There are two names on my mind right now --Doris Duke and Norton Simon, --two people that are obviously a world apart. But last week, I went to the opening of two exhibitions in LA that give rare insights on their lives and their obsession with art collecting.
LA Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall Park is hosting a travelling exhibition, Doris Duke's Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape and Islamic Art, which tells the story of tobacco heiress, Doris Duke (1912 - 1993), and her passion for collecting Islamic artworks during her numerous trips to the Islamic world.
The exhibition features more than 60 objects of ceramic, textile, jewelry and painting, as well as numerous photographs of the young heiress with her friends -- all having a grand ol' time in Shangri La, her resplendent five-acre estate in Honolulu. Through nearly sixty years of collecting, Doris Duke amassed over 2,500 art objects, many of them incorporated into the very structure of Shangri La. Today, it not only functions as a museum, but also houses artists in residence. Some of these artists' works are incorporated in this traveling exhibition at LA Municipal Gallery.
Doris Duke, the "Richest Girl in the World" (Putnam 1994), had two tumultuous marriages and numerous affairs. However, the most passionate and long lasting was her love affair with art -- art of the Islamic world. And this exhibition gives Doris Duke well deserved respect as a serious and dedicated collector and philanthropist.
The second exhibition I want to talk about is Lock, Stock and Barrel: Norton Simon's Purchase of Duveen Brothers Gallery at Norton Simon Museum. It tells the amazing story of Norton Simon's genius -- as an art collector and as a businessman. In the mid 1960's, he managed to acquire not only the whole inventory of about 800 objects from the highly esteemed Duveen Brothers Gallery, but also the very gallery building, with its library and archives. Lock, stock and barrel indeed. And for all that, he paid $4,000,000; good money today, huge money in the 1960's. Being a very smart collector with excellent advisors at his side, Norton Simon decided to keep just a few dozen of the best artworks from the Duveen collection, and sold the rest of the art inventory, including the library and valuable gallery building on East 79th St. With these sales, Mr. Simon was able to recoup most of the $4,000,000. How about that?
For decades, visitors to Norton Simon Museum could see only the best of what he acquired from Duveen Brothers, including the extremely rare painting by Giorgione, Portrait of a Courtesan, 1509. Now, this new exhibition for the first time reunites everything that Mr. Simon kept from this unique purchase -- artworks on permanent display as well as artworks in museum storage. You definitely don't want to miss the pleasure of deciding for yourself which of these Old Master paintings and sculptures should remain on permanent display, and which should return to the Siberia of museum storage.
And let me finish with a rather unbelievable case of Life imitating Art. A few days ago, I found myself staring at the front page of the Los Angeles Times, at what initially appeared to be a reproduction of one of the most famous paintings in the Getty Museum collection, James Ensor's Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889. But in fact, what I was staring at in the LA Times was a photo of the massive 1994 political rally in LA. The similarities in composition between the two, and even their color schemes, are mind-boggling. Do me a favor and visit Art Talk's website, look at this photo next to Ensor's painting and then tell me, am I crazy?
Edward Goldman is an art critic and the host of Art Talk, a program on art and culture for NPR affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM. To listen to the complete show and hear Edward's charming Russian accent, click here.