Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Norton Simon Museum

The Norton Simon Museum was originally the Pasadena Art Museum. Designed by Pasadena architects Thornton Ladd and John Kelsey of the firm 'Ladd + Kelsey', that museum was completed in 1969. The distinctive and modern curvilinear exterior facade is faced in 115,000 glazed tiles, in varying rich brown tones with an undulating surface, made by renowned ceramic artisan Edith Heath. Unfortunately, the Pasadena Museum ran into financial difficulties (sound familiar?) and when Norton Simon came knocking, they were receptive to his offer. Billionaire Simon had risen to become one of the pre-eminent art collectors in the world and had been looking for a location for his already huge art collection.

 Garden at the Norton Simon Museum
In 1995, the Museum began a major renovation with the architect Frank Gehry. The redesign resulted in more intimate galleries, improved lighting, increased rotating exhibition space, an entire floor devoted to Asian art, and restored access to the gardens. The gardens were redesigned by Power and Associates to house the 20th century sculpture collection in an engaging setting.

Vincent Van Gogh. The Mulberry Tree.

The museum is exquisite. Both LACMA and the Getty are great museums but they are also huge and overwhelming. Like Goldilocks said of her porridge, this one is just right - not too large but not too small either and a collection of stunning beauty and scope.  The museum has two levels. The Main or Upper Level houses European and American Art from the 14th to the 20th century. The Lower Level is home to an extensive Asian Art Collection with South and South Asian sculptures, antiquities and architectural features. The temporary exhibit galleries are also downstairs. There are three sculpture gardens, two accessible from the Main Level, one from the Lower Level.
On the Main Level, there is a 300 seat theater. If you have time, any of the four orientation films shown throughout the day will give you additional insight into the collection. One is a 30 minute documentary about Norton Simon and his passion for art, the other three are 20 minute segments from the PBS special Sister Wendy at the Norton Simon Museum. Naturally, there is a well stocked bookstore and the guide to the museum is the most complete one of several guides to different museums that I bought on my visit.

The galleries on the main level are all in a row, so you can walk up one side of each wing and down the other and see everything. The exhibits are chronological though, so if you want to compare art from the same time period, you'll need to view each room before moving on to the next. Or you can just move as the spirit takes you.

Francisco de Zurburan's Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose (1633)

 The Impressionists collection is very popular and it's easy to understand why. In two or three well organized galleries, you can see paintings by Matisse, Renoir, Van Gogh, Manet, Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cezanne and Degas, with multiple examples of each. The museum has over 100 works by Edgar Degas, including drawings, paintings, sculptures and the bronze modèles he used as studies for his larger sculptures. But the old master collection is not to be sneered at; it has robably the most impressive group of Rembrandt paintings on the West Coast, 17th century Dutch landscapes and a room full of medieval art, Madonnas, and other devotional paintings.

Degas, After the Bath, Pastel, 1890.

The museum owns 45 Picasos from early pre-cubist drawings to bronze sculptures and the well-known cubist icon, Woman with a Book. About a dozen pieces by the artist are on display at any one time. But what is even more remarkable is the small but select group of early 20th century Russian paintings made during the heady early days of the Russian Revolution before Stalin crushed the early idealism. 

The Rodin collection in front of the museum entrance is another stellar standout. Not only does the Norton Simon have one of the 12 copies of Auguste Rodin's six-figure Burghers of Calais, but they also have several of Rodin's studies of the individual figures that he created before compiling the six men into one sculpture. The Burghers of Calais was commissioned by the city of Calais to honor the sacrifice of six wealthy citizens who hostaged themselves to the King of England in 1347 to free their town. In the final sculpture, the six men are in ragged clothes with nooses around their necks. Before creating the composite piece, Rodin sculpted each man alone, first unclothed and then clothed. You can see Rodin's development of these individual characters in those studies on display around the front garden. 

The lower level has the Asian art galleries, including several sculptures from Southeast Asia which were apparently acquired in a somewhat illegal way. * Unfortunately, that's nothing new and at least we can be glad that later purchases were acquired by more legal means. When I was there, the Hiroshige show was on the verge of closing but the permanent collection is worth a separate visit because, as in the galleries above, the rooms are packed with treasures. Some of the finest works in this part of the collection are bronze and gilt-copper alloy deities from Nepal and Tibet around the 13th century. These include a large standing figure of the goddess Tara, a beautiful figure of Indra in regal recline, and a Nepali Bodhisattva of the early Malla period.

*"Hell, Yes, It Was Smuggled!"
Lucian Harris for The Art Newspaper Lucian Harris for The Art Newspaper,


Zoomie said...

I gather smuggling was pretty common in the late '60s when Asian countries were beginning to realize how many of their national treasures were leaving their countries and began to deny export.

Interesting museum - I will definitely visit it next time I'm in LA.

namastenancy said...

Simon stopped collecting Asian art in the early 1980s, by which time he had turned the ailing Pasadena Art Museum into the Norton Simon Museum, By that time, the international art market was more sensitive (or trying to be more sensitive) to ethical issues.

But this is his original comment, published in the NY Times: "Hell, yes, it was smuggled," he was quoted as saying. "I spent between $15 and $16 million in the last two years on Asian art, and most of it was smuggled." (from Lucian Harris article).

I think that if your time is limited, this is the one, "Must See" museum. Every piece is a gem. If you get tired, there's always the peaceful back garden with a coffee/sandwich kiosk where you can rest and recover. The group that I was with just did too much in too short a time and it was utterly exhausting. But if I go back, I'd plan my visit about this museum - maybe even go back a second day and skip the other huge museums. LACMA is too large to be managed and while I loved the Getty, the Norton Simon is more intimate.