Monday night's opening party for the Getty Center's opulent new exhibition, Paris: Life & Luxury, was a well-heeled and extremely civilized affair. The solid gold, satin-embroidered, lavishly embellished, glossy-lacquered, ornate frame-laden upper galleries were furnished partly with high-profile loans but mostly with benignly neglected items from the Getty's immeasurably vast holdings of French decorative arts.
The displays were organized around the parts of a typical day in the life of a wealthy Parisian in the late 18th century, from morning meetings and dressing rituals, to sumptuous gout-inducing luncheons, evening parlor entertainment, and bedtime prayer — the idea being not so much to illuminate the mysteries of life in the years surrounding the French Revolution, as to draw comparisons between the upper class lifestyles of then and now.
Rich people, it turns out, have always liked their toys, and also liked to show them off to their friends and frenemies. And people everywhere prefer working from home offices and relish passing on gossip at the speed of light. The exhibition organizers have gone to great pains to highlight these resonances — with the result that a lethally hefty gilt bronze writing set from 1715 is forever transformed into a vision of Donald Trump's iPad 2; a 14-foot high Duchess bed from circa 1690-1715 with hand-embroidered hangings fit for a Papal visit now seems like something Lady Gaga might be carried in across a red carpet; a sweetheart Harpsichord-piano conversion by Joannes Goermans I from 1754 seems like nothing so much as a high-fidelity sound system; and a wardrobe of silk brocade, taffeta, and satin on loan from LACMA looks an awful lot like the shop windows of Beverly Hills during awards season.
The exhibition is supplemented with related programs of interest, such as the April 28th lecture Blogging, Now and Then (250 Years Ago) which examines the good folks' of that era's obsession with anecdote and information-sharing; a slate of contemporary films portraying the period with presumably curator-approved authenticity, for example Dangerous Liaisons, and a series of costuming workshops with noted designer Maxwell Barr.
One thing the curators rather failed to mention, was that the last time there was such conspicuous consumption and orgiastic spending going on among the upper classes in France, it sparked a popular revolt along the lines of Victor Hugo's (and much later, Andrew Lloyd Weber's) Les Miserables. So following that reasoning to its logical conclusion is a bit unsettling. After being offered a tasty dinner of pork loin, lobster bisque, roasted root vegetables, and a towering dessert made of profiteroles — yes, they let us eat cake — capped off by running into Eli and Edye Broad in the elevator, we half expected to find burning barricades at the bottom of Getty Center Drive on the way out. We didn't.