Monday, April 30, 2012

Hokusai: Paintings and Drawings

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through June 24, 2012

This is the second of the three Hokusai exhibits I'll be seeing this spring.  I've already reviewed the Sackler's exhibit, "Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji"; the final exhibit is also at the Freer and features Japanese screens.  For now, here's my write-up on his paintings and drawings.

The Freer's collection of Hokusai's painting and drawings is considered to be the finest in the world.  Again, I am grateful that I live in DC and work so close to the Mall that I can take advantage of all the Smithsonian (and the National Gallery of Art) has to offer.  Not only can I see this wonderful collection; I don't have to pay anything to do it.

It was difficult to choose a few favorites from this show; everything is worthy of comment.  The things I liked most were:

  • Four Fan Paintings Mounted on a Screen - these were assembled after his death.  They show each of the four phases of his career, so you get a nice overview of his work in one piece.
  • Breaking Waves - I love the trees in this picture; they have a sort of fuzzy quality that makes you want to reach out and touch them
  • Boy Viewing Mount Fuji - one of the most famous paintings in the Freer Japanese art collection; again, one sees the fuzziness of the leaves on the trees
  • Boy Playing a Flute - just a simple drawing, but so lifelike - really shows his talent for making a full picture out of just a few simple brushstrokes
Another thing I liked about this exhibit is that a lot of his late work was on display; many items were painted when he was 88 years old.  An inspiration to all of us, as we age, to keep working and producing.

Verdict: Well worth the short time it will take to see this show.  Even though I'd seen another Hokusai show quite recently, I was ready for more!

Not really worth the wait

The rest of the "Dark Matters" exhibit finally opened again.  I'd been back a couple times and been confronted with the same barrier to the show.  I asked at the information desk what was going on, and it turns out there was water damage.  Perfectly reasonable that they would need to close part of the show, but why couldn't they put up a sign?  Why was there no announcement on the web site?  Why not have an idea of when it might reopen and communicate that to people?  Oh well, it's the Hirshhorn - what exactly was I expecting?

Now the show is open again (good thing, as it closes in just a couple of weeks), and I can offer my views on the entire exhibit.  Frankly, my first thought was, "that's it?"  In addition to the two offerings in the first room (that  I reviewed in an earlier post), there was only one other room.  It had maybe six items in it.  I find it difficult to believe that there are so few items in their entire collection that deal with darkness, but why go to the trouble of setting this up if you're not going to use all the resources at your disposal?  Baffling.

The items I liked best were a series of photographs called "Some Thames - Group M."  I like the idea of seeing "some" river; I assuming there are other groups as well.  The colors change from shot to shot, which is interesting.  Roni Horn is the artist.  It was also good to see "Untitled (Big Man)" by Ron Mueck.  I've always referred to this piece as naked fat man, which I think gives you an excellent idea of what you'll be seeing if you stop in.  He's not dark in the sense of swarthy; in fact, he's pretty pasty white, but he does look distinctly unhappy, so his darkness is one of mood.

Verdict: If you're at the Hirshhorn already and you've got a few minutes to kill, have a look.  Otherwise, if you miss this, you're not missing much.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Hokusai: Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through June 17, 2012

This is the first of several exhibits I'll be seeing this spring featuring the work of Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).  He worked in many different media, so the shows shouldn't be at all repetitive.  It's nice to see the shows relatively close together; I'll be quite the Hokusai expert by the time summer arrives!  Hokusai was over 70 when these prints were first published in Edo (present-day Tokyo); yet more proof that age is no impediment to accomplishment.

This show is an exhibit of his pictures featuring (or at least including) Mount Fuji.  Sometimes, the mountain is the main subject of the work; other times, it is almost hidden in the piece.  There are several pieces, such as the one pictured above, that are done entirely in shades of blue; other prints are multi-color.  Each piece is accompanied by an explanation, so it takes a while to make your way through the entire show - longer than I had thought.  The time you'll spend is well worth it, however.

The first piece in the show is the masterpiece, Under the Wave off Kanagawa, better known as the "Great Wave."  It is wonderful - the power of the wave, the struggles of the boats to plow through it - a great way to start the exhibit.  The dye used is the Prussian blue dye mentioned in the "Colorful Realm" exhibit - a reminder of the great show at the National Gallery.

The phenomenon of "Red Fuji" is also explored in Hokusai's prints; the mountain appears red when the snowcap melts.  There were also several prints representing the seasons - the cherry blossoms represent spring in Japan, just as they do to Washingtonians.  I was reminded of the set of shows on the seasons in Asian Art at the Freer.

There are both urban and pastoral views in this show; both the city dwellers and the county folk are in view of Mount Fuji and influenced by its presence.  It is seen as both a protector and a powerful force to be reckoned with.  The importance of the mountain reminded me of my trips to Seattle, when my sister-in-law and brother-in-law would comment that "the mountain is out."  Mount Rainier seems to play a similar role in the life of that part of the Pacific Northwest.

Verdict: This is a lovely show - again, I was struck by the crowds - most assuredly not what I'm used to at the Sackler.  If you plan to see this show, allow for a bit of extra time to read all the descriptions of the prints.  

Saturday, April 14, 2012


Where: Ripley Center

When: through June 3, 2012

I'm probably not the best person to review this show; a 12-year old could give a far more detailed explanation of all the activities contained in the Ripley's International Gallery.  This is an exhibit demonstrating the use of mathematics (and engineering, technology and science) in creating products, running cities, building structures, etc.  There are a variety of games to play - I was reminded in some instances of my niece's Wii.  The many children (and I do mean many) seemed to be enjoying themselves - I've never seen such a crowd at the Ripley.  There's also a store at the end of the exhibit; I didn't visit, so I'm not sure what exactly is available for purchase - another first: an exhibit with its own store.

Verdict: If you have kids between the ages of about 6 and 14, this is great.  There's lots for them to do; they can run around and make lots of noise.  If this does not sound like your idea of a great time, give this a miss.

Goryeo Buddhist Paintings: A Closer Look

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through May 28, 2012

This is a very small exhibit - only three paintings, which are Buddhist icons created in Korea in the 14th century.  Although the works were acquired by the Smithsonian 100 years ago, they have never been displayed together before.

These icons were inspired by Chinese art of the period and were intended for close viewing in an intimate setting.  The artists painted on both sides of the silk - a reminder of the Jakuchu show at the National Gallery!  The icons were intended to provide a promise of salvation to the viewer; those needing to be rescued from hell in the afterlife could turn to Kshitigarbha, who possesses a wish-granting jewel.

There are only 150 Goryeo Buddhist paintings in the world, and when these pieces were purchased, they were believed to be Chinese or Japanese.  Only through on-going study was the truth discovered.  Sadly, the years have not been kind to these works; they are much darkened and the details are difficult to make out.  Luckily, Buddhist painting specialist Chung Woothak has made a photographic study of the pieces, and the video on display shows the details that are no longer visible on the originals.

Verdict: Easily managed in a lunch hour and interesting to see a show on Korean art; it occurs to me that I don't think I've seen one before.  You could pair it with the Minouk Lim video that's still playing in the foyer.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage

Where: American Art Museum

When: through May 20, 2012

One might expect to head to the Portrait Gallery side of the museum to see an exhibit of Annie Leibovitz works, but this show is not a typical Annie Leibovitz show.  These are not obviously portraits; the photo of Niagara Falls pictured here is illustrative of what you will see.

Yet, I think you could look at these photographs as portraits, although the subjects of the works are not pictured.  Leibovitz took these photos of objects associated with two dozen people who were influential to her and her work.  For example, she has a photo of Elvis Presley's motorcycle.  The exhibit notes state that these photographs construct a portrait of Leibovitz herself, as she seeks to portray the qualities of character she admired in these people, she creates a picture of herself.  I was reminded of a conversation I'd had with a friend about how one's book collection is autobiographical.  The books you have, the ones you keep, the ones you display on a book shelf in a public room of your house tell something about you.  These photographs do the same thing for Leibovitz.

In addition to the photographs of objects belonging to particular people, photographs of places are included as well.  They are, in effect, pictures of what influence all of us, the common cultural legacy we all share.

I was struck by a photograph of the hands from the Lincoln Memorial - modeled on Daniel Chester French's own hands, a picture of Eleanor Roosevelt's cottage at Val-Kill, (and reminded of the White House decorative arts display, which had a piece of furniture from Val-Kill) and a mention of Annie Oakley, who participated in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show - how many references to that show have I seen since I saw that exhibit of Native Americans who performed in it?  Too many to count.

Verdict: A nice show, not overly large, easily managed in a lunch hour.

Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird-and-Flower Paintings by Itō Jakuchū (1716–1800)

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building, Ground Level

When: through April 29, 2012

Well, that explains what all the work was going on in the National Gallery over the past weeks.  The middle of the main hallway was closed off, and I spent lots of time wandering through side galleries to get to the East Building.  They've been preparing for this exhibit of Japanese bird-and-flower paintings, and it's been worth the wait and detours.

This series of 30 paintings on scrolls is considered to be the greatest work of bird-and-flower paintings in Japanese art.  I'm certainly not qualified to make such a statement, but the paintings are so lifelike and so beautiful, that I'm willing to take that assertion as fact.    In addition to these paintings of the natural world, there are three other paintings on display: of the Buddha and two Bodhisattvas, known as the Sakyamuni Triptych.  The works are so fragile that they can only be displayed for a short time (the show is at the National Gallery for only a month).  This is the first time they have ever been displayed outside Japan; they're here in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Japanese gift of the cherry trees to Washington, DC.

The artist, Ito Jakuchu, was one of the most inventive painters of the Edo period (1615-1868), and was not allied with any particular school of painting - he went his own way, and what a way it was.  The paintings are absolutely stunning - the colors, the brushwork, the attention to detail - all amazing.  The Sakyamuni Triptych is where I started my visit.  I noticed the swastika on the Buddha's chest, and was reminded that this is an ancient religious symbol.  Sadly, it was appropriated by the Nazis, so to Western eyes it symbolizes nothing but anti-Semitism, horror and death.  I gather it means, among other things, eternity in the Hindu religion.  The Buddha's two companions, the Bodhisattvas, are riding unlikely animals - one is on a lion and the other on an animal I can't identify, but which looks elephantine.

These creatures stand in contrast to the completely natural and lifelike creatures in the 30 scrolls on either side of the Triptych.  Apparently, Jakuchu kept eight chickens of his own, in order to better capture their movements and features in his paintings.  In order to enhance his paintings, he painted the back of the scrolls - the effect is wonderful.  Certain colors seem to glow from the scrolls.  One of the scrolls featuring marine life shows the first example of the use in East Asia of the synthetic dye called Prussian Blue.  I'll see this color again when I head to the Sackler for their exhibit of fragile Japanese art, 36 Views of Mount Fuji, according to the notes accompanying the piece - the first time I've gotten a "preview of coming attractions," I think.

One of my favorite pieces is one entitled "Maple Tree & Small Birds."  The wonderful autumn colors of the maple painted in 1765 are just the same as the ones I see in my neighborhood in the 21st century.  Much has changed in the world since that painting was first done; the beauty of the natural world has a permanence that is comforting in its own way.

In addition to the colors and the brushwork and the wonder of these works having been preserved for well over 200 years, I like very much the allegorical nature of the paintings.  You can look at them strictly for their beautiful depiction of nature, but you can also see that these paintings are meant to represent other things: desirable qualities and long-lasting relationships as well.

Verdict: I can't recommend this exhibit enough.  Take time to see this show, as it's unlikely you will have the chance to see it again.  Expect crowds much larger than those you get at the Sackler and Freer (the usual places I go to see Asian art).

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Three small exhibits at the Portrait Gallery/Museum of American Art

Mementos: Painted and Photographic Miniatures, 1750-1920 

Where:  National Portrait Gallery

When: through May 13, 2012

Originally, miniatures were very small images or portraits, the 18th century equivalent of the wallet-sized photo.  They were kept in jewelry: pendants, brooches or bracelets.  By the 19th century, they were slightly larger pieces.  In the 1840s, small daguerreotype artists did both paintings and daguerreotypes, and in the 1860s, miniature paintings had fallen out of fashion, as photographs were less expensive to purchase.  In the early 1900s, however, they enjoyed a revival and many of the most successful miniaturists were women artists.

Many of the miniatures on display are of famous Americans, including Charles Brockden Brown, American's first literary professional (I confess, I'd never heard of him and had to look him up - turns out he was a very popular writer of the early National period), Abraham Lincoln, of whom we see two miniatures: an ambrotype by Mathew Brady and a watercolor by John Henry Brown and Chief Thundercloud of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show (of course, I was reminded of the show a while back at the Ripley on the members of that show).  Also included is James Smithson, without whose generosity, I most likely wouldn't be looking at the exhibit at all!

Memories Arrested in Space

Where:  Archives of American Art

When: through May 15, 2012

Just a few steps down the hallway from the miniatures exhibit  is the room which houses the "show" area of the Archives of American Art.   It's a reminder that along with all the items on public display, the Smithsonian owns an enormous number of other items, including the papers of many American artists.  One of these is Jackson Pollock, and this show is in celebration of the centenary of his birth.  Pollock, a leading figure in Abstract Expressionism, was a controversial figure, with many admirers and detractors.  He seems to have been a man of great talent, who sadly, was never able to fully control his alcoholism.  His art is not necessarily to my taste, but I can appreciate that it took talent to create, and the thought that someone's inner demons will not leave them in peace to create is a shame. A quote of his stuck with me, "People have always frightened and bored me..."  Spoken like a true introvert - I can relate.  His papers were donated by his wife,  and I think it's laudable when spouses or children take the care to donate valuable items to an archives or museum that can take care of and display them properly.

One Life: Ronald Reagan

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through May 28, 2012

Let me be honest up front: Ronald Reagan is NOT my favorite president.  I actually debated whether I should even go to see this show; I could feel my blood pressure rising just thinking about it.  In the end, my anal retentive determination to see everything, whether I thought it sounded good or not, won out, and I went to see it.

If you like Reagan, you'll love this show, as it is certainly a celebration of his life, rather than a critical examination of his policies and their consequences.  The thing I took away from it was the many ways in which Reagan, now practically raised to sainthood by the hard right, deviated from their policies while in office.  He raised taxes!  He enacted pollution control laws!  He bargained with the Russians!  Much of that seems to have been forgotten now.  Setting aside my views on the man, the show, like all of the entries in the "One Life" series is very well done.  Kudos to the Gallery for putting on these shows about important Americans.

Verdict: All of these shows are worth seeing, and they can be managed all together if you don't have much of a walk to the National Portrait Gallery/Museum of American Art.  Note that the miniatures exhibit is in dim light, although brighter lights pop up over the paintings so you can see them better.  The Pollock papers are interesting, more so perhaps, if you are a fan.