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.

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