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The Getty: For Better and Worse

The Getty Villa

by Marion True and Jorge Silvetti, with an introduction by Salvatore Settis
J. Paul Getty Trust, 231 pp., $65.00; $39.95 (paper)

1.

The catastrophes that have lately befallen the J. Paul Getty Trust—established by the eponymous oil tycoon in 1953 for “the diffusion of artistic and general knowledge”—are of such magnitude that only classical mythology seems to offer archetypes equal to this present-day epic of hubris and retribution. Over the past two years, the J. Paul Getty Museum, which during the 1980s became the world’s most envied and profligate art institution, has seen a director, Deborah Gribbon, and its senior antiquities curator, Marion True, resign. The Getty Trust’s president since 1997, Barry Munitz, was compelled to quit in February, forgo his severance package of more than $2 million, and reimburse the trust for $250,000 after alleged improprieties including lavish expense account spending. Those and other irregularities prompted a United States senator to call for the revocation of the Getty’s tax-exempt status.

This summer, the board chairman of the Getty Trust stepped down, months before his term was due to end. In October, California’s attorney general ended a fourteen-month investigation of the Getty Trust and issued a report concluding that Munitz and his board had acted illegally. However, he decided not to pursue criminal or civil actions against them, and appointed an independent monitor to supervise the trust’s activities.1 Worst of all in the opinion of many museum professionals, the Getty’s longtime, highly respected curator of Greek and Roman art, Marion True, was indicted by the Italian government and charged with complicity in the trafficking of illegally excavated and exported antiquities.

No cultural institution in recent memory has suffered such a stunning reversal of fortune, which seemed more poignant during the muted inauguration festivities last January for its newly renovated $275 million classical art branch, the Getty Villa. The project’s official publication bears the bylines of True, who was absent from the opening while standing trial in Rome (part of sporadic proceedings that resumed in October), and the Boston-based architect Jorge Silvetti, who had the bad luck to see the finest work of his career overshadowed by events he had nothing to do with. Indeed, were it not for the comprehensive disasters confronting the Getty, this unanticipated architectural triumph would have been properly celebrated as a proud turning point in the institution’s checkered museological history.

The first incarnation of the J. Paul Getty Museum, which to comply with the new trust opened in 1954 in its namesake’s Spanish colonial house on a hilltop Malibu citrus ranch, was a transparent tax dodge, fulfilling the barest statutory requirements to maintain its charitable status. Public access to the Getty collection was limited to six hours per week and by appointment only. Persistent art lovers who made it through the gates in Malibu were in for a letdown. Getty never progressed beyond the conventional tycoon taste that during his young adulthood prevailed among rich Americans in thrall to the London art and antiques merchant Joseph Duveen. The cautious collector bought several pieces from Duveen (including one of the dealer’s most reliable staples, a Romney portrait) and stuck for the rest of his life to the shrewd salesman’s formulaic mix of classical antiquities, old master paintings, Persian rugs, and French ancien régime furniture, tapestries, and carpets.

Although Getty never stopped trumpeting his love of art, the tightfisted billionaire—who billed his own sons for visits to his Surrey estate, Sutton Place—loved nothing more than a bargain, and his sharp eye for the bottom line did not help his eye for pictures. As John Richardson, who knew Getty’s collection well, recalled, “He wanted masterpieces on the cheap.” Several of Getty’s supposed old masters were subsequently demoted to workshop pieces or copies, including a Rubens and one of approximately 120 known versions of Raphael’s Madonna of Loreto, which he bought in 1938 for around $200 and then spent a small fortune trying to authenticate. He finally succeeded, but the attribution was withdrawn after his death.

For all his wealth and cunning, Getty lacked the passion and commitment to become a grand acquisitor on the level of his younger contemporaries and fellow magnates Nubar Gulbenkian, Paul Mellon, Norton Simon, and Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, all of whom endowed museums to preserve their celebrated old master collections. Perhaps inspired by their example, Getty in 1970 determined to erect a more suitable gallery building on his Malibu property, which he never returned to after becoming an expatriate in 1951. Getty’s curious mixture of detachment and obsessiveness, so evident in his fitful collecting habits, became more pronounced in his long-distance micromanagement of the museum-building project to which he devoted his final years and ultimately most of his worldly goods.

Getty’s taste in architecture was as conservative as his taste in art, but his decision to replicate an ancient Roman country house for his museum struck most art and architecture professionals as perverse in the extreme. Many felt that even an original neoclassical structure would have been preferable to that worst of artistic oxymorons, an “authentic reproduction”—in this case a copy of the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum, which was buried in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD and rediscovered in the mid-eighteenth century.

By 1970, the first stirrings of the revolt against Modernist orthodoxy in architecture had been felt, although it would be several years more until Postmodernism was widely accepted and made classical motifs permissible in high-style building design for the first time in decades. Early exponents of a freely reinterpreted classical vocabulary, including Robert Venturi and Charles Moore, leavened their allusive designs with a deadpan wit much like that of contemporary Pop Art. But Getty’s imperial Roman folly was in earnest, and thus many viewed it as no laughing matter.

A collaborative effort that involved the traditionalist architect Stephen Garrett and the architectural historian Norman Neuerburg, the building based on the Roman villa was executed by the Los Angeles firm of Langdon Wilson. The design was assumed by many to be accurate down to the smallest detail, but much of it was necessarily pure conjecture. The upper half of the Villa dei Papiri had been destroyed in the volcanic cataclysm, and thus Getty’s design team had to improvise the entire second story and roof of their structure. It’s not what we don’t know about the past that dooms such re-creations, but rather what we do know, raising false hopes that no amount of painstaking research can fulfill. And this being California, something also had to be done with the cars, which, if left outdoors on a typical parking lot near the new villa, would ruin the classical illusion Getty envisioned.

Thus it was decided to place the new museum atop a podium, some twenty-two feet high on the entry side, within which a parking garage could be concealed. More than a functional anachronism, raising the building to hide cars beneath was an archaeological solecism: the interiors of a classic Roman country house were meant to communicate at ground level with the surrounding landscape. But elevating the Getty Villa vastly improved the museum’s west-facing sea views. If suspension of disbelief is needed to convince oneself that beyond lies the Mediterranean rather than the Pacific, it’s the easiest—and most satisfying—stretch of imagination one is asked to make in this strange, seductive, and undeniably entrancing environment, the guiltiest pleasure in the modern museum world.

2.

America’s collective amnesia does not exempt the arts, and received opinion about the critical reception of the Getty maintains that when the Malibu building opened, in 1974, professionals loathed it and the public loved it. But the response was not so evenly divided. By the prevailing standards of high Modernist taste, the new museum was easy to hate for all the correct reasons, and many establishment critics did just that. But a surprising number of commentators did not challenge the premise of what Neuerburg, the Getty’s historical consultant, called “a recreation rather than a reproduction.” Instead of insisting that the design ought to have been contemporary rather than historical, several reviewers focused on the project’s execution.

John Pastier, then the architecture critic of the Los Angeles Times, faulted the building’s lack of “fidelity to the spirit of the original…. It is a faithful reproduction of nothing that ever existed, re-created by inappropriate technologies and frequently lacking in basic design judgement.”2 But the architectural historian Esther McCoy—whose pioneering 1960 study, Five California Architects, examined the careers of Bernard Maybeck, Irving Gill, Charles Sumner Greene, Henry Mather Greene, and R.M. Schindler, and made a convincing case for California as the true center of architectural innovation in twentieth-century America—surprised many with her opinion. McCoy, an unreconstructed Modernist, wrote an appreciation of the Getty in the professional journal Progressive Architecture, and found much to praise in the villa’s variety of indoor and outdoor spaces, logical circulation patterns, and overall suitability to its function.

The subtlest reading of the new Roman villa in Malibu came from the infallible sibyl of the Californian mysteries, Joan Didion. Writing three years after the museum opened, Didion noted how

The Getty is a monument to “fine art,” in the old-fashioned didactic sense, which is part of the problem people have with it. The place resists contemporary notions about what art is or should be or ever was. A museum is now supposed to kindle the untrained imagination, but this museum does not. A museum is now supposed to set the natural child in each of us free, but this museum does not. This is art acquired to teach a lesson….

Yet despite the Getty’s lack of what it now terms “community outreach” (in an attempt to overcome its elitist image), the museum became an instant popular success. Once again, Didion alone among the critics divined the underlying class implications:

Large numbers of people who do not ordinarily visit museums like the Getty a great deal, just as its founder knew they would. There is one of those peculiar social secrets at work here. On the whole, “the critics” distrust great wealth, but “the public” does not. On the whole “the critics” subscribe to the Romantic view of man’s possibilities, but “the public” does not. In that way the Getty stands above the Pacific Coast Highway as one of those odd monuments, a palpable contract between the very rich and the people who distrust them least.3

3.

In June 1976, two and a half years after the J. Paul Getty Museum opened, its creator died, without ever having visited the monument he hoped would change his perception by posterity. “I would like to be remembered as a footnote in history,” he told a confidante, “but as an art collector, not a money-laden businessman!”4 Unquestionably, one of the strongest attractions his Malibu marvel held for average citizens from the beginning was their seeing the villa as a house museum offering a glimpse into the private life of modern-day Midas. It was a fiction the benefactor himself encouraged when he wrote that “I would like every visitor to Malibu to feel as if I had invited him to come and look about and feel at home.”5 Though the building is domestically scaled only by plutocratic standards, its original palatial decor—particularly the second-story galleries’ gilded boiseries, ritzy damasks, and parquet floors—seemed a genuine billionaire’s paradise.

  1. 1

    Edward Wyatt and Randy Kennedy, “California Attorney General Appoints Overseer of Reforms at J. Paul Getty Trust,” The New York Times, October 3, 2006.

  2. 2

    John Pastier, “What Getty Hath Wrought,” Los Angeles Times, January 28, 1974.

  3. 3

    Joan Didion, “Getty’s Little House on the Highway,” Esquire, March 1977.

  4. 4

    Robina Lund, Getty: The Stately Gnome (London: Hobbs/Michael Joseph, 1977), p. 12.

  5. 5

    J. Paul Getty, “Foreword,” in Guidebook: The J. Paul Getty Museum, edited by Lilli Cristin (J. Paul Getty Museum, 1975), p. 8.

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