At Home with the Arensbergs and their Avant-garde Art Collection
“The Arensbergs’ staging of the art in their collection, it’s both playful, but like chess, it is really serious business.”
The 1913 Armory Show of avant-garde European art sparked a life-changing fascination with collecting in Louise and Walter Arensberg. The couple quickly became influential participants in New York’s bohemian art scene. In 1921 the Arensbergs moved to Los Angeles, where they spent the next few decades building a vast and idiosyncratic art collection in their Mediterranean Revival home in the Hollywood Hills. Works by Duchamp, Picasso, and Brancusi lived alongside pre-Columbian sculptures, eclectic antique furnishings, and thousands of rare books by and about the philosopher Sir Francis Bacon. The riotous display of art in their home excited and overwhelmed visitors—everyone from members of the public to important artists of the day.
The Arensbergs’ LA story, including their art-filled house, is the focus of the book Hollywood Arensberg: Avant-Garde Collecting in Midcentury LA,published by Getty Publications. In this episode, coauthors Mark Nelson, partner at McCall Associates and designer of this book; William H. Sherman, director of the Warburg Institute, London; and Ellen Hoobler, associate curator at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, discuss the Arensbergs and their obsessive approach to collecting and displaying art.
We’ve asked members of the Getty community to share short reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. These recordings feature stories related to our daily lives.
This week, educator Alice Doo remembers her own California childhood and reflects on the relationship among art, change, and American history through a Dorothea Lange photograph. To learn more about this work, visit: https://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/128393/.
Over the next few weeks, look for new recordings every other Tuesday.
JAMES CUNO: Hi, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. In a new podcast feature, we’re asking members of the Getty community to share short reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. We’ll be releasing new recordings every other Tuesday. I hope you’ll find these stories about our daily lives—from laundry on the line to a dog at a scholar’s feet—thought provoking, illuminating, and entertaining.
ALICE DOO: My name is Alice Doo and I work in our Museum education department. These past few months have been a period of reflection and of learning and unlearning. Learning about my own privilege and my biases and unlearning the racism that is embedded in the American history that I’ve been taught, the culture I am told to value, and the government system that I am expected to trust.
The outpouring of art and photographs on social media responding to police violence, institutional injustice, and protests made me think about how history is being documented. I’m reconsidering the impact art can have capturing pivotal moments and informing our understanding of the world.
I’ve recently revisited a powerful and striking photograph of a painful moment in our nation’s history. It’s called Pledge of Allegiance, Raphael Weill Elementary School, San Francisco by photographer Dorothea Lange. It’s part of Lange’s series documenting Japanese American citizens on the West Coast and their forced relocation and internment, or imprisonment, during World War II.
In this photograph, my eyes are centered on this young girl in her buttoned coat, holding her paper bag lunch in her left hand and resting her right hand over her heart. She is reciting the pledge of allegiance as she stands alongside her classmates. Her eyes look forward, maybe at the American flag or the teacher leading this morning classroom ritual of patriotism. FDR had signed Executive Order 9066 just a few months before on February 19, 1942. Based solely on racial prejudice, it forced over 120,000 Japanese and Japanese American citizens, like this young girl, to be evacuated from their homes and imprisoned in rural concentration camps for the remainder of the war.
Dorothea Lange opposed the forced relocation and internment, but she accepted the commission of the US government to document it. Her photographs were then hidden from view for decades because they highlighted the injustices taking place.
I find a personal connection with this young girl as an Asian American woman born and raised in California. I had the same bob haircut as a kid and I grew up reciting this same pledge in Elementary school. I share the experience of all the children in this photograph who were taught to stand at attention and pledge their allegiance to flag and country without understanding that if you are Black, Indigenous, or a person of color, “liberty and justice for all” has for most of history not fully represented or protected you.
Today, I’m encouraged by the images and art inspiring social change that I see being created, especially by those who have been largely underrepresented, excluded and oppressed throughout US history. With social media and other online platforms, artists of color now have more avenues to amplify their own perspectives and visual narratives of what’s happening in our world.
CUNO: To view Dorothea Lange’s photograph Pledge of Allegiance, Raphael Weill Elementary School, San Francisco, taken on April 20, 1942, click the link in this episode’s description or look for it on getty.edu/art/collection.
Japanese American Photographers in 20th-Century LA
“It’s really quite astonishing how often, in looking at some of the works of these Japanese American photographers, how simple the subject is, and yet how graceful its rendition is.”
At the turn of the 20th century, the Japanese population in Los Angeles was growing rapidly. At the same time, photography was becoming more affordable, accessible, and popular. Scores of Japanese Americans were avid photographers in this period, and by 1926 the community was active enough in LA to form a club, the Japanese Camera Pictorialists of California, centered in the Little Tokyo neighborhood. However, as the US entered WWII and the military displaced and incarcerated Japanese Americans from the West Coast, their community splintered. These photographers were forced to leave behind their cameras, negatives, and photographs, many of which were destroyed. As a result, much of the history of this group was lost or forgotten for decades, until the early 1980s, when art historian Dennis Reed began working with Japanese American families to preserve and display these artworks.
Getty recently acquired 79 photographs by Japanese Americans from the Dennis Reed collection as well as 75 additional photographs from the families of these artists. In this episode, Virginia Heckert, curator in Getty’s Department of Photographs, discusses these works and the history of this artistic circle.
Over the next few weeks, look for new recordings every other Tuesday.
JAMES CUNO: Hi, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. In a new podcast feature, we’re asking members of the Getty community to share short reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. We’ll be releasing new recordings every other Tuesday. I hope you’ll find these stories about our daily lives—from laundry on the line to a dog at a scholar’s feet—thought provoking, illuminating, and entertaining. NICOLE BUDROVICH: Hi, I’m Nicole Budrovich, a curatorial assistant at the Getty Villa. With Election Day and political debate in the air, I recently found myself thinking about an object in the Antiquities collection—a large silver platter, about the size of a baking sheet, which I’ve come to call the “Debate Plate.” At the center of the plate, two older men are seated on either side of a celestial globe. A woman stands behind each man, and above them sits a figure on a throne. The men chat, books in hand, and the women lean in, taking part in the conversation. Thankfully the artist has included names above the figures identifying them. The man on the left is labeled “Ptolemy,” the astronomer and mathematician. The woman behind him is captioned “Skepsis,” a personification of skepticism and inquiry. She thoughtfully holds a finger to her chin and a book in her other hand. Ptolemy’s debate opponent is labeled “Hermes.” This is Hermes Trismegistos, a god of writing and secret wisdom. His female companion’s name is not preserved, but she must be another personification, perhaps Sophia, knowledge, or Pistis, belief. A discussion is clearly underway, but what are they debating? The creation of the earth and planets? Scientific inquiry versus Faith? In any event, in today’s heated political climate this complex object is oddly comforting—these figures appear to be having a civil debate supported by logic and reason, reference books ready. While their worldviews may differ dramatically, they seem to be talking it out, presenting their arguments, and listening. Looking at this object, I can’t help but reflect on my high school debate team, all those years ago, and the challenging thrill of presenting and defending a position to someone with an opposing view. While we may not have discussed the origins of the world, we dug into divisive issues around voter representation, marriage rights, and bioethics—our talking points scrawled on 3×5 notecards. This plate also reminds me of how, during high school, politics would come up at the family dinner table, and discussions would often get heated—but even in disagreement, we would find our way to the heart of the issue with mutual respect. After a tumultuous election season, this “debate plate,” serves as a heartening reminder of the enduring tradition of civil discourse—a tradition, I hope, we have the tools to maintain, both in our private lives and on the public stage. CUNO: To view this Byzantine plate with relief decoration, made between 500-600, click the link in this episode’s description or look for it on getty.edu/art/collection.