LOS ANGELES — For many in California, the name Forest Lawn is practically synonymous with cemetery, especially the bucolic kind with classical statuary and European architecture. Today, there are six Forest Lawn Memorial Parks in Southern California, but the first, Glendale Park, founded in 1906, is the most iconic, with its winding roads, well-maintained subdivisions, and buildings that look like here at an English country chapel. or an Italian Romanesque church there. The art inside and outside these buildings is reminiscent of the Old Masters – a replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” is in the Grand Mausoleum, albeit in stained glass, and a life-size replica of Michelangelo’s David sculpture stands outside in a plaza, albeit in bronze.
Uncovering the Past: The Art and History of Forest Lawn, an exhibit at the Forest Lawn Museum, traces the history of architecture and art at the institution, including Glendale. Curated by museum director James Fishburne, the exhibit begins around the time Hubert L. Eaton took office as president in 1917 and molded the place into an idealized concept of our final resting place. Art, both by and in the style of recognized European masters, was an integral part of the program.
There are old photographs and ephemera, designs and drawings, and beautiful stained glass panels. The stained glass windows are in fact old, French and German, and date from the 13th to 16th centuries. Particularly noteworthy are the portraits of Saint Andrew and Pope Sixtus II by the Hirschvogel workshop in Nuremberg, based on designs by Albrecht Dürer.
“Our collection of stained glass is one of the largest in the United States,” Fishburne said during an introduction to the show. “The three floor-to-ceiling sections are Medieval and Renaissance stained glass that we purchased from the Hearst Collection.” He was referring to another art collector, William Randolph Hearst, the publisher who spent so much of his fortune buying up Europe’s artistic heritage that he got into debt. (And the lightly disguised subject of the Orson Welles biopic Citizen Kane in 1941.)
Born in Missouri in 1881, Eaton was “the product of a faithful Christian upbringing and yearning for world culture within the framework of the American experience,” writes architectural and landscape historian Marc Treib in his article ” The Landscape of Loved Ones”. “Eaton blended lofty ideals with an understanding of the American psyche and acumen for business.” He fell in love with European art, in part through a visit to the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco with its majestic buildings. His first major building project was the Great Mausoleum, which is a mixture of ecclesiastical and castle design. It opened in 1920 but continued to be built into the 1970s.
He traveled to Europe several times and commissioned works inspired by Renaissance masters, including Leonardo’s “The Last Supper”, which was recreated in stained glass for greater effect. A photograph shows the two sisters, Rosa and Cecilia Moretti Caselli, who worked on the project in their studio in Perugia, Italy. As mentioned, a replica of Michelangelo’s David is also here, and a photo shows the sculpture falling apart after an earthquake. Instead of replacing it with another marble sculpture, this time Forest Lawn decided to do it in bronze – and the sculpture was recently relocated to the Court of David down the hill from the museum, surrounded by a wall of columbarium ready for future occupancy.
The exhibit highlights Jan Styka’s enormous painting “The Crucifixion,” which Eaton tracked to a Chicago warehouse in 1943 (Styka was a Polish painter renowned for his panoramic history paintings). In Glendale, Eaton’s would construct a building with an auditorium large enough to display his width – 195 feet – and today it stands in the Hall of the Crucifixion next to the museum. When the auditorium is open, it’s worth sitting through a narrated vision of the painting, which depicts Christ standing on the hill of Golgotha, facing the cross on which he will die. The crowds are around him and the city of Jerusalem is on the far right. It’s truly epic, even cinematic in its scope.
Asked to explain the taste for these types of art, Fishburne replied: “There is a kind of timelessness in these classic works of art. It’s also bringing us something bigger than ourselves. When you go to a museum or when you travel the world, you expand your boundaries and think of things from the distant past that will endure into the future.
Forest Lawn has a surprisingly impressive art collection, and this exhibition only scratches the surface. Critics have called it kitsch, but I personally don’t mind kitsch, and many of Forest Lawn’s replicas or spin-offs are too well done to be called kitsch. The art of Forest Lawn transports us to another world – it allows us to imagine, if only for the moments we are there, a world where the troubled world can be left behind and beauty reigns.
Uncovering the Past: The Art and History of Forest Lawn continues at the Forest Lawn Museum (1712 S Glendale Ave, Glendale, California) until March 13. The exhibition was curated by James Fishburne.