tome, credits Hearst with acquiring more than 200 "superb examples" of Navajo blankets and serapes, but otherwise deems him "indiscriminate." It gets worse: "Hearst was a promiscuous, uncontrollable, megalomaniacal collector of art, antiquities and architectural elements of very uneven quality. . . . Although he had a peculiar interest in armour, tapestry, Hispano-Moresque pottery, Greek vases, English silver and more, a sense of spoils of war haunts the huge Hearst collection."

That is not the message to be delivered in “Hearst the Collector,” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from Nov. 9 to Feb. 1. Hearst did make ill-advised purchases, says LACMA curator Mary Levkoff, who organized the exhibition. But he also bought scores of items that are now highly prized pieces in major museums around the world.

In the culmination of an exhaustive research project, she has rounded up about 150 objects from 25 lenders to set the record straight and give a much-maligned collector his due.

The Louvre has provided a mother-of-pearl-clad, jeweled box that made its way from Southeast Asia to France, where an early 16th century royal goldsmith framed it in silver gilt. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, there's an early 17th century Italian suit of armor fashioned of steel and gold, a 16th century European tapestry and a silver chalice made in medieval Northern Europe.

Hearst Castle, a trove of 25,000 artworks and artifacts collected by its founder, has lent about three dozen objects. Prime among them is a 6 1/2 -foot-tall marble statue of Venus by Italian neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova that hasn't budged from its position since Hearst had it installed nearly 80 years ago. LACMA, which claims Hearst as its greatest early benefactor, will also be generously represented, but many of Hearst's donations -- including most of the works in the museum's Greek and Roman and medieval galleries -- will be on view in the permanent collection galleries, as usual.

For "Hearst the Collector," David Hundley, an independent designer best known for his work with Gucci, has planned an installation that will fill the first floor of the Art of the Americas Building. The show will begin with a grand, tapestry-lined hall and lead to galleries of decorative arts, sculptures, paintings, antiquities and architectural drawings.

"It was David's idea to do this exhibition as though Hearst himself today were organizing a completely coherent presentation, rather than trying to simulate what would have been done by Julia Morgan [the architect of Hearst Castle] many years ago," Levkoff says. "The architecture is going to be very clean and sleek. No Styrofoam columns."

But not too clean. "We do include a very interesting forgery, an alabaster statue of St. Barbara, just to relax things a bit," Levkoff says. "I don't want to be accused of whitewashing. Not everything Hearst owned was great. But people lose sight of the fact that he was using some things as decoration. He knew what they were, but they worked for him as decoration.

"One big point of the show is to demonstrate that Hearst was not buying in a haphazard manner, the way a magpie collects things in the field. He was buying primarily for his six residences." And the collections at three estates in California, two in New York and one in Wales were installed "in a very harmonious, well-ordered professional way," she says. "When a collection really mattered to him, like the Greek vases, he was very protective and aggressive about what he was buying. There is no doubt that he knew what he was doing. But he was also working within the level of expertise at the time."

Breadth tough to gauge

Hearst's reputation has suffered partly because he favored decorative arts over paintings, which tend to be used as a yardstick for evaluating art collections, Levkoff says. Also, sales of huge portions of his art holdings -- in the late 1930s, when his business empire was on the verge of bankruptcy, and after his death, in 1951 -- have made it difficult to assess his collecting successes and failures.

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