Saturday, May 26, 2012

Hokusai: Japanese Screens

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through July 29, 2012

This is the third exhibit of Hokusai's work I've seen this year - I feel like a connoisseur of his paintings now.  This show consists entirely of screens that he painted, so quite different than either his Mount Fuji series or the paintings and drawings also on display at the Freer.

Screens have both a practical and an aesthetic value - people used them (still use them, I suppose) to divide spaces in their homes and as a way to display art.  I like things that are both useful and beautiful, and these certainly qualify as both.  Screens were introduced to Japan from China and Korea in the 7th and 8th centuries, but very few survive from before the 15th century.  I'm assuming that's because, being made out of paper attached to a wood frame, they're very fragile.

There are four sets of screens on display - they take up an entire room, as they are so large.  I particularly liked the Country Scenes, which shows Mount Fuji (frankly, once you've seen 36 views of it, you know it anywhere).  The commentary attached to the screen mentions the series, so I got to feel "in the know."

Also on offer is a screen entitled, "Shinto Priest, Three Women and a Child."  It depicts what the museum describes as a "curious" annual festival in which women were expected to carry around pots, one for each man which whom they'd had relations - curious indeed.  The women in the picture only had one pot each, which marked them as virtuous and worthy of the priest's blessing.  The parallels between this scene and modern-day American politics are obvious enough, without my having to belabor them, I think, so I won't.

Verdict: Well worth seeing; you can see this and the Paintings and Drawings show in one trip, if you don't linger too long in either one.

From the Library: The Fleeting Structures of Early Modern Europe

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through July 29, 2012

Note that this exhibit is not in the National Gallery's library in the East Building (despite the name); it's in a small alcove on the ground floor of the West Building.  I had mistaken the location and was on my way to the East Building, eagerly anticipating a trip to the library - my favorite location there - when I had to make a detour in the West Building and stumbled across the show.  Sometimes, an ounce of luck is worth a pound of planning.

The display revolves around the spectacles that were put on in Europe to celebrate major events or to impress visitors, and the grand buildings constructed to house them.  Sadly, most of these buildings were pulled down after the celebration ended, so one can only imagine their grandeur.  I was reminded of the "White City" constructed to house the Chicago World's Fair, now only a memory.  Side note: if you've not read Erik Larsen's The Devil in the White City, I recommend it highly.  But I digress...

With the advent of movable type (an occurrence for which I feel gratitude on a daily basis), books began to appear showing pictures of the buildings.  They served as mementos for those who attended, and as a way for those who could not attend to "see" what they missed.  Interestingly enough, these works were not always "real and true" renditions of the structures - much like the "view paintings" from Venice sometimes improved upon the aspects visible from a particular vantage point in order to make a better picture.

The display features several of these festival books, which are interesting enough, but it would have been nice if there had been information on the differences between what was depicted and what was real.  One is left thinking, "Well, that looks nice - wonder if it bears any resemblance to reality?"

Verdict: If you're already headed to the National Gallery, tack this on to your trip, but I don't think it merits a special visit on its own.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Patents and Trademarks of Steve Jobs: Art and Technology that Changed the World

Where: Ripley Center

When: through July 8, 2012

The title of this exhibit says it all, it's literally a display of Jobs' patents and trademarks.  Unless you're an intellectual property lawyer, a patent examiner or a Steve Jobs/Apple fanatic, this makes for a bit of a dull show.

There are a couple of items on display, including the Apple computer pictured here, but mostly it's just patents, which are not scintillating reading.  The trademarks are displayed in a video format, but they also fail to grip.  The fact that these are all displayed on large, replicas of iPods doesn't make them any cooler.

I don't like to criticize Ripley shows, as I'm sure they have a hard enough time attracting people to their subterranean location, and they have lousy exhibit space, but this show is just not one of my favorites.  One thing I did appreciate is a 2011 quote from Jobs, "It's technology married with the humanities that yields us the result that makes our heart sing."  If only I could say the same about the show.

Verdict: Give this a miss, unless you're so devoted to Apple that anything of theirs is of interest.

Smithsonian Exhibit on the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Where: Smithsonian Castle

When: through May 20, 2012

This exhibit opened Wednesday and closes today, for reasons that escape me.  I would think that there would be a fair amount of interest in the plans for the new African American museum and that visitors to the current museums would be eager to see what will be available to them should they choose to come back to DC in a few years.  Oh well, I check the exhibit listings frequently for exactly this reason - so that I don't miss something good that's only around for a short time!

The new museum was in the design process for four years, will be located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue (on the other side of the American History Museum) and will open in November 2015 - in other words, it will be a while yet before I'm blogging about shows I see there!  Outside of the museum, there will be an area called a "reading grove."  I don't know exactly what this is, but I like the sound of it.  It appears that the entrance to the museum will lead to a large open space, which reminded me of the American Indian museum.  It also seems that a really impressive water feature will be part of the design, and since I'm a sucker for a good fountain, I was glad to see this.

In addition to the plans for the museum, results of recent excavations were also on display, mostly pottery and some glass shards.  I could not help but be reminded of the Riseholme Museum described by E. F. Benson in his novel, Lucia in London - filled with items that the characters no longer wanted, but couldn't bring themselves to discard.

Verdict: One can only hope that perhaps this exhibit will appear again, closer to the time of opening - it's a wonderful way to whet one's appetite for the exhibits to come.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Jefferson’s Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth

Where: American History Museum

When: through July 15, 2012

Thomas Jefferson was a fascinating and brilliant person.  Note that I'm not saying he was a flawless person, but for sheer intelligence, I think you'd be hard put to come up with another President who would be his equal.

Jefferson was not a fan of organized religion and felt that the Bible contained many sections that could not stand up to reasonable inquiry.  So, rather than merely complaining, he decided to do something about it.  In 1820, he constructed his own Bible, drawing passages from New Testaments in English, French, Latin and Greek.  He left out the miracles, the Resurrection and other events that he felt were unsupportable by logic and left in the morals and teachings of Jesus.  In order to do this, he literally cut out the sections he wanted from two copies of an 1804 edition of the King James Bible and affixed them into a book that he then used for his own study.

This book was his own private text, and he never published it.  The Smithsonian purchased it from one of his great-granddaughters in 1895.  Over the years, it became so fragile that it could no longer be handled or displayed.  In 2011, a massive conservation project was undertaken and the book is now able to be seen.  In addition to seeing the book itself, you can also see the two books he used as source material, with pages missing.  A quote that appears in the exhibit is one I like very much: "Fix reason firmly in her seat and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion."  Dare I say it, amen brother!

Verdict: Do not miss this - well worth a visit.  The opportunity to see a real artifact from a Founding Father is not something you get every day.

New Acquisition: The BMI Archives Confederate Music Collection

Where: American History Museum

When: through July 13, 2012

Oh happy day - an exhibit at the archives center and an exhibit in the Small Documents Gallery, my two favorite locations in the American History Museum.  No matter how crowded the rest of the building might be, these two out of the way spots are always a refuge from the tourists.

The archives is showing off selections from a recent acquisition, a collection of Confederate sheet music.  Since the museum already has an extensive collection of Northern sheet music from the Civil War era, this will round out their set nicely.  Sheet music helps to provide understanding of the concerns and interests of the people who used it to play music, the ordinary people who lived during the time period in question.  Apparently, during the War, patriotic songs were the music of choice for the civilian population, but the soldiers themselves preferred sentimental ballads telling of home and lost loves.

Something I learned is that "Dixie," the song that became the unofficial anthem of the Confederate South, was  composed by a Northerner and originally performed in a New York minstrel show.  There was some early resistance to the adoption of the song as a Southern anthem for just this reason, but general popularity seems to have won out.

Verdict: As always, I know that archival exhibits are not everyone's idea of an exciting way to spend some time.  I, however, have a fondness for historical documents, so I'm almost always pleased with what I see.  This exhibit would also appeal to the Civil War buff.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Art of Darkness: Japanese Mezzotints from the Hitch Collection

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through July 8, 2012

In contrast to the other exhibitions of Japanese art on offer now at the Sackler and Freer, this show features the work of modern artists.  Rather than the depictions of trees, or Mount Fuji, or cherry blossoms, or Buddhist religious art that one might associate with Japanese artists, these are quite different.  The mezzotint style is a printmaking process used in Europe for centuries; this exhibit shows how a very old process is used by modern-day artists.  One of the artists featured in the show is Hamaguchi Yozo, who lived the same years as my grandfather, 1909-2000.  The cherry print shown here is one of his.  As the artist varies the prints, the colors change; it was interesting to see how one image could be made to look quite different.

This show is part of a collection to be given to the Sackler by Ken and Kiyo Hitch, collectors of 20th and 21st century Japanese art.  It's wonderful that people will give their collections to the Smithsonian, thus ensuring that many people will be able to see these works.

Verdict: Well worth a look - quite a small exhibit, so easily paired with another on view or with a leisurely stroll through the museum.

Masters of Mercy: Buddha's Amazing Disciples

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through July 8, 2012

The Sackler and Freer are celebrating a "Japan Spring" this year, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Japanese gift of the cherry trees to Washington, DC.  When you add in the fantastic Colorful Realm show at the National Gallery (which has closed now - so I hope everyone in or near DC got a chance to see it), it's a grand time to see Japanese art here in our nation's capital.

This exhibit is enormous; I had no idea how big it was when I entered - it's on two levels and there are several rooms full of scrolls on each level.  It's really too much for a lunch time visit; I would recommend taking two days to see everything.  Also, in May (not sure when) some of the scrolls currently on display will be swapped out for different scrolls, so that's another reason to make a return trip.

The focus of this show is the Buddha's disciples.  There is a story in Buddhism that the Buddha was speaking to a crowd of people, when all at once, 500 men were given instant enlightenment.  These people, known as the Buddha's disciples, then went on to perform acts of kindness for others and live in a way designed to reduce the need for earthly desires, such as food, clothing or shelter.  The artist, Kano Kazunobu, painted 100 scrolls showing both their merciful deeds and their everyday lives.  The scrolls were originally designed for the Zojoji Temple in Edo (present-day Tokyo).  The temple was destroyed by fire, but luckily the paintings, which were only infrequently at the temple, survived.  These scrolls, like the Colorful Realm scrolls, have never been displayed outside of Japan before.

Along with the main set of scrolls, there are also on display two scrolls on this same subject from the 1100s.  The older the art, the more interesting I find it, so I was quite happy to look at these.  Painted almost 900 years ago, they've managed to survive an seemingly infinite number of human upheavals and can delight and engage the viewer to this day.  This never ceases to amaze me.

Also on view is information on an earlier exhibition of these scrolls.  The Temple needed money and in the late 1800s put the works on display.  Among the visitors was Boston Museum of Fine Arts curator Ernest Fenollosa.  He was so taken with the show that he became a Buddhist!  Bernard Berenson, a Renaissance art connoisseur, also greatly impressed with the exhibit, said, "I do not wonder Fenollosa has gone into esoteric Buddhism.  What is so convincing as art?"

Interestingly enough, at the time that Kazunobu painted these works, Japan was going through a time of great upheaval.  Increasing contact with the West, natural disasters, and the violent collapse of the ruling regime made people turn to entertaining spectacles and religious cults.  Sounds familiar...  Something that struck me as I looked at the various scrolls - Hell is depicted as a frozen pond - very different than the Western idea of hell as everlasting fire.

Difficult as it is to believe, these paintings were overlooked for most of the 20th century.  It was only in the 1980s that there was a revival of interest in them, and the first time they were all displayed together was in a major exhibition in Tokyo in 2011.

Verdict: See this show, but know that you'll need plenty of time to take in everything!

The Baroque Genius of Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through July 8, 2012

Castiglione (1609-1664) was born in Genoa and practiced his craft there and in Rome.  He is considered the most complex and far-reaching interpreter of the Baroque period.  This exhibit displays approximately 80 of his works, along with those from artists who influenced him and who were influenced by him in turn.

The show is arranged into several categories, including biblical processions (we see several variations on the theme of the animals boarding Noah's ark), subjects from antiquity, imaginary heads (what might those be, you ask? what I would describe as grotesques) and radiant Nativities.

The processions reminded me both of the  exhibit I saw on Venetian view paintings and of the Colorful Realm, with its idea of animals gathering around the Buddha.  Obviously, the idea that even the animals will gather to hear a religious leader is not confined to Buddhists.  In one section labeled "Mysterious Burials," there were several prints of Tobit burying the dead.  I gather this is from the Bible, but it's not a story with which I am familiar.  The "Imaginary Heads," which I confess, I was quite anxious to see, were far more concerned with textures and depictions of the headgear of the subjects than with any true psychology of the persons depicted.  They weren't really stereotypes; they were more people who don't exist at all - imaginary, in fact. The picture that I found most moving was one of Alexander at the Tomb of Cyrus.  It's a poignant reminder that all glory fades and is forgotten in time.

Verdict:  Truth be told, I just don't relate very well to prints or pen-and-ink drawings.  I like and am drawn to lots of color in my art, and this is not a terribly colorful show.  It's good and interesting, and if you do like this sort of thing, by all means, check it out, but I can't call it a "must see."