LACMA's 50th anniversary gifts include its first work by Bernini

LACMA acquires its first work by Bernini, a gift from the Ahmanson Foundation for its 50th anniversary

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The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has acquired its first work by the great Italian Baroque artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini – the bust of an unidentified man that’s being donated by the Ahmanson Foundation.

It’s one of 50 new gifts of art that will be presented to LACMA for its 50th anniversary next month. They'll go on view together April 26 at the Resnick Pavilion in an exhibition called “50 for 50: Gifts on the Occasion of LACMA’s 50th Anniversary.”

The Bernini sculpture, which dates from the 1670s, will be the only one in a Los Angeles museum that’s solely attributed to him.

The Getty Museum owns a sculpture of the infant Hercules slaying a dragon, attributed jointly to Bernini, who was a child prodigy, and his sculptor father, Pietro Bernini. The LACMA piece is believed to be the work of the mature Bernini, made when he was in his 70s.

LACMA spokeswoman Miranda Carroll said the museum has been trying to maintain an element of surprise around the Bernini bust and its other birthday acquistions in hopes of unveiling them at its April 18 gala celebration, but word of some has leaked out.

The Ahmanson family and its foundation have been the most prolific supporters in LACMA's history when it comes to donating artworks or providing money for specific purchases, Carroll said. Many of them have been from the Baroque era – including Rembrandt’s circa 1630 painting “The Raising of Lazarus,” an Ahmanson gift in 1972.

Carroll said that while many of the 50th anniversary gifts are "promised gifts" that will come to the museum permanently only after the donors' death, the Bernini bust is an outright gift that will remain on permanent display after the 50th anniversary show ends Sept. 13.

The French publication La Tribune de l’Art reported earlier this month that LACMA had bought the Bernini bust. Carroll said it was purchased from Galerie Mehringer in Munich.

The piece had been part of a temporary exhibition at the Getty Museum in 2008, “Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture.” It was the first major U.S. exhibition of sculpture by Bernini, who also created paintings, drawings and architecture. Carroll said LACMA’s and the Ahmanson Foundation’s interest in the piece began at the Getty show.

Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight said Wednesday that LACMA's Bernini bust is "a terrific acquistion” that shows the artist, who lived from 1598 to 1680, in full command of his powers while in his 70s.

“Portrait busts can get pretty dreary, but Bernini managed nothing less than a brilliant renewal of a genre that had been dormant ever since ancient Rome,” Knight said, adding that LACMA’s piece exemplifies the dynamism and vitality that Bernini could bring to stone renderings of heads and shoulders.

In this case, Knight said, “the torso turns to the left, the head swivels to the right, his cloak pulls in the opposite direction and the lips are just barely beginning to part, as if [the subject] is about to speak to someone....This is a dynamic guy walking by in conversation, not some stiff sitting for an office portrait.”

Bernini is especially celebrated for life-size works that will never leave Rome – including sculptures of David with his slingshot and Daphne from Greek mythology being transformed into a tree in order to save her from being raped by a lustful Apollo. Both are at the Galleria Borghese. Another Bernini landmark, “Ecstasy of St. Teresa,” is mounted above an altar at the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria.

For the Record, March 19, 9:47 a.m.: an earlier version of this post incorrectly said that LACMA had bought its Bernini sculpture from the Benappi gallery in Italy.

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