Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting, 1848–1875

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through January 30, 2011

This show focuses on paintings and photography of the 1850s and 1860s in Britain. Photography was new then, and artists quickly became aware of its potential as a new medium for their expression. Painters at the same time sought to replicate the exactitude possible with photography, so not only did it create a new field of art, it also influenced existing fields.

Outdoor subjects pre-dominate in this show. I very much liked John Dillwyn Llewelyn's Plant Study, which features a path through a garden - I just love paintings of paths. John Ruskin's work is also featured, including a painting and daguerreotype of Fribourg. This is the first time the two works have been exhibited together; I'm always glad when I see something that hasn't been seen before!

Some of the photographs reminded me of the works I saw in The Pond, which I discussed earlier on this blog. They are of the outdoors, and depict it in a detailed and realistic manner, warts and all. I find I'm often reminded of something I've seen earlier when I visit a new exhibit, and often it's something a bit incongruous - like 19th century photographs reminding me of pictures taken in the 1960s.

The paintings in this show are very detailed; you often feel as if you are standing and looking at the actual view, rather than merely a painting of it - photography's influence, undoubtedly. John Wilham Inchbold's work was particularly realistic; I liked his paintings of paths through the woods.

Alice Liddell, the model for Alice in Wonderland appears in two pieces - as part of tableaux that the artists set up - perhaps this was how they occupied themselves when the weather was too inclement to allow for outdoor compositions?

Verdict: This is well worth seeing. Allow plenty of time, as the exhibit is quite large, encompassing several rooms. If you're taking a long lunch, or are going at the weekend, you could do this and Picturing the Victorians in the East Building library, which is from the same time period.

Lost and Found: The Lesbian and Gay Presence at the Archives of American Art

Where: Archives of American Art

When: through February 13, 2011

First of all, who knew there was an Archives of American Art? I've never heard of this before, but I'll be keeping an eye out for exhibits from now on. The gallery is in the American Art Museum, on F Street, NW, in a nice well-light room. I just wandered around the museum until I found it, but now that I know where it is, I'll waste less time getting there the next time I visit.

I don't know if this show was timed to coincide with the Hide/Seek exhibit, but it dovetails nicely. It turns out that the archives is full of items by and about gay and lesbian artists, and some very interesting pieces are on display here. Items include letters, newspaper clippings, photographs (including some full frontal male nudity - leave your prudery at home!) and other artifacts. There's even a statement by David Wojnarowicz in a catalog for Witnesses: Against our Vanishing, a show put on in 1989 featuring works by artists suffering from or who had died of AIDS. The National Endowment for the Arts stopped funding for the exhibit due to Wojnarowicz's "inflammatory rhetoric," which led to outrage, which in turn led to the restoration of the funding. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun!

I was quite interested to see the photograph above, featuring Eleanor Roosevelt with Alain Locke. No mention was made of Roosevelt's own relationships with women, only of Locke's homosexuality.

Verdict: Go see this small show; it's only one room, so easy to see in a lunch hour. I've heard nothing in the press about this exhibit, so I'm assuming it's safe from those who would usher homosexuality firmly out the museum door.Add Image

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Picturing the Victorians: British Photographs and Reproductive Prints from the Department of Image Collections

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building Library

When: through January 28, 2011

In the main lobby area of the East Building, is the entrance to the National Gallery's library. It's a lovely space, nice and quiet, and every so often they have an exhibit in the display cases in their reading room. You have to tell the guard at the door that you're there to see the exhibit, but I've had no problem getting in to the main space.

The Victorian Era saw the beginning of reproductions, which were sold to the emerging middle class, who were eager to display artworks in their homes, but who could not afford original pieces. These reproductions were of both art in the traditional sense, and of the then new art of photography.

Middle class people were not only interested in reproductions, however. They also were interested in seeing original artworks at museums. (I felt a kinship with these people from another country and time period!) The Sunday Society was formed to lobby for the opening of museums to the public on Sundays, arguing that it was better for people to spend their time looking at great art than in getting up to no good. One of the items on display is a page from the exhibit book of "Art Treasures of the United Kingdom" an exhibit held in Manchester in 1857. The show drew 1.3 million visitors in 5 months - an excellent draw today!

Verdict: A nice little exhibit; you could see it and "The Body Inside and Out" at the same time, as I did, or combine this show with one of the other, larger shows now on in the East Building.

The Body Inside and Out: Anatomical Literature and Art Theory Selections from the National Gallery of Art Library

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through January 23, 2011

This small exhibit is difficult to find in the National Gallery - have a look at the map available at any of the entrances to find your way to the correct room. Once there, however, the exhibit is interesting and easy to visit during lunch hour.

During the Renaissance, physicians and artists worked together to increase their knowledge of the human body. Artists witnessed dissections to gain a greater understanding of the body, which they then dispersed to a wider audience. This exhibit of rare books from the Gallery's collection shows the importance to artists of proportion and musculature in their work.

Verdict: Perhaps not everyone's first thought when visiting the National Gallery, but if you are interested in the history of art, or of the intersection of science and art, this is worth a look. You could easily combine this exhibit with one of the others at the Gallery, as it's only one room.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Revolution in Wood: The Bresler Collection

Where: Renwick Gallery

When: until January 30, 2011

I went to see this exhibit along with the "Art of Gaman" show, as they're both at the Renwick. The shows are small enough that they can be viewed in one lunch time, provided you move pretty quickly through them both. If you want to linger, see them one at a time. I would recommend seeing this show on a Tuesday, if you can, as they have a lathe demonstration going on from 12-1 through December. If you happen to be in town on a weekend, they have another demo going on the second Saturday of the month, from 2-4.

These objects are beautiful, especially if you like woodwork. All were made by turning the wood on a lathe. This brought back memories for me of my grandfather, father and uncle talking about their woodworking when I was a child. I didn't know what a lathe was, but I gathered it was important as it seemed to feature in so many of their conversations.

This exhibit includes not only functional pieces (bowls, vases) but also art objects. Bud Latven's piece, Integration, is made of maple and African blackwood. You don't really expect wood to make a statement, but this piece does.

Daniel Ellsworth's Solstice Series is a set of painted wood pieces - a sort of "Dylan Goes Electric" moment that is not without its controversy.

Finally, Edward Moulthrop's Donut Bowl I liked very much. There was something about the rounded shape that really appealed to me. He had several other similarly shaped pieces I liked as well.

Verdict: This show features many stunning wooden pieces. If you like wood as art, don't miss this exhibit.

The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942-1946

Where: Renwick Gallery

When: until January 30, 2011

This exhibit features art created by persons of Japanese descent living in internment camps during World War II. It is truly incredible that people living in these conditions could create any art, let alone such beautiful pieces. Some of the items are practical things, as people could take almost nothing with them, and had very little in the way of furniture.

Others are simply works of art, including Akira Oye's bear carving. It's stunning, yet he never carved again after leaving the camps. Chiura Obuta did a series of internment sketches. They start out in an impressionistic style, then become more realistic, as they depict scenes in the camp. The sketch of a deaf man shot at a fence (the guards warned him away, but he couldn't hear them) was haunting. A painting by George Matsusaburo Hiti, Topaz in Winter, reminded me of the "snow effect" used by the impressionists.

There were classes organized in the camps, showing how much the internees valued education, no matter the circumstances. Those who were artists before coming to the camps, or who picked up skills while there, taught others how to make things, whether for daily use or for decoration. Also amazing is the way the internees used whatever materials were at hand to create their art.

Edward Jitsue Kurushima made a toy train that looks like a model you could buy in a store, and he made it with scrap metal. On display were many bird carvings that were used as pins, that were made from scrap lumber and bits of wire.

Verdict: This show isn't always easy to view, as it is a vivid reminder of the injustice done to these people, but does show how resilient people can be. It reminds us that art can exist in even the most unlikely circumstances. This show is well worth a visit.

Gods of Angkor: Bronzes from the National Museum of Cambodia

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: until January 23, 2011

This exhibit is not terribly large - only 36 pieces, which makes it ideal for lunchtime viewing. While I was looking at the exhibit, I saw several tours going on. I'm a big fan of museum tours, although I don't take them on my lunch hour, for fear they'd run too long. I like them because you get a lot more information then you do just looking at the pieces yourself, and they are especially helpful for large museums, like the National Gallery of Art.

The Gods of Angkor exhibit is the result of a partnership between the Freer and Sackler Galleries and the National Museum of Cambodia. The museums have worked together to establish a metals conservation laboratory in Cambodia, and several pieces in the show have been conserved there.

Some of the pieces I found most interesting were:

  • a Kandal urn from the 4th - 2nd century BCE that was found in the possession of a peasant family, who were using it to carry water. I couldn't help but think what a Cambodian version of Antiques Roadshow might be like.
  • a kneeling female figure whose lost hand was later found among other excavated materials and replaced
  • a Crowned Buddha whose hands were held up in a "fear not" position
  • a statue of a male divinity missing the item that would help identify him. His hands were placed in what I think of as a "muffler man" pose.
  • an incense burner from the 12th century that reminded me of art nouveau design
Something else I found interesting was the use of a serpent as a protector of Buddha. In Western art, the serpent is usually the representative of evil, but in this show, the serpent is good. Buddha was also protected by both male and female figures. The male represents compassion, and the female represents wisdom. Again, a switch from Western views.

Verdict: do go and see this small, but very impressive, show. It's very well laid out, and if you have a bit more time, take a tour to learn more.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Note on Current Events

It was not my intention to make this blog into a sounding board for my political views, only for my opinions on exhibits in town. Recent events, however, have made me reconsider this idea, if only for this one post. I'm so angry I could spit nails, and since this concerns a museum exhibit, I'm going to vent my spleen here.

For those of you outside the Washington, DC area, I'm not sure if you've heard about the controversy surrounding the National Portrait Gallery's show, Hide/Seek. I have not yet seen the exhibit, so I'm basing my comments on what I've read about it, both at the museum's website and in a review and subsequent article by Blake Gropnik in the Washington Post.

The exhibit examines how homosexuality has been portrayed in portraits, focusing on times when people of the same gender were not free to express their feelings of love for one another. One portion of this exhibit is a video by an artist who died of AIDS in the early 1990s. The video was his way of demonstrating his feelings of grief and loss when his partner died of AIDS in the late 1980s. The complete video is about 30 minutes long; the National Portrait Gallery was showing a portion of the work, about 4 minutes in length. Included in this clip on display was a short (10 seconds, maybe) image of a crucifix covered in ants.

Some people have expressed offense at this image, and have declared that this is a deliberate insult to Christians and Christianity during the Christmas season. The National Portrait Gallery has removed the video and it is now on display at the Transformer Gallery.

It's difficult to know where to begin in expressing my outrage, but I'll give it the old college try. First, not everything is about the delicate sensibilities of Christians. I know that's hard for some people to understand, but it's true. My suspicion is that the artist was using the cross as a symbol for suffering, which artists have been doing for centuries. I'm sure there were other things on his mind when he created this piece than the ability of some people to take offense at everything - manufactured hysteria, I like to call it.

The idea that the curators at the National Portrait Gallery set out to deliberately offend people is preposterous. I'm sure they have much better things to do than put up displays just to make Christians unhappy. I'm sure they're well aware that they receive funding from the federal government, and that good public relations is helpful in continuing to receive that. Of course, art is not always meant to make everyone feel comfortable with their prejudices. Sometimes, it is meant to offend people and get them to examine their lives and viewpoints. It's a difficult line to walk, and I think that there are so many unobjectionable exhibits at the Portrait Gallery, that they can afford to have something a bit edgier from time to time.

Once you bring in the Christmas angle, that just smacks of the oh-so-bogus "war on Christmas" which is so ludicrous that I won't even discuss it further.

Second, this display isn't put up with public funds. Private funding paid for this display, so no taxpayer dollars were spent on this exhibit. Even if they were, I still don't buy this argument. Over the course of my working life, my tax dollars have been spent in ways I don't like, in some cases in ways that I find morally repugnant. That's how the system works. I vote for people that I think will spend my money in ways of which I approve. If those people win, then my money supports things I like. If those people don't win, then my money goes to support things I would prefer not to purchase. In either scenario, I still have to pay taxes. The idea that the government shouldn't fund anything that anyone might find objectionable is crazy. There's nothing the government funds that makes everyone happy. People who trot out this "My tax dollars are paying for this "argument are just whining like spoiled children.

Third, shame on you National Portrait Gallery. You decided to hold this exhibit and that the video should be part of it. You should stick by your decision - if you think these groups will stop with this, you are so very mistaken. They'll decide that all sort of pictures are offensive and have to go. Eventually, you'll be left with a big empty building. I find it difficult to believe that the museum didn't realize this exhibit would be controversial; when I saw the review, my first thought was that the flat earth society types would be up in arms. This is one of very few instances when I'm sorry I was right.

This exhibit is on my list to see, although I may have to go sooner than I had planned, before the whole show is closed.

Two small exhibits at American History

What: Clotilde Arias' Spanish translation of the Star Spangled Banner and "View from Up North"

Where: National Museum of American History

When: until November 30 (View from Up North) and December 2010 (Clotilde Arias)

I didn't see these two items listed on my exhibit website when I was making my plans for November and December, so I'm glad I saw them before they closed. I recommend to anyone who is a regular museum goer to check exhibit listings regularly, as closing dates change and new shows are added frequently.

American History is one of the most crowded museums I visit. During the school year, there are class trips almost every day, and during the summer, families flock to this museum, as it offers a little something for everyone. I'm happy that so many people are taking such enjoyment from this museum and its collection, but there are times I dread going over there and fighting the crowds.

One area that is empty whenever I go over is the display cases from the museum's archives. I think the average tourist writes off the displays as boring, and the displays lack the drama or presence of some of the more popular exhibits. For all that it's a bit dull, the archives cases exhibits are often quite informative, and sometimes they dovetail quite nicely with another exhibit at the museum. For instance, when the museum had its show on the Apollo Theater, the archives cases featured memorabilia from performers who had appeared at the Apollo (ticket stubs, programs, etc.).

The exhibit I saw, View From Up North, consisted of artifacts showing the pre-World War II views of Americans toward Mexico and Mexicans. The first thing that struck me was that Americans thought of Mexico as a place of political turmoil and instability - a view pretty common today, as well. Romanticized pictures of Mexicans predominated: dashing cowboys and beautiful women. In fact, increased economic investment had lead to discontent among the common people; I was reminded of the drug wars causing so much death and destruction today. Americans knew very little of Mexico, and what they learned came from published images and from the displays at World's Fairs. There were even paper dolls inspired by Franklin Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy.

The second exhibit is a Spanish translation of the Star Spangled Banner, commissioned by the State Department in 1945. This is on display in the Star Spangled Banner exhibit, towards the end of the room. I love looking at the flag that flew over Fort McHenry; it reminds me of my childhood visits to what was then called the Museum of History and Technology, when I was one of those kids on a class trip. In the 1970s, the flag was hanging (I think where the entrance to the flag exhibit is now), exposed to all the elements. Now, of course, it's in a low light area, behind glass, to preserve it for future generations to see. The low light is handled extremely well; you can see where you're going at all times.

The State Department asked Arias to translate two verses of the anthem into Spanish and what you see on display are her hand-written notes, including corrections. I always like seeing someone's rough drafts; it's like looking at their mind at work.

Verdict: The archives exhibit is closed now, although I'm not sure how firm those closing dates are; it might be worth a look, if you're there anyway. It may not be worth a separate trip to see the Spanish translation, but if you're planning to see the flag area anyway, go now and see this added artifact as well.

Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: until January 23, 2011

Lots of people are bigger fans of Elvis Presley than I am. Don't misunderstand me, I have nothing against him, and I recognize his place in musical and American history. I'm just not someone who worships him, or thinks he's still alive somewhere, or believes that I've had his baby.

Nevertheless, there's still much to like in this exhibit, even for the non-rabid fan. The show consists of photographs of Elvis by Alfred Wertheimer, shot over the course of a short period of time in 1956, just before he became a big star. The photographs themselves are beautiful; intimate moments and public scenes alike are captured in mostly black and white portraits. Elvis comes across as completely accessible and open to other people, as well as a bit naive and wide-eyed about all the interest in his music. This is not the fat Vegas-y Elvis of later years, but the heartthrob of the Eisenhower administration era.

Pictures that I particularly noticed included one of Elvis in New York City, talking to a young girl looking very proper in her white gloves. It occurs to me that the gloves are about to come off in terms of American pop culture; neither Elvis nor his fans had any idea what was ahead of them.

The second shot was one of Steve Allen discussing Elvis signature hip movements and how they might not be appropriate for his program. It reminded me of Ed Sullivan trying to get The Doors to change their lyrics a decade later.

My only criticism is that it's a bit difficult to figure out the layout of the show. I wanted to look at the photos in chronological order, but I found myself zigzagging from room to room in order to do so. A guide of some sort would have been nice, maybe numbers on the photos?

Verdict: Check out this show if you're an Elvis fan, a pop culture buff or a photography enthusiast. It's a picture of a moment in time.