Museums Take a Cue from the Zoo

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She is, to put it mildly, quite obese. Actually, she is so huge that it's nearly impossible not to stare at her. She has been a celebrity for so long that at this point, she doesn't mind the gawking crowds. As befitting a superstar, she is known by her first name only. Everyone calls her Clara. Paris Hilton would kill for the secret to the unprecedented longevity of Clara's fame -- two hundred fifty years and counting, to be precise.

Last week, the gigantic portrait of Clara, painted on a canvas ten feet high and fifteen feet long, became the star attraction of an unusual exhibition at the Getty Museum. Don't be hard on yourself if you don't recognize the name of Jean-Baptiste Oudry, an 18th century French artist who painted the life-size portrait of Clara and those of other animals on display in this exhibition. Yes, Clara was an animal, a glorious example of the Indian Rhinoceros, brought to Holland in 1741. She became an instant celebrity, the first rhinoceros seen alive by thousands of curious people flocking to see her in hundreds of European cities on her extensive tour, which lasted until her death in England in 1758.

Oudry was a well-known artist in his time, a respected member of the Academy, counting among his patrons even the members of the Royal family. Though good at making still lifes and gallant scenes typical of the Rococo period, it's the majestic portraits of animals that earned Oudry a place in art history. The Getty exhibition, appropriately called Painted Menagerie, not only celebrates his art but also tells the story of the restoration by the Getty conservators of two of the paintings, including the portrait of Clara, which were in terrible condition when Getty scholars spotted them in the attic of a small German museum. Upon exiting this exhibition, the visitor encounters the ubiquitous museum gift shop selling books and various tchotchkes. Do you think that museum marketing was invented in our time? Wrong. When in the mid-18th century 'Claramania' swept Europe, one could easily buy souvenirs with her image: tapestries, porcelain figurines, commemorative coins. Inexpensive prints were sold at every stop on Clara's tour. Fashion-obsessed French aristocrats could even be seen sporting rhino-shaped hairdos. Hmmm...makes me think about this famous lock of hair protruding from the head of young Elvis.

Roughly one mile north of the Getty, in tandem with its painted menagerie, there is another exhibition brimming with animals begging you to play with them. Officially, the Skirball Center will not open its new exhibition Noah's Ark until the end of June, but sneak previews are already under way. This very ambitious and extremely imaginative installation tells the ancient story of the flood, and does so with rare ingenuity and a wicked sense of humor. Among several hundred animals on display, there are a few dozen that undoubtedly will make you giggle. And I mean that as a compliment. These sculptures by Brooklyn-based designer/puppeteer Chris Green simply steal the show: the crocodile whose head is a violin case and body is a fragment of rubber tire; the Kiwi birds, marching on paintbrush legs with a boxing glove for a body and an oil can for a beak. Noah's Ark is a rare example of an exhibition where children can learn and adults cannot help but act like kids, succumbing to the charm and wit that is the calling card of this show.

Oudry's Painted Menagerie
Getty Center
On view through September 2

Noah's Ark
Skirball Cultural Center
Opens June 26