Snobbery and wealth, like love and marriage, don't always go together. The same holds for knowledge and money, as in "He's got more dollars than sense."
At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the complex relationships among taste, affluence and wisdom take fascinating shape in an exhibition of about 150 treasures that once belonged to William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) and are now scattered all over the U.S. and Europe. Beautifully installed in specially built galleries, and accompanied by a refreshingly readable catalog, "Hearst the Collector" upends all sorts of clichés.
It begins with a big one: Hearst's reputation as a power-mongering sensationalist who lacked the critical discernment of old-school collectors.
The myth, propagated by Orson Welles' unflattering depiction of Hearst in "Citizen Kane," is that the publishing magnate and movie producer, who was twice elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, was a vulgar indulger with a voracious appetite for expensive things that he purchased to pack his extravagant mansions in San Simeon, Santa Monica, New York, Wales, Long Island and Northern California.
It is true that Hearst bought Greek vases, Roman silver, illuminated manuscripts, medieval armor, reliquary statues, glazed ceramics, Renaissance tapestries, marble statues, ornate furniture, Navajo blankets and oil paintings in such volume that the U.S. Customs Service often did not have the staff to open his crates and evaluate their contents. It simply taxed them by weight, which was measured by the ton.
But just because somebody has a lot of loot does not mean that it's second-rate or that the individual is inattentive to details, unappreciative of nuance, clueless about uniqueness and unaware of how the objects interact with one another. Quality and quantity come into conflict only on a budget.
And on a budget Hearst definitely wasn't.
Nearly everything in this manageably scaled exhibition is exquisite. And the way it has been laid out, in neat, nearly perfect symmetry by Mary L. Levkoff, LACMA's curator of European painting and sculpture, reveals Hearst's vision, intelligence and originality.
The centerpiece is a mother-of-pearl box made in India and fitted in Paris with emeralds, agates and garnets, all set in fantastically crafted silver gilt mounts. This luxe container once belonged to King Francis I of France and is now in the Louvre, having been sold by Hearst, along with about half his collection, when his businesses faced bankruptcy in the 1930s.
Four hall-like galleries radiate from the jeweled box, forming a cross. The long, vertical ones feature four gorgeous, mural-scale tapestries woven in the Netherlands in the first decades of the 16th century. The shorter, horizontal ones contain two marble sculptures, the stately "Hope Hygieia" from 2nd century Rome and the sensuous "Venus Italica," carved by Antonio Canova between 1804 and 1814, as well as four suits of armor: one Gothic and meant for business, two streamlined for tournaments and a magnificently etched Italian one, decorated with gold and worn ceremonially.
Four narrow galleries run off the horizontal axis. All contain impressive arrays of vessels: 25 2,000-year-old terra-cotta vases from Greece and southern Italy; dazzling examples of tin-glazed earthenware dishes from 15th century Spain; crystal-clear Bohemian glassware from the 16th century; and gilt silver bowls, chalices and steins from 17th century Germany, England and Switzerland.
A side door leads to three more galleries. The first, filled with natural light, includes three paintings of sumptuous nudes lolling in Edenic landscapes by François Boucher. All once adorned Hearst's Santa Monica mansion, where his paramour, actress Marion Davies, lived while Hearst produced 40 movies in which she starred.
The second gallery contains a placid tapestry and four dour portraits of stately, introspective ladies. The oils on canvas, by Jacques-Louis David, Joshua Reynolds and Anthony van Dyck, contrast dramatically with a single painting by Boucher, "Venus Disarming Cupid," that sticks out like a sore thumb. All hung in the Long Island home of Hearst's estranged wife, the estate that inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby."
As a collector, Hearst played by his own rules. Buying in bulk, he sought out objects in which sturdy utilitarianism, exquisite craftsmanship and sensible beauty merged.
His collection conveys great enthusiasm for the ways people from different times and places lived. It also expresses an insatiable curiosity about the diverse ways they celebrated the high points of life.
In a sense, Hearst's collection is a one-man version of an encyclopedic museum such as LACMA. Over the last six years of his life, he donated about 900 objects to the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art, helping form the foundation that eventually became today's museum.
At a time when overspecialization seems to be taking over every aspect of life, and the world seems to be increasingly made up of customized niches, it's heartening to encounter a generalist such as Hearst, whose appetite for the best and the most speaks of a deep love of human resourcefulness and individual inventiveness.
The rich may not be like us. But the super-rich are something else altogether.
Pagel is a freelance writer.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun