Overcast skies made the Malibu beaches less tempting, but my goal, the Getty Villa, was a strong lure anyway.
With all the controversy surrounding the Getty’s acquisition of antiquities -- a gray area, at best -- I decided to take a few days off and go to Los Angeles and revisit the Villa. I wanted to see how the new facility, unveiled in January after being closed since 1997, was fulfilling its main function, presenting art of the ancient world.
I hadn’t seen the place in more than ten years, but had fond memories of my last visit. At that time, the entire Getty collection was located at the Villa. Now the non-antiquities reside in a modern travertine complex in Brentwood.
Trudging from the parking lot, I received a brochure with the day’s activities from a greeter and was invited up a path. And suddenly, there it was.
I was looking down at a Roman country house and plunging into the ancient world.
A new amphitheater stretched before the villa’s entrance. The Villa, modeled on a Roman rural estate in Herculaneum, is surrounded by gardens. The first that I saw was an herb garden with a water-lily pond. The entire setting was enchanting. All thought of L.A. disappeared; I felt teleported into the past.
On entering the building, I walked into an atrium, the main public room in a Roman house. There is the typical open ceiling to catch rainwater in a basin, here a small pool-like area surrounded by a black-and-white mosaic pavement inspired by a mosaic from Pompeii.
The room flows into the Inner Peristyle. Columns march around a garden with small marble fountains and a central, narrow pool lined with replicas of bronze statues of women once found at the Villa dei Papiri, the estate upon which much of the Villa is modeled. The Villa dei Papiri was not totally excavated when J. Paul Getty began planning his Villa and he drew on other ancient sites for inspiration as well.
Around the Inner Peristyle is a series of small rooms, filled with thematic installations combining Greek, Etruscan and Roman antiquities of every type and size.
Having explored swaths of Italy and Greece, including most of Sicily and Crete, my spouse always remembers seeing "lots of pots." The pots here are breathtaking, from the vigorously painted black-figured hydria with Hercules and his nephew cutting off the heads of the mythical Hydra (Greek, found in Etruria, 525 BC) to the elegant red-figured dinos with Tripolemos ready to fly in his winged chariot to disseminate the art of grain cultivation (Greek, Athens, ca. 470 BC).
Equally impressive is the range of statuary. One controversial piece is the Getty "kouros," an idealized, life-sized nude young man, cut from marble. It may be from Greece, ca. 530 BC, or it may be a fake. The current betting has it that it’s a forgery, and it certainly looks odd for a kouros.
An over-life-size "Cult Statue of a Goddess" from southern Italy (425-400 BC) with its deep-cut billowing drapery in limestone and smooth marble flesh is imposing for its size as well as quality. It’s definitely the real thing, as is a diminutive bronze of a fallen youth (480-460 BC). Less than five inches in length, the youth is just as sensual. It begs to be touched. Alas, he is behind glass.
The Villa's marble floors, wainscoting and elaborately plastered and painted or low-relief decorated ceilings are as compelling as the objects they surround.
In the spectacular "Room of Colored Marbles," 14 kinds of colored ancient and modern marbles are used in the walls. Even more intricate patterns of marble occurs in other rooms, like the alternating small triangles of honey-colored and black marbles in the circular floor of the "Temple of Hercules."
The Temple imitates a domed cult temple with a niche. It wouldn’t have been found in a Roman house, of course, but as part of the ancient world it was skillfully fitted into the Getty Villa. In it stands the "Lansdowne Herakles," a Roman copy of a Greek original which was once owned by the Marquess of Lansdowne. A nude, youthful Hercules poses with his left hand holding the club he used to kill the Nemean lion, whose pelt he holds in his right. Made of pentelic marble, now much-repaired, it was a favorite of Getty’s.
Roman homes combined interior areas with exterior spaces offering plenty of sunlight and gardens. The Getty Villa does the same to wonderful effect.
Bronze doors lead to the Outer Peristyle, an open-air marvel, and another recreation from the Villa dei Papyri, complete with copies of bronze sculptures that once graced the original and a host of Mediterranean plants arranged in patterns known from wall frescoes of the period. The peristyle with illusionistic wall paintings and floor mosaics, also copied from the original, surrounds a long pool.
Lolling in the gardens refreshed me for tackling the second floor, with its superb collection of Neolithic to Bronze Age art, including the Getty’s famous Cycladic harp player (ca. 2700 BC), one of only ten such marbles known to exist.
The most dazzling Greek gold wreath I’ve ever seen is made up of miniscule flowers of beaten gold sheets. It even has tiny blue glass beads attached to some of the stamens. Any breeze would have set it trembling. Dating from the 4th century, it was probably worn for ceremonies and buried with its wearer.
Besides the permanent collection, the second floor has several galleries for changing exhibitions. The sole remaining inaugural show now is "Molten Color: Glassmaking in Antiquity," on view until July 24, 2006.
I noticed that kids -- youngsters, tweens and teens -- all seemed very well-behaved. I think this has to do with the ability to walk off energy outside and also the Family Forum, an area which caters to younger visitors with hands-on activities.
Older visitors can stroll around or listen to guided tours or lectures. All events are free, except for a $3 audioguide. Visitors can have exactly as much information as they desire. There are plenty of benches, a reading room and computer stations to look up additional info on the Villa or individual works.
The Getty’s website, www.getty.edu, is a great resource that I encourage anyone interested in art to explore. It contains information on both parts of the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Villa and the new Getty Center with its magnificent Van Gogh Irises, Rembrandts, manuscripts, European furniture, photographs and much more.
Although like the Center, entry is free to the Villa, you do have to make a timed reservation about three weeks in advance. This is to prevent overcrowding. And there is a $7 charge for parking.
This is not to say you can’t loosen your purse strings at the Getty. The bookstore certainly profited from my visit. The café, perched above the amphitheater, offers reasonably priced and very fresh food, coffees and wine.
There’s a lot to admire (or envy) about the Getty Villa. If I were living in L.A., the pleasure of seeing art in such a welcoming atmosphere would make me a regular.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.