After two years in exile, 'Blue Boy' and 'Pinkie' are back home at the Huntington Art Gallery. The much-loved Beaux-Arts mansion, built in 1911 for Henry and Arabella Huntington, has just reopened after two years of renovation and restoration. It looks every bit as resplendent as we remembered it, but now it has even more paintings and decorative art objects on display than before. I had a wonderful time wandering around in search of many beloved works of art and being pleasantly surprised at many choices made by the curators – especially those which have rather dramatically transformed the famous Portrait Gallery on the first floor.
You may remember this stately room with more than a dozen 18th and 19th century full-length portraits of English aristocracy painted by the most renowned artists of the day. In a rather bold move, the pale yellow fabric of the gallery walls has been replaced by a deep green silk, thus providing a dramatic background for portraits that seem to be stepping off the wall, welcoming you, the visitor, into their world. I'm not sure if the paintings look so good because they are simply happy to be home; some of them have undergone a light cleaning and restoration; all of them have gotten a boost from the new, state-of-the-art lighting system that makes quite a difference.
The most famous paintings in the museum's collection, Blue Boy, by Thomas Gainsborough, and Pinkie, by Thomas Lawrence, continue to hold court, but the reinstallation of the collection makes the members of their court newly intriguing. And none of them more so than Sarah Siddons, the famous actress painted by Joshua Reynolds as the Tragic Muse, sitting on a throne. The way I remember the painting, it was a dark, melancholic portrait in predominantly brown tones; today it comes across as if it had a complete makeover, with greater contrast between dark and light. Sarah Siddons is not sulking any longer; now she is brooding and dangerous, and you want to brace yourself for her revenge.
At this point, I think it might be a good idea to return to our own time, with its decidedly less grand idea of who deserves to be portrayed, as is aptly illustrated in the photographs of streetwalkers, hustlers, and pole dancers by Philip-Lorca diCorcia in his new exhibition at LACMA. This is the first time that we've been able to see in Los Angeles a substantial representation of works by this influential American artist. Photographing hustlers on Santa Monica Boulevard, diCorcia portrays them as lost souls, worthy of our sympathy, but somehow I feel he is not interested in going beyond the obvious melodrama of the moment. Though the titles of the portraits purposefully and provocatively inform us about the money these hustlers charge for their services - $20, $30 or $40 - their personal stories remain sealed and unexplored.
This is even more so with another body of work: large-scale photos of pole dancers, with mannequin-like female performers contorting on poles like gigantic shrimp being grilled on skewers. I wonder if the purpose of these images is to shock us by revealing virtually everything about the ladies' physiques or to confront us with the dehumanizing mechanics of their performance. If I had my way, I would like to hear what Hugh Hefner has to say about these images...
The Huntington Art Gallery
Open 10:30am-4:30pm daily
On view at LACMA through September 14
Banner image: Huntington Art Gallery Portrait Gallery