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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Li

Norton Simon Museum in Overcast

Updated: Jun 30, 2022

June 7, 2021

I arrived at the Norton Simon Museum under a drizzle. The cloudy sky rendered the vegetation of dewy green and the front steps of pristine ivory. As I walked around the center sculpture, its structures made changing squares and semicircles that seemed to belong in an abstract geometry painting. I have visited here a few years ago, but only briefly, which is why I have devoted an afternoon here today.

Figure 1: Photo taken by me of the entrance to the Norton Simon Museum, showing Four Square (Walkthrough), 1966, Barbara Hepworth


While waiting for entry, I looked around the bronze figures that skirt the building. Most of them were by Auguste Rodin, almost identical to the set I saw at Stanford University. However, what is different is their arrangement. Rather than wanderers in the street, these sculptures in front of the Norton Simon Museum offer their hands and lure us inside. The trees are positioned parallel to the leaning posture of Rodin's works, resembling both a forest and a row of columns. This brilliant coordination of plants and art continues, beyond the entrance, in the garden.

Figure 2: Photos taken by me outside the Norton Simon Museum and in the sculpture garden

The sculpture garden is in itself a piece of art. Shoreline plants outline a shallow pond, and at its center, half bloomed yellow water lilies float on the surface. There were innumerable shades of greens, from pistachio to olive, that paint this idyllic scenery. Every dash of color—the lavender, the red—is lively yet contained.

Figure 3: Photos taken by me inside a gallery and in the sculpture garden

Favorite Works

The interior of the museum building mainly consists of two linear hallways. From the impressionist gallery, I could see twentieth-century abstract murals, and from the sixteenth-century still-life gallery, I could see altarpieces. I find this arrangement to be very convenient for the viewer as it prevents one from getting lost. It is also fascinating because it presents the museum's collection as a timeline, showing how art has evolved.

Figure 4: Portrait of the Artist's Mother, 1888, Vincent Van Gogh

The label of this painting provided that Van Gogh painted this portrait from a black and white photograph and hoped to depict his mother with more vitality (he confessed his failure to create this effect). Although Van Gogh did not like it himself, I find that Portrait of the Artist's Mother is my favorite among his works in the museum. He used an excellent painting technique of applying thicker paint on lighter areas of the face, creating depth and focus. The colors—the sickly green skin tone, the peach lips, the reddish-brown clothing, and the turquoise background—although unintended, are in harmony. Other than Van Gogh's red paint expiring, which was the provided reason for the greenish tone, I think referencing a black and white photograph also played a part. Photos even now offer very limited information regarding colors, as I have regularly experienced while painting.

Figure 5: Near the Palace, 1914-15, Lyonel Feininger

Near the Palace is a cleverly composed piece that employs techniques of abstraction. At first glance, I noticed the buildings on the left, as if I were a pedestrian on the street looking up. Then, I see the church-like building in the distance, as if I were viewing from an apartment on a towering floor. Finally, I look at the silhouette of a building on the right, as if I were standing on a ledge as the evening wind sweeps past my feet. This zoom-in effect in perspective and how three different angles are seamlessly pieced together in the same painting engrosses me. It seems that Feininger designed a fixed yet natural order for the viewer's eyes. However, every image is not without its flaws. For example, I find that the red and phthalo blue of the two figures on the bottom left corner is slightly dissonant with the rest of the painting.

Figure 6: Woman with Mandolin, 1925, Pablo Picasso

Woman with Mandolin is an unassuming piece, but it grows more intriguing as I look at it. Picasso creates a simple and homely atmosphere with a caramel background and a sky blue armchair. The gradient of pink used on the figure reminds me of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, but in comparison, this piece employs a more realistic approach. Moreover, the technique of scratching out the outline (removing the undried surface paint to reveal the base layer below) is a creative application of a ceramics technique called sgraffito. I recall seeing another piece by a Chinese artist in a Sotheby's catalogue that uses this approach, which may have been inspired by Picasso as many twentieth-century Chinese artists were.

Figure 7: Artist and Model, 1939, Georges Braque

This sizable painting by Georges Braque, who collaboratively developed Cubism with Picasso, draws attention when I walked into the gallery. Many contrasting elements are arranged together to create this strong visual effect: gray colors like the olive, slate, and umber are compared to pure colors like lime and black, angular shapes like the curtains are compared to fluid form like the model's drape, and patterns used on the wallpaper and armchair are compared to color blocks on the painter and model. All the colors reoccur throughout the canvas, which balances the image and makes none of the bold colors obnoxious. When looking closely, I notice a sandy texture created by adding sand to oil paint. This is the first time I have encountered this medium, and I would consider using it in my own work because it is much more effective and efficient compared to dabbing rapidly.

Figure 8: The Tug, 1934-37, Lyonel Feininger

This painting has the charm of a yellowed old photograph, crumpled at the edges. It creates a sensation of pleasant memory, which was suited for the historical reason under which this work was painted. In 1933, the Nazi government shut down the Bauhaus school and declaring Feininger's art to be degenerate. In addition, heightened international tensions in the late 1930s suggested a grim future, which is why peaceful times as depicted are reminisced. I think the black enamel frame with the touch of a gold border further defines this piece and reflects the principles of the Bauhaus school.

Interesting Finds

The Norton Simon store was closed this time, much to my dismay. However, I was still able to see something memorable. While walking in the sculpture garden before leaving, I saw a pair of red-whiskered bulbul (also known as the crested bulbul) hopping among the bushes. One of them posed behind a sculpture, and I was able to capture a photo of it.

Figure 9: Photo taken by me of a red-whiskered bulbul

In conclusion, this visit to Norton Simon was a refreshing one. I was not only able to review some of the pieces I have enjoyed in previous visits, but I was also able to notice other excellent works and their unique airs and techniques.

Works Cited

"Pablo Picasso. Les Demoiselles D'Avignon. Paris, June-July 1907 | MoMA." The Museum of Modern Art, Accessed 16 June 2021.

Starke, Phil. "The Importance of Thick Paint." Phil Starke Studio, 24 Mar. 2015, Accessed 16 June 2021.

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