Last March in La Jolla, I met a woman from Edinburgh who raved about the Huntington Gardens in Pasadena.Always interested in exploring new venues, I pushed for more details. Years ago, we had risen at 4:30, boarded a van and in those wee hours had trundled to our seats for the New Years Day Rose Parade. When the crowd dispersed after the splendiferous floats, we looked for our pickup on the emptied streets, taking in storefronts, lanes, less than ordinary streets. But my new acquaintance’s expressions of awe about Pasadena had impressed and so I decided we should go.
From the renovated Roaring Twenties boutique hotel still in the state of renovation to a Thomas Keller inspired meal to the supreme museums , Norton Simon and Huntington, this was a dream visit to Pasadena that overturned our initial notions of a rather dreary city from many years ago.
Truthfully, driving from San Diego towards LA is a pain, and almost makes me regret the decision, thinking the speedy little train that runs along the idyllic coast would have improved my mood, but then navigating from train to hotel, to museums would have been a chore so we have no choice but to be stuck in traffic, moving very very slowly. Yet I had checked that Norton Simon only opened at noon so we had actually planned for a later start.
Because my background is art history, I often complain that people do not really look at the paintings, reading the descriptions at the side, and besides my training provides me a way to look at a work and explain it to my husband, pretty close to the audio narration. However, we decide to take advantage of the audio guide as a way to investigate the collection’s highlights. Although explanations appear to last roughly 3-5 minutes, I with a Masters in Art History and years of study , learn something new!about every piece before which I stood. Apparently the entire guide takes about 4 hours, we stayed for 21/2.
True to my subverting nature, I begin the tour at the end, rather than the beginning, my eye caught by 19th Century Masters, intrigued and pulled towards familiar works from textbooks. Bernard’s wooden cupboard decorated with Breton women, then abstract shapes in Vuillard’s little piece of women lead towards Van Gogh’s colourful renditions of trees, his mother, reminding me of his “ unique” colour systems, heavily impasto strokes and wild genius. Nearby are Gauguin’s painting of Tahitian locals in missionary garb, looking directly at us. Degas’ attempts to get right the legs of his dancers along with the his wax cast sculpture that have the power to freeze me on the spot, remembering the discussion of the adolescent girls as young prostitutes pushed by their poverty into the arms of patrons. I observe the tipped head of the pubescent dancer much like a young race horse contemplated for its fine lines.
A thundering Manet of a rag picker recalls for me the genius man who initiates modern art, he forgoing a realistic background, erasing its depth in a silvery backdrop, the words of his friend Baudelaire in his head, influences of Velasquez in his heart. Reading the brochure later, I’m saddened to see I’ve missed the Goyas and Ingres, those timeless prints and paintings forever etched in my head from university art study.
Because the guide is so good, we give ourselves over to it, proceeding slowly on the hard floors, sitting when we can. At the very end of the hall, past Giacometti’s stretched soul, colourful and monotone Picasso’s, an enormous Sam Francis beckons. Maybe it’s his use of globs of blue and blacks, open wide spaces that float across the canvas.They attract me beyond the light- filled precision of Northern Renaissance masters or the exuberant physicality of the High Renaissance, or even the clever transformations of Braque and Picasso that eventually lead me on to these abstractions by painters like Frankenthaler, Klein , Pollock and the more lyrical Francis. For me, it is the craft of application of paint that suggests the abstract artist’s knowing along side his realist comrades of the underpinnings of shape, form, colour, line, perspective but choosing to go directly to your soul and heart, eschewing the usual human or landscape representations that evoke your pity, joy, intelligence, the predecessors commandeering the old tricks of the trade: such as figure placement in triangles, the Golden Rectangle, meaningful eye glances, etc. With a focus on the media that artists use, the most brilliant artists go directly for your gut , your emotions, wringing from you angst or sublime happiness, a wicked dab of blue hitting a glob of red just in the right way so the white that conjoins them leaves you a space to catch your breath.
There are stupendous Rembrandts here at three points in his career. The guide again providing more for reflection too: that the portrait of the boy is unlikely his son Titus, ( wrong age ); that the canvas may have been cut. ; that the fuzzy thing on the boy’s shoulder could be an homage to Rembrandt’s recently departed monkey. The colour modelling and self- probing expression of the faces on his portraits as well demonstrate even to the ingenue how extraordinary a master Rembrandt was/ is.
There is so much here, but the guide, truly deepens the experience.The sculpture garden based on Monet’s at Giverny’s in France although not an exact replica does replicate the water lilies gently floating there. Glimpsing the oversized powerful Maillol sculptures of women makes you pause and gasp. And you have never truly looked at a Henry Moore until you realize how his shapes based on bones and natural forms , for example, are echoed in Nature until you observe them here. Set among lavender, hermercallis, germander, bay figs, silk floss trees, tulip tree and lemon- scented gum groves( to only name a few), the marriage of form and setting is unspeakably sublime. Especially when the sun touches both hard and soft surfaces, illuminating deeply while obscuring them. And have I almost forgotten Rodin’s Burghers of Calais at the entrance, their intensity framing your approach as they, heavily hewn from rock, intent on their path move away from the building.You in.
The Huntington is no less an excursion into the fantastic. At the Library Exhibition Hall, you are confronted with the Gutenberg Bible, a milestone in world history, the 15th Century oeuvre that initiated the spread of literacy. Nearby are Shakespeare’s plays, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and a note from Abraham Lincoln along with Susan B. Anthony’s legal defence for voting illegally. It is overwhelming and simultaneously humbling to stand before these benchmarks. I enquire if these are perhaps facsimiles , for years prior, having dragged my family to Chantilly to view Les Riches Heures de Duc du Berry , I was disturbed to learn the originals were kept under tight lock and key, away from the eyes of hungry tourists. But these at the Huntington are the real deal!
The American Gallery reminds me of the Isabella Stewart in Boston with the marriage of furniture and paintings. Here we find quilts, tables, spinning wheels and early portraits. Having just finished Cernow’s Hamilton, I am fascinated with three separate paintings of George Washington. Much as I would have expected, tall, unassuming, quietly intelligent and thoughtful. The Mary Cassatt as well displays a believable mother-child relationship , the push and pull evident in the faces of the pair.The European Gallery offers us free audio guides, but although descriptive, they are not as insightful as the ones at Norton Simon’s.
I too could pick out the contrasts of the famous Pinkie by Thomas Lawrence – although I did not know she died shortly after the painting of this portrait of tuberculosis. The Blue Boy is a stopping point, for he is beautiful, an icon, most recognizable as a symbol of childhood, well! a wealthy doted upon one, albeit the incredible brushwork on his gleaming outfit perfectly suggesting both rich fabric and artistic talent by Thomas Gainsborough, the favourite accomplished portraitist in the 18th Century. Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse is well explained by the guide as well , with a focus on the atypical colour choice of her brownish dress to highlight the whiteness of her skin and the Greek figures in the background, selected for their symbolism , erased, redrawn. Momentarily we stop at the 15 foot high stained glass designed by Edward Burne-Jones, not fully appreciative of William Morris and the Pre– Raphaelite resurrection here. With a collection of 400 paintings, 300 sculptures, 2500 objects of decorative art, 20,000 prints and drawings, this one single gallery housing European masters is a home for concentrated study, not a mere day ramble.
Before we head back to San Diego, we want to meander in the gardens. Wisely we have brought our readers so as to find a shady nook and rest among the beauty of this immense 207 acre estate.Although the Rose Garden wonderfully overwhelms in scent and fragrance, not to mention size, colour, variety and elegance of bloom, today we can only wander the perimeter as the pathways are blocked off. And although the Chinese Gardens are exactly and beautifully recalled as we remember them in Shanghai, it is the Japanese Gardens where we rest and read after pursuing the paths that treat us to small bridges overlooking iridescent fish and bonsai gardens. These 12 acres were renovated in 2011-12 with a new tea house by a Kyoto- based architect and craftsman. Situated on the slopes of a canyon, Japanese red pine, junipers, cycads, willows, wisteria and sweet olive trees bend and frame the restful scene. Fruit trees such as apricot, cherry and flowering camellias, azaleas, lilies, iris and lotus all coalesce in a storybook setting. Not surprisingly, we have been directed to this particular garden, time and again by previous besotted visitors.To augment the experience here, there is the historic five- roomed Japanese House that recreates the realm of an upperclass dwelling in the 19-20 th Century. Much of the structure crafted from Japanese woods that included persimmon, red pine and zelkova were also built in Japan and shipped to California in 1904. Complementing the construction are American- sourced woods.
There are subtropical, Australian, and desert gardens as well as a special botanical garden. But we must return to San Diego, our feet beginning to tire after more than five hours exploring gardens and galleries.
We planned to stop at Vaca in Costa Mesa adjacent to the Segerstrom auditorium. Their Paella Valenciana, a combination of chicken, scallops, chorizo, prawns, bomba rice, saffron aioli is exquisite and worth a visit. The previously night Bacchus Kitchen in Pasadena was likewise an anticipated fresh food delight, exactly as chef Thomas Keller might have expected in his pursuit of fresh ,local, simple foods where the delight resides in the produce itself. I order the crispy duck breast on chervil chive barley, orange- scented olives, sautéed green radishes, in rosemary oil. My husband chooses the New Zealand lamb that he proclaims is the best he has ever experienced, somehow not “ lamby.”. Handcut fries with homemade ketchup resemble no fry, even cooked in duck fat, that we have ever eaten, these so light, crispy and delicious. The absolute queen of fries, we agree.
And finally our boutique hotel Dusitd2 Hotel Constance, a renovated posh hotel from the roaring twenties its elegance renewed , its Art Nouveau spirals and curves charming: in ceiling decoration and hallways, bar banquettes and courtyard ( no wonder a movie company is pulling up as we depart for the Huntington). Refurbished with future plans for a gardentop swimming pool, self parking and a Cuban bakery to further enhance this luxurious stopover.
Fortunately the drive from Costa Mesa to San Diego is swift so we are back home at a reasonable hour, reflecting on the perfection of Pasadena.