Sunday, August 9, 2009

Xanadu on the Beach


Santa Monica has a new house-museum. The Marion Davies Guest House is a Georgian Revival fantasy plopped onto the beach, like Dorothy's house onto Munchkinland — except that the movie that ought to come to mind is Citizen Kane. Marion Davies was actress and paramour of William Randolph Hearst; both are better known for their fictionalized counterparts in Citizen Kane. Hearst's obsessive art collecting was the subject of last winter's "Hearst the Collector" show at LACMA. The Guest House, opened this April, is a worthwhile postscript.
Davies and Hearst commissioned Julia Morgan (architect of Hearst Castle) to design an entertainer's home in Santa Monica. The result was a 100-plus-room Georgian mansion on the sands. It was demolished ages ago. Even Morgan's plans are mysteriously missing. All that remains of this erstwhile Xanadu are the guest house, in matching Georgian style, and the pool.
Over the years, the property has been repurposed. Now, thanks to the generosity of Wallis Annenberg, Frederick Fisher refashioned and refurbished it into a public facility offering beach access, a pool, sand tennis, fitness classes, a restaurant (Back on the Beach) — and a glimpse at the site's history. Caveat: "Public" doesn't mean free. Whole-day parking is $10, prepaid, and you'll need reservations and have to arrive before noon. Details are on the Beach House's website, which also has much history and period photos.
The Davies Guest House contains no original furnishings or artwork. A few faux-wicker seats and framed photographs stage what would otherwise be an empty shell. That's okay. It directs attention to the weirdness of deeply conservative 18th-century British rooms whose windows look out onto a pluralistic, postmodern, seafront community. Dorothy in Oz, or more accurately, No. 6 in the Village.

In its heyday, the Davies compound had an impressive art collection, chosen and funded mainly by sugar daddy Hearst. It skewed toward Duveen's beloved Georgian period and its French contemporaries. Many paintings were donated to LACMA, and not a few have been deacessioned. One of the keepers is Thomas Lawrence's Portrait of Arthur Atherly as an Etonian. (It's credited as a gift of Hearst Magazines, for the most valid of creative-accounting reasons.) In 1952, Time Magazine somehow determined Arthur Atherly to be the museum's most popular painting. It's better than Pinkie, but geez… Outside of San Marino, who cares about any Lawrence?
Roy McMakin was commissioned to do a public artwork outside the Guest House, a pair of white and gray picket fences with chairs (visible at top). McMakin's unusually lucid statement explains,

"My empirical research indicates that most everyone remembers things as being larger than they in reality are. Which one experiences should circumstances allow you to revisit a site from your past. I believe (with no research at all) the reason for this to be that our memory enlarges objects. So that when presented with the reality versus memory we are confronted with a conundrum of scale. And as scale sensitive beings this can be a disorienting circumstance. Given the history laden aspect of this site, it seemed an appropriate place to explore this notion.… Of course the fence is a fence, and in one aspect does what a fence does, it keeps you on one side or another. But as the fences are just fragments they really don’t do a very good job of that. And the gate on the gray fence is frozen in place, as if it isn’t really a gate as much as a representation of a gate, in fact of the other gate on the white fence. The actual size gate. Which one can open and close, for what its worth. And the same goes for the lamp post, the gray in fact isn’t really a light post, it just looks like one. But gets more peculiar with the chairs. Two of which are found chairs, actually chairs from another time (and they are kinda small!). But the recreated and scaled up gray ones are too big for most of our sizes. And it is one possible experience to see them, and yet another to sit on them, and dangle your feet. Is the experience one feels that of being smaller, or younger, or just not quite right? But then again, perhaps the gray objects are just the shadows of the other ones?”

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