States of the arts

Forget the world-class public museums which litter the United States - the real gems are the intimate and capricious collections of the New World's billionaire sons, says Robin Blake
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The Independent Culture
My Californian friend said: "You're a brave man coming to Los Angeles in search of culture." What he really meant was, "are you crazy?". It was a bit of what Australians call "cultural cringe" - the inferiority hard-wired into the New World as it contemplates the music, art and literature of the Old. But my friend was wrong. Over the last century Americans of the North have been occupied with West European art and culture as intensely as British football was taken up by those in the South.

It was the economic boom of the post-Civil War years that created wealth enough to leap the Euro-American cultural divide. The first step was to catch the steamer over for a Grand Tour, usually centring on France and Italy. The second was to hire scouts, write cheques, import crates, then box-cars, filled with art and furniture for the newly built mansions of the newly rich. Much of this loot is still privately owned, and more has been decanted into public museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Washington's National Gallery of Art, Detroit's Institute of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum.

These are world-class, hot-ticket museums. But, for the tourist, there is more charm in America's many stand-alone collections, kept together after their instigators' death as cenotaphs in oil on canvas. Like the stately homes of England, the interplay between the collector's personality, the works displayed and the setting often gives these collections an appeal greater than the sum of their parts. The Getty Museum is one most people would cite. The collection - all but the classical antiquities - is in the process of moving from its repro Roman villa in Malibu to a new bespoke building, making room for the relentless expansion that is written into the Getty's endowment. But there are at least three other major art collections in the Los Angeles area which, pooled with the Getty, have made southern California one of the best centres for publicly exhibited European paintings in the world.

In an efficient but rather lumpish modern building on Wilshire Boulevard can be found the relatively little-known collection of Armand Hammer, who had the dubious distinction of being Leonid Brezhnev's favourite billionaire. Its strength is 19th-century French art, with the continent's largest holding of Daumier, as well as Pissarro's fine and gaudy crow's-eye view of Boulevard Montmartre Mardi Gras, Bonnard's oddly posed, luminous Nude Against the Light and Gauguin's enigmatic Bonjour M Gauguin. Among four Van Goghs is his Hospital at St Remy. The yoke-yellow lunatic asylum is seen through a screen of writhing trees, whose boughs and leaves seem to flame up towards a vortex-like green-blue sky. The day I visited the Hammer it was all but deserted which lent a luxurious sense of privilege to the viewing of these exciting canvasses.

The Hammer Museum is choice but modest in size beside the Norton Simon - a curvaceous, refined Sixties building sitting proud of the smog in the Pasadena hills. Simon was a great collector of companies - Canada Dry was one of the many products in his portfolio - but even more of paintings, 12,000 of them, personally assembled with an eye that comfortably rivals the collective efforts of the Getty's buying committee. Simon's paintings come from every period, starting in the Quattrocento (Giovanni di Paolo's Branchini Madonna is a highlight) and ending with Picasso, Klee and Modigliani. There is a superb holding of Degas - paintings and bronzes, but especially fascinating is a student work, his full-size copy of Poussin's Rape of the Sabines from the Louvre. Meanwhile Tulips in a Vase is a landmark work by Cezanne and, going back to the Baroque, Rubens's David Slaying Goliath leaves an irre-sistibly powerful impression while Francisco de Zubaran's The Birth of the Virgin is a brilliantly modelled and coloured study of women in a delivery room. Hanging nearby is the same artist's hyperreal Lemons, Oranges and a Rose, one of the peaks of European still- life.

A short ride from Pasadena, the Huntington Museum and Library has the oldest pedigree of all Los Angeles private collections. This Beaux Arts mansion - which for decades was the home of railroad magnate Henry Edwards Huntington - contains dozens of portraits by Gainsborough, Reynolds, Romney and Lawrence, enough, should they ever be shipped en masse to Burlington House, to make a blockbuster exhibition all on their own. And this influx of 18th-century English swagger didn't come cheap. In the Twenties, Huntington paid the dealer Duveen $620,000 for Gainsborough's The Blue Boy, then regarded as an incredible sum. Housed in a separate and noble-minded building, the library has some of the world's most well-endowed book-stacks, with thousands of medieval manuscripts (including the earliest Canterbury Tales), the first printed book in English (Caxton's translation of Le Fevre's Le Receuil des Histoires de Troye), a Gutenberg Bible, 12 Shakespeare folios and 36 quartos. The coincidental existence of the 90,000 items in the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, now administered by UCLA, makes Los Angeles second to none in its possession of medieval manuscripts, incunabulae and early printed books.

A red-eye flight away, the Frick Collection of old masters and fine furniture can be seen in a beautifully-proportioned house on New York's 5th Avenue. Henry Clay Frick was another who conspicuously failed to cringe in the face of European art. This coke-to-steel millionaire pursued profits so ferociously that, on the day he was shot and stabbed by the anarchist Berkman, Frick continued dictating memos and letters despite having lost pints of blood. His art collection may represent the more sensitive side of corporate machismo, but it was accumulated with even more single-mindedness than his cash surplus. Frick held that if anything was more important than money it was art. Frick's house and its collection were finally left "for the use and benefit of all persons whomsoever" and it remains one of the most wonderful small museums in the world - richly furnished rooms, a cool central court (with, on a good day, live organ music) and art works of astounding quality. Holbein's Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, Veronese's Wisdom and Strength and the Choice of Hercules, Titians's Man in a Red Cap and Pietro Aretino are all here. Add five Turners, three Vermeers, four Rembrandts, eight Van Dycks and four Goyas and you have the pretext for an endless succession of repeat visits.

Up in Boston Isabella Stewart Gardner had been creating another cultural monument, and with a much greater range of objects - 2,500 of them spanning 30 centuries. The Gardner Museum - a Venetian palace, built as a home but with public admission always in mind - centres on a tall glass-roofed court whose controlled atmosphere has plants flowering year-round. It has numerous statues, architectural fragments, windows in Venetian Gothic and a 2nd- century Roman mosaic pavement and is overlooked by three storeys of galleries and rooms, stuffed with the pickings of an astute human magpie - Flemish tapestries, Medieval stained glass, Japanese screens. The Gardner's greatest treasure, among the Vermeers, Holbeins and Botticellis, is Titian's The Rape of Europa, often said to be the most important painting in North America.

Another outstanding collection on the Eastern seaboard is the Walters Gallery in Baltimore, Maryland which, killing time between Amtrak connections, I stumbled on by chance. Only 45 minutes by train from Washington DC and built up over an 80-year period from the railroad fortune of father and son William and Henry Walters, it shows their collecting style was nothing if not bold. Here are more than 100 Gothic ivories, almost 300 Sevres vases, seven Imperial Roman arcophagi, intensively carved with mythological scenes, a 6th-century, a 13th-century stained-glass window from the Abbey of St Germain des Pres in Paris, 22-piece silver Christian altar service dug out of the Syrian desert, a Renaissance armoury and one of the world's most romantic museum- pieces, a Byzantine vase fantastically carved from a single lump of agate and once owned by Rubens. All these, plus Chinese bronzes, Japanese ceramics, Books of Hours and room after room of paintings, of which Veronese's Lucia Thiene and her Daughter is one of the loveliest old-master portraits I know. The Gallery's sculpture court is also arresting. In the great American replica tradition, it is a copy of the cortile from the Palazzo Balbi in Milan.

Rather than this rampant eclecticism, some will prefer the narrow, deep focus of the Barnes Foundation at Merion Station near Philadelphia. This collection of early 20th-century French painting was the obsession of the irascible Albert C Barnes whose fortune, the equivalent to a small country's GNP, came from the sale of Argyrol which was, among other things, a clap cure. Barnes was a maverick. His educational art Foundation had employed Bertrand Russell in 1940 after New York University sacked the British philosopher as a "corrupter of public morals". But the Foundation was at the same time an oddly paranoid institution and only now, after Barnes's will has been successfully challenged, can scholars and the public easily view the hectares of impressionist, post-impressionist and early modern art on its walls - 200 Renoirs, almost 100 Cezannes, 60-odd Matisses and 30-plus rare early Picassos. Most of these were bought personally by Barnes in the early years of the century, picked out of the garrets and studios of Montparnasse and haggled over with the artists themselves.

The Barnes is one of the most fanatically thorough of American collections; the Walters is among the most exuberant. Some say these museums and foundations are simply bleeding chunks of European culture ripped from their context. Not me. There are art collections in America from Alabama to Wyoming and, like Babe Ruth's collection of home runs or Presley's golden discs, they are essential steps along the American way. !

USA TRAVEL NOTES

Getty Museum (001 310 458 2003), 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu; open Tues-Sun 10am-5pm; admission free; visitors arriving by car should call beforehand for parking reservation. Armand Hammer Museum (001 310 443 7000), 10899 Wilshire Boulevard, Westwood Village; open Tues, Wed, Fri, Sat 11am-7pm, Thurs 11am-9pm and Sun 11am-5pm; admission $4.50, free Thurs 6-9pm. Norton Simon Museum (001 213 681 2484), 411 West Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena; open Thurs-Sun 12-6pm; admission $4. Huntington Library (001 818 405 2274), 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino; open Tues-Sun 1-4.30pm, booking required on Sun; admission free. William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (001 213 731 8529), 2520 Cimarron Street, Los Angeles; research library, not open to the public without arrangement. Frick Collection (001 212 288 0700), 1 East 70th Street, New York; open Tues- Sat 10am-6pm and Sun 1-6pm; admission $5. Gardner Museum (001 617 566 1401), 280 The Fenway, Boston; open Tues-Sun 11am-5pm; admission $9. Walters Gallery (001 410 547 9000), 600 North Charles Street, Baltimore; open Tues, Wed, Fri 10am- 4pm and Sat, Sun 11am-5pm; admission $8. Barnes Foundation (001 610 667 0290), 300 North Latch's Lane, Merion Station, Pensylvania; open Thurs 12.30- 5pm, Fri, Sat, Sun 9.30am-5pm; admission $5.

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