Museum Home Past Exhibitions Past Presence: Objects of Study at the Getty Research Institute

October 26, 2004–January 2, 2005 at the Getty Center

Recovery of Antiquity / von Sandrart
The Recovery of Antiquity, Joachim and Johannes Jacob von Sandrart, 1680

The Getty Research Institute (GRI) dedicates its resources and activities to advancing understanding of the visual arts and their history. This exhibition showcases the wide variety of primary documents and historical objects in the special collections of the Research Library at the GRI. An annual research theme at the GRI guides activities, including a residential scholars program, conferences, and lectures. The 2004–2005 theme, "Duration," is one of the inspirations for Past Presence. In language, time is expressed through tense, and this is the exhibition's main organizing principle. These objects cast light on how artists of the last four centuries have viewed the past, the present, and the future.

In the engraving above, figures representing Time and Death hurl Antiquity—the art and culture of ancient Greece and Rome—to the ground. Painting and Sculpture recover the fragments under the direction of the gods of transmission, labor, and intellect. The artist suggests that the arts can preserve remnants of the ancient past.

Trophies of Augustus / Piranesi
Trophies of Emperor Augustus, Francesco Piranesi, 1756–1810

Past: Perfect and Imperfect

The past tense can be expressed in the perfect and the imperfect. The past perfect signifies completion—for example, goals that had been achieved in the past. The imperfect is used for processes—for example, continual events, which were enduring as time was passing. The special collections of the GRI include many works by artists looking to the past for physical evidence of the perfect and the imperfect.

In the 18th century, Giovanni Battista Piranesi recorded the monumental works that the ancient Roman emperor Augustus Caesar erected to commemorate his conquest of Egypt. In this etching, Piranesi's son Franceso conceptually restored the fragments from a ruined Roman trophy monument to their pristine state, imagining how they had looked when first presented to Emperor Augustus in the first century B.C.

Scull and Sword / van Rymsdyk
Incrustated Scull and Sword, Jan and Andreas van Rymsdyk, 1778

In contrast to Piranesi's idealized presentation of the past (above), the buffeting effects of time—aging and decay—are evident in this stipple engraving from the first highlights catalog of the British Museum, which opened in 1753. In their quest to document historical remains accurately, authors and artists Jan and Andreas van Rymsdyk illustrate this decomposing skull (with a rib attached) and corroded sword found in the Tiber River.

The introduction to the catalog states that "every rational being should, nay, is obliged to bequeath something to posterity, that it may be known there was once such a person who intended to prevent the destruction of human knowledge, from the sithe [sic] of time."

Calzolari Museum / Viscardo and Bertoni
The Calzolari Museum, Girolamo Viscardi and Giovanni Battista Bertoni, 1622

Collecting the Past

Modern museum practice stems from earlier practices of imposing an order on collected objects. Early collectors often arranged objects for contemplation and study in personal cabinets of curiosity. This is the earliest known copperplate engraving of a curiosity cabinet. It shows the collection of natural and man-made wonders belonging to a prominent family of apothecaries in Verona.

Peacock Zoomorphosis / Unknown
Peacock Zoomorphosis, about 1750

Present: Ephemeral and Eternal

The present is ephemeral, momentary, and fleeting. In Peacock Zoomorphosis, an optical device from the mid-18th century, a peacock appears and disappears in a semi-cylindrical mirror above the distorted etching, depending on the viewer's position.

Color Spheres / Unknown
Color Spheres, 1810

Human perception may be ephemeral, but scientific truths based on perception are assumed to be eternal. These scientific principles are usually expressed in the present tense. Here, the concept that primary colors form the basis for all other colors is demonstrated by Philipp Otto Runge in his Farben-Kugel (Color-Sphere). The German romantic painter Runge was the first to devise a spherical coordination of primary and secondary hues with the value scale of light to dark.

Construction Machines / Martini
Construction Machines, Francesco di Giorgio Martini, 1475–1480

Future Perfect

The future is often imagined in ideal terms. Drawings like this one by the Sienese architect, sculptor, and painter Francesco di Giorgio Martini and his workshop assistants portray ingenious devices and machines designed for architectural, agricultural, and military purposes. These designs imply that the future can be perfected by technology.

Factory Structure / Chernikhov
Factory Structure…within a Framework of Cranes and Gantries, Iakov G. Chernikhov, 1933

The ideals of a 15th-century future seen above are echoed here in the 20th-century Architectural Fantasies of Iakov Chernikhov, a teacher of architecture during the Stalinist period of Soviet Russia in the 1930s. These powerful renditions of industrial might reflect the aspirations of the Soviet state. Chernikhov's book of "fantasies" is exemplary of a modernist genre practiced in the Soviet Union at the time.

The exhibition is located at the Getty Center, Research Institute Exhibition Gallery

The exhibition travels to the Grolier Club in New York City, where it will be on view February 23–April 30, 2005.