Los Angeles hides her secrets well, especially on a quiet Thursday in July. Atop a hill, facing the Hollywood sign sits Barnsdall Park, an unassuming place often taken for granted by those who know it and invisible to those who don’t. A thick canopy of trees shades walkways and tiny wrought iron tables and chairs perfect for a picnic for two. There’s a theatre, a building where kids learn how to paint, and its crown jewel, the Los Angeles Municipal Arts Museum Gallery—a cumbersome name for such an elegant and modern space.
Behind its doors lies 10,000 square feet of polished pale gray cement floors and matching walls. There’s an artistic reverence here, particularly on this sleepy summer day. However I’ve noticed it before, even when the room is abuzz with art aficionados and serious followers.
Today, I’m part of a secret society of unpretentious intellectuals nourished by the park’s limitless gifts of peace and meaningful, substantive art. It is an uncomplicated respite nestled deep within a city I often find perplexing. I don’t amuse easily and am often circumspect about anything enthusiastically promoted, which in this town is almost anything new and hip. It’s not just that these things often suffer from the Emperor’s New Clothes problem. It’s the herculean effort required to get anywhere, fight traffic, find parking, meet friends, eat, and judiciously nurse one alcoholic beverage when I want three after a grueling day of work. Having a good time in Los Angeles is just too hard.
Today, however, I am unshackled— free to walk through sun-speckled sidewalks and breathe air so fresh it flows through every pore. I haven’t felt this euphoric since I flew on swing sets high above bars and sat, for that breathtaking moment, suspended in air before careening back to earth and on to the other side. Almost nothing has compared to that, until now.
I walk through the floor to ceiling doors of the museum to see Auguste Rodin’s drawings. These masterpieces line the walls in perfect symmetry articulating a profound and disturbing agony. In his commanding hands, ink and shade bring human suffering to life as each drawing plunges me deeper down the rings of Dante’s inferno. Rodin draws me into images depicting humanity’s breathtaking capacity for cruelty.
He was obsessed by the human form. In every piece he tirelessly explores complex human relationships and nuanced emotions. His designs rise from the paper and move in a constant dance before the eyes. There is a spirit here, one that cannot be captured in reprints or photographs. This must be seen to be experienced. In these pieces a great human narrative unfolds, one that is startlingly modern and often familiar: a mother’s embrace, a lover’s touch—you’ll find yourself in these images.
I pour over each drawing to honor Rodin’s indefatigable efforts. It’s like he drew each piece as if it were his last. I often feel, in my own work as a writer, that there’s a “good enough” factor that must take precedent in order to make deadlines and please bosses. As I stand before each magnificent drawing, I feel pleasure in the time it must’ve required him to get every one right.
Afterwards, I wander through the hushed grounds of Barnsdall Park. Two children play hide-and-go-seek with their father. A man walks his dog. A homeless girl seeks refuge in a secret corner under a tree. In a town obsessed with youth and status, this park exists as a great equalizer. There are no parking fees, no museum dues or tickets. It’s free. And while that may mean it doesn’t yet rate in this town, it makes it one of the coolest places I’ve visited.
LAMAG is emerging as a serious contender on the art scene as well as one of LA’s most exciting cultural destinations. The Rodin exhibit runs through August 17th. Please visit LAMAG.ORG for more details.