Before Norton Simon the art museum, there was Norton Simon the entrepreneur and art collector.
He started with works from European Old Masters, Impressionists, and Post-Impressionists and then began collecting works from Asia after a trip to India. He eventually added his collections to what was then the Pasadena Museum of Modern Art, which he was director of until his passing in 1993.
Now known as Norton Simon, the museum in Pasadena houses collections of 14th century to contemporary European art, Asian art spanning two millennia, and a sculpture garden.
Even the walkway to the entrance is surrounded with works of Auguste Rodin – the anguished faces of The Burghers of Calais, The Walking Man mid-stride, Saint John the Baptist with sinewy arm outstretched, The Thinker pondering Colorado Boulevard.
Inside, the 19th century European art gallery just off the foyer immediately drew me in, and I found myself face-to-face with some of Degas’s bronze ballerinas, frozen in their moments of stretching, posing, preparing to dance.
The collection actually includes over 100 of his paintings, drawings, and sculptures, as well as work by Cézanne, Gauguin, Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, and Goya.
The 17th and 18th century galleries hold still lifes, Rembrandt portraits, scenes from history and mythology.
Sculpture Garden and Cafe
I took a break in the outdoor Garden Cafe. On the menu are sandwiches, salads, tea, and bottled cold brew (inexplicably imported from Austin, Texas).
It’s a lovely place to take in the view of the Sculpture Garden and to people watch. That particular sunny day, museum-goers were spilling out into the Garden in regular bursts, bounding, striding, or strolling the path around the pond. A group of giggling teens hunted for Pokémon. A man pulled his elderly mother’s wheelchair up to a table by the water, and she shakily stood up to stretch while he got them lunch.
The lower level is primarily devoted to the museum’s Asian collection with a gallery for rotating exhibits, such as Duchamp to Pop. So I stepped from amongst statues of gods into the bright, irreverent world of pop art. It was a bit jarring. But, then, pop art was meant to be jarring, wasn’t it?
Duchamp to Pop showed how the work of Marcel Duchamp influenced pop artists, such as Andy Warhol, whose Campbell’s soup cans and Brillo boxes are part of the museum’s permanent collection (but not always on display).
Much of the museum’s Asian art collection comes from the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. There are also Japanese woodblock prints that belonged to Frank Lloyd Wright.
Starting at the foot of the stairs, you walk by stone, bronze, and terra cotta pillars, altarpieces, and statues depicting heroes and gods from Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions, especially the Buddha. It was fascinating to see the how portrayals change in different eras and geographic locations. (More in the museum’s video on their Asian Art collection.)
Looking at these ancient figures with heads, torsos, arms, and legs posed in a moment of sitting in quiet reflection, embracing, or dancing, I was struck by their humanness, by how much we had in common.
Those ancient subjects really weren’t so different from the ballerinas that inspired Degas or the woman stretching by the pond or the teens playing Pokemon Go or me or you. We’re pretty much all the same.
We still sit and reflect, we embrace, and we dance.
The Pasadena Convention & Visitors Bureau provided us with complimentary press passes to Norton Simon Museum.