Sunday, November 9, 2008

We Have Always Lived in the Castle


LACMA's first great benefactor was publisher William Randolph Hearst. In the 1940s, and up until his 1951 death, Hearst donated about 900 objects to what was then the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science, and Art. The Hearst material still comprises the lion's share of the Egyptian, Greco-Roman, and medieval art that LACMA owns or is ever likely to own. Hearst is nevertheless best remembered for Hearst Castle, his house-museum in San Simeon, Calif., and especially, as the model for the title character of Orson Welles' 1941 film, Citizen Kane. LACMA's "Hearst the Collector" reunites about 150 objects from Hearst's collection. Exhibitions about collectors are becoming wearyingly popular of late. This one works better than most because it's near-impossible otherwise to get a handle on what Hearst owned. Hearst Castle is not exactly a museum, and both it and LACMA are small pieces of the puzzle. Starting in the 1930s, and continuing after Hearst's death, most of his collection was dispersed at auction and even at Gimbel's department store in New York.
The exhibition aims to raise Hearst a couple of notches, positioning him within arm's reach of Huntington and Mellon. I don't think it succeeds, but it's informative to see the effort made. The curators are arguing against the Citizen Kane mythos of Hearst as a damaged compulsive more concerned with quantity than quality. Inevitably this exhibition, like almost any other, cherry-picks the finest things. It therefore can't disprove the notion that Hearst bought warehouses of godawful junk that's not in the show. Hearst could have outbid Mellon for that Leonardo; he could have assembled another Frick collection, or nearly that, had he wanted to. The main thing you learn from this show is: He didn't want to.
Hearst was above all devoted to European antiquities and decorative arts. One of the show's talking points is that Hearst bought smartly within chosen areas of specialization, notably arms and armor, tapestries, enamel, maiolica, gold and silver. He acquired about 450 Greek vases, said to be the best private collection of the time. The Metropolitan bought many of his best vases (and not all the prizes are in this show). The remainder of the vase collection is now largely split between San Simeon and LACMA. It's great to be able to see many of the pieces united, as they are here, and more visible than they are at the Castle. Still, I didn't see anything here that ranked with the group of vases that the Getty returned to Italy last year. And remember, Hearst was buying when these things were legal as pie.

Hearst did buy paintings. Many of the rococo confections you see at LACMA once decorated the Georgian-style Santa Monica home of Hearst's mistress, comic actor Marion Davies. On loan from the U.S. National Gallery is van Dyck's full-length Queen Henrietta Maria. This is said to be Hearst's greatest painting. Just to put things in perspective, the National Gallery has 17 van Dycks. This is maybe the second best. Frick bought better van Dycks, and few would rank any of them among the ten greatest works in the Frick collection.
Hearst had a prescient taste for neoclassicism. There are two impressive marble statues, a Canova Venus from San Simeon and a Thorwaldson Hebe from Denmark. There is also a David painting of a vestal virgin. I give thumbs up to the Thorwaldson; the Canova and David have similarly freaky, simpering expressions. Time has reaffirmed the importance of these artists. The thing is, I suspect that Hearst bought these things because he appreciated their evident craft; he didn't care a whit that some critics derided them as kitsch; and consequently, because they were unfashionable, they were good deals. Had they not been quite so cheap and unloved, I wonder whether Hearst would have bought them. In all, the show confirmed my hunch that Hearst, much like J. Paul Getty, just didn't want to pay too much money for any one thing.
Like Getty, Hearst had zero interest in modern art. The only modern pieces you'll see are large-scale drawings by Willy Pogany. Glimpsing them from another room, I thought, oh, they're showing some contemporary artist's big drawings. Nope. Willy Pogany was an illustrator for Hearst's magazines and set designer for Flo Ziegfeld. Hearst hired him to design wall paintings for Wyntoon, his Bavarian hunting lodge in northern California. Pogany's Gnome is especially creepy, like the elf for one of Paul McCarthy's butt plug Santas. Famous in his time, Pogany also designed ceilings for the Sarasota, Fla., home of John Ringling, now part of his museum complex.
Hearst was furnishing six palatial homes, three of them castles. That may not sound like much next to John McCain, but apparently, it was a swell thing at the time. One thing I didn't know: Citizen Kane isn't the only iconic American narrative with a Hearst connection. His castle on Long Island, Sands Point, inspired the setting of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

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