Wednesday, August 29, 2012

John Cage: Rocks, Paper, Fire

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building, Concourse Level

When: through September 16, 2012

It took me a while to find this - it's in the East Building, down a few steps from the small shop on the Concourse Level.  When I looked at this display (only six pieces in one display case), I realized that it had been a while since I'd seen something that made me roll my eyes and think "a fool and his money are soon parted."  On my, really?  You call this art?  I call it scribbles and coffee cup stains on paper.  This is the sort of thing I associate with the Tower, but I suppose it was too small for that space.

Cage used the I Ching (an ancient Chinese book of divination) to dictate his artistic endeavors.  I'm not entirely certain how that worked, but I suppose it's easier than having to come up with your own ideas!  Apparently, he did this so as to remove any personal taste or intention from his work.  It seems to me that's the point of being an artist - to express your personal tastes and intentions.  Cage also used fire in his work, which I've seen before from other artists.  Somehow, their stuff was a bit more involved than this, which is basically a piece of paper with a hole burned in the middle.  Perhaps the other artists were expressing their personal tastes and intentions?

Verdict:  Feel free to give this a miss.  The few minutes I spent looking at this display are moments I'll never get back.  Color me scornful.

Elegance and Refinement: The Still-Life Paintings of Willem van Aelst

Where: National Gallery of Art, Main Building

When: through October 14, 2012

This is a lovely small show on the main floor, the first one to focus on Van Aelst's work.  He was one of the foremost painters of still lifes in the 17th century, and enjoyed a great deal of success, as he was able to tailor his paintings to suit wealthy buyers.  His paintings of fruit, flowers and game are sumptuous; the fruit especially is so lifelike, you want to reach into the painting and take a piece.

Originally from the Netherlands, Van Aelst gained an international reputation, as he was able to paint so well the luxury objects that were of interest to buyers.   In his "Pronk Still Life with Armor," the metallic fringe on the fabric is so realistic - it practically shimmers.  You may be asking yourself, "What on earth is a pronk still life?"  I had never of heard of such a thing until I went to this exhibit (I learn something at every show I attend).  It means an elaborate display of luxury goods made of precious metals.  These paintings showcase Van Aelst's ability to paint not only natural objects (fruit, flowers, etc.) but also man-made objects, such as armor, goblets, watches, etc.

In one painting, "Still Life with Fruits and a Wineglass," the glass reflects a cityscape - proof that he had abilities even beyond the still life genre.  I noticed that he put a snail into many of his paintings, as well as butterflies and other small creatures.  Once I realized this, I started looking for the snail in every painting - a great way to pay closer attention to the works. Van Aelst's depictions of birds put me in mind of the "Colorful Realm" exhibit - the attention to detail, I suppose, as the paintings are nothing alike.

An interesting note: many of the fabrics depicted in these paintings appear blue, but when they were painted, they were green.  Van Aelst used a yellow and blue dye combination to achieve the green color, but the yellow pigment was unstable and faded over time, leaving only the blue.

Verdict:  This is a fine show, worth a trip all on its own, but easily combined with something else on view at the gallery.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Julia Child’s Kitchen

Where: American History Museum

When: through September 3, 2012

Julia's kitchen is open again, but only for a limited time, so run right out and see it while you can!

I blogged before about the original kitchen exhibit and how I was sad that it was closing for a while.  Now, having seen the new set-up, I can report that the closing has been well worth it.  The new area is much bigger and far less crowded than the old.  I only dropped in for a minute, just to have a quick look on my way back to work, after seeing the Jefferson exhibit described below, but I could tell immediately that this will be a far better display than the old arrangement.

While I was there, the TV program produced when she retired, featuring others reminiscing about Julia, was playing.  Charlie Gibson was recalling a story in which a friend of his was having a dinner party and called Julia (a complete stranger) on the phone and asked for advice.  She talked to the friend for 25 minutes, making suggestions and helping her plan out the meal.  Gibson does a great impression of Julia - who knew?

Verdict: If you're able to see this before it closes next weekend, great.  If not, you can look forward to seeing it when it reopens in November of this year.

Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty

Where: American History Museum

When: through October 14, 2012

One of the great conundrums in American history is how Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, could have been a slaveowner.  This exhibit at the American History Museum describes it as a paradox of liberty.  I call it gross hypocrisy.  Truth be told, Jefferson believed that his way of life would be threatened if he freed his slaves, and so they continued to live in bondage in order to support his lifestyle.  You can claim that I'm applying 21st century ethics to an 18th century situation, but there were plenty of people in the late 1700s who decried slavery, so I don't think that argument holds up.  Don't misunderstand me, I think that Jefferson was a brilliant man and the American colonies were lucky to have him as one of their leaders, but his personal conduct does not match his public achievements.

The exhibit begins with a bit about Jefferson, including the desk on which he wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence.  I don't believe I've ever seen that before, and it was a thrill to realize I was looking at the very surface on which the document was written.  That's one of the best things about the American History Museum, they've got "the real things," artifacts that shaped our nation's history.  Another of Jefferson's possessions on display was a book stand that allowed the reader to look at five open books at once.  I confess I wondered where I could get one of these items for myself.

The bulk of the exhibit is a discussion of the slave families who lived at Monticello - how they lived, and what their descendants have done, to the extent this is known.  Everyone is familiar with the Hemmings family and their connection with Jefferson, but there were other families living at Monticello as well.  Many of them were skilled artisans, people who today, one hopes, would be able to practice their crafts in exchange for a profitable payment.  During their lifetimes, they were able to earn a bit of extra money to supplement their rations, but it was subsistence living at best.

After Jefferson's death, most of the slaves were sold on the chopping block to pay the debts of the estate.  How anyone could hear this and not be horrified at the fate of these people is beyond me.  I don't think there's a lot of discussion of slavery at this point in our history.  Thankfully, it's been illegal for well over one hundred years now, and no one alive today has had to endure its horrors, at least not in this country.  It's important to know that it did exist, though, and this type of exhibit, that focuses on the lives of real people helps to put a human face on this inhuman institution.

The exhibit itself is very well-organized, as I have found the other exhibits in this area (which features shows on aspects of African American life - a sort of stopgap measure until the African American History Museum is open, in 2015) to be.  It's easy to follow along with the stories, and there's a good mixture of text and artifacts on display.  This would be appropriate for children (tweens and older) as well as adults; I can only hope that school groups have taken advantage of this display, as it would be a helpful addition to class discussions of early American history.

Verdict: Go see this show; it's a very engaging and thought-provoking history lesson.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Ancient Iranian Ceramics

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through October 9, 2012

If I had realized how small this show is, I would have glanced in after finishing the "Worlds Within Worlds" show.  As it was, I had lots of time to look at each item in this exhibition.  When I say it's small, I mean that almost everything on display is in the picture above.

Iran is one of the older continuously populated placed on earth.  The items in this display were created in 1000 BCE - which means that when people were making them the Battle of Hastings was about 2000 years in the future.  That's so long ago that I have a hard time comprehending it. It's not just that human beings as we know them today were alive that long ago, it's also that they were capable of making lovely and useful objects.  Most of what's on display are pitchers with long, beak-like spouts.  They resemble birds, and the carvings on the pots contribute to that resemblance.  Also, the long spouts enabled the users to be careful in pouring, so they were functional as well.

Verdict: You can stop in when you're at the Sackler to see a larger show - there are only about half a dozen items on display.  These are lovely and interesting items and worth a look.

George Bellows

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through October 8, 2012

This is the first major retrospective of Bellows' art in three decades and the National Gallery has done a very fine job in showing examples of Bellows' work throughout his life and his many artistic periods.  When I thought of George Bellows, I thought of gritty boxing matches or grimy alleys, paintings much like the one pictured here.  I now know there's much more to Bellows than these works.

Bellows, who died at the age of 42 of appendicitis, has been mythologized over the years, probably because he died young, but also because he advocated no limitations on artists.  He believed that art should have no constraints, and this belief enabled him to move American art from the more staid Victorian period into the wilder, more confrontational era of modern art.

The National Gallery arranges the show in chronological order (my favorite kind of order for one-artist exhibits).  His early work is what is most familiar - tenements, boxing and the less attractive parts of the New York urban landscape.  One of these paintings, Noon, was quite striking in its use of light - you could see the sun making its way into what would have otherwise been a dull picture.  At the time that Bellows was painting boxers, bouts were held in private clubs, as New York had a statewide ban on the sport.  You notice that, although the paintings are filled with people, their faces are painted in a slapdash fashion.  Whether that's deliberate or because Bellows just wasn't very good at painting faces, I don't know.  There's a room filled with portraits he painted, and those faces are all rather odd looking as well - they looked as if they had suffered terrible burns and their skin had become misshapen because of it.

The great surprise for me was some of Bellows' later work - he painted lovely pictures of the water in New York.  Snow-capped River is just beautiful - such gorgeous colors, utterly different than his tenement scenes.  He also traveled to Maine, and there are quite a few of his seascapes on display.  As someone who travels to Maine every summer, it was grand to see these works and be reminded of past vacations.  The influence of the impressionist and post-impressionists is clear in this work.

There are also several pieces that he painted during the First World War - propaganda paintings depicting German soldiers engaged in unspeakable brutality.  I know that awful things happened during WWI, and that the civilian population of continental Europe did not escape its horrors, but I think I'm right in saying that the Germans did not actually spear babies on spikes, as depicted in one work.  It would have been useful, I think, for the National Gallery to point this out.

Verdict: All in all, a wonderful show and one well worth seeing.  It's quite large, so you'll have to be content to skim through on a lunch hour, or come on the weekend, when you can spend more time.  

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Landsat: Four Decades of Earth Observation

Where: Air and Space Museum

When: through August 20, 2012

I can never decide which Smithsonian Museum I dislike more: Air and Space or the Hirshhorn.  Long-time readers of this blog know my views on the Hirshhorn (for you newcomers, I don't like it), but I'll give you this - it's not crowded.  Air and Space, on the other hand, is a zoo.  Even the least attractive exhibits are full of people, and most of them seem to be 12-year old boys, whose only method of communication is screaming and shoving each other.  Even if I manage to ignore my fellows visitors, there's still the fact that I'm just not that interested in outer space and how we get there.

So why do I keep going back, you ask?  Well, mostly it's because I decided to go to all the Smithsonian exhibits, and that includes Air and Space, and I'm just too anal retentive to start picking and choosing now, and partly it's because I did once see a terrific show there - pictures of the planets that were breathtakingly beautiful.  I thought that perhaps this exhibit might also feature great photography, and went with higher hopes than usual.

As it turns out, I might have saved my high hopes for another exhibit, as this one was less than riveting.  The website indicates that it opened just last month, but I find that hard to believe.  The displays look as if they've been up for 20+ years; I've seen exhibits they've put up recently, and they look nothing like this.

There are a few tidbits of information I managed to glean in my time there: people have been trying to get a birds-eye view of the earth for many years - at one point, they used pigeons with cameras strapped to their chests to fly around and take pictures (the cameras were set to snap pics at pre-determined intervals, the pigeons weren't actually taking the photos).  The poor birds looked rather weighted down - one wonders how they managed to get off the ground.

Landsat allows you to look at areas of the earth over time.  Workers were getting sick at a worksite, and through the examination of old pictures of the site, it was discovered that toxic waste had been dumped there decades earlier.

A large section of the exhibit was devoted to spy planes (what seem to be the predecessor to the current drones).  I noticed on display a pilot survival kit.  For those of you who remember Dr. Strangelove, there were no prophylactics.

Verdict:  You can give this a miss; one can only hope that something more exciting will fill the space after this show is over.

Worlds within Worlds: Imperial Paintings from India and Iran

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through September 16, 2012

"There are many that hate painting, but such men I dislike." This quotation is attributed to Akbar, one of the Mughal rulers of India, and I couldn't have said it better myself.  The Mughals ruled India from 1526 to 1827, and in an effort to tie themselves closely with the Timurid part of their heritage, they stressed the Timurid ethos in their art.  Specifically, they identified with the great Timurid leader Timur, aka Tamerlane, the founder of the Timurid dynasty.

One of the ways in which they did this was through the art of the book.  It warms my heart to think of rulers establishing their credibility by becoming patrons of book illustrators - truly it does.  One of the books in which they were most interested was the Gulistan, which means Rose Garden, and is one of the most influential works of Persian literature.  And just when I thought I was an educated person, I find out there are great works of Persian literature of which I have spent my life ignorant.  Not that this is the first time, mind you.  I still need to get a copy of Shahnama, which I learned about last year.

But I digress.  I was pleased to learn that it was not just the men who were readers; women owned books, read them and passed them along to others.  I wasn't sure there would be much to cheer about as regards the Mughals and their treatment of women, but clearly I was wrong.

Akbar, he of the quote above, was only 13 when he became ruler, and he was open to the influence of the many cultures under his rule.  New religions, new styles of art, new ways of doing things were welcome in his court, and he incorporated them into a new type of painting that was more naturalistic and sophisticated.  You can see the changes in the depictions of people before and after his reign.  Earlier works are more formalized - people don't have much in the way of individual expression.  Afterwards, however, it seems as if people are painted as if they are actual people, not just representations of a particular type.

It was not just Akbar who was a patron of the arts.  His son, Jahangir and his grandson, Shah Jahan continued to emphasize the arts while they ruled India.  Jahangir began the production of the Gulshan album, pages from which are on display, and Shah Jahan finished the work.  Perhaps my favorite work in the show is a painting of Shah Jahan listening to a Sufi Shaykh over the kings pictured below him.  One of the kings is James I of England - proof that the Mughals were aware of countries far beyond Asia and were influenced by them.   Note that Shah Jahan's great claim to fame (at least outside of India) is that he was the one who ordered the construction of the Taj Mahal.

All of the paintings are small, and all are incredibly detailed.  Magnifying glasses are provided, and if you want to examine the paintings in any depth, you'll need them.  The colors are beautiful, and I'm impressed at how rich they are, hundreds of years after the works were first painted.

Verdict: This show can be managed on a lunch break, but you won't have much time to admire the intricacies of the works.  Either pick a couple of pieces to examine closely, or content yourself with an overview.