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08.23.2003

In an Ivory Tower

This afternoon I paid a visit to the Getty, the unearthly palace of an art museum perched high on an L.A. mountain, overlooking everything.

Single people of Los Angeles: you must run, not walk, to the Getty Center. If you have a date, there is no other place you want to be, because the Getty Center is the architectural equivalent of a Barry White record. Just stroll around the grounds, and by the time the sun sets, you'll be making out by the west-facing railing.

If you don't have a date, then you must run even faster, because nothing can take the sting out of soul-crushing loneliness faster than the art on display at the Getty center. Even the building itself is a tonic, ethereal and white. The exhibits and grounds are so beautiful you won't even mind all the snogging couples lining the west-facing railing. Just concentrate on the panoramic view of the entire Los Angeles basin, and the big jumbo jets sinking towards the airport from out West. It's a sight like no other, and plate tectonics means it's not going to be around for long.

I wandered and gawked for almost three hours tonight, spending part of my time in the exhibits, the rest in the courtyard, and I only saw half the museum. It's not that the collection is immense (it's big without being overwhelming); what happens is that the pictures are so well chosen that you want to linger in front of each one. I was particularly taken by the Flemish paintings, the obsessive kind where the master spent several weeks drawing details with a one-haired brush. Every room was captivating, a far cry from big national museums like the Louvre, or even the Met, that seem to take pride in exhibiting every possible variation on Madonna with pin-headed Christ child.

What completely made my night was a temporary exhibit on medieval books. I had no special interest in medieval books before walking into the little room, but I left it a changed man. Instead of putting up a big set of explanatory wall texts, the curators had chosen to show every step of the book-making process, from preparing the vellum all the way to illuminating and then binding the manuscript, through a series of ingenious display cases. The gilding case, for example, showed a sample manuscript page from blank sheet to finished, burnished gold letter. The samples were created by master calligraphers using period techniques, so you could see the entire process step by step.

Each section also included real examples of medieval books, to great effect. The first case, for example, showed how a stretched kid skin was turned into vellum. After seeing the many stages required to produce a single square of parchment - stretch, scrape, tan, polish, cut - your eyes fell on a majestic Bible with at least five hundred oversized pages. An entire herd of goats was in there!

I had read countless times about medieval books being luxury objects, but it had never hit home before I saw that particular juxtaposition. The exhibit was full of such little epiphanies.

And there were many other exhibits to go with it, running the gamut from Renaissance illuminated manuscripts to the photography of George Winogrand. It was total artistic bliss; it cost five dollars.

Do not miss it!

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