Sunday, October 19, 2008

Dilettantes Gone Wild at the Getty


The Getty Villa's "Grecian Taste and Roman Spirit: The Society of Dilettanti" is a hoot. It focuses on the first 75 years of the Dilettanti, a British men's club (still extant) that you've probably never heard of. The nominal justification for the show is that the Dilettanti sponsored some of the first serious research in antiquities. OK, but what do you actually see? By strict art-show standards, not a whole lot. There are some Greco-Roman antiquities, most from the Getty's storerooms, and none terribly important. There are quite a few amusing paintings of Dilettanti members. Portraits that appear stately and boring transform, on closer inspection, into something naughty -- rather like those in Disneyland's Haunted Mansion. A monk (Francis Dashwood) is caught worshipping a Venus' mount of Venus; a connoisseur (Richard Payne Knight) measures the endowment of a Priapus; and what the hey -- those gents holding gems up to the light are making the secret sign for ladies' private parts.
Only one painting is by an artist you'd cross the street to see. That's Johann Zoffany's Charles Townley and His Friends, a much reproduced work that virtually no American ever encounters in the flesh. It normally resides way off the cultural tourism route, in the Townley Hall Art Gallery of Burnley, UK. (It is shown here under glass, as if they couldn't trust the inquisitive paws of the colonials.)
The exhibition's one high concept is a mini-"secret museum" of the most recherche antique erotica. Villa regulars will have guessed that this occupies the dark and ever-mysterious gallery 204/CCIV. Among the attractions is a book by Pierre d'Hancarville, who has the unique distinction of having been expelled from Naples for obscenity. You heard me right: from Naples. D'Hancarville's surreally imaginative full-color porn was presented in the guise of cataloging ancient carved gems.
The show's star is one John Samuel Agar, judged by admirers to have created the finest drawings ever of sculpture. The Dilettanti commissioned Agar's drawings of antiquities, and many found their way to the Getty Research Institute. Here they are paired with some of the corresponding small bronzes. Agar is the Enlightenment Tom of Finland. He has a burnished, buffed queerness that challenges the viewer to find a single detail that been has exaggerated, misrepresented, or invented. That is almost impossible to do; Agar's near-photographic renderings are exact in all details and completely different in affect. You leave this show thinking what a very mysterious thing art (history, sex, life) is.

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