In These Gods We Trust

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Whether you like them or not, there is simply no way to ignore the Gods and Muses that we inherited from the ancient world. Splendid in their nakedness, aware of their beauty and power, they can befriend, seduce or even destroy us, mere human mortals, in the blink of an eye. Since the Renaissance and its rediscovery and obsession with the art of ancient Greece and Rome, the Vatican, along with royal palaces of Europe, have been actively collecting freshly excavated samples of Classical art.

at111108a.jpgIn the late 19th century, American robber barons, following the example of their European counterparts, started to fill their own mansions with marble and bronze statues, vases, and other ancient artifacts. And that's why major museums these days on both sides of the Atlantic proudly showcase their in-depth collections of Greek and Roman antiquities.

at111108d.jpgA new, intriguing exhibition at the Getty Villa tells us about the long and powerful shadow cast by Gods and Muses of antiquity over the Modern art of our time. With surprising ingenuity, the exhibition curators mix and juxtapose paintings and drawings by four masters of European Modernism who rub shoulders not only with each other but also with superb examples of Greek and Roman art, mostly from the Getty Collection. From museums and private collections all over the world come iconic works by Pablo Picasso, Giorgio De Chirico, Fernand Léger and Francis Picabia.

at111108e.jpgThe self-portrait of a young Picasso and the almost 2000-year-old Fayum mummy portrait of an equally young man exhibited next to it are striking in the way they speak to each other, as if they are long lost relatives.

at111108b.jpgA bronze portrait by Picasso of his mistress Marie-Therese proudly holds its own against ancient marble sculptures installed nearby. And Picasso's other numerous paintings and drawings, exuding his genius and superb self-confidence, serve in this exhibition as a perfect balance to the magic and power of the ancient works.

at111108c.jpgThere are also a few excellent paintings by Léger in addition to a mixed bag of works by de Chirico, whose art goes into decline in the late 1920s. And for the life of me, I cannot understand the presence of so many decorative, mediocre paintings by Picabia, with their muddy colors and confusing overlaying imagery. The artist obviously disapproved of the infatuation with the art of antiquity by some of his contemporaries, but his own artworks, with their ironic references to the past, come off as rather inept and lacking of conviction and energy.

Some museum exhibitions succeed in telling important stories. But this new exhibition at the Getty Villa not only accomplishes that; it also shows in spades how much love and passion its curators have for the art they searched out and chose to present in a very dynamic, unorthodox and personal fashion.

Modern Antiquity: Picasso, de Chirico, Léger, and Picabia in the Presence of the Antique
At the Getty Villa, now through January 16, 2012

Banner image: (L) Mummy Portrait of a Youth Romano-Egyptian, 150–250; Tempera on linen, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California; Gift of Lenore Barozzi
(C) Fernand Léger, Nude on a Red Background, 1927, Oil on canvas, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution; Photo by Lee Stalsworth
(R) Pablo Picasso, Self-Portrait, 1906, Oil on canvas, Private Collection