Sunday, June 26, 2011

Waves at Matsushima

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through July 5, 2011

The Bay of Matsushima has been celebrated for centuries by artists and writers for its great beauty. It is a group of islands covered in pine trees, which luckily survived the recent tsunami without the horrific damage seen in other coastal areas.

Several paintings of the islands by Kawase Hasui (1883 - 1957) are on display, and they are beautiful. In one piece, he depicts a Buddhist temple built in 807 (imagine something that old) which survived the tsunami.

That's not to say that the islands emerged completely unscathed. There are photographs taken during and after the flooding that shows the enormity of the disaster. Cars being picked up and tossed aside with the waves as if they weighed no more than a child's toy.

In another room, there are screens depicting the waves of the exhibit title. They date from the 1600s, and it is awe inspiring that people have been describing and talking about this place (which is supposedly the third most beautiful place in Japan - how the rankings are done, I know not) for literally hundreds of years. As Tawaraya Sotatsu is quoted as saying, "They are still unable to fully capture its beauty, try though they might."

Verdict: Go see this small show; it's easily seen in a lunch hour. The paintings are beautiful; a way to travel to Japan without leaving the city.

Walls Speak: The Narrative Art of Hildreth Meiere

Where: National Building Museum

When: through November 27, 2011

Yet another treat in store for the fan of Art Deco is this small show on the muralist and mosaicist, Hildreth Meiere. She was prominent during her lifetime, enjoying many commissions in public buildings and churches.

One of her commissions was the Nebraska State Capitol; the gorgeous Art Deco work makes me want to visit Lincoln (a desire I have never had previously). She also designed a mural on the progress of women for the Chicago World's Fair and the sculptures on the front of Radio City Music Hall.

Verdict: Yet another show worth the $8 price of admission. I was unaware of her work before, but was very impressed with what I saw here. I only wish I could take a long trip to see all of her work!

Designing Tomorrow

Where: National Building Museum

When: through September 5, 2011

The original closing date for this show was July 10, but it has now been extended, so you've got lots of time to see it. This is a show dedicated to the World's Fairs of the 1930s, and if you like Art Deco, this is a must see.

My grandparents took their honeymoon trip to the Chicago World's Fair, so my desire to see the show extended beyond just casual interest. It was great to see a bit of what they saw, and feel some of the excitement that they must have felt, as they traveled from northern Minnesota to see the marvels on display.

A quote at the beginning of the show summed it up very well, I thought. "Their tomorrow looks much like our today." The technological advances we all take for granted now, especially those in transportation and communications, were mere visions then.

I was interested to see a picture of Greenbelt from 1938, an experiment in planned suburban resettlement, which is where my brother and his family live today. Much has changed, obviously, but the idea that people could live outside the city and be able to enjoy a bit of nature is still the same.

The exhibit also mentioned the "White City," the name given to the fairgrounds of the World's Columbia Exposition in Chicago in 1893. If you've not read the wonderful book, The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, I give it a very high recommendation. It was really neat to see pictures of that fair; it brought the book back to me in force. The photograph on display made me appreciate just how beautiful the fairgrounds must have been.

Other fairs held prior to the 1930s that got mentions were the 1925 Paris Exposition, where Le Corbusier declared that houses would some day be nothing more than machines for living. How lucky we are that this has not yet come to pass; the idea of a machine for living sounds a bit cold and antiseptic to me, and the 1927 Barcelona International Exposition. Included was a picture of the German pavilion designed by Mies van der Rohe - almost as ugly as the MLK library in downtown DC.

World's fairs were originally intended to bring people together in appreciation of human advances and a variety of cultures, but they tended to increase nationalism. Reminded me of the Olympics today.

At the New York World's Fair, there was a contest to find the typical American family. Note that the contest was limited to parents with a male breadwinner - anyone deviating from the Cleaver household model need not apply! It was fun to see the 20th Century Limited poster - we have a print of that in our dining room, along with a print of one of the posters from the Chicago World's Fair.

World's Fairs were opportunities for ordinary people to see the works of major international designers, including Raymond Loewy, a critic of bad American design. His idea was that good design is meant to reduce the irritations and uneasiness of the average person. That's the sort of thing you don't think about until you replace your old desk chair with an ergonomic one, and discover you no longer have back aches at the end of the day.

The New York World's Fair featured two architectural marvels - the Trylon and the Perisphere. For some reason, they reminded of me of Disney's Epcot Center. There's something sort of artificially modern about them. To me, they look much like a "Jetsons" future, exaggerated and cartoonish.

Verdict: Go see this show - it's worth the $8 admission, especially if, like me, you're a fan of Art Deco. The show is huge; I only had time to scan the contents - you could spend two hours here with no problem.

Building Museum to charge admission

Sad news to pass along - the National Building Museum has decided to start charging admission to its exhibits. Beginning, tomorrow, Monday, June 27, adult admission to the museum will be $8.00 This will allow you access to all the exhibits currently on display. You can still visit the museum store, the cafe, and walk around the main Hall free of charge.

Apparently, they are in need of ready money, and think this is a way to come up with some. I fully appreciate their need for funds, but I doubt that this will do much other than discourage people from coming to visit. I've been to the Museum numerous times, and often, I'm the only person in an exhibit. Frankly, although I've always enjoyed the shows I've seen there, none of them are really spectacular, the sort of show that people will stand in line for hours to see. There are so many world-class museums in DC that are free that you have to make a real case for people to pay for admission. Although the Building Museum has exhibits that no one else has, I don't think they do the best job of letting people know about them. Their location doesn't really help any - they're not close enough to the Mall, or Chinatown or Union Station to get any of that foot traffic , so you have to know where you're going in order to walk in.

Oh well, we can only wait and see if this idea is a good one. I went to see two shows there before they started charging - they were both great. I may decide to become a member. It would set me back $50 per year, but that's not an unreasonable price to pay. Decisions, decisions...

This IS Hawai'i

Where: National Museum of the American Indian

When: through July 4, 2011

This exhibit features the work of three artists who show the "real" Hawai'i, as opposed to the vision of happy natives wearing leis and living in harmony, the Hollywood version of Hawai'i with which we are all familiar. The exhibit is being put on in conjunction with the Transformer Gallery. The work of Carl F.K. Pao is on display in the Museum's Sealaska Gallery; a sculpture by Puni Kukahiko is currently outside the museum - more of her work is at the Transformer; Solomon Enos has pieces at both the Transformer and at the Museum.

I really enjoyed Pao's Post-Historic Museum of the Possible Aboriginal Hawaiian. It's a hilarious send-up of archeology and anthropology. He displays common items with "explanations" of their use. My favorite was the black styrofoam cooler, which was described as a "possible ceremonial storage container." A Weber kettle grill was also featured - heck, I've got one of those on my deck. Who knew my house was a treasure trove of Hawaiian artifacts? All in all, really funny and thought provoking.

Some of Enos's work is on display here as well; it is a reimagining of history "if Hawaiians ruled the world." It made me think that every culture/religion/ethnic group thinks it could do a better job than those who have ruled the world - impossible to tell, but my guess is different groups would do things differently, but not necessarily better. Enos' work appeared in graphic novel form in the Honolulu Advertiser from 2006 - 2009.

It's a good thing there was a picture of Kukahiko's sculpture in the gallery, or I would have missed it entirely. When you leave the Museum, walk around the building to your right. It's a lovely carving, but it's small and easy to overlook.

Verdict: Go see this small show - it's worth the trip for Pao alone.

Scaffolding at the Arts & Industries Building

The Arts & Industries Building is my favorite building on the Mall. I love its flamboyant Victorian colors, and I've been sorry to see it empty for so long. I understand closing the building, as it was unsafe, but I've been hoping for quite a while that money could be found to repair it and open it to the public again. I've often walked past it and seen a sign indicating that it was under construction, but never saw any evidence of said construction.

Now, it is covered in scaffolding, and a tower crane is visible behind the building. See this article for more information: We've got another 21 months before construction is complete, and now I can only hope someone's working on what to put in the building when it's ready.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Warriors

Where: Ripley Center (International Gallery)

When: through June 15, 2011

The photographer Gertrude Kasebier was a leading portrait photographer in her day. As she sat in her studio, she looked out her window and saw the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show parading down the street past her building. Struck by the faces of the Native Americans among the group, she decided to photograph some of the Sioux.

These photographs were not made or used for commercial purposes; they were intimate portraits of people in the midst of great change. The world as they had known it for centuries was at an end. The photographs of children were especially moving; they look old beyond their years. Kasebier had to win the trust of the Sioux, as many of them were wary of photography. Some of the men would only sit in profile. Interesting to compare were the shots of the same man, one of him in ceremonial garb, and one of him in "plain clothes."

Some other artifacts are included in the show, in addition to the photos. One was the headdress worn by Chief Iron Tail when fighting Custer at the Little Big Horn. I'm always fascinated when I see a "piece of history" like this. To think that this item was actually at that event - it's a way to connect with history.

The Ripley is an odd space. The entry is on the Mall, between the Castle and the Freer. For years, I had walked past this little building, thinking it was some sort of information booth. When I went in the first time, I was amazed that to find an entire underground world! You go down stairs and an escalator (there's also elevator access) and walk through a large area containing exhibit space, offices and a theater to find the International Gallery. It's a lousy exhibit space - there's no natural light and the ductwork is exposed, but they do have interesting shows there.

Verdict: Hope you had a chance to see this, as the show is over now. I had never heard of Kasebier before, but I was quite impressed with the relationship she cultivated over years of correspondence with the Sioux she photographed.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Seasons: Chinese Landscapes

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through June 12, 2011

The Freer is holding a year-long series of exhibits highlighting the importance of the seasons in Chinese and Japanese art. This offering shows the seasons as portrayed in Chinese landscape paintings. Most of the pieces show the life of Chinese scholar-gentlemen, who spent their lives in reading and contemplation. Nice work, if you can get it! The artists use the seasons to reflect a mood or emotion; while spring and summer scenes show more outward activities (visiting other scholars, for example), fall and winter scenes evoke more solitary pursuits.

The day I went to see this show was a real scorcher, over 100 degrees, so I was envious of the men in "Escaping Summer Heat in the Shade of Pines," a painting of various scholars taking their ease. Several of the paintings were originally fans that had been mounted as album leaves.

Interestingly enough, the Chinese would often display paintings of winter in the summertime, the idea being that it would cause the viewer to feel cooler. I think my feeling cooler in the exhibit was probably due to the Freer's admirable air conditioning system, but I appreciate the effort. They would do the reverse in winter, and put up paintings of summer scenes. Can't hurt, might help, I suppose.

"Autumn Mountains, Layered Green" contained a poem with the line, "Rising he arrays his books reading them till sunset." I could have that kind of day much more often than I do. Overall, this was not a terribly colorful exhibit, but I did like the blues and greens in "Traveling at Dawn in the Snowy Foothills," a scroll displayed in the middle of the show.

Verdict: Well worth seeing, if you can go today! I was out of town for a week, and just managed to see this exhibit before it closed. If you miss this, there are several other shows in the "Seasons" series.