Last Saturday afternoon proved to be a disappointment. None of the dozen or so galleries I went to had anything that would stop me in my tracks. So many mediocre shows, so many uninspiring artists, so much time wasted - theirs and mine. Afterwards, I felt kind of depressed. The only way I knew how to get myself out of this predicament was to splurge on Old Masters.
The Getty, with its recently opened traveling exhibition of Jean-Antoine Houdon, French sculptor of the Enlightenment, seemed to offer a good chance for recovery. Don't feel embarrassed if this name doesn't ring a bell. Until now his art has never been the subject of a major exhibition, and the inherent fragility of his marble and terra cotta sculptures makes museums very nervous about letting them travel.
In his long heyday of international fame - at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th Century - practically anyone famous was sculpted by him, or at least hoped to be, making him the 18th century version of Robert Mapplethorpe. The range of his subjects extended from members of European royalty to the leading figures of the French Enlightenment, among them Voltaire and Diderot. Catherine the Great became one of his major patrons commissioning the artist to create, especially for her, a bust and a life-sized sculpture of Voltaire sitting in a chair. Napoleon himself sat for Houdon and the two portraits of the Emperor in the exhibition, one terra cotta and one marble, show that the sculptor not only knew how to flatter his clients, but also had an uncanny ability to capture the essence of their characters. In his terra cotta bust, the face of the little Emperor has a slightly petulant expression, betraying his difficult, explosive personality.
The fame of Houdon was such that even across the Atlantic the powerful and famous wanted to sit for him. And that's where, for my money, Houdon excelled the most. In the first room of the exhibition there is a collection of portraits of great American leaders including Jefferson, Washington and Franklin. The bust of Jefferson became a model for numerous other portraits of him, including the one we carry in our pockets. I'm talking about the American nickel - what else?
When I look at the Jefferson portrait, I feel that 200 plus years simply disappear. This portrait, celebrated for its remarkable likeness, gives a viewer an acute awareness of being in the presence of a tremendously complex and attractive personality. There is something very unique about the best portraits done by Houdon - they combine an important sense of occasion with a surprising degree of intimacy. The longer you look at the face of Jefferson, the more you become aware of the sensation of being in his presence, as if your time and his collapsed into one.
Looking at the portrait of balding Franklin, with his long hair falling on his shoulders, I tried to hold my own while the old man was staring at me skeptically, his lips parting as if he was about to pronounce a judgment I'm not sure I would be able to refute.
Until this exhibition, I never felt, never thought I would like to be friends with the leaders of the American Revolution. Now, thanks to Houdon, I got to know them so well, so intimately, that if I were to write them a note, I would start it simply: "Dear Benjamin" or "Dear George".
November 4, 2003 - January 25, 2004
The Getty Museum
1200 Getty Center Drive
Los Angeles, CA