Monday, September 26, 2011

From Impressionism to Modernism: The Chester Dale Collection

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through January 2, 2012

I had some extra time one morning last week, and decided to see this exhibit, as it's too large to see in a lunch hour.  I'm under the impression (although I can't remember where I read this, so take this with a grain of salt) that the National Gallery decided to put on this exhibit when they realized that their renovation of several of the galleries on the upper floor would necessitate the removal of many of these works.  Rather than deprive visitors of the opportunity to see them, they made them into a show - lemonade out of lemons - and at a much lesser cost than putting up a show with items borrowed from another museum.

This is the first special exhibit of these works since their official unveiling in 1965.  Under the terms of the gift, they are never lent to other museums.  A shame, really, as there are many people who are not able to travel to DC, and so have no opportunity to see them.  I know how much I enjoy seeing works from other museums, especially those that I'm unlikely to visit.

Some of the pieces that caught my eye are:
  • Saint Sebastian by Redon - far less blood-thirsty than the Ter Brugghen that I saw several months ago
  • The Lovers by Picasso - his early work is not much like his cubist offerings - I prefer this, as did the Dales, as there is lots of Picasso in the exhibit, but very little cubism
  • The Old Musician by Manet - this was nearly lost in an ocean crossing; the ship on which it was traveling collided with another vessel and almost sank 
  • Palazzo da Mula, Venice by Monet - a lovely, watery scene - you feel as if you're in the painting, perhaps in a boat on the water yourself, there are several Monets in the show - his ability to paint water is amazing
  • Portrait of a Young Woman in White by the circle of Jacques Louis David - for some reason, this painting always reminds me of Jane Bennett, from Pride and Prejudice, although she would never had been painted in such an immodest gown
  • The Plumed Hat by Matisse - this was a painting attacked by the mad woman who went after the Gaugin painting - happily, it's none the worse for wear - can't understand why anyone would object to this piece - it's simply a painting of a woman wearing a hat - no nudity, no licentiousness, nothing 
Verdict: Do go see this show - it's large enough to have something for everybody.  If you're using your lunch hour, you'll need several to see everything.

First Ladies at the Smithsonian

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through October 31, 2011

Rest assured, the exhibit of First Ladies' gowns is not closing permanently.  It's one of the most popular displays in the museum.  It's only closing temporarily, so that they can move the artifacts to their new home on the 3rd floor of the museum.

Note also, that this is not the First Ladies exhibit I remember from childhood.  At that time (think the 1970s), all the first ladies gowns were on display, arranged in chronological order.  I used to enjoy looking at the dresses every much, to see how fashions had changed over the years.  Now, only a few of the gowns are on display.  According to the notice on the wall, some of the gowns have been so damaged by years of being on display, that they can no longer be shown.  A pity, really, but it can't be helped.

The exhibit itself has moved before.  Its original home was the Arts and Industries Building (now undergoing renovation).  In the 1950s, it moved to the History and Technology Building (the name of what is now the Museum of American History).  This exhibit was the first to focus on women, and in 1992, the exhibit changed from one simply displaying gowns, to one that explored the role of the first lady, and featured items other than just dresses.

Martha Washington's gown is still on display, so it's not just age that causes deterioration - would be interesting to know why some dresses last and others don't.  Helen Taft was the first lady who began the tradition of donating the inaugural ball gown to the Smithsonian, and her dress is still on display as well.

The gowns of the "modern" first ladies, beginning with Lady Bird Johnson, are now in a separate gallery.  I'm assuming that state-of-the-art preservation techniques are being used to keep those gowns in good order, so they should be available to visitors for quite a while yet.  Lady Bird's gown is yellow, with brown trim - she was going for something that wouldn't seem dated in years to come, yikes - missed the mark there, I'm afraid.

Verdict: Well worth a look, although if you miss this show before it closes, you'll have plenty of time to look at the new exhibit that opens in mid-November.

Have You Heard the One…? The Phyllis Diller Gag File

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through October 28, 2011

This exhibit is in the Smal Documents Gallery, one of my favorite spaces in the American History Museum.  It's easy to miss on the 2nd floor, which means it's usually not terribly crowded.

This exhibit is ostensibly about Phyllis Diller's gag file, and it is on display, a metal filing cabinet with one-liners typed on 3x5 cards and arranged by subject, but really it's about Diller herself, with information about her career, her clothing and her material.  There's a video of a few minutes of one of her shows playing in the exhibit - very funny.

Diller had 50,000 jokes in the file - how she managed to keep them all straight and remember which joke she was telling when, I have no idea.  Several of the cards are standing up so you can read the jokes - they give not only the joke itself, but the source and the date.  One of the ones on display is dated Juy 16, 1964 - the day I was born!

Interestingly enough, her famous cigarette in the long holder was made of wood, as she didn't smoke.  She was the opening act in the early 1960s for a young singer named Barbra Streisand - at one point, they shared a dressing room.  There's a picture of them together at the Bon Soir Nightclub in Greenwich Village.

Verdict: Go see this small, but amusing exhibit - a look at comedy when it was about telling jokes.

Publishing Modernism: The Bauhaus in Print

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through October 28, 2011

This exhibit is in the National Gallery of Art's library, on the main floor of the East building.  Whenever I go to see these displays, I'm always the only one there, so I can take my time without worrying that I'm impeding someone else's enjoyment.  The library, as you might expect, is very quiet, so it's quite relaxing to visit, display or no.  There's a guard station at the entrance, but if you say you're here to see the exhibit, they'll let you right in.  I'm enamored of having a guard at my own library, only allowing access to certain people - dare to dream!

The Bauhaus was only open for 14 years, but its influence on modern art and design is far greater than its short life would indicate.  While open, it educated the leaders of the modernist movement and joined fine art theory to traditional artisan craft skills.  I particularly liked the cover design of one of their catalogs: Utopia: Documents of Reality, which has a marvelous art deco feel to it.

Klee, Kandinsky and Mondrian were among the famous names involved with the school, which included theater productions in its curriculum, along with fine art.

Verdict: Worth a look, if you're at all interested in Bauhaus design, or if you're just looking for a quiet place to spend a bit of time.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Nature's Best 2010 Photography Awards: Windland Smith Rice International Awards

Where: Natural History Museum

When: through September 25, 2011

I went with a friend to see this exhibit, and I was reminded of how different an experience it is to see a show with someone else.  Other people notice things I don't and cause me to look at things in new ways.  As much as I like the "alone time" I get when I go to exhibits on my own, it's nice every so often to go with another person.

I had been to see this exhibit last year, and was looking forward to seeing this year's award winners.  The pictures are stunning on several levels; the animals and plants themselves are beautiful, and the skill and patience necessary to capture their beauty is breathtaking all on its own.  Each photograph had a small blurb written by the photographer, and many of them recalled waiting hours for just the right composition, or taking hundreds of shots to get just one that was good.  Then, the technology that's available to the photographer now is also amazing - the pictures are so sharp, you expect the animals to jump right out of the shot.

Each picture is fantastic and well worth seeing, but these are the ones that really caught my eye:

  • The Grand Prize Winner, "Osprey," by Peter Cairns.  It shows an osprey diving into the water, about to snare a fish.  You can see each drop of water, as the bird goes after its prey.
  • The Animal Antics Winner, "Black Bear," by James Galletto.  The bear is scratching his back on a tree, but appears to be making a speech, with one of his arms stretched out as if for emphasis
  • The Plant Life Winner, "Wildflowers," by Edward Nunez.  This is a picture of grassland in California; although the photo was taken in springtime, the flowers have painted the hillsides in fall colors
  • The Creative Digital Winner, "Mediterranean Tree Frog," by Francisco Mingorance.  There appear to be two frogs in the picture, but it's actually only one.  You see it as it sits on the branch, and then in mid-flight.
  • The Highly Honored photo in the Oceans category, "Sea Angel," by Christian Stauge.  Despite its name, it's actually a slug.  Amazingly enough, it's quite beautiful
Verdict: This is a wonderful show - do make time to go see it.  It would make a great outing for kids, as well as adults.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

September 11: Remembrance and Reflection

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through September 11, 2011

Note: this display is open only from 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM.

This is the first time I've been to an exhibit with a line for entry.  The line was fairly long, and I was there on a weekday.  I can only imagine that weekend lines will be much longer.  It took about 15 minutes to get into the room with the artifacts on display, although it doesn't take very long to look at them.  Obviously, it's not a very pleasant display, and there's not a lot of conversation among the visitors.  Tissues are made available for anyone whose emotions require them.

The items on display are all connected to the attacks on 9/11.  One table contained things from New York, one table has items from the Pentagon, and one table has items from Shanksville, Pennsylvania.  A fourth table contains items from the Department of Homeland Security, showing how things are different now than they were 10 years ago.

In addition to the display, there are two videos playing in a small room off the exhibit area.  I didn't stay to watch those, as I was under a tight time constraint, but they seemed popular with other visitors.

I'm not sure why the exhibit is only up for such a short time - based on the crowd that was there when I visited, I think viewership would have justified a longer period.  It is a very labor-intensive exhibit; at least half a dozen museum workers were there, so perhaps they just don't have the employees/volunteers to manage anything longer.

Verdict: At this point, your only chance to see this display is tomorrow.  If you go, expect the lines to be terrifically long.  Frankly, I plan to spend the day holed up at home, but if you want to go downtown, this is a worthy destination.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

NASA / ART: 50 Years of Exploration

Where: Air and Space Museum

When: through October 9, 2011

I confess to a lack of enthusiasm when I head to the Air and Space Museum.  I've discussed the reasons before, so I won't go into them again, but it takes a lot to make me think a trip there is worthwhile.  This exhibit, although not as stunning as the photographs of the planets previously on display in the same gallery, was quite good and interesting.  Plus, the kids are heading back to school, which means there are not so many families on summer vacation, and the school trips have not yet started.  Hence, the museum is less crowded now than it is at practically any other time of the year, which is nice.

This exhibit highlights some of the artwork that NASA has commissioned over the years to document the space program.  This began in 1962 and now includes over 3,000 pieces created by over 200 artists.  I think it's interesting that NASA should have begun and continued this program, that, in addition to the many photographs and documents that exist to show the agency's history, they felt that artists should play a role in this mission as well.  I was surprised at how many artists whose work I've seen in other shows appear in this one.  There are two Norman Rockwell pieces on display, that obviously were not part of the Spielberg/Lucas collections show at American Art; there is a work by Alexander Calder, whose portraits I just saw a couple of weeks ago, and even a Nam June Paik piece meant to commemorate Apollo 11 - more scribbling, I'm sorry to say.

On another note, I noticed that the gallery across from this one is now closed.  There had been an exhibit in there that looked pretty tired and dated, that I reviewed here a few months ago.  A new exhibit (I confess I don't remember the topic - space exploration is just not my thing) will be opening in 2013.  Makes you realize how long it takes to set up an exhibit, especially one that will be permanent.

Verdict: This show is worth a trip over to Air and Space.  You can see it in a lunch hour quite easily, and the crowds are not so large as they would be usually.

American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music

Where: Ripley Center

When: through October 9, 2011

The Spanish word sabor means taste or flavor and is often used to refer to good music.  This exhibit is full of sabor and well worth a trip to the Ripley to see.

I am always amazed at how the people who put up shows in the Ripley manage to take a terribly unattractive space with no natural light, and turn it into a feast for the eyes.  This time, they've really outdone themselves, as this exhibit is also a feast for the ears.  Latin jazz from the 1950s and 1960s is playing in the background and this adds enormously to the festive atmosphere.

The exhibit focuses on five different cities in the United States (New York, San Antonio, Miami, San Francisco and Los Angeles) and the growth of Latin music in those cities.  You can begin your tour of the show in any of the cities; each section is filled with great artifacts: playbills, album covers, snapshots, ticket stubs and much more.

It occurred to me to wonder, when most music is digital now, what will constitute a memento in the future?  There are no more album covers to show, which is unfortunate, as some of them were quite good works of art, independent of the music.  Will museums show computer screens with lists of people's iTunes playlists?  A question for future museum curators...

 Throughout the exhibit are listening stations, so that you can hear lots more Latin music, in addition to what's being played over the sound system.   There are also plenty of videos of concerts and displays of costumes - truly a multi-media show.

I found out some things I didn't know before (although since my knowledge of Latin music was confined to largely to Desi Arnaz and Santana - both of whom are featured - that's not surprising).  Puerto Ricans were greatly involved in the beginnings of rap and hip-hop music, but the record labels decided to market this as "black" music, so artists who were Latin had a hard time getting contracts.  The San Antonio section highlighted the music of Esteban Jordan, who was described as the "Jimi Hendrix of the accordion" - I could not help but smile at this characterization.

Verdict: Do go and check out this show.  You could spend much longer than a lunch hour here, especially if you wanted to watch the videos or listen to the music at the listening stations, but if you don't linger, you can get a good overview of the show in much less time.