Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Collector's Art: A Visit To The Huntington Library

Yesterday my wife and I decided to visit the Huntington Library, not far from where we live. It was a glorious spring day in Southern California and with everything starting to bloom, decided the middle of the week was the best time to go. We hadn't been in years.

Well, since she was on spring break as a teacher, so were the hordes at the Huntington. However, it was a beautiful day and the site is over 200 acres in San Marino.

We had heard about all the renovations, the rebuilding of the Japanese Garden, we figured that the newer Chinese Garden would have filled in by now, the remodeled house and library exhibits. We had the tour all planned.

Gainsborough's "Blue Boy"
I am a senior now. I remember when I first moved to CA in 1970 that the Huntington was free. When I moved down to the San Gabriel Valley from the Lancaster area, you could visit as many times as you wanted. And I did! I always gazed at the "Blue Boy" by Gainsborough and Reynolds "Pinkie." It cost me $15 to enter as a senior and $20 for my wife. Quite a change. Maybe all those free visits from the past are catching up with me.

Speaking of changes, oh how the Huntington has changed. And to my mind, not for the better. First of all, the entire place seemed to be under some kind of construction. People protesting the lack of union workers met you at the entrance, construction sounds filled the air and yellow tape was color of the day everywhere.

We hit his home first...what does $42 million buy? Not much. If anything the homey atmosphere of the past is now a cold white chiffon that smothers the life of everything. The gallery where "Blue Boy" and "Pinkie" reside has a deeper green brocade and may be the most comfortable room in the house. What they have done is take a home and turn it into a sterile museum. They did a good job. I'm sure its safer, fire, earthquake but goodness, what is wrong with color? Paint is paint white or not.

Gazing at my favorites, some moved for odd reasons, I began for the first time to ponder, why would you want the portraits of people you never knew in your home? I could see florals, landscapes, city scenes and such, but people? Not your own or even a distant family? The main gallery is filled with Gainsborough, Reynold's, Romney's, all glorious and not in any way his family.
Van Gogh's "The Pipe Smoker"

I first became aware of another collector, Albert C. Barnes who became a collector after his company became fabulously wealthy in the 1920's. At the time of his death in 1951he had amassed a collection of 580 Impressionist and Post Impressionist paintings in his home outside Philadelphia. No one is exactly sure what he paid for this collection, 183 Renoir's, 7 Van Gogh's, 60+ Cezanne's, plus a priceless Matisse, but the value on the web says about $30-40 billion today. A documentary about how the Philadelphia Art Museum broke his trust says they valued it at $4 billion but if it were to go on auction, could fetch as much as $400 billion. I mean, these artists aren't painting these any more! I remember in the 80's when the Getty purchased Van Gogh's "Iris" for $56 million. That was over 30 years ago. So, do the math.

Its now a done deal and while he was quirky, one of the things he did, was hang his art salon style, that is in rows often on top of each other. There you could see and compare the art in ways you might and could never see before. The new museum has kept this tradition and each display is true to the original hangings. Was Huntington's house done this way or was it the way I saw yesterday?

We didn't get to the new gallery. I guess through gifts and purchases they want to jump into the more modern period as well. Instead we went out to the gardens and saw the new Japanese Garden that is lovely and nicely done though I miss the vermillion paint of the old moon bridge. The Chinese garden is undergoing more construction and parts look barren and neglected. The library had two rather uninspired exhibits and the majority was closed off. No Gutenberg Bible, no Lincoln letters, no biography of Franklin. All in all not an especially grand day. The weather was wonderful, flowers and trees were in bloom but somehow, the simpler, more staid Huntington was nicer and more accessible.

I think that once a bureaucracy gets involved with something, they tend to forget what the original owners intent was. The Huntington for years was like a peek into someones home, you saw how they lived and certainly while grander, was personal and I felt, inviting. A proud owner showing what he had collected. We all know people like that.

But museums are bureaucracies and they "know" more than we do. What they don't realize though is that they create the same thing everywhere and it gets to be boring.

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