Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Unanswered Question of Frederic Bazille

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through July 9, 2017

I had heard of Bazille before I went to see this show, and I'm pretty sure I'd seen at least one of his works at the National Gallery, but I wasn't really familiar with his work, in the way that I am with the bigger names of Impressionism.

I suspect that's true of many people as regards Bazille: vague sense, but no real knowledge.  This show should change that, and that's a worthy goal.  The one thing the show doesn't do, and perhaps it really can't do it, is answer the great question of Bazille's life: why did he give up a promising artistic career, leave his friends behind and join the army to fight in the Franco-Prussian War?  It was a decision with tragic consequences, as he was killed in his first battle.

Bazille had a comfortable upper-middle class upbringing.  His parents wanted him to be a doctor, and he studied medicine for several years before giving it up to become an artist.  He became friends with a who's who of Impressionist luminaries: Monet, Renoir, etc.; he lived, worked and exhibited with them throughout his very brief career.

The show begins with several portraits, then moves on to still lifes, including one called "The Dog Rita, Asleep" which caught my eye, as Rita looks very much like my own dog, Sherlock.  I would have taken a picture, but it was labeled as "no photography,"  so I was out of luck.

His largest, and in my opinion, best work comes towards the end.  The Family Gathering is considered his masterpiece, and it is wonderful.  It's the sort of painting that makes me imagine a backstory for those pictured; I think there's more going on than just a family enjoying the sun on a summer afternoon. Summer Scene and another piece of a fisherman (I've forgotten the name now) are also marvelous.

The show ends with a room of floral paintings, which seems sort of tacked-on, as if there wasn't any other space for these, so they were put in where they fit.  I think it would have been better to end with the large works, but I understand that sometimes, the physical space has other demands.

Verdict: I highly recommend this show; a welcome exploration of an overlooked artist.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

JFK and the Greek Slave

Where: National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum

When: through July 9, 2017

 I saw two exhibits in one trip this week.  They were small and in the same building, which helps.

The first was Hiram Powers' The Greek Slave.  This was the most famous sculpture of the 19th century, and its full nudity meant that, in some venues where it was shown, men and women had to view it separately.  Some claimed that the statue was not indecent, as it was "clothed all over with sentiment."  Yeesh.  SAAM allows everyone in at the same time, and it doesn't seem to be a problem.

There was an X-ray of the statue on view, which I always find interesting - what's going on beneath the surface?  Not as surprising as the Rodin dancer X-ray I saw at the National Gallery a while back, but still a treat to see.

Powers received several patents for the tools he used in his artistic work, so that tied in neatly with the building's past identity as the home of the Patent and Trademark Office.

On display was the plaster model of the statue; there were several marble replicas made for private patrons - wonder where those are now? Minton & Company made small porcelain replicas that were sold as souvenirs and are now collected in their own right.  There is a human desire to own great art, even if it's just a little copy.

On my way out, I stopped by the "Celebrate" wall, where a portrait of John F. Kennedy is on display.  It's the centenary of his birth, and there are any number of Kennedy-themed shows up, so watch this space for further reports.  This is a pastel on paper by Shirley Seltzer Cooper from 1961; he looks both young and serious.

Verdict: Both of these are worth seeing; don't leave the JFK portrait too long, you know how those "Celebrate" works will go down in a moment if that space needs to become the "In Memoriam" wall.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

A Trip to Korea


Where: Natural History Museum

When: through July 5, 2017

The Korea Gallery is located at the back of the 2nd floor of Natural History, and amidst all the hubbub surrounding the Hope Diamond and the gem collection, it's easy to overlook.  The easiest way to get there is to take the stairs by the Constitution Avenue entrance, the ones surrounding the totem poles.

This one room show highlights various aspects of Korean culture; there's some history, some art, some ceramics and some discussion of societal norms.  I learned that Korea (both North and South put together) is the size of Minnesota, a state I've visited several times.  So it's pretty decent size, but small in comparison to the entire United States.

Did you know that Koreans had moveable type almost 200 years before Gutenberg and his Bible?  I didn't, but I do now.  It's a bit embarrassing to have been educated in such a Euro-centric way, but all I can do is try to fill in the gaps now.

The picture above is of two bowls.  The one on the left is from the 12th century, and the one on the right is from the 20th century.  Both of them feature a celadon glaze, for which Korea is famous.  Pieces of ceramic that the visitor could actually touch were just next to these - I love a tactile exhibit, and one sees them so seldom.  Good job for including this, Natural History!

Verdict: Informative displays in a small space - the out of the way location is my only criticism.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Chinamania

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through June 4, 2017

I left this visit very late in the show's run, so you need to go see this today or tomorrow.

Walter McConnell is the artist and he's created two big piles of porcelain.  The one pictured here is the "White Stupa"; the other is called "Dark Stupa."  There are meant to be a riff/satire/homage on the Victorian craze for Chinese blue and white porcelain and on our modern day craze for acquisition.

You can walk around these creations for quite a while, picking out pop culture representations - Disney characters, religious icons, even E.T. makes an appearance.

The larger question, of course, is left unanswered.  Why do we want so much stuff?  How much happiness does it truly bring us?

This is in the same area as the "Peacock Room/REMIX" installation - another reflection on acquisition.  I'd seen that before, but took the opportunity to enter the space again.  A really wonderful take on Whistler's masterpiece.

Verdict: Well worth seeing.  Both fun and thought-provoking.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

A Window on an "Invisible" World

Where: National Museum of the American Indian

When: through June 4, 2017

This is one of those exhibits that was different than I thought it would be.  I knew it would be photographs, but I wasn't expecting the type of pictures on display or the intriguing nature of the photographer.  Just goes to show, you need to go to the show.

Horace Poolaw was a Native American living in Oklahoma, at a confluence of tribes, all pushed together by the federal government, who wanted them to give up their traditions and culture and acclimate into white America. He photographed his people as they truly were, keeping their culture alive while adopting some of white culture.  While outsiders came to see "authentic Indians," Poolaw recorded the lives of real native people.

Poolaw was not a professional photographer, in that he never made a living by his work, but he was trained by professionals and judged his own output against what he saw in Life magazine.  At the time of his death, he had not labeled most of his negatives, and he never had the money to print them.

Happily, the Horace Poolaw Photography Project at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma is seeking to remedy that situation.  The current display is the fruit of their labors, scanning the negatives and researching the people in the pictures.

This is in the large special exhibit space on the 3rd floor, and the set-up is really good.  Each photo has a lot of wall space, so you can focus on each image without other shots competing for your attention.  There are also cut outs in the dividers (see my photo above) that gave me the idea for the "window" description.

Poolaw's daughter, Linda Poolaw, said that her father never took these photographs in order to be remembered, but so that people would remember themselves.  I hope that both the people and their photographer can be remembered by those that see this exhibit.

Verdict: Fine show: both the artist and his subjects are engaging, and the design of the exhibit space supports the work.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

In Living Color

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through June 4, 2017

Usually, when you look at sculpture, it's white.  Think of Winged Victory or the Venus de Milo or Michelangelo's David - all white.  The Della Robia family, had other ideas, more colorful ones.  Their sculpture is in blue, and green, and yellow and purple.  They developed a glazing technique that allowed them to create art that was beautiful then and is just as beautiful now.

How often have you looked at a painting and been told, "It would have been much more vibrant when it was painted."  I always feel frustrated when I hear this; I can appreciate the technique or the subject matter, but I'm not having the full experience.  With the Della Robias, you get it all.

Ironically, the great masterpiece on display is in white - Elizabeth and Mary greeting one another.  It really is a great work, worth a visit all on its own.  It was what I saw first, as I entered in the middle of the show.  This is my only complaint; the set-up is weird.  The beginning of the show is outside the garden court, in the hallway, and the rest of the show is off the main court in a series of rooms.  It makes for a disjointed presentation, and if you come up from the 7th street entrance, as I did, you start in the middle.

Another display I really liked was two versions of the same piece.  One Madonna and Child is owned by the National Gallery and the other is owned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  Putting the two side-by-side shows how you could customize your artwork to have just the piece you liked.  Personally,  I like the NGA's piece better; it's a simpler piece and feels less cluttered.

Verdict: Don't let the odd arrangement spoil the many pleasures of this show.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Two Bites of the Apple

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through June 4, 2017

This small exhibit is in what I call the "low-light alcove," a small nook close to the archives room and the One Life space.  I'm assuming the items displayed here are fragile, as it's quite dark.  When I read that this show featured daguerrotypes, I knew I was heading over here.  I'll admit, my eyesight is not the sharpest, so it can be challenging to really look at what's on offer.  Better to see them dimly, however, than not at all!

There are seven people pictured here, each with two daguerrotypes.  The point of the show is that although a picture may be worth a thousand words, two pictures are worth even more.  When we get one image in our minds, it can become fixed as "the" way a person looked.  This is especially true of historical figures who lived long before modern photography or television (let alone smartphones or the Internet).  Even those who posed for daguerrotypes (which were lightning fast compared to a painted portrait) look wooden and dour, mostly because they had to hold still for so long while the picture was taken.

This show offers an opportunity to see two glimpses of its subjects.  With some,  the advances in technology mean that although they look pretty grim in one picture, they look more natural in a second, taken years later.   I used to think, "Their lives must have been awful" when I looked at old photos; now I have a better appreciation for the fact that perhaps technology just hadn't caught up to their smiles.

Verdict: Worth a look (or two?), and easy to combine with a trip to see the Babe Ruth display or the archives' look at cats before the Internet.