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Spellbound : L.A. Art Lovers Dazzled by Rare Look at Fabled Soviet Collection

Times Staff Writer

It was crowded, it was noisy--and they wished they could have stayed all day.

At the rate of 600 an hour, art lovers thronged to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Thursday, lining up before 9 a.m. for their first-day look at an exhibit of 41 early modern paintings, works so widely studied and so fabled in the history of art that one dazzled student likened it to “seeing big superstars in real life.”

It had required the Geneva summit meeting and the efforts of industrialist Dr. Armand Hammer to get these “fabulous 41" Impressionist and modern paintings out of the Soviet Union for a three-city tour of the United States.

And on opening day in Los Angeles, museum-goers who streamed through the five rooms of legendary canvases were anxious not to waste a rare opportunity.

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“We wanted to see this as soon as possible,” said Betty Hine, a member of the board of directors of the Oakland Museum, who flew here Wednesday night with her husband and their tickets for the 9 a.m. tour. She stood in the middle of a room full of Van Goghs and Renoirs, and opened her hands, as if to embrace them all.

“It truly is totally exciting.”

Ticket demand for this show has been extraordinary, museum officials said. The public--intrigued by the delicate international diplomacy that underlies the exhibit here, and attracted by the mythic aura of canvases that vanished into private Russian collections 70 and 80 years ago--have bought up vast chunks of the approximately 300,000 available tickets. The museum has added evening and Monday hours to accommodate the seven-week show.

Still, it does not match the frantic days of the four-month “Treasures of Tutankhamen” exhibit in 1978, when about 1.4 million fans bought tickets for a glimpse of 55 ancient artifacts of the boy king.

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On Thursday, as the tattoo of jackhammers from a museum reconstruction project pierced the air, ticket holders shuffled between makeshift construction-site walls into the Hammer Wing--and into legend.

From “The Red Room,” a dancingly vivid Matisse canvas that the Soviets agreed only at the last minute to send, to the somber “The Prison Courtyard” of Van Gogh and the pulsing sunset colors of Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings, the viewers were spellbound.

Cut Short Their Vacation

“We cut our vacation short to come back to see this,” said Helen Tanous of Burbank, whose husband, Henry, is a painter who pursues sort of an Impressionist style himself.

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“I don’t know why the Russians let us borrow them,” Tanous mused. “Maybe they wanted us to see them before we all get blown to bits.”

(The agreement worked out by Hammer sent 40 American-owned paintings from the National Gallery of Art and Hammer’s own collection to Soviet museums this spring. The Soviet collection has already been to Washington and leaves for New York, its last stop, in August.)

“It’s a feast! It’s unbelievable to think I’m here seeing these in person,” trilled Christine Fadel, who was there Thursday for the first of her five planned visits to the showing, and accompanied by fellow officers of the National Arts Assn.

For UCLA fabric design student Melanie Rothschild, who was standing entranced before “The Red Room,” by her adored Matisse, the exhibit was a fantasy come to life.

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‘Kind of Staggering’

“I’ve been seeing pictures (of the paintings) a long, long time. Seeing them in the flesh is kind of staggering. It’s like seeing big superstars in real life.”

Across the way, her husband, art student Larry Garf, was examining a Seine-side cafe study by Renoir, listening intently through his rented green plastic earphones to a tape-recorded tour of the gallery.

“I want to come back again--you can’t take it all in in one viewing,” he said.

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And echoed his wife: “When you see something you’ve seen in textbooks and slides your whole life, then to see the real thing--it’s like seeing a movie star next to you, but more so, because this is something of lasting importance.”

For Dolly Reed Wageman, the collection was not new--but it was immensely better.

Lighting Is Better

“The thing that’s so extraordinary is that they’re so much better hung here--there’s no comparison to the lighting” of the Pushkin and Hermitage museums, where she first saw the paintings 11 years ago. “This is wonderful, because you can see it. The Pushkin was the worst-lighted museum outside of. . . . “

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“Cairo,” put in her friend, actress Mary Wickes. Both women laughed in agreement.

But “the thing about the Hermitage that’s a kick,” Wageman added, “is that you have to put these felt-bottom slippers on your feet” to protect the ornate Tsarist marquetry floors.

Thursday’s art lovers wore sensible shoes for long moments of gazing at their favorites. But the press of people often required dodging and quick-stepping through the rooms.

‘Too Many People’

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“They let too many people in at once--it’s ridiculous to try to see them like that,” said Helen Tanous, her sentiments echoed by people who had spent several minutes weaving their way toward a special canvas.

But Garf relished the buzzing throng.

“Some people are bothered by the fact that it’s so crowded,” he said. “I find it inspiring that so many people want to be here. I enjoy all this enthusiasm and electricity--having to push through the crowd to get here doesn’t bother me at all.”


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