Bernini at the Getty: Absolute Art for Absolute Power


By Steven Siegman

Gian Lorenzo Bernini's Portrait of Costanza Bonarelli, 1636–38, at the Getty

I was thrilled when I heard about the Bernini and Baroque Portraiture exhibition at the Getty. I consider myself an admirer; in my mind, what Michelangelo is to painting, Bernini is to sculpture.  About 3/4 of the collection is comprised of “Portrait Sculpture” or busts. There are also a few paintings and drawings. The Getty curators who organized the show hoped to portray Bernini as a great innovator of the portrait sculpture genre, bringing subtler emotion and better detail to an ancient form.

I thought that the busts were attractive, each one pleasingly formed about three feet by three feet. However, I personally felt very little inspiration while previewing the exhibition and was certainly not left gawking in pleasure or awe at their magnificence. The expressions worn by the busts are quite alive and detailed, and the clothing has terrific detail as well. At the same time, hair and other elements get only so realistic in stone, so when moving from sculpture to pencil drawing I was more moved by the pencil work. Also, I was unable to see a significant difference in expertise among the works of Bernini, his students and his top rival.

Conspicuously absent from the exhibition are exposure to Bernini’s grand, inspiring, bronze paeans from the Vatican and Roman Piazzas such as the Villa Borghese. I understand there may be some difficulty in importing sculptures from the Pope’s home, but scanning the Getty’s Bernini book, I couldn’t find a representative slide, and there are no videos or large photos of his great works.  In any case, I would recommend seeing the exhibition while it is in Los Angeles through October 26, 2008.

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