We caught the last day of the Bernini exhibit at the Getty. Perhaps the most arresting piece was the marble portrait of Camilla Barberini, her face emerging from the symmetrical folds of her headdress like the imperturbable prow of a white ship, cutting a symmetrical white wake in the sea. The aliveness of the portrait is all the more remarkable for its having being created 10 years after her death, as a commission from her son, with only painted portraits for Bernini to use as reference. It must have been eerie for the son to have his mother so indelibly materialized, a decade after her passing, with no photographs or home movies to disperse or otherwise distribute the authority of her presence. The portrait, in that way, would be as potent, as liable to speak, as any idol.
Marble in particular slows the eye. It invites you to become intimate with the portrait’s subject, perhaps even more deeply than the intimacy invited by movie stars, whose faces we examine for hours on end, with the sense of leisure and ownership that comes from the fact that, however long we may stare at them, they’ll never return or challenge our gaze. The artist of a marble bust invites us to occupy the privileged space he himself occupied, as the official portraitist. We get to gaze upon the face of someone powerful, to really study it, without fear of rebuke. People watching the marble busts in the exhibit also became frozen, rapt in their observation, turned into appendices of the original statuary. One man leaning on a cane, with a UCLA baseball cap, met the intensity of the gaze of a long-dead Pope, their eyes not fixed on each other, but on some middle distance of contemplation.
One interesting detail that emerged from Bernini’s process was the use of painted portrait models for subjects he couldn’t have sit for him in person. There was a Van Dyck portrait of Charles I in three positions, as if he’d been born as identical triplets – side, front, and three-quarters-view, the faint pink around Charles’ eyes giving him an animal vulnerability. It was like an animation turnaround, created prior to embarking on a virtual 3-D polygon model. Except, in this case, it was a freaking Van Dyck turnaround.
Some other Getty highlights for me:
An exhibit of humor in art, that corralled many of my favorites, including Rowlandson, Tiepolo, Goya, and Daumier. Two students caught me in a reverie over a Watteau drawing of an enema, which was kind of embarrassing.
Velazquez’s “Allegory of Artistic Creation,” which contained a smoking curl of red paint wending its way along the edge of a woman’s diaphanous blue-white sleeve, stopping me short.
A marble portrait of Maria Cerri Capranica attributed to Giuliano Finelli, the whorls in her hair like calcified battalions of wasps’ nests.
One of Franz Messerschmidt’s “character heads,” titled (not by him) “The Vexed Man.” Like other “character heads” I’ve seen reproductions of, the face is pulled into an extreme emotion, a grimace that would only last seconds on human musculature, but which becomes as powerful and unsettling as a ritual mask when rendered in marble. From the side, you can see something perhaps comical in the man’s expression, but when seen from below, he looks absolutely agonized.
Behind the Messerschidt is a 1783 self-portrait by Joseph Ducreux, yawning wildly, his arms heroically thrust into the air as if waving invisible flags, his mouth distended into a bright pink yawp.
We also went to the La Brea tar pits, and watched the asphalt blow bubbles for our amusement. Unlike the Getty, you can take pictures of the display, so I have more photographic proof of that particular rendezvous.
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