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‘Impressionist’: An Impressive Gala Preview

Times Staff Writer

In Henri Matisse’s “Goldfish, 1911,” four bright orange goldfish cavort in a tall glass cylindrical vase surrounded by pink double peonies and green foliage. The setting was imitated Wednesday evening on the banquet tables for the opening night crush for “Impressionist to Early Modern Paintings From the U.S.S.R.” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

It was table art at its most glamorous: four goldfish in each bowl on several different tables for an appreciative crowd of art lovers gathered to see the 40 marvels that Dr. Armand Hammer, the 88-year-old chairman of Occidental Petroleum, arranged under the major art exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The 2,600 first-nighters--or were there 3,000?--were willing to queue up, some for even an hour, to see the great works of art from the Soviet Union’s collection in the Hermitage and in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts--the art of Cezanne, Monet, Renoir, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso.

It was a shoulder-to-shoulder mix of conservative/eclectic, with banker and magnate next to painter and doctor, wine glasses in hand, waiting to view it all. Thirty-three of the paintings had never been shown in the United States before this show opened at the National Gallery in Washington on May 1. It remains here until Aug. 12, then will be presented Aug. 22-Oct. 5 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

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New LACMA president Daniel N. Belin and his wife, Daisy, Earl A. Powell III, museum director, and museum stalwart Mia Frost watched attentively for the arrival of Dr. Hammer and his wife, Frances (wearing Queen Victoria’s lace collar on her own lace dress), after the Hammers entered through a rear entrance and moved through elevators to the party.

At that point there was a flurry of fanfare as the media followed the Hammers to his favorite painting in the show, Claude Monet’s “Woman in a Garden,” for photographs. Then it was back through the crowd to the Ahmanson Atrium to address those already devouring blinis with golden caviar and sour cream to the tune of 19th-Century Russian Gypsy songs played by the Con Brio Players.

However, all eyes turned to Hammer as he stepped to the stair-landing. Powell, alluding to the host’s popularity outdistancing even the exhibit, commented, “I’d like to thank you all for coming in Armand’s honor.”

‘Could Never Be Replaced’

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Hammer was affable: “I hope you all will be sure to see the paintings after you get through eating. . . . The Russians have been so generous in giving us these paintings . . . if anything happened, they could never be replaced. . . . They are helping to bind our two countries together.”

He also related anecdotes surrounding his negotiations before the cultural agreement at the Geneva Summit in 1985, with Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev looking on, was signed. Hammer remembered Gorbachev originally wanted to take his time on the art exchange. Hammer, wearing his Legion of Honor Commandeur decoration, also recalled telling him, “I’d like to have the paintings and have them now.” And what about the expenses? “ ‘Don’t worry. I’ll take care of everything,’ and that’s how we got them.” Part of the negotiation, also, was that the Armand Hammer Collection and a collection of 40 impressionist and post-impressionist paintings from the National Gallery in Washington would tour Russia.

Before leaving the steps, Hammer offered a toast to “future peace between Russia and the United States.”

Dr. Robert Gale, “the doctor who went to Chernobyl,” and his wife, Tamar, wearing a bright pink cotton dress and thongs, appeared with the Hammers. Gale exhibited his unconventionality by wearing clogs he had purchased in Copenhagen. Missing from the first-nighters were museum chairman Julian Ganz and his wife, Jo Ann, but, basically, no one was “missing.” Tad and Cece Williamson looked at Gauguins with Phoebe and John Dillon. Caroline Liebig attended with her granddaughter, Annie, and exclaimed over the art. One of Hammer’s personal physicians, Dr. Allan Metzger, attended with Sondra Scerca. Occidental board member Rosemary Tomich brought her niece, Kristin Brown. Diane and Guilford Glazer, and Michael and Pat York also rubbed elbows with Hammer.

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‘An Exciting Exhibit’

More in the crowd, dining on hot borscht, beef stroganoff with rice, Kulebiaka (salmon loaf), Rossolye (beet and herring salad), cucumbers and sour cream, string bean and red bean salads, then Mazourka (spice cake) and chocolate almond tortes were Joan and Thomas Riach, Walter Coombs, Nelly Llanos (an involved museum volunteer who commented, “I have never seen such an exciting exhibit”), Ernestine and Stanton Avery, Mary and Philip Hawley, Sheldon and county chief of protocol Sandra Ausman, Bob and Linda Attiyeh, Bob and Marion Paulson, Muriel Cameron, Joan Elkins, Marian and Stanley Brown, Helen Pashigan, Karl Honeystein with catalogues in tow, Hart and Louise Lyon, and Earl Russell and his daughter, Keitha (Maggie was recovering from hip surgery).

Francis and Kay Dale were there, and UCLA Dean Robert H. Gray and Constance, Harry Hufford, Mary and Bradley Jones, UCLA Chancellor Charles and Sue Young, Judge Brian and Missy Crahan, Sanford Sigoloff, Gloria and James Stewart, Nancy and Tim Vreeland, Cesar Romero, Sherry Lansing, Jean and Ed Mangiafico, Marilyn and Bill Schulte, and Florence Malouf with Elton Leach.

Also in the crowd were Natural History Museum director Dr. Craig Black and his wife, Dr. Elizabeth King Black; Jim and Ann Agnew; Susie and Rob Maguire; museum benefactors George and Mary Lou Boone; Eleanor and Ted Congdon; Henry and Roz Rogers; Southwestern Museum director Patrick and Betsy Houlihan; Maggie Wetzel; Michael and Alana Jackson; and Supervisor Kenneth Hahn and his wife, Ramona.

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It was a night for the most couture of dresses. Bobbie Forman, there with Jack, was in Oscar de la Renta; Christina Childs wore a Nina Ricci billowy black faille; Lois Driggs wore a handsome Jacqueline de Ribes; and Georgianna Erskine, in Michael Novarese’s bright yellow silk, had these observations:

“My dear, those invitations were fully engraved--all four pieces. Simply staggering . . . and we had to turn them in!” Mrs. Erskine said. “For all that, I wore my best party dress, and, in my opinion, that calls for black-tie, whether it says so or not. So, Paul’s in black-tie. And I notice Dwight Kendall is too.”

And, “wasn’t it fun,” she said, “seeing Gregory Peck, Eva Gabor and Johnny Carson all standing together--in a museum, imagine. “My chin was almost on Gregory Peck’s shoulder.”


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