Getty Villa Reinstallation Provides New Perspective on Antiquities

Getty Villa

The stunning Getty Villa is reopening April 18, 2018, after a complete reinstallation and reorganization to offer a new perspective on its antiquities collection. The Getty Villa, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, houses the J. Paul Getty Museum’s vast wealth of Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities, which comprises about 44,000 objects.

Nearly every piece in the museum was moved in the extensive effort to reconfigure how the artifacts, spanning 7,000 years from the end of the Stone Age to the fall of the Roman Empire, are displayed. For those unfamiliar with the Getty Villa, the two-floor building itself is a museum piece. It is a replica of the Villa dei Papiri, a Roman residence in Herculaneum, Italy, that was buried in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.

Two special exhibits are opening at the Getty Villa on April 18 as well. One is on “Palmyra: Loss and Remembrance,” featuring distinctive funerary portraits from the Syrian city. The other, “Plato in LA: Contemporary Artists’ Visions,”looks at how today’s artists interpret the ancient Greek’s work.

Rethinking the context

Getty VillaThe way a collection is installed drives a narrative. The previous Getty Villa layout told the social history of life in the ancient world. Things were arranged thematically, such as works depicting gods and heroes in one area, and athletes in another, regardless of timeframe. As Timothy Potts, director of the Getty Museum noted, “What was missing to my eye was the art history.”

The renovation put artworks into chronological order and historical context. “It is grouped by cultures. You can see how they progressed through time, how style evolved,” Potts added. Works that belong together, aesthetically and stylistically, are now in close proximity.

The results of the effort are evident in the area showing items from Neolithic and Bronze Age Greece. The pieces were probably lost mixed in with later pieces, but they now stand out in their uniqueness. Curiously, the oldest material at the Getty Villa, the 6,000 B.C. Neolithic clay figurines from the Cycladic islands seem the most modern. The deceptively simple stone carvings resemble 20th century sculptures by Constantin Brâncuși.

Other changes at the Getty Villa include the addition of 3,000 square feet in gallery space by structure changes and repurposing of underutilized areas, such as eliminating one of two coat checks (this is L.A!). Light fixtures were updated and the new LED lights let objects shine.

“I am particularly pleased that the process of planning this reinstallation has prompted us to explore the collection in greater depth, which in turn has led to identifying objects in storage that could be placed on view after many years, “ Potts said. Those seeing daylight include first-century A.D. frescoes from the Villa of Numerius Popidius Florus at Boscoreale, near Pompeii. These newly conserved wall coverings were from a resident similar to the one the Getty Villa is based on, so it adds context to see them on the Getty walls.

Two large sky-lit galleries devoted to Roman sculpture will highlight a number of life-size and larger Roman works that have been off view in recent years, including the “Statue of a Female Figure,” which is reunited with its recently acquired head. Another area was established to highlight the facility’s latest acquisitions. It currently features a rectangular two-sided first century Roman relief depicting theater masks. One side shows a bearded man with a scepter and the other younger man with a lyre. The reverse has a low relief of a balding satyr. This type of relief sculptures stood on courtyard pillars in Italian luxury homes.

Follow the numbers

While visitors might enter the museum from different walkways out of the parking structures, the reinstallation offers a pathway through history for visitors. Starting on the ground floor, they can walk through in chronological order (galleries are numbered making it easy to determine where to go next). Downstairs finds primarily objects from Greece, while upstairs is largely Roman.

Here are some highpoints:

  • A renovated gallery dedicated to the age of Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic world (336-30 B.C.). The focal point is “The Victorious Youth (aka the “Getty Bronze”),” which shows it is a masterpiece compared to other objects of the same period and style, including a marble Alexander the Great.
  • The Etruscan gallery emphasizes a particular strength of the Getty collection, including several related bronzes as well as candelabra attributed to a Vulcian workshop. The area contains a 5th-century B.C. bronze appliqué depicting the Etruscan Sun God Usil (the equivalent of Greek god Helios and Roman god Sol) the museum acquired recently. This type of appliqué would have decorated funeral carts or chariots used for burying the region’s equestrian elite.
  • Three opulent areas are highlights of any Getty Villa visit. The Basilica and the Hall of Marbles feature amazing arrays of marble in recreations of an upscale 1st century home and key sculptures. The Temple of Hercules (which features an exact replica of the belvedere floor from the villa in Herculaneum) was built to house a work Mr. Getty considered to be his most important, the Lansdowne Hercules (A.D. 125).
  • Two superb selections of Roman gold coins and medallions on loan from private collections and the Getty collection of Roman coins, vessels, figurines, and jewelry are displayed in the Roman Treasury. There are multimedia screens nearby so visitors can click on a photo of any small coin from display rack, and see the skill and extraordinary details on the manually carved items enlarged. They can also see the backside onscreen, which otherwise could not be viewed.
  • There is also an area detailing the life and legacy of billionaire oilman J. Paul Getty as an art collector, as well as one explaining about the villa’s design.

Palmyra’s PGetty Villaast

One first floor gallery is dedicated to presenting “The Classical World in Context” through long-term loans of works that illustrate how cultures interacted in the ancient world. An exhibit looking at Greece and Egypt opened in March at the Getty Center, the museum’s main facility. The first exhibit, “Palmyra: Loss and Remembrance,” demonstrates how ancient Palmyra’s cosmopolitan culture intermingled elements from other ancient civilizations. Most pieces on display at the Getty until May 27, 2019, come from the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, which has the largest collection of artifacts from ancient Syria.

Palmyra was an oasis for caravans crossing the Silk Road. Situated between two great empires, Rome and Parthia (northeastern Iran), its art reflects elements from both. Today, Palmyra is in the north part of Syria, and was largely destroyed by ISIS. A poignant display at the Getty Villa compares the city before and after.

The people in ancient Palmyra embellished tombs with distinctive limestone funerary portraits. The exhibit showcases these vivid likenesses with detailed hairstyles, attire, gestures and jewelry.

One noteworthy piece, “The Beauty of Palmyra, A.D. 190-210,” is the best preserved with signs of paint and gilding missing from others. Contrary to popular belief, many classical sculptures were not white originally. “The Beauty of Palmyra,” a bejeweled female with Eastern headdress, still shows red flecks on her cheeks and in her hair along with gold on her necklaces.

Also noteworthy are reliefs of a father and son. In 1880, Leland Stanford Jr. purchased one, which is now part of the visual arts collection at Stanford University. In 1929, the Carlsberg Glyptotek obtained the other from a Beirut collector. They are reunited for the first time in the Getty exhibition.

The Getty Villa is located on Pacific Coast Highway in Pacific Palisades (between Santa Monica and Malibu). Admission to the Getty Villa and the reinstallation of its antiquities collection is always free, but a ticket is required and can be ordered online or by telephone.

By Dyanne Weiss

Villa tour and press event April 13, 2017
J. Paul Getty Trust
Guide to the Getty Villa

Photos by Dyanne Weiss