The sky’s so blue, in Malibu

I couldn’t help but use Miley lyrics in my villa post. I played Malibu on my first visit there and then Pompeii by Bastille came on shuffle. So meta.

As I discussed in my previous post, the Getty villa came before the center. Opened in 1974, the museum complex is nestled in the hills at the east end of Malibu, basically in the Pacific Palisades neighbourhood. Just like the center, it is dedicated to the study of art and culture but specifically the cultures of ancient Greece, Rome and Etruria.  There is a Conservation program on site which runs in conjunction with UCLA. The original ranch house now houses the curatorial team as well as meeting rooms and a library.

Currently the villa is in flux as the collection is ‘reimagined’. The collection has been based on theme, such as representations of women, hero portraits etc. The new goal is to have a narrative approach so that the art can be seen chronologically as it developed from the bronze age to the end of the Roman empire. In my Sculpture module at uni last year, we discussed at length the arguments for and against viewing antiquity in this linear approach. I have found that dividing items by the year they were produced or their location can project ideas onto them before one even has a chance to evaluate it objectively. To prevent us relying on/memorising categories, our professor would place an image of a sculpture on the screen and we would have to go around and say one thing about it. For example: ‘the hair is highly stylised in tight, unrealistic curls close to her head’ or ‘the musculature of the leg is realistic for the pose that the man’s body is in’. After such discussion, we would then go on and expand on points, e.g expanding on the first statement with ‘suggesting this sculpture is from the archaic period when they favoured depicting hair in this way’ and the second with ‘and so the sculptor was clearly working with a knowledge and understanding of the human form and physicality, something which came with the development of the classical style’. This way of studying the artworks allows you to evaluate the object at face value, and then one can study the ‘developments’ (although some argue this word alone is problematic lol) in style and technique to contextualise it. When collections are placed in a timeline or linear context it can be tempting, at least for me, to sort of check things off. E.g ‘Okay I’ll do the works from 3,000 BC to the first century A.D. before lunch’ or ‘I have to get through the first 200 years of Dutch art and then I’ll go to the Rembrandt section’ (in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam).

A better way of ~experiencing~ museums I discovered while in a small museum in Thessaloniki, Greece. I ignored/was too lazy to translate signs and just focused on the aesthetics of a few pieces; the ones that caught my eye. Later, when I hit the books, I could confidently place the pieces I had seen in their art historical context. It was satisfying, as their hallmarks and key features I had noticed on my own, rather than looking for them to identify their place in a preexisting timeline. This is a personal preference and I definitely do not want all collections to abandon the timeline of styles to fit to my way of learning. In order to appreciate the work of any artist or their respective movement it is necessary to understand how they fit into the art historical timeline. However, if I have learnt anything in my three years at St Andrews, it is that art historians should and do remain vigilant and ever questioning of how such timelines are constructed. In terms of museums, I think the more you’re encouraged to actively engage with and think through the object the better. It is a shame I was not able to see the Getty antiquities collection in its original state, however I am excited to see how the collection will be presented once the reimagining is completed.

Having discussed the changes occurring inside the villa, I think it would be apt to talk about the beauty of the exterior. The villa was renovated in the 90’s under the design of Rodolpho Machado and Jorge Silvetti. The site plan is supposed to make visitors feel as if they are at/part of an archaeological dig. As you enter, the walls and floor are varying shades of grey, with the walls seeming like exposed rock or brickwork and some grass. The levels around the villa itself are also varied, broken up by the café, restaurant, water features and amphitheater. These features create the archaeological dig simulation. It’s a cool idea because it makes you think about the process of antiquities; from the amphorae, sculptures, jewellery being dug up to being displayed in the collection. It helps bridge the gap between the original ‘home’ (controversial!) of these objects, Greece and Italy, and their current home. Such notions surrounding the provenance of objects from antiquity interests me a lot and this opportunity at the Getty will help my research greatly.

Once you step into the villa you leave the ‘dig’ feel completely and enter an overwhelmingly beautiful and polished space. The façade is white with the building’s room being red tiled. I thought a replica of a Roman villa would look strange amongst the kind of houses I imagined in LA. However, it is so nestled and hidden into the landscape above the PCH (pacific coast highway) that there is nothing for it to clash with. Additionally, many of the houses in the area and elsewhere have tiled roofs and white facades because of the heavy south American architectural influence.

I will let the photos below speak for themselves rather than describing the villa further but I will highlight my three favourite things/features I noticed on my first visit;

  1. The herb garden (or ‘erb garden’ as they say here) is SO amazing! It is located on the south side of the building. There are a number of different plants, flowers and herbs, many of which, or variations of, would have featured in the ancient villa garden. I would highly recommend starting a visit of by taking a leisurely stroll through the herb garden to experience the colours and scents of the plants and ending at the lookout to the sea.
  2. The Venus statue at the end of the outer peristyle. This statue stands in an alcove and is a replica of an ancient statue. It is known by many as the touching statue, as guests are encouraged to walk close and touch it. Around Venus are hundreds of blue notecards tied to the walls with string. Upon each are written dreams, hopes and aspirations of people from all over the world who have visited the villa. A blurb on the wall tells you how to greet the goddess and ask for her guidance or benevolence in the  same way as the ancients would have done. After leaving my own note, I watched several groups come through and excitedly add to the feature. It is one of the coolest ways I have seen museums engage with the visitors and the physicality and participation break through the ‘please do not touch’ vibe which can discourage some about museum spaces.
  3. The wall paintings! The walls of the inner peristyle are painted with boughs of musical instruments, flowers, masks, food, wine and other ancient imagery of leisure and merrymaking.

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