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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Li

Monday at the LACMA

Updated: Jun 30, 2022

June 21, 2021

After driving through winding streets and traffic, I arrived at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the largest art museum in western U.S. The building, or rather, the group of buildings, was easily distinguishable from a distance as they occupied a large block. Its modern architecture, ribboned with red beams, is fronted by two landmark installations, Urban Lights and Levitated Mass (figure 2). I recall my first visit here, three year ago on Free Museum Day, spanned for less than an hour because I was exhausted after spending the afternoon in the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum. My first impression of LACMA's collection was that it comprises mostly of contemporary art, but after conducting some research before today, I learned that this museum also showcased antiquities, Asian art, sixteenth century painting, etc. I chose to devote this visit to the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) and the Resnick Pavilion across the walkway, considering the size of the museum. Though the works I have seen today remain in the contemporary period, this comprehensive collection is to be anticipated for the future.

Figure 1: Photo taken by me of the architectural structure of the Broad Museum

Figure 2: Urban Lights, Photo credited to Chris via Flickr (left) and Levitated Mass, Photo credited to Frank Fujimoto via Flickr (right)

In the entry area, there was a section that enclosed an installation in progress (which I cannot take pictures of). Eleven poles (having a braided texture), each spiked with an animal head, shows the twelve Chinese zodiac animals (except the snake, which is on its way) gathered in a circle. Each bust is about three meters tall, casted in bronze, and exquisitely sculpted in a half symbolic, half realistic manner. I look forward to seeing the complete sculpture because it features a Chinese artist for a piece that uniquely belongs to Chinese culture, which reflects LAMCA's inclusive and global attitude in their acquisition process.

Favorite Works

The escalator at the entrance takes me directly to the third floor, followed by a short bridge that leads into the galleries. This floor, built with glass ceilings, allows sunlight to display paintings from the twentieth to twenty-first century. Each gallery has no rigorous theme or period, and they are arranged in a maze-like configuration with no main hallway. The natural light is the best feature of this floor because it shows paintings in greater clarity and sculptures in greater contrast.

Figure 3: The Orator, 1920, Magnus Zeller

This large oil painting is hardly unnoticeable. Its resonant colors—the blue and orange, red and green—and the weave of bony, pale hands are some of the many qualities that give this piece its strong visual impact. The orator, as if possessed, rolls his eyes upwards towards the light of salvation, and his zombie followers reach for him senselessly. Zeller dramatization of the politician's speech, his depiction of how modern politics instills fanatical and almost cult-like ideals, is a timeless theme. From the French Revolution to current day, politicians have indeed taken on the role of prophets and priests to gain support for causes that are not so moral.

Figure 4: The Tennis Court Oath, 1791, Jacques-Louis David

The bare room, makeshift podium, and ceiling light reminds of the image of the Tennis Court Oath (figure 4), which I think may have been the inspiration for The Orator given the similarities.

Figure 5: Leda, 1919, Otto Dix

Leda, referring to the Greek mythology, is an incident where Zeus transforms himself into a swan to seduce Leda, an Aeolian princess. This piece was interesting to me because it is the first time I have seem a violent depiction of this story. The swan in Leda is not a gentle and graceful creature (in various paintings, figure 6), but as a malevolent beast forcing himself on the woman, gritting her teeth in terror.

Figure 6: From left to right, Leda and the Swan, 1500s, copied from lost painting by Michelangelo; Leda and Swan, 1515-20, copied by Cesare de Sesto from lost painting by Leonardo da Vinci; Leda and the Swan, 1880, Paul Cézanne

In a way, I imagine that this aggressive version of Leda and the Swan is more coherent with the events that followed. After her intimate encounter with Zeus, Leda laid two eggs, hatching into four children with one of them being Helen of Troy (see Da Vinci's depiction, figure 6). In the narrative of the Judgement of Paris, the goddess of discord Eris was not invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis (parents of Achilles). In anger, she devised a plan to disrupt the party by dropping a golden apple with the inscription "To the fairest one" amidst the guests. Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena concurrently claimed the apple, and they asked Zeus to resolve their dispute. Zeus assigned Paris, a Trojan prince, to judge their case. Each goddess used their powers to bribe him, with Paris ultimately choosing Aphrodite for she offered the most beautiful woman in the world—Helen, queen of Sparta. Paris proceeded to claim his prize, plucking Helen from her husband Menelaus and inciting the Trojan War. Helen, born as the result of defilement (according to Otto Dix's painting), will live to cause of a decade of gory war and the downfall of Troy. This poetic replay of tragedy adds depth to both the mythology and Dix's painting.

Figure 7: The Mothers, 1922-23, Käthe Kollwitz

This woodblock print, through its bold contrast and angular lines, effectively captures the sorrows, anxieties, and fears in times of turmoil. The label gave no description, but from the image, the time it was created, and the nationality of Kollwitz, I can piece together the historical background. At the end of WWI, Germany was humiliated under the Treaty of Versailles that forced them to give up a part of their territory, reduce its military, and pay exorbitant reparations. In the decades that followed, the Germany people suffered under hyperinflation, economic chaos, and a severe loss of life that touch almost every family. Despite these torments, hollow-cheeked mothers, with distress in their glances, protected their children with their calloused hands. They huddle together, like animals in the cold—a composition that truly moves me.

Figure 8: Portrait of Isaku Yanaihara, 1956, Alberto Giacometti

Coincidentally, my art teacher just mentioned another similar Giacometti painting to me last week, named The Artists Mother (figure 9). One can immediately observe the alikeness: the posture of the sitter, the rapid brushstrokes, and the intertwined black and white lines. W=

Figure 9: The Artist's Mother, 1950, Alberto Giacometti

What is most special about Giacometti's paintings is that there is no difference in the substance that makes up the figure and their environment. In most portraits, there is an almost instinctive difference between the person and the room they occupy. The former is alive, animate with blood running below their translucent skin, while the latter is lifeless, dead and unresponsive. However, if we shift to an atomic perspective, in the world of space and time, there is no real distinction between a person and the wooden chair that they sit on or the carpet beneath their feet. This neutral attitude towards all things is the effect that Giacometti creates.

Figure 10: To Theo Van Gogh, 1951, Knud Merrild

The title, To Theo Van Gogh, is the most intriguing aspect of this piece. Clearly, Merrild has a line of thought behind this modest painting by giving it such a suggestive title, but there are no sources that explains his intentions. I do not have any hypothesizes, but I want to provide you with some context so that you may form your own interpretation. Theo van Gogh was the younger brother and constant aid of Vincent van Gogh. Theo supported his brother financially and mentally, even when their relationship was strained by the latter's uncaring and dismissive behaviors, and introduced Vincent to many of his most inspirational friends like Paul Gauguin. Without Theo, Vincent van Gogh would certainly not be the illustrious artists that we know today.

Temporary Exhibitions

From April 1 to July 5, LACMA is exhibiting Yoshitomo Nara's works on the second floor of BCAM. Nara, who paints and sculpts in the Superflat style (a branch of pop art), is a celebrated Japanese artists. This set of his drawings (figure 11) were particularly amusing to me because he casually vandalized some Japanese prints with his own little characters.

Figure 11: Drawings by Yoshitomo Nara

They reminds of L.H.O.O.Q. (Mona Lisa postcard with a mustache by Marcel Duchamp) as both artists make make fun of acclaimed art from their own culture.

The Los Angeles County Museum, specifically the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, is overall a very enriching place to be. Many of the pieces I chose in this post were not only able to draw me in at the museum but also had meanings and emotions to savor as I write about them. Certainly, there are a number of works that do not agree with me, but they do not taint my visiting experience. LACMA is a relatively liberal and somewhat experimental art museum that is willing house artists from a range of identities and circumstances. On on hand, it means that there are works included for the sake of diversity, but on the other, it means that more ideas have the opportunity to make themselves be known.

Works Cited

"Alberto Giacometti. The Artist's Mother. 1950 | MoMA." The Museum of Modern Art, Accessed 28 June 2021.

Chris. "Chris Burden's "Urban Light", Los Angeles County Museum of Art." Flickr, Accessed 28 June 2021.

"Helen of Troy." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 22 July 2002, Accessed 28 June 2021. Editors. "Weimar Republic." HISTORY, 4 Mar. 2021, Accessed 28 June 2021.

"Judgement of Paris." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 26 Nov. 2001, Accessed 28 June 2021.

"Leda and the Swan." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 21 Feb. 2002, Accessed 28 June 2021.

Ludel, Wallace. "An Artist’s Herculean Effort to Move a 340-Ton Boulder Across L.A." Artsy, 20 Feb. 2019, Accessed 28 June 2021.

"Tennis Court Oath." Encyclopedia Britannica, Accessed 28 June 2021.

Zanotti, Joey. "Staircase Broad Museum @ LACMA." Flickr, Accessed 28 June 2021.

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