The Getty Villa: The ‘Wow’ Factor
Before me sat a poet, flanked on each side by his muses. Was this Orpheus himself? His lyre was missing, and he looked off in the distance. Were the muses there to inspire him, or perhaps, to inspire me?
No, this was not just another late night of hanging out with Mary Kate and Ashley and one of their glazed-eyed rocker beaus — on this mid-morning my tastes were more classical: I was touring the newly restored Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, which opened to the public on Jan. 28.
To cut to the chase: The Getty Villa is magnificent, wonderful, in short, as my daughter said after jet skiing for the first time: “It was totally awesome.” First, a bit of history. J. Paul Getty was an oil scion, born in Minneapolis in 1892, who attended USC and Berkeley and graduated Oxford in 1914. He made his first million by 1916 and retired in 1917 to become a Hollywood playboy — but like so many careers in Hollywood, it was no way to live, so he returned to business. As founder of Getty Oil, he became one the world’s first billionaires. He wrote a book called, “How to Be Rich,” which, as the title indicates, is different from how to become rich.
In 1945, Getty purchased a 64-acre site in Pacific Palisades, and less than a decade later built the J. Paul Getty Museum to exhibit his expanding collection of Old Master paintings and sculptures, many of which were antiquities. In 1968, Getty got the idea of recreating a Roman country house as home for his collections, choosing as his inspiration the Villa dei Papiri, a first century Roman country house in Herculaneum that was buried, along with Pompeii, by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E.
Although the Roman villa was only ever partially excavated, and remains buried to this day, engineers had drawn a putative map of the property, and these became the basis for Getty’s villa.
The Getty museum opened in 1974. There was some controversy at the time over the whole notion of “recreating” a villa — an act of appropriation replete with a lack of authenticity one might deride as a rich man’s whim. Over time, the objections became more muted. Getty died in 1976, and the museum continued to be an important Southern California art destination until 1997, when it was closed for renovation — six months before the opening of the new Getty on the hills above Brentwood and the 405 Freeway.
In case you never visited the Palisades Getty in its prior incarnation, you used to enter via elevator right into the building. The rooms were dark and stuffy. There was no good way to get from the first to second floor, except by a narrow staircase. In order to protect some of the artworks from the light, there were few windows if any. What people remembered most about the Getty Center were its gardens, a peristyle around a pool, as well as the little cafe in the back where one could have tea. That, and the complicated reservation and parking arrangement.
What a difference a $275 million renovation makes.
One now arrives to a cobblestone street and an imposing portico. This allows you to look down the canyon and out to the sea. You also get a good view of the mansion below it, the Villa Leon, which is the classical building one sees from the Pacific Coast Highway that many mistake for the Getty but which is a private home that has been on the market for many years. From the portico or from the parking garage of the villa, you take a path along a walkway carved into the side of the canyon, leading to “the arrival balcony,” part of a calculated strategy by Boston-based architects Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti to deliver a “Wow!” moment.
Wow! Indeed. As you turn the corner, you are dazzled by a 180-degree panorama that looks over the roof of the villa itself, down the canyon and out to the sea. You can take in the breadth of the outdoor peristyle gardens, the new entrance of the Getty Villa in all its classical splendor, and then look up the hill to the new structures, the cafe (you order the food and they bring it out to you) with indoor and outdoor seating and a snack cart, as well as a new museum gift shop, the Getty ranch house and the new buildings devoted to staff, conferences, conservation and education.
In this way the architects have surrounded the restored Getty Villa with new buildings engaging in a dialogue between new and old, just as the villa itself engages in a dialogue between interior and exterior and a conversation between the classical form of a Roman home and the high-tech state-of-the-art installation of the holdings inside.
What Machado and Silvetti have done is to make of the villa itself an object of art to be contemplated and appreciated — something that never happened in the prior incarnation. This is also a nod to the Getty Center whose building and gardens have become the stars as much, if not more, than the collections inside. Also attached to the new Getty Villa is a 250-seat indoor theater, as well as several classrooms. All this and we haven’t even entered the villa yet.
Get ready for another “Wow” moment: You enter into an atrium which leads into the inner peristyle, and flows to a new grand staircase, framing a view of the colorful mosaic fountain in the east garden.
Now for the art: The Getty will feature some 1,200 items from its collection of approximately 44,000 objects spanning 6,500 B.C.E. to the 10th century C.E. I can’t tell you whether what remains in storage outshines what is presented; or if only exhibiting a small fraction of them is a disappointment. But I can say that what is showcased is done in a very aesthetically pleasing manner.
The 23 galleries, once organized chronologically, are now grouped by themes. The ground floor features rooms devoted to gods and goddesses, mythological monsters and heroes (including art devoted to stories from the Trojan War), a basilica and a room devoted to the Temple of Herakles, which features a gorgeous and intricately patterned mosaic floor. It is here you will find Orpheus, along with Zeus, Hera and Apollo, all looking better than ever (this is Los Angeles; assume they’ve had work done).
I regret to report that you will not be attending weddings in the basilica, or dancing the hora in the amphitheater. Due to the restrictive covenants under which the Getty operates, as well agreements made with the neighbors, the Getty Villa will not be available for private family and social functions.
However, families and children of all ages will certainly enjoy two rooms on the ground floor: “the family forum,” a kid-friendly art room, where children can shadow-play and decorate vases, thereby learning about the forms and variety of Greek vases, as well as “the Timescape room,” a clever interactive exhibit that places the Getty Villa and its holdings of Greek, Roman and Etruscan art in historical context.
One of the architectural challenges facing Machado and Silvetti was the flow from ground floor to the second level. To this end they designed a grand staircase — it is their artistic flourish, their own signature piece in the Getty Villa.
The first thing one appreciates on the second floor is the light. The upstairs now has 58 more windows and three new skylights (one of which, above the atrium, can be opened), as well as several accessible terraces.
The galleries focus on life in the ancient world, men, women, sports, coins and jewelry. My favorite was the amphora given to winners of athletic competitions, as well as the ceramics depicting the competitions themselves.
There are also five galleries for changing exhibitions. The first three exhibitions to be shown at the Getty are: “Antiquity and Photography,” featuring early photos of the Parthenon and the Sphinx, as well as some of the earliest Daguerrotypes; “The Getty Villa Reimagined,” which looks at the models and designs which led to the current renovation, and “Glassmaking in Antiquity,” which features highlights from the recently acquired Oppenlander glass collection which features beautiful exemplars of Jerusalem glass.
One of the most impressive aspects of the Getty Villa is the display. The rooms are painted in colors that suggest the classical world yet complement the holdings presented. No room feels overcrowded. The cases, many of which have built-in stabilizers for earthquake protection, are placed at a comfortable eye level.
Machado and Silvetti also designed the mosaic floors in the galleries and which are graceful and at the same time whimsical.
Even as I give credit where credit is due both to architects and to acting curator Carole Wright, I wonder: What is it about Greco-Roman and Etruscan antiquities that compels our attention?
Part of it is a worship of and curiosity about the great cultures that came before us. Part of it is a fascination with objects that carried great import to past societies. Or that reveal life in ancient times. The reach of the Greek and Roman empires extended throughout Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia, and as such can be seen as the cradle from which much of Western culture sprung.
But more than any of the above, there is a beauty we recognize in Greco-Roman antiquities that touches us even today. Much of modern art has been about, as Robert Hughes dubbed it, “the shock of new.”
And while much of modern art has focused on dissonance and cutting through the clutter, ancient art speaks of harmony.
Part of what is so pleasing about the Getty Villa is that the building itself and the gardens are, like the Greco-Roman art it displays, all about proportion. The interplay of interior and exterior, the sight lines and the vistas, the columns and the height of the rooms, even the space afforded in most galleries relative to the number of items exhibited, all contrive to give pleasure from harmonious proportions.
As I toured the Getty Villa, I also pondered the intersection of Hellenism and Judaism. As you are probably aware, when Alexander the Great conquered the Middle East, in the fourth century B.C.E., he allowed the Jewish people great freedoms and the right to practice their religion. As a result, many Jewish parents began naming their children Alexander, a tradition that continues today in all its international variants such as Xander, Sandor and Sasha.
For several centuries, Jews continued to thrive under Greek leaders. The Torah was translated into Greek (some claim the translation was for the Great Library in Alexandria and was from the Aramaic before there was even a Hebrew version). Some claim that 72 scholars were assembled to compile it. In any event, there is lore to the effect that Greek is a language especially pleasing to the Hebrew deity.
Although Babylonia may have been the first Jewish exile community, it was among the Greeks that assimilation first became an issue (so much so that in those days Jews called assimilation “Hellenism”).
The complaints may sound familiar: Jews were forgetting the ways of their forefathers. They could no longer read, write or speak Hebrew — having turned to Greek instead. They were not observing the commandments, and could no longer say the prayers. The Sabbath was not being observed: Worse yet, young men were engaging in athletics on the Sabbath, throwing the discus or participating in wrestling competitions (the rabbis were particularly offended that wrestling was in the nude; but my guess is that the Jewish mothers weren’t so crazy about all that fighting). There was even a reform movement led by rabbis, Jewish philosophers and Jews practicing new forms of Greek-leavened Judaism.
To many, it was a golden age. The Greeks were an intellectual society who venerated the old but appreciated youth; they were intellectual yet hedonistic. Jews began to flourish in society. But alas, assimilation, as manifested through its expression in a succession of societies to present time, has often charted a historical trajectory, much like that of Icarus, of exaltation and exhilaration followed by bad news and worse news.
As our young Chanukah scholars will tell you — Hellenism reached its nadir for Jews when Antiochus IV banned Judaism in the second century B.C.E., and insisted Jews worship the Greek Gods. A further blow followed when the Maccabees, Jewish zealots, successful in their revolt against the Greeks and Syrians, put to death those fellow Jews whom they found not sufficiently observant.
Which brings me back to the Getty Villa. Part of the terrible beauty we see in antiquities is the knowledge that the societies that created them are no more. Their gods and their beauty could not protect them from the inexorable march of fate.
Whether as per Robert Frost’s formulation, you side with ice or fire, or per the Greeks with the Hedonists or the Stoics, or in our times with the observant or the assimilated of all faiths, the Getty Villa has reopened in the Palisades to allow us to appreciate the beauty that Greco-Roman culture gave us, both fleeting and lasting. Not only that, now you can also grab a bite at the cafe, and buy a memento mori at the museum store.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.