Sunday, March 13, 2011

Orchids: A View from the East

Where: National Museum of Natural History

When: through April 24, 2011

I realized as I was walking through this show that it's the first time I've been to see an exhibit of living things. I'm usually looking at artwork, or historical artifacts - all of them inanimate objects. In this exhibit, it's all about real, live flowers, and beautiful flowers they are too. The show is actually fragrant - another first for me - what my father would have called "Smell-o-vision." It's a really gorgeous show, even if, like me, you're not much of a horticulturist.

I noticed that this was listed as an annual event, and I had wondered how I missed it last year. Turns out the show rotates between the Botanic Garden and the Natural History Museum, so I didn't see it last year, as it was on display at the other venue. When I was working at my last job, I was able to walk to the Botanic Garden and went there regularly. Now, it's a bit far afield for a lunchtime stroll, which is why I don't blog about it. Nevertheless, if you have an opportunity to go over there, by all means do - it's full of interesting plants, and is a wonderful way to unwind.

But back to this year's orchids... It's not a terribly large show, so it's easy to see in a lunch time. I learned that in the Qing dynasty, orchids, bamboo and rocks were often pictured together. Orchids represented integrity; bamboo was a symbol of resilience and rocks depicted endurance. Since all of these are qualities I greatly admire, I'm now on the lookout for a print featuring all three that I can hang in my office. The art in the exhibit is borrowed from the Freer and the Sackler, so in a small way, we've returned to the days when Natural History housed art and history exhibits, as well as its general collection.

The orchids are wonderful - every color and pattern imaginable. The entrance to the exhibit is set up in a way very similar to a traditional Chinese garden; I was reminded of a trip I made several years ago to Portland, Oregon, and the Chinese garden I visited while there. The idea of a scholarly retreat from the hustle and bustle of the world is very attractive, and it's easy to indulge such fantasies while in the show.

Verdict: Don't miss this exhibit, especially if you like flowers. The sights and smells are not to be found anywhere else on the Mall.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Brave New World II

Where: National Museum of African Art

When: through October 2, 2011

When I first learned about this exhibit, it was scheduled to end in April 2011, which is why I went to see it now. They've changed the dates and it is presently scheduled to end in October, so there's plenty of time to see it before it leaves.

It's a video installation by Theo Eshetu, who is an English artist of Ethiopian and Dutch extraction. He is interested in globalization, which is not surprising, given his international background. It's a kaleidoscope effect with many different images, flowing from one into another. They seem random, although I'm sure they're not. I'm assuming they are meant to convey a sense of global interconnectedness. It does hold your attention, as you wait for the next image to appear, which can be anything from the terribly familiar to the amazingly exotic. It's set in a mirrored frame, which I'm guessing is what creates the kaleidoscope - not like anything I've seen before.

Also in the room are a variety of other art works, including some large banners depicting support for Nasser and used when he came to power. Considering current events in Egypt, it's quite timely.

The exhibit itself is quite hard to find, which is unfortunate if one has limited time to spend. It's quite close to the museum shop, so head in that direction.

Verdict: Go see this - it's not like anything else you'll see this year (I'm guessing), and it's an entertaining way to spend some time.

Modern Lab: There is nothing to see here

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through April 22, 2011

There is nothing to see here is not the most encouraging title for a show, especially one which requires a climb up to the East Building's upper level. Although not as steep a trek as that necessitated by the Tower room, it's no small voyage, and one would like to think there will be something to see when one finally arrives. Well, you might want to spare yourself the trip.

This is a small exhibit, easily seen in a lunchtime excursion - I'll say that for it. There are many solid black offerings, and I cannot help but repeat my opinion that this constitutes painting, not art. The focal point of the room is the large black plank pictured above. It's merely propped up against the back wall, and as the room was crowded when I visited, I had to be quite careful not to bump into it.

The crowd was a tour group, and I listened in on the guide's comments as I looked at the show. Apparently, the room isn't level, and they had quite a time getting the big black plank to stand up straight. I like these "views behind the curtain" of an exhibit; makes me think it would be fun to set up these shows, and figure out which work goes where, and how to make the floor level. The crowd did impede my ability to look at everything easily, and if I were looking at art I really liked, I would probably have been annoyed. As it was, I did not begrudge them their time or space.

Verdict: If you're looking for your daily workout, this will set you up nicely. Otherwise, I'd give it a miss.

Shahnama: 1000 Years of the Persian Book of Kings

Where: Sackler Gallery of Art

When: through April 17, 2011

The Shahnama is, according to the information presented in this exhibit, one of the greatest masterpieces of world literature. To my embarrassment, I had never heard of it before. Oh well, I know about it now! It is a dramatized account of Persian history; some parts are more fanciful, and others strive for greater historical accuracy

What is on display are illustrations from various editions of the work. Fighting and feasting, a sort of ancient "work hard, play hard," is the theme here. One keeps the kingship of the country as long as one is viewed as having divine glory. King Jamshid lost his divine glory due to his hubris, and one cannot but applaud this. Certain rulers in North Africa might have taken this message to heart...

King Zahhak is depicted as a Voldemort-like character who is obsessed with a rival who will one day defeat him.

My favorite of the illustrations on display is the one pictured above, Zal is Sighted by a Caravan. The blues and purples are gorgeous; once again, I'm amazed by how well some colors maintain their vibrancy over the course of hundreds of years.

At the end of the exhibit is an illustration of Iskander's funeral, with the following quotation: "But one must act well, with valor and chivalry, and one must eat well and rejoice..." Not a bad way to live one's life.

Verdict: Take time to see this show. It's well worth a stroll over to the Sackler. This was one of those exhibits about which I was a bit dubious when I entered, but by the time I left, I was wondering if I could buy the Shahnama from Amazon.

Larger Than Life: Ter Brugghen's Saint Sebastian Tended by Irene

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through May 15, 2011

Sometimes, the National Gallery borrows paintings from other museums and puts them in with their regular collections on a temporary basis. About a year and a half ago, I saw a Manet painting this way. This offering by Hendrik ter Brugghen, on loan from Oberlin College, is hung with other Dutch pieces, including another ter Brugghen. Going to see these single painting exhibits gives me the opportunity to wander among the permanent collection, which I don't often get to do, as I focus my attention on special shows.

This piece is, frankly, pretty gruesome. It really gave me the willies to look at Irene pulling out the arrows from St. Sebastian's flesh. I suppose that's a sign of a great painter - the ability to paint something so realistic that it makes the viewer's skin crawl.

I didn't realize that St. Sebastian survived his encounter with the arrows; I'd always assumed he was a martyr. Well, you learn something new every day!

Once I got past my squeamishness, I noticed the use of the color red in the painting, both in the blood and in the brocade. A noticeable color, red. It draws your attention in a way other colors don't. I was reminded of Norman Rockwell's use of the color in so many of his paintings. Mind you, I'm not about to compare this piece to Rockwell - even I can't make that connection. I will keep this use of the color to draw the viewer's eye in mind when I look at other paintings, however. Cherchez la rouge.

I also noticed the expression on Irene's face. It shows both tenderness and competence - good qualities in a nurse. Still, not the sort of thing I'd want hanging in my living room - all the sweet visages in the world can't make up for the realism of those arrows.

Verdict: Go see this painting, and the other ter Brugghen, The Bagpipe Player, together. It's easy enough to fit into a lunch hour, with plenty of time to stroll around the rest of the Dutch galleries.