Sunday, April 12, 2009

El Greco's "Christ on the Cross"



I visited the Getty Museum in L.A. recently. As you no doubt already know, it's a renowned and controversial museum. --Renowned for the sheer volume of art it owns, much of it from uniformly famous European artists. --Controversial because it is a massive museum on a hill overlooking Hollywood and Santa Monica, as much a visual testament to one capitalist's ego as Hearst Castle is.

Also, a lot of curators think J. Paul Getty just bought indiscriminately and/or bought (sometimes) because the price was right. He would also do things like sell a painting, wait for its price to drop (because of the market), and buy it back.

Nonetheless, Getty was a lifelong, dedicated collector who assiduously kept notes on art he liked. He'd earned a a degree at Oxford (after attending USC and Berkeley)--in political science, I think--so with regard to art he was pretty much an autodidact. His money came, at first, from Oklahoma oil. His father was an investor.

The good news about the Getty is that J. Paul left SO much money in trust that it generates vast amounts of capital and makes the museum free to the public. So enormous numbers of people get to look at extraordinary art for free. Whether this free availability of art is achieved through the Getty way or through public financing, I like it. It's the way things should work. Also, the other end of the spectrum--art that's just emerging, art from artists now--needs support, not just the old stuff that people agree is "great."

Looking at Van Gogh's painting of irises (for example) does take the breath away for a moment. More importantly, it makes the painting human again. You see those brush-strokes, quirky and authoritative, made by one guy at a moment in time.

Getty also collected antiquities, manuscripts, and decorative art. He was obviously compulsive. --And Euro-centric--although his collection of early American photographs is astounding, too.

Anyway, the first visit to the Getty is likely to produce . . . gallery fatigue. So much. Too much. Thus, I bought the catalogue. It's not the same as looking at the paintings "in person," but it's a good fall-back position, and a good thing to look at just before you fall asleep. Both cookbooks and art books (ones that aren't heavy) are good pre-snooze reading, in my opinion.

Anyway, I decided to write a poem about El Greco's painting, Christ on the Cross, a painting I like very much, and one the Getty owns. I wasn't able to see it on my visit. Who knows? It could be in storage.

El Greco's Christ on the Cross

In El Greco's Christ on the Cross, earth
rolls up into sky, which looks like sea--
and it's all one blue-black mass
behind the hanging man who said
his reign was not of this shifty world.

El Greco's Jesus, stuck at the center
foreground, isn't handsome, looks up
exhausted, is almost out of here. A
city's suggested beyond and beneath
the nailed feet. It's no city you'd want
to enter. Between the small mound
of bones and limp urban spires, small
men ride tiny white horses. There's

a flag, of course--a standard, which
the painting's enormous blue note
blows away like a dry leaf. Horses
and men seem headed into a lifeless,
lightless cave or copse. Without
a doubt, the flag suggested power
to occupied and occupiers both back then,
as flags often do. El Greco's study's
an indelicate bruise of black-and blue.


Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom
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