What do Einstein, Napoleon, Arnold Schoenberg & Billy Wilder Have in Common?

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Last week I suffered an embarrassment of riches. If my arithmetic doesn't fail me, I attended ten exhibitions, in four different museums, in two cities. Four of these exhibitions were new, and had the traditional press opening, followed by a public reception. At this point I can see that you're rolling your eyes. Poor Edward. The suffering he must endure on a weekly basis.

Two major new exhibitions at the Getty allow a visitor the pleasure of plunging into the romantic and turbulent currents of early and mid-19th Century European history. Even two hundred years after his death, Napoleon still remains for us the quintessentially romantic, larger than life historical figure. Jacque-Louis David, the most celebrated painter of his era, glorified the emperor in a series of spectacular portraits, including the famous 1801 Napoleon Crossing The Alps, showing the emperor perched dramatically on a rearing horse while calling his troops into battle. This is the first-ever exhibition of Jacque-Louis David in this country, and it smartly concentrates on the lesser-known, latter part of his career as a portraitist while living in exile in Brussels.

The mid-19th century British photographer Roger Fenton, is the subject of another groundbreaking Getty exhibition. Trained as a painter and lawyer, Roger Fenton fell in love with the then-new medium of photography and devoted ten years of his life to it only to abruptly abandon it, being disillusioned by what he felt was the increasing commercialization of photography. Hmm...I wonder what he would say about it today. The exhibition is roughly divided between some superb architectural images and the earliest known photographs documenting the perils of war, in this case the Crimean war of 1855. This is probably the first time that a photographer, using today's jargon, was "embedded" with troops.

I drove another mile up the 405 to the Skirball, which, since my visit there last year, has expanded yet again. Being a European transplant myself, I found the subject of the newest exhibition there is simply irresistible: European Jewish -migr-s in L.A. during the 30's and 40's. Among the usual suspects such as Billy Wilder and Arnold Shoenberg, are some lesser-known figures such as the collector Galka Scheyer, who was the subject of the recent two-part survey at the Norton Simon museum. And my all-time favorite Salka Viertel, a screenwriter, whose house in Santa Monica was known as the gathering place of such luminaries as Bertold Brecht, Aldous Huxley and Greta Garbo, among others. Salka Viertel's memoirs The Kindness of Strangers is a must-read insider's look into the cultural life of early Hollywood.

Very popular with the public, especially with school kids, is the Skirball exhibition about Einstein and the impact of his achievements both as a scientist and a humanitarian. Among rare documents and artifacts are his Nobel Prize medal, and the pages from his manuscript on the theory of relativity. But from a purely artistic point of view, the exhibition that caught my imagination was "Time/Space, Gravity and Light" that was organized as a compliment to the larger Einstein exhibition. Employing science and technology, the artists created highly imaginative and strangely captivating art works, which wouldn't be conceivable without the contributions of this famous man with an equally famous halo of wiry white hair.

Jacque Louis David: Empire to Exile
Through April 24, 2005
J. Paul Getty Museum

All the Mighty World: The Photographs of Roger Fenton, 1852-1860
Through April 24, 2005
J. Paul Getty Museum

Driven Into Paradise: L.A.'s European Jewish Emigres of the 30's and 40's
Through May 8, 2005
Ruby Gallery at the Skirball Cultural Center

Getty Gallery at the Skirball Cultural Center
Through May 29th, 2005

Time/Space Gravity & Light
Through February 27, 2005
Milken Gallery at the Skirball Cultural Center