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art community gallery Los Angeles museum

Reflections of a Gallery Docent

As a transplant to Los Angeles, it was exciting to be selected for training as a Getty docent. Over many years at Tate Gallery one was encouraged to lead tours using dialogue-based, object-focused methodology, with the understanding that the passive receipt of information does not supply the tools or confidence to approach artworks, nor motivate individual engagement with them. It was refreshing to find that the teaching strategy at the Getty is just as forward-thinking and interactive, carefully avoiding a disappointing and didactic lecture-on-wheels experience.

With the belief that works of art reveal themselves over time, the focus is firmly on ‘close looking’ at a limited number of objects and sharing within a supportive environment, the resultant lively dialogue benefiting from a multiplicity of perspectives. Appropriate contextual information is introduced to extend the dialogue, not suppress other possible meanings nor suggest a ‘definitive’ reading.

Summer training incorporated a fun and well-organized balance of theoretical underpinning and practical exercises. A fascinating dossier of reading material led to animated weekly group discussions. As we were tasked with developing individual themed tours, any fears were allayed as we were supported by research materials and helpful, patient staff. We were also treated to curator time – the decorative arts lecture led to a widespread re-evaluation of tour plans to shoehorn in a fancy bed, marquetry tour-de-force or gilded sconce or two.

Selecting only four objects from the embarrassment of riches on display was a headache until the realization that one could develop several tours and rotate them as appropriate. Flexibility with object choices avoids dismay when the morning gallery mapping stars are not aligned. How liberating the ability to sneak off behind Titian’s back and leave Friedrich to his pondering whilst one runs away with Puryear and Hepworth or spends time striking poses with Batoni!

It has been such fun working with the mutually supportive, dynamic people in our group as colleagues and new friends. It is a pleasure to fulfil our collective duty to keep artworks alive by creatively engaging the next generation of visitors.

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(Originally published in The Gazetty, the Getty staff newsletter)

Categories
art Los Angeles model portraits Sculpture

Messerschmidt’s Emotional Extremes

With a focus on ‘extreme expression’ in this two-day studio workshop we took our inspiration from the excellent Messerschmidt and Modernity exhibition currently on show at the Getty Center. Franz Xaver Messerschmidt was a German artist who was obsessed with human expression and his striking kopfstücke (head pieces) created in the 18th century have amazed and inspired those interested in the complexities of human emotion.

During the sessions we had the benefit of studying two live models who both had an amazing ability to pull and hold acute expressions. We worked with oil clay, (one of my favourite mediums) to create high reliefs on board supports, and had fun studying proportion and distortion as faces contort in various expressions. Our instructor Jonathan Bickhart was a pleasure to work with and his enthusiasm and admiration for Messerschmidt was infectious.

The workshop tied in very well with the exhibition, on both days we studied the busts on display in the gallery, noting the fine detail, surface textures, design elements, and artistic licence which made the artist’s work so compelling. We discussed the notion of the fine line between artistic obsession and mental illness – Messerschmidt many believed was a genius plagued with schizophrenia. The compulsion to study and create scores of intense expressions frozen in time may have stemmed from the impulse to ward off malevolent spirits which disturbed the artist.

This unmissable exhibition continues until October 14th and features a number of Messerschmidt’s intriguing character heads from all over the world, including one from the Getty’s permanent collection. Interesting contemporary responses in a range of media are also on display from artists such as Tony Cragg and Tony Bevan. An ‘Expression Lab’ next door cleverly brings the sculptures to life through mirror responses from the public – a photo booth set-up allows us to indulge ourselves in gurning Messerschmidt style and share the extremely unflattering results!

Messerschmidt me!