Friday, November 25, 2011

Text as Inspiration: Artists' Books and Literature

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: January 29, 2012

This is a small exhibit of books transformed by artists.  The artists don't merely illustrate the book, they use the text as inspiration to create a work of art.  They bring the book to life, but also use the book itself as part of the artwork.  Some of the works retain the shape and look of the book, others move beyond that and take the book apart to make an entirely new work.

Verdict: Go see this lovely little show.  It's tucked away in the National Gallery on the ground floor, so it may take a few minutes to find it.  It's easily managed in a lunch hour, so you might combine it with a visit to another show.

The Invention of Glory: Afonso V and the Pastrana Tapestries

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through January 8, 2012

These are tapestries commemorating Alfonso the V's campaign in Morocco.  What is interesting about them, is that they portray contemporary events, rather than the usual mythology or biblical history.  They are among the finest Gothic tapestries in existence; they date from the late 1400s.

Alfonso used them to invent a glorious image for himself, without worrying too much about pesky details that might get in the way.  In the Landing at Asilah, the weavers were unfamiliar with Moroccan architecture, so it appears that Afonso's army is landing in a Northern European city.  You can see that some of the soldiers are drowning, as the king and his son come to the city, but the focus is on the royalty, not on the common man.

In the Siege of Asilah, Afonso's army used wooden screens to shield themselves from Moroccan horsemen, a clever strategy.  In the Assault on Asilah, the troops are storming the city in hand-to-hand combat.  The conditions were actually much worse than the tapestries depict; there was a lot of rain, and many Portuguese ships were lost.  In the pictures, however, there is only glory.

In the Conquest of Tangier, the army walks into an empty city, as the inhabitants surrendered and fled, rather than suffer the fate of Asilah.  Clearly, one's existence was pretty miserable if one was a peasant.

The tapestries had been in Spain, and had been much damaged.  Recently, they were returned to Belgium, where they were originally woven, for restoration, and are now in such good condition that they can travel.

Verdcit: Make time for this show - when else are you likely to see the finest Gothic tapestries in existence?  There aren't very many pieces, so you can spend plenty of time looking at each one.

Conversations with the Earth: Indigenous Voices on Climate Change

Where: National Museum of the American Indian

When: through January 2, 2012

This exhibit is a result of a collaboration between 15 indigenous communities in 13 different countries.  These people are the first to deal with the momentous results of climate change.  Each community is facing a different challenge, but all of them may be harbingers of what is to come for the rest of the world's population.

One of the communities is the People of the Caribou.  They have noticed that the caribou herds are declining; the permafrost is melting and the foods they eat are disappearing.  It used to reach -70 degrees in the winter (sounds dreadful frankly, but I realize this is how they live and my notions of what constitutes pleasant winter weather do not apply), but now it is no longer that cold.

Peoples in Peru and Ethiopia are working together, across an ocean, to promote indigenous agriculture.  The hope is that they will be able to find new crops to grow, as old ones are no longer feasible.  In Zanskari, India, they are moving the entire village from their 1000 year location to a new place.  Obviously, there are many people who are opposed to the move, but there are others who realize they can no longer live there, and are eager to move somewhere more hospitable.

In South America, the environmental efforts to save the forests are preventing the Guarani from living as they have traditionally done.  The conflict between saving the trees and saving the people's way of life is real, and it seems as if the Guarani are paying the price for others' pillaging of the landscape.

Verdict: Go and see this exhibit.  I was unaware of the devastation that climate change is already causing in various parts of the world.  As people are forced to leave their native areas, one fears that culture clash may be the result.  One hopes for better. 

The Solemnity of Shadows: Juan Laurent's Vision of Spain

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through December 30, 2011

Yet another exhibit at the Gallery's library - one of my favorite places to see a show.  So quiet and peaceful - I only wish my library were like that!  This show features 19th century Spanish photography, a topic of which I was heretofore ignorant.

Juan Laurent was a very famous photographer, and took many pictures of public works.  He also photographed many art museum collections, which is an interesting thought.  It would be a way to keep track of what you owned, in case of fire or theft.  Eventually, he became a businessman and sold photographic cartes de visites.  His black and white prints are now brown with age, and I'm glad I was able to see them before they can no longer be put on display.  Some of his prints show buildings with an Islamic art influence; I was reminded of the Islamic influence on Spanish culture (who says a college education is a waste!?!).

Verdict: I always recommend shows at the Gallery's library, if for no other reason than I like to think that whoever went to the trouble of putting it up would be made happy by seeing people look at their display.  It's also a wonderful way to get away from the hustle and bustle of the Gallery, which is well worth the trip.

Made in Chicago: The Koffler Collection

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: through January 2, 2012

The Kofflers were Chicagoans who collected art by Chicago artists.  Eventually, they had amassed a large enough collection to warrant starting a foundation, and the collection was made part of the Smithsonian in 1979.

Several pieces caught my eye:

  • Alligator Spring by Bill Benway - this reminded me of the exhibit (also at American Art) on the decaying of the earth
  • Mytystic Pairanoiya by Gladys Nilsson - I liked the colors - there is something comical about it
  • Homage to Archimboldo by Theodore Halkin - not quite as easy to see the larger picture in this, as in a real Archimboldo, but I was happy to be reminded of that very fun show
Verdict: Well worth a look; it's not an enormous exhibit, so it fits easily into a lunchtime excursion.  I had never heard of the Kofflers before, so yet again, I've increased my score of knowledge!

Warhol: Headlines

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through January 2, 2012

Andy Warhol is the subject of two current shows on the Mall, this one at the National Gallery and another at the Hirshhorn.  I'll be reviewing the Hirshhorn show once I've seen it.  There are so many shows closing in January, that it's all I can do to see them all - a great problem to have!

This Warhol exhibition focuses on his paintings of headlines.  A great quote opens the show: "If your name's in the paper, then the news should be paying you."  I guess these paintings were his way of extracting some payment from the media that made so much money reporting on him.  The first room contains huge paintings of newspaper front pages, including the one pictured here.  I find it these an interesting commentary on our society's focus more on "infotainment" than on actual hard news.  Sad to think this is not a recent phenomenon.

Further along in the show are screen tests, videos of people (who probably didn't know they were being taped - hate to think of the legal ramifications of this) being themselves, just chatting.  Apparently, he made hundreds of these - what's on display are merely a small sample.  In the same room are some drawings of newspaper front pages - the Wall Street Journal is pretty drab, even if Warhol is painting it.  One of the paintings he created was of the reporting on the marine attack in Lebanon in the early 1980s - this is something I remember (I was in college at the time); very sad, and a chapter in our nation's history that I think is probably forgotten.

You can also watch clips from Andy Warhol's TV, a New York cable show, including an interview with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, talking about Afghanistan - makes you realize how long we've been involved in that country, one way and another.

Verdict: Do go see this show - it's quite interesting, especially if you're a fan of Warhol, or are interested in portrayals of popular culture in the news media.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

For All The World To See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through November 27, 2011

This show highlights the impact and importance of visual images in the way that African Americans were portrayed prior to the civil rights movement and how imagery was used during the movement to show the American public what was happening in the South.

As you enter the exhibit, you can hear Paul Robeson singing "Ol' Man River" from Showboat.  There are several examples of African American portraiture on display, which reminded me of the exhibit I saw (in the same space) on African American portrait studios.

Much of the imagery in the first part of the show is quite derogatory to African Americans, as well as to women.  I realize that anti-women sentiments are not the focus of the show, but I could not help but notice.

Take This Hammer, a 1963 documentary was playing further along in the exhibit.  It shows James Baldwin talking to several young men, who believe that a black man will never be President of the United States.  Baldwin remonstrates with them, telling them that if they have this attitude, their prediction will prove true.  It was the only time I smiled in the entire exhibit; I can only hope that all of those  young men were alive to see the 2009 inauguration.  There was also some film footage of Jackie Robinson's first game in the major leagues.

There is a notice at the front of the exhibit warning people that the imagery is quite graphic and unpleasant.  This is absolutely true.  The most awful picture there is of Emmit Till, after his gruesome murder.  Although this photograph was never published in mainstream American newspapers, it was published in African American newspapers and served to galvanize resistance to the Jim Crow laws of the South.

Verdict: This exhibit is very well done and very important, especially as the civil rights era moves further into the past.  It is not a show, in my opinion, for young children.  The images depicted are quite disturbing, so if you go, and you should, be prepared.

Archiving the History of an Epidemic: HIV and AIDS, 1985-2009

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through November 1, 2011

The closing date for this exhibit changed since I went to see it - glad I went when I did, as it's over now.  I saw this display the same day that I saw the AIDS Quilt Panel - they obviously go together.

This is another display by the archives section of the museum - I do enjoy going to see these, as I'm usually the only one there.  To find a haven amidst the hustle and bustle of this popular institution is marvelous.

The exhibit highlights two oral histories, one by Justin-Manuel Andriote, who interviewed 200 people for his 1999 book about AIDS and the way that it changed gay life and the other by Carol Burch Benson, who interviewed patrons of a gay bar in Bluefield, WV.  It's a powerful little exhibit - a picture of an era, and it's a shame that more people didn't have the opportunity to see it.  I'm not sure why this show and the AIDS Quilt Panel weren't put together, but I'm sure there's a good reason for that.   

Verdict: Well worth the time to look at this exhibit and reflect on how fortunate we are that the epidemic is far more manageable in the United States today than it was twenty years ago.

AIDS Quilt Panel

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through December 11, 2011

The quilt panel is in the display case by the Constitution Avenue entrance - the one I use regularly.  It's moving and sad to see this part of the AIDS quilt, which eventually became so large that it could not be moved and displayed.  Medical advances are wonderful things - now that era of death and despair is over.  I was, of course, reminded of the terrible and amazing painting of the artist's lover who had just died of AIDS in the Hide/Seek exhibit at the Museum of American Art.  This was a somber start to a somber trip to the NMAH; I saw a display on archiving the AIDS epidemic and on the visual images used in the civil rights movement - blog entries on those to follow.

Verdict:  If you have a moment, stop by and see this panel - it will remind you of a dreadful time that is now, thankfully, in the past.

The Gothic Spirit of John Taylor Arms

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through November 27, 2011

John Taylor Arms was the heir to John Ruskin, who championed the Gothic Revival style in the 19th century.  John Taylor Arms' intense devotion to craftsmanship was associated with medieval artists.  Early in the exhibit were some gorgeous doglike gargoyles.   At some point, I learned that gargoyles are actually functional; they act as waterspouts.  Grotesques, on the other hand, although they look like gargoyles, and could easily be mistaken for them, are strictly decorative.

Arms created a lovely drawing of the National Cathedral; sadly it was never made into a print, as Arms died before he could complete the project.  Another work on display is a drawing of the Grolier Club Library.  Arms drew this in just over two hours as a demonstration of his art.  It looks like a great library.  Also included are some prints of Venice, which reminded me of the view paintings I saw in the East Building a few months ago.

Arms' dedication was truly amazing; he spent almost 200 hours creating one etching plate - the detail and dedication are tremendous.  He looked through three aligned magnifying glasses when working on the plate.  A quotation from Arms that I just love is, "I cannot etch what I do not love."  The ability to work at what one loves is no small thing.

There are also on display three prints by artists other than Arms; they are similar, but they somehow lack the precision of Arms' work.

Verdict: I was pleasantly surprised by this show; I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I saw many thing to admire.

Recent Acquisitions

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through November 13, 2011

The Portrait Gallery opened in 1968 with a total collection of 500 items.  It now holds over 20,000 works.  A commission meets bi-annually to decide what objects to accept.  The paramount concern is the importance of the sitter to American history.  In the future, the museum directors anticipate that video portraits will be of increasing importance.  There is an exhibit of recent acquisitions that hangs permanently in one of the corridors - the works change every few months to highlight new pieces.  The current show ends today, but a new set of pieces will be on display beginning on Friday - a quick turnaround time, I must say.  Some of the pieces that particularly caught my eye were:

  • a photograph of William Cody and several Lakota leaders at Wounded Knee - Cody was there to help negotiate a peace settlement and recruit performers for his Wild West Show - of course, I remembered the show I'd seen in the Ripley some months ago, consisting of portraits of these Native American performers
  • photographs of John Heenan and Tom Sayers, boxers whose portraits were placed facing each other, so it looks as if they're about to start fighting
  • a bust in nickle-plated bronze of the architect Philip Johnson with black glasses (also bronze) - I know I've heard of him before, but where?  Perhaps in another Smithsonian exhibit...
Verdict: If you didn't have an opportunity to see this show, wait until Friday, and you can catch the next installment!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Italian Master Drawings from the Wolfgang Ratjen Collection: 1525–1835

Where: National Gallery of Art, Main Building

When: through November 27, 2011

In 2007, the National Gallery purchased this collection of 65 drawings from the estate of Wolfgang Ratjen.  This is the first time they have been exhibited.

I must confess, I was not terribly excited to go see this show.  I don't much care for pen and ink drawings - I prefer art with much more color.  There were, however, a few items that caught my eye:

  • Leandro Bassano's "Man Lifting a Bundle" is a wonderful depiction of human musculature
  • Guiseppe Zocchi's "View of Rome" reminded me of the Venetian view paintings I saw several months ago
  • Canaletto's drawing of a Venetian festival (pictured above) is amazing for the detail he's able to give to a teaming multitude
  • Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo's "Two Rampaging Elephants" is remarkable, not for its accuracy, but for its inaccuracy - it's obvious he had never seen an elephant!
Verdict: If you like drawings, go see this show.  Even if you don't, there's something worthwhile to see.   It's small enough that you can fit it into a lunch hour, especially if you don't dawdle over each work.

Hope Diamond in its Temporary New Setting

Where: National Museum of Natural History

When: through November 13, 2011

The Smithsonian is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the diamond's donation and the 100th anniversary of the Museum's opening by displaying the Hope Diamond in a new, specially created setting.  In addition to seeing the gem itself, you can learn a good bit about the diamond at the exhibit.

The Hope Diamond is over 1 billion years old.  That's so old that I can't really comprehend it.  It was originally found in India and sold to King Louis XVI of France.  It was stolen during the French Revolution, but eventually it resurfaced and was bought by Henry Philip Hope, a London banker and gem collector.  The diamond was bought and sold several times, including once to Cartier.  Finally, Harry Winston bought it in 1958 and gave it to the Smithsonian.

The new setting was created by Harry Winston, Inc., and was chosen by an online vote sponsored by the Smithsonian Channel.

Verdict: Go see this lovely setting while it's still on display.  Note that the area around the gem is always crowded, so you may have to wait a few minutes to actually see the diamond.

Discovering Rastafari!

Where: National Museum of Natural History

When: through November 13, 2011

Before I went to see this exhibit, I had a vague notion that Rastafarians were Jamaicans who smoked pot, listened to reggae music and wore colorful clothing.  Now, I know that these ideas are correct, but there's more to the Rastafarians than the picture these ideas might convey.

Rastafarianism started in Jamaica in the 1930s.  The Rastafarians are followers of Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.  Ras Tafari was Selassie's pre-coronation name.  These followers believe that Selassie is divine.  Although I can't subscribe to that idea, I will say his warning to the League of Nations after Italy's invasion of Ethiopia that the Fascists were a threat to the world was prescient, to say the least.

In the early 20th century, Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican, made known his idea that all black people had a common identity, struggle and destiny.  He believed that the Ethiopians victory over Italy was a symbol of the freedom for which all black people were striving.

Reggae emerged in Jamaica after Selassie's visit; Bob Marley became the genre's best-known artist and brought international attention to the Rastafari culture.

There are videos of Rastafarians talking about their way of life: why they wear dreadlocks, how the use of marijuana is part of their religious ceremonies, their vegetarianism and the distinctive dialect that sets them apart from other Jamaicans.

Verdict: This small show is packed with information; I learned a lot in a short time.  It's well worth a visit - you'll find yourself saying, "I never knew that..."