The Getty Museum's "Leonardo da Vinci: The Art of Sculpture" is not the first Leonardo show to touch down on the West Coast. The Los Angeles County Museum in Exposition Park managed a "Leonardo da Vinci Loan Exhibition" for six charmed weeks of midsummer 1949. It had 101 objects, almost four times the size of the Getty show. And that's not counting 66 modern models of Leonardo's scientific inventions (which "may be handled and operated by visitors") nor a selection of books from UCLA's Belt Library. The 1949 blockbuster's star-studded list of patrons included "Prof. Albert Einstein," Thomas Mann, Aldous Huxley, California Governor Earl C. Warren, and William Randolph Hearst.
Hearst provided much of the impetus for the show. In 1945 Los Angeles Museum director Roland McKinney wrote Hearst, "It is my hope to establish… an art section comparable to the museums of the east." Hearst, resident in his eponymous Castle at San Simeon, began donating art. It was well known that Hearst despised modernism (and was still smarting from that classic of modern film, Citizen Kane). An expert in Old Masters, the German-born William Valentiner, was recruited to curate the collection and solicit further donations. Valentiner came west with misgivings. In his estimation, L.A. was "the furthest point of western civilization," and its museum's small art collection was "deplorable."
Though Valentiner was deeply engaged with German modernism, he had to walk on eggs to avoid offending Hearst and the post-war tea partiers who figured abstraction = communism. In his exhibition program Valentiner mostly stuck to the classics and aimed high. The museum did loan shows of Rubens and Van Dyck (a double retrospective), Goya, Renoir, and Van Gogh. But the biggest and most ambitious project of all was Leonardo.
Only about 15 to 20 Leonardo paintings survive. No comparably famous artist is nearly so rare. There are twice as many Vermeers.
"The current exhibition," Valentiner wrote in the catalog, "the first comprehensive one held in this country, must necessarily be limited in scope as far as original paintings are concerned…" His solution: wall-sized photographic reproductions of unobtainable masterpieces. Make that black-and-white reproductions.
"With the exception of Rembrandt, Leonardo's paintings lend themselves better to black-and-white reproductions than those of other great masters… Care has been taken that these photomurals do not exceed the size of the originals because variations in proportions and dimensions would give a false impression to the spectator who might never have seen the actual works themselves. Even the best reproductions will always lack the surface quality of the original, which transmits to us the pulse and spirit of an age. The art-loving public is right in demanding original works in order to enter into the true atmosphere of the great past. It was the endeavor, therefore, to include in the exhibition as many original paintings a possible…"
The show boasted five Leonardo paintings… if you believe the catalog. One of the five, the Davenport Bromley Madonna (top), was from an unidentified L.A. collection. "…the soft shadow and the utmost refinement in the modeling of the Virgin's head indicate Leonardo's participation in this exquisite work," collector and art historian William E. Suida wrote. Incidentally, the painting had been rediscovered by another storied connoisseur, William Valentiner.
Outpost of civilization or not, L.A. was suddenly awash in ambitious attributions to Leonardo, Boltraffio, and Foppa — in Valentiner's opinion. One, an early copy of Leonardo's St. Anne, the Virgin, and the Christ Child with the Lamb in the Louvre, was lent by UCLA. Donated by Willis Hole, it's still at UCLA and rarely shown. The copy has been romantically attributed to Salai, Leonardo's romantic friend and muse. But that's an unfalsifiable claim, given the lack of certain Salais for comparison.
Duveen Brothers lent Valentiner the Madonna of the Pomegranate, presumably for sale at the right price. Barely 6 inches high, the catalog touted it as Leonardo's earliest surviving painting.
The catalog's list of donors gives shout-outs to the Valley (Carl S. Denzel, Northridge, Calif.) and the red states (Mr. and Mrs. Frank Buttram, Oklahoma City, Okla.) Multiple Leonardoesque works were flushed out of New York collections, and several donors were from the Detroit area. Valentiner had headed the Detroit Institute of Arts and had lived in New York. That was the pattern: Wherever Valentiner lived, he discovered works from Leonardo's circle, or convinced local collectors to buy them.
From our vantage point, Valentiner's Leonardo show is a cautionary tale in the fluidity of attributions. Valentiner was and is one of the most respected art historians of his time. Yet not one of Valentiners's five "Leonardos" pass muster as an original Leonardo today. That's worth pondering even as the odd Michelangelo or Raphael still turns up now and then.
Even in 1949 it was appreciated that no certain Leonardo sculpture existed. The Exposition Park show had to make do with a mere five "sixteenth century bronze casts after Leonardo's models." Only two were from private collections in Los Angeles.