Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Here are 5 must-see pieces from one of the West Coast's largest collections of art.
By: Erica Walsh

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la, los angeles, county museum of art, lights

Photo by: Richard Cummins/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

Richard Cummins/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

Los Angeles is no stranger to celebrities. However, some of its most famous occupants don't walk the runway or the red carpet -- they hang on the walls of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Here are five must-see pieces from one of the West Coast's largest collections of art.

Weeping Woman with Handkerchief, 1937
Pablo Picasso
The first must-see piece on our tour of LACMA is legendary Spanish artist Pablo Picasso's "Weeping Woman with Handkerchief." The woman captured here is French photographer Dora Maar, who was also one of Picasso's many mistresses. From 1936 to 1944, Picasso carried on an affair with Dora. During this time, he was married to famed Russian dancer Olga Koklova and having an affair with a third woman, Marie-Therese Walter.

There was an intense rivalry between Dora and Marie-Therese as they battled for Picasso's affection. During this time, Dora also learned that she was infertile -- this knowledge combined with the stress of her relationship with Picasso propelled her into a deep depression. This painting is Picasso's rendering of her private agony, and in fact, Picasso painted over 30 portraits featuring a distraught Dora.

Although Picasso painted her suffering many times, this portrayal is particularly heart-wrenching. Her sadness is almost violent; her tears are sharp and painful-looking, almost like nails.

Picasso soon moved on to another lover and muse. Dora, however, remained attached to the painter. In 1997 when she passed away, a collection of Picasso's work was discovered in her apartment. It contained 10 paintings and up to 50 drawings -- the last important collection of his artwork in private hands.

Death of Lucretia, 1730
Ludovico Mazzanti
Lucretia has been painted by some of the biggest names in art history: Rembrandt, Botticelli, Titian, Reubens and Raphael to name just a few. Her story takes place in Rome, circa 509 B.C. during the rule of the tyrannical King Tarquin. Lucretia was the beautiful and virtuous wife of a nobleman and also the object of another man's desire, the King's son Sextus.

While Lucretia's husband was away, Sextus threatened to kill her unless she succumbed to his sexual advances. She submitted to the rape, and when her husband returned, told him her horrible story. Unable to live with the shame, Lucretia took her own life by plunging a dagger into her chest.

Her suicide riled the citizens of Rome into action, and they soon drove the tyrannical King and his son out of the city. Soon after, the people of this great city established the Republic of Rome.

Mazzanti's portrayal of this legendary woman is unique. Gazing at her, you feel close to her pain and agony. She gazes upward, beseeching God for guidance, courage and confidence. Additionally, Mazzanti painted her in the 1730s, while living in Spanish-occupied Italy. Perhaps he sought to inspire the people of Naples to rise up against their foreign captors.

The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame, 1638-1640
Georges de la Tour
The subject of this next piece is the biblical figure Mary Magdalene. According to The Bible, Mary was a sinner, and though beliefs and interpretations differ, some think that she was also a prostitute. In this painting, the flame of the candle illuminates several things the artist wants us to know about Mary.

She is holding a skull in her lap, a symbol of death. We also see a whip and biblical texts, symbols of repentance. It seems that de la Tour is portraying Mary as she ponders sin, penitence and the afterlife.

While de la Tour paints a subject who has been studied for thousands of years, the technicality of this painting is unsurpassable. The way the light illuminates Mary in her contemplation is stunning. De la Tour's paintings became so popular in France that after World War II, the French government prohibited them from leaving the country.

This piece belongs to an American museum thanks to Simone Lahaye, a resistance fighter during World War II. She became a hero to her fellow Frenchmen, but by the 1970s, she was destitute -- her only valuable possession was this painting. The French government allowed her to sell it to avoid poverty. "Magdalen with the Smoking Flame" became the last de la Tour piece to sell outside France.

Bacchus and Ariadne, 1619-1620
Guido Reni
This painting captures a common but poignant human experience -- heartache. The Greek myth of Bacchus and Ariadne dates back to around the 12th or 13th century B.C. Ariadne, the King of Crete's daughter, was sailing to Athens to be with her lover, Theseus. However, fickle Theseus falls in love with another woman and leaves Ariadne on a lonely deserted island.

Venus, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, took pity on Ariadne and sent Bacchus, the god of wine, to marry her. As a wedding gift, Bacchus gave Ariadne an eternal crown in the sky, visible as the stars in the upper right-hand corner of the painting. Today, this series of stars is known as the Corona Borealis, corona being the Spanish word for crown.

However, Reni does something unusual in this painting, turning a classic Greek tragedy on its head. Reni's friend Cesare Rinaldi, who just so happened to love humor in art, commissioned the painting. And so Reni delivered; Bacchus has a visible bulge under his eye that many interpret as the result of a night's hard drinking. Ariadne is pictured flustered and frustrated -- some even say she looks like she's whining. Reni gives these two lovers human flaws, proving that there is comedy in even the most legendary heartbreaks.

White Center, 1957
Mark Rothko
If you have never seen a Rothko, then you may be a bit confused at the number-one must-see for LACMA. Standing in front of a Rothko, you're meant not to think, but to feel. Rothko once said, "I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions -- tragedy, ecstasy, doom."

Perhaps his artistic mission began early in life. Born Marcus Rothkowitz in 1903, he was a Jewish boy in Czarist Russia where he personally witnessed Jewish persecution. Rothko has stated that he was particularly haunted by a memory of seeing soldiers take Jews into the woods to dig their own graves. Art historians speculate that this translates into the rectangular shapes prevalent in so much of Rothko's work.

Rothko and his family fled to America when he was only 10 years old. But his experiences in Russia shaped his life and his art.

Unlike the paintings we saw by Picasso and Mazzanti, Rothko does not try to portray emotion literally. He uses color and shapes to stir the human heart. The primary colors of this piece, red and white can respectively symbolize pain and hope.

Many people are moved by the emotions depicted on Rothko's canvases. There's even a chapel in Texas dedicated to the artist that has been visited by the Dalai Lama. This subjective piece by Rothko is a must-see because it affects everyone differently; so make sure to see the work of this Abstract Expressionist when visiting the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

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