Sunday, December 30, 2012
When: through February 24, 2013
Aside from what's on exhibit, I like going to the Freer, because I love the building and the atmosphere of quiet. I can actually feel my entire body de-stress just by walking in the door. There's no better time to visit the Freer than over the holidays, as it's fairly empty (as compared with the more popular museums that are jammed with people fleeing their relative-filled houses), and the visitors who are there don't run or shove or yell as they make their way about the rooms.
This exhibit, which focuses on depictions of the Buddha and his closest followers in Chinese painting, is not one of my favorites. The pieces are quite dark, which makes it hard to appreciate the details of the art. Also, although they are quite old, I've been spoiled by the "Roads of Arabia" show, and am now impressed only by things that are thousands of years old.
That having been said, it's still worth a trip to see this show, if for nothing else than that it's well laid out, and you get to see several scrolls, which I enjoy. You only get to see a piece of each scroll, as space does not permit them to unroll the entire piece, but I like their storybook quality, and fancy that if I go to enough shows, I'll get to see everything, just in bits and pieces.
One really old thing on display is a carving of Guanyin (one of the bodhisattavas - enlightened beings who put off their journey to nirvana to aid humans on their own path to enlightenment) made of fossilized mammoth ivory - more than 32,000 years old. Not that's what I call an antiquity! The carving is also excellent - amazing detail throughout.
Verdict: If you enjoy the Freer, go see this. If you're looking for vibrant colors, give it a miss.
When: through February 24, 2013
For this exhibit, we leave behind the world of sub-Saharan Africa and journey to North Africa, specifically to the world of Lalla Essaydi, a Moroccan-born woman who lived in Saudi Arabia before moving to France and eventually to the United States. The world in which she lived prior to her time in the West was the world of the harem, where opportunities for women were, and continue to be, non-existent. Her art depicts the limits placed on women - how they are treated as objects and made to "blend in" with the surroundings. She has said that her art would not be possible without considerable distance from her homeland, and one cannot doubt that this is the case.
Essaydi has achieved considerable international acclaim as a photographer, but is also an accomplished painter and creator of multi-media installations. All of these are on display here in her first solo exhibition. Yet again, the Smithsonian has provided me, and all who visit its museums, with the opportunity to see things not on public display before.
In her "Harem" series of photographs (one of which is pictured above), we see one or more women wearing garments that exactly match the painting on the walls. They are barely distinguishable from their background. Obviously, this is meant to show how marginalized the women in these situations are, but I was also reminded of a chameleon, a creature who can blend in to escape its predators. Do the women hide their true natures from their masters, to preserve some sense of themselves as human beings?
Another series of photographs is the "Three Silences of Molinos." Based on a poem by Longfellow, which extols the virtue of the silence of thought, the silence of speech and the silence of desire, Essaydi compares this idea to the way in which women are treated in her homeland. I was reminded of sitting in yoga class, being told to quiet my mind. In this context, there's nothing wrong with not thinking about the day-to-day worries of life in order to focus on the breath, but when you're never allowed to have your own thoughts or opinions on any matter, you can see how stifling this would become. Women are treated as property and their ideas, their wants, are accorded no value.
In many of Essaydi's photographs, the women have writing on their skin and on their garments. This is an act of defiance, as women are not allowed to learn calligraphy. This is a way to demonstrate that women can and will learn and use their intellects to create art and to speak out.
Essaydi not only depicts the suffering of women in her homeland, she also shows the views of Europeans towards the Middle East, not unlike the work of Jananne al-Ani. Essaydi takes well-known European paintings and reworks them into photographs, featuring "exotic" North African women. One of her works, a photograph showing another side of "La Grande Odalisque" by Ingres, hangs in the Louvre.
The multi-media installation is called "Embodiment." It consists of hanging fabrics with her photographs silk-screened on them, and a video showing several small children playing. This piece is Essaydi's way of dealing with her childhood memories of life in the Middle East. For all of us, adulthood takes us to another country than that we inhabited as as child, but for her this is more true than for most of us.
The final room of the show focuses on her paintings. They are reworkings of Orientalist paintings - similar to the earlier set of photographs. She overturns the idea of the exotic and desirable North African woman who exists only to please men. Like al-Ani, she makes you consider your assumptions about the Middle East and those who live there.
Verdict: It's actually hard to look at Essaydi's photographs, knowing that the lives she depicts are real, but the exhibit is excellent and well worth a look.
Saturday, December 29, 2012
When: through February 24, 2013
This enormous exhibit uses archeological finds to tell the history of Saudi Arabia from prehistoric times to the present. This show is filled with antiquities, so if you're as much a fan of these as I am, you won't want to miss this.
Prior to the establishment of Islam in the 7th century, Saudi Arabia was the sole cultivator of incense (including frankincense and myrrh - very seasonal), and roads led from Saudi Arabia to other parts of the inhabited world. Once Islam had taken hold, the roads led from other parts of the Islamic world to Mecca. Whether for trade or for religion, Saudi Arabia seems to have been a center of travel in this region for a very long time.
The show is set up chronologically, so we begin thousands of years ago. In the first room, there are several steles. I'm not sure if it's the dramatic lighting, or their inherent power, but they make quite an effect. Archeologists believe that they may have been used in funerary rites - perhaps they are representations of the deceased? Further on, we see tools, some as old as 1.3 million years. Amazingly enough, the arrowheads on display look as if they could have come from North America - just goes to show that good ideas are not the possession of only one group of people.
For the first time on public display, we see carvings found by a camel herder in 2010. These carvings are of animals, and have caused archeologists to re-think the timeline around the domestication of various beasts. These date to 7000 BCE, and although the carving is not so skillful as others I've seen, the fact that people were taking the time and effort to carve anything so long ago is amazing. It makes you realize that the desire to create art, something beautiful, just for the sake of looking at it, is universal and not a modern concept.
The show is huge - on two levels and multiple rooms on each floor. There are pieces from an island off the coast of Saudi Arabia, possibly the original home of the Dilmun civilization, celebrated in Mesopotamian texts, and later located in Bahrain. There is a discussion of the lost city of Gerrha, more prosperous than other cities of the time, now vanished. Lovely jewelry shows an Hellenic influence, another result of trade. Several colossal figures dominate one of the rooms on the lower level; even if you're merely skimming the exhibit, you don't want to miss these.
Verdict: This is a show well worth your time. If you only have a lunch hour, you'll need to move quickly. To see everything, you'll need 1.5 - 2 hours, easily.
When: through February 10, 2013
This show is a combination of still photographs and two videos. Al-Ani's work focuses on exploring photography's claim to objectivity, and how people's perceptions of other people or other places are shaped by what they see in photographs. In 1991, during the first Gulf War, the media portrayed the Middle East as one vast desert. Obviously, there is a lot of sand in the Middle East, but that's not all there is. Was it easier for those of us watching from the United States to forget the human cost of this conflict because we didn't really see much of it on TV? I remember thinking at the time that the depictions of the missiles made them look like video games.
Al-Ani was inspired by this incomplete media coverage of the 1991 war, as well as photographs from the Ernst Herzfeld Papers, which are held in the archives of the Freer/Sackler to create video works examining widely held views of the Middle East. The photographs in the first room of the show are from the archives. They depict a striking but desolate landscape, and show very few people. From these photos, Westerners got the idea that the Middle East was nothing but an arid desert, inhabited by only a few nomads.
The next two rooms contain al-Ani's videos. The first one is entitled "Guide and Flock." It's footage of a man in Arab dress walking down a road. He's carrying a bag, but we never see what's in it. There's an inset in the screen, playing another video, this one of a street with a flock of sheep standing beside it. Every few seconds, traffic goes by. I'm not entirely sure what this video is trying to show - that there are people and industry in the Middle East, not just dusty roads and sheep?
The second video is "Shadow Sites II." This is a series of aerial photographs. The camera is at a distance from them to begin, then gradually moves in closer. Just as you're about to get a good sense of what's on the ground, a new aerial image appears, and the process begins again. I watched for a while, but frankly, got a bit tired of never seeing what's in the photo. Perhaps that's the point?
I won't say I didn't like this show - I just couldn't quite figure out the point. I was glad to be reminded of my reservations about the first Gulf War coverage, something to keep in mind when I see war coverage today. Other than that, I'm at a bit of a loss.
Verdict: Not sure that this is worth a trip on its own to the Sackler, unless you're a great fan of aerial photography.
Sunday, December 23, 2012
When: through January 6, 2013
This is an exhibit that didn't appear in the Smithsonian website list until just this week, so I had yet another reminder that it pays to check the list of closing exhibits frequently. Happily, I was able to see this and spend the rest of my lunch hour walking through the Downtown Holiday Market, which had set up outside the Portrait Gallery/Museum of American Art building.
Yet another 100th anniversary - what a busy year was 1912!
The exhibit is small, only a few pieces in the south rotunda, but interesting nonetheless, especially if you, like me, were at one time a Girl Scout. The Girl Scouts have 3.2 million U.S. members, making it the largest educational organization for girls in the world. In addition to this lovely portrait of Low, there is also on display the patent for the original Girl Scout badge, appropriate, since the museum is in the Old Patent Office.
Something that struck me was a quote from the 1920 official handbook, Scouting for Girls. The purpose of the handbook was "how to get the most out of this wild, free life and how to enjoy it with the least trouble and the most fun." Now there's a motto to live by.
Verdict: Unless you're a Girl Scout, this probably wouldn't merit a special trip, but if you're in the museum to see something else, it's an interesting way to spend five minutes.
When: through February 3, 2013
By way of celebrating the Renwick's 40th anniversary, this exhibit celebrates 40 craft artists under the age of 40; it is a look at the future of craft. The commentary on the exhibit indicates that the theme of the artists is using craft to make a better world. I'm not sure I picked up that idea from every piece I saw, but I really enjoyed this show, so I'm not going to quibble.
In the first room is an item I can only describe as looking like the love child of a space pod and an upholstered chair. It's called "Mementos of a Doomed Construct"; the artist is Stephanie Liner. I found the piece a bit startling; I walked up to it and found there was a mannequin inside, which I was not expecting. There's also a picture on the wall, placed so that you can see it through the window in the "pod." It seems as if, all of a sudden, you're surrounded by people.
Other pieces I enjoyed were:
- "Impressions" by Sebastian Martorana - it looks like a pillow, but is made of marble
- "E-Waste Project" by Christy Oates - beautiful marquetry
- "Fibers and Civilization" by Sabrina Gschwandtner - quilts made from films about fiber de-accessioned from the Fashion Institute of Technology library
- "Knitting is for Pus****" by Olek - an entire room covered in knitted camouflage
Verdict: Well worth the trip over to the White House area. I always enjoy the shows at the Renwick, and will add this one to my list of fun exhibits. Plus, you can see the work progressing on the grandstands for the Inaugural parade on your trip.
Sunday, December 16, 2012
When: through February 24, 2013
I've taken to calling the National Gallery's Tower space "the little Hirshhorn in the sky." Those of you who know my views on the Hirshhorn will know that's not a compliment. Up the narrow spiral staircase we go, only to have odd things presented to us as our reward at the top.
The name Barnett Newman was not familiar to me, but when I arrived in the Tower, I realized immediately that I had seen his work before. I noted in my journal, "Haven't I seen this set of lines on canvas already?" Indeed I had - these are the "Stations of the Cross," a set I'd seen when they were on display in another exhibit space in the building years before. These offerings had not improved either with age or with the climb to see them. When I say they're lines on canvas, I'm not exaggerating for comic effect - that's what they are. Some of the lines are perfectly straight (I found out in the smaller room that he used tape to make the borders clean, somehow that seems less like art, and more like painting the walls and making sure you don't smudge the woodwork), others are blurred - but there's nothing to suggest the Stations of the Cross, or anything else for that matter. Much as I dislike naming a painting "Untitled," perhaps that would have been a better name for these.
For these Tower shows, you get one set of pieces in the main room and another set in the smaller room that also serves as an elevator lobby. It's an awkward space, and must be terribly difficult for the curators to use. There's a video of Newman being interviewed in the smaller space, which, for fans of his work, would be interesting. An item that caught my eye was "Yellow Painting"; can't disagree with that description - it's a painting and it's plenty yellow.
Verdict: If you like Newman, by all means, run right out and see this (making sure to take care on the stairs). Otherwise, do an extra 5 minutes on the treadmill and get your exercise that way.
When: through February 18, 2013
Yet another trip to the Modern Lab, yet another show that leaves me scratching my head. This one focuses on the idea of the box; as the information at the entrance says, "Art objects do not exist alone; they are subject to accumulation, display and rearrangement." Indeed, what's more fun than buying things, displaying them and then tweaking the display? Some of the items in the show were in boxes, some of the items were boxes themselves, but thematically, it seemed a bit weak. To me, it didn't live up to the promise of the introduction.
I've decided that the Modern Lab is a bit beyond my ken. I try to go with an open mind, but I find myself thinking, "I don't get it." The one piece I did examine for several minutes was "Cardboard VII" by Robert Rauschenberg, which is a lithograph on cardboard. I couldn't quite figure out what it was: was it on cardboard or was it merely a picture of the cardboard? In parts, it seemed to be one thing and in other parts, it seemed to be the other.
Perhaps the most memorable piece, sadly, not in a good way, was Anthony Caro's "Study for National Gallery Ledge Piece." People, listen to me, please, this is random doodling. That's all it is. It's not a study for anything. I don't care how famous the artist is, scribbles are not art.
Verdict: Give it a miss - it's a small room of odd items. The fact that they're all in boxes doesn't really change that.
When: through February 3, 2013
Hard as I find it to believe, I'm already seeing exhibits that will be closing in February 2013. I always try to stay a bit ahead of the closings, so I'm not scrambling to see things at the last minute, but it does make me realize how quickly 2012 is drawing to a close...
Lots of exhibits closing in February, but none at all so far in March; I know that will change, but still, it's odd to look through the list of shows and see no mention of an entire month.
I combined three small exhibits at the National Gallery into one visit last week; this is the first one I saw. The Gallery has two spaces in which to display items from their library - one is the library itself in the East Building; the other is a small room in the West Building. I'm almost always the only person in the West Building area, which, as long-time readers of this blog will know, is an experience I find restful. I might have benefited from some other viewers this time, as I'm not entirely sure what I saw. Based on the title, I'm assuming these are portraits of Dutch people from the 1600s, but other than that, your guess is as good as mine. Usually, there's some sort of explanation affixed to the wall - I always look for that first whenever I go to see an exhibit, but this time, nothing. There was a fairly substantial brochure available for visitors to peruse, but I really didn't want to read through pages of closely-written text. It would have taken me as long to do that as to look at the pictures.
One thing that struck me as I looked at the portraits - it makes no difference how high up in society these Dutch people were, they all looked like shopkeepers. I'm sure it's simply because I knew they were Dutch that I could see all of them standing behind a counter, offering me fish or fabrics, but there's something in their countenances that makes one think: prosperous merchant.
Verdict: If you miss it, you're not missing anything wildly exciting, unless you're a great fan of Dutch portraiture.
Saturday, December 8, 2012
When: through January 27, 2013
This is the other show at the National Gallery's East Wing, sharing space with the Lichtenstein retrospective. It is nowhere near as large - only three rooms, so if you're thinking you only have time for a smaller show, this will fit the bill nicely.
This is an examination of how artists have used newspaper in their work since 1909. The date was chosen as a starting point due to two events: Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published his manifesto of the radical art movement, Futurism, on the front page of Le Figaro in that year, and Picasso incorporated a piece of real newsprint in a collage just a few years later, in 1912. Both a copy of the newspaper and the Picasso collage are on display in the show.
I was struck by how many pieces and artists I'd seen before; it's always a nice sense of accomplishment when I see something I recognize. There was a piece on display by Man Ray, "Transmutation," which didn't really do anything for me. Again, I thought to myself, it's okay that you missed that big show of his a few years ago. One work I did like, more for its bizarre, over the top quality than anything else was Dieter Roth's "Literaturwurst (Daily Mirror)" from 1961. It's a real sausage, made out of newsprint.
Also on offer was an Andy Warhol that I'd seen in his big show at the National Gallery not long ago, "Study for Flash - November 22, 1963." I am also certain I'd seen "Oct. 27, 1971" from On Kawara's "Today" series a while back at the Hirshhorn. Another piece that caught my eye was Laurie Anderson's "New York Times, Horizontal/China Times, Vertical." She's woven the two papers together, which I can't even imagine how to do without making myself nuts.
John Cage contributed a work called "Eninka 22." It could just as well have been called "Desk Blotter with Coffee Cup Stain." I don't care how elaborate his process for creating these works is, they're just not art.
An artist I was quite happy to see again was Felix Gonzalez-Torres. I saw one of his candy piece works at the "Hide/Seek" exhibit at the Portrait Gallery a couple of years ago and found it very moving. This time, his work, "Untitled (1991)" was a large stack of pieces of paper, with two articles from the New York Times, one on each side. Visitors were invited to take one of the pieces, so now I have a permanent souvenir of the show. It's not often one is allowed to touch the art!
Verdict: Mixed views on this show - some good things, some not so good. It's worth a look, and only a few rooms.
When: through January 27, 2013
Although I suspect this is the war most Americans would now forget, if asked to list our country's major conflicts, the War of 1812 was an important conflict in American history. Called the Second War of Independence, this war brought us not only the Star Spangled Banner, but also the figure of Uncle Sam. It was responsible for a great surge in nationalist feeling among the citizens of the time; they felt themselves to be Americans, distinct from Europe and united as one people in a way they had not before.
It is a myth that the U.S. won this war; in reality it was a draw. The Americans did get some of the things they wanted in the Treaty of Ghent, an actual copy of which is on display here, thanks to a loan from the National Archives, but they didn't get everything they wanted - some demands were ignored completely.
At the time of the War, the United States was completely unrecognizable - very few people were spread across the states in largely agricultural communities, and transportation was very bad. There were any number of reasons to avoid going to war, but John C. Calhoun, one of the War Hawks in Congress, declared this conflict a "second struggle for our liberty." Calhoun, by the way, was the only person to serve as Vice President under two different presidents: John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson - a feat unlikely to be repeated. Among the many portraits on display in this very large show is one of Lighthorse Harry Lee, hero of the Revolutionary War. This second war was less kind to him, and he died some years later of wounds suffered in the conflict. At the time, his son, Robert E. Lee, was only a child.
It's not only portraits on display here; there is, among other objects, a much reduced version of the Jackson statue that stands in Lafayette Park. My office used to be across the street from the Park, and I saw the statue every day. It was nice to see it again (I rarely get to that part of town now), if only in tabletop dimensions. Also on display is a bust of Napoleon, which once belonged to Thomas Jefferson.
Another fun fact I learned: Dolley Madison's favorite flavor of ice cream was oyster. Much as I admire her determination to save Washington's portrait from the invading British, I cannot join with her in her frozen dairy confection preferences.
Verdict: If you're a history buff or have an interest in the War of 1812, you'll find this show right up your alley. If not, you may want to skip it or skim, as it's a very large exhibit. If you look at everything, you'll spend an hour easily.
When: through December 9, 2013
This fantastic exhibit is only running through tomorrow, so run down to the Mall to see this before it leaves for Hong Kong. Unlike most exhibits, you need a ticket for this show. They're free of charge and available at the information desk in the Sackler lobby. You gather there at the appointed time, and get a brief overview of the Chinese caves that you'll see reproduced in a tent in the Sackler garden. The idea of using caves as places of worship began in India, where Buddhist, Hindu and Jain caves can be found. The trade between India and China brought the practice to China, where hundreds of caves were decorated with Buddhist paintings and statues.
The years have taken their toll on the caves, and visitors are now only allowed in a few of the caves at a time, in order to preserve what art remains. Scholars from a university in the area have taken incredibly high-quality photographs of the caves and these have been made into part of a multimedia display involving animation, music, recoloring of part of the paintings and more.
Trying to describe this experience is difficult - you really have to see it for yourself to truly appreciate it. Luckily for those not able to see it this weekend, the Sackler is trying to bring this back to its collection permanently; I, for one, am keeping my fingers crossed that they'll be successful.
Verdict: If the idea of combining antiquities with 21st century technology is appealing, don't miss this show.
Saturday, December 1, 2012
When: through January 13, 2013
Roy Lichtenstein defined, refined and blew pop art wide open during the course of his career. This first retrospective since his death in the late 1990s covers the major periods of his artistic life which were many and varied. There's more to Lichtenstein than his cartoons of desperate women.
In 1961, he came up with the idea of making art that imitated comic books, which was quite controversial at the time. Unlike Andy Warhol, however, he left alone the darker side of American pop culture, preferring to concentrate his efforts on lighter fare, although there is certainly melancholy in his works, as his desperate women demonstrate.
His work, "Look Mickey," pictured above, changed the course of his career, where before he had dabbled in abstract expressionism, from then on, he stuck with his dots and comic book style. How did he get that dot effect? It turns out he dipped a dog brush in paint. This work is part of the first section of the show, "Early Pop." The second section is "Black & White. Lichtenstein discovered that when you remove color from a painting, the subject can be harder to identify. Fan of color that I am, this was not my favorite part of the show.
From there, we move on to "Romance." This is the Lichtenstein with which I was most familiar - those unhappy women, crying over their faithless boyfriends. They could be illustrations for a Dorothy Parker short story. The DC Comics series, "Girls' Romances" and "Secret Hearts" were the sources for these melodramatic works.
At this point in the show, you walk up a flight of stairs (a very narrow, circular staircase that I always take slowly, so as not to fall) to see the fourth section, "Brushstrokes." Apparently, Lichtenstein had great trouble with brushstrokes, so he decided to make them in a cartoon style. The most interesting item in this section is a chair and ottoman made of wood, in the style of his brushstroke work. I was not expecting to see furniture! The "War" section is just what you think it is - cartoon paintings of war comics. I confess I didn't realize there were such things, but the basis of his work is the "All-American Men of War" series, again by DC Comics. His piece "Whaam!" is placed next to a small reproduction of the same scene from the comic. Lichtenstein's work is more immediate - you feel as if you're in the airplane, blasting the enemy fighter to bits. Of course, part of this is due to size, but there's an energy in his work that's undeniable.
After "War," we go to "Landscapes," and a lovely respite they are too. There's an energy in these works as well, but it's not so frantic as the war pieces. "Sea Shore" was my favorite of this group. It features lovely blues and has a layered feel to it - very restful after the violence of the previous works.
If you've not gathered this already, this is an enormous show - to do this in a lunch hour, I had to practically run through the rooms. This is the point at which most of the two-level shows at the National Gallery end. We've got lots more to see, however, so we move on to other rooms on this upper level. "Modern" is his take on Art Deco. Lichtenstein didn't care for it (sacrilege in my view), so he stripped it of its architectural context in order to expose its absurdities. I liked his pieces in the Art Deco style, which brings up an interesting point. If he's making these works to mock Art Deco, and I like the style and his pieces which remind me of it, am I not missing the point? Shouldn't I dislike them? I'll need to give this greater thought, but it gave me pause.
Next up is "Art History," his take on great artists. He explained that he wasn't denigrating them, but instead imitating only the artists he truly admired. Among the pieces is a painting of the Matisse work with the goldfish that I recognized right off. Also there are several Rouen Cathedrals, a la Monet. I liked these - you could see the old master and the Lichtenstein both in each piece.
The works called "The Artist's Studio" have not been displayed in one show since their 1974 debut, but they're all together now. Three of them are in this room, and one is at the entrance to the show, so keep it in mind for when you arrive here. I wasn't exactly sure what I was looking at when I entered, but now I see that they're meant to be paintings of a particular artist's workplace. The next section is "Mirrors." At one point, he became obsessed with them. They are merely paintings of mirrors, so there is no reflection, no depth to them. There is a thought that this serves as commentary on his work - mere pop offerings with no great artistic merit. Regardless, they're well done.
Now we move on to "Perfect/Imperfect," the only abstract art in the show. They depict nothing at all, except geometric shapes. Lichtenstein said they could serve as art on the walls of a sitcom set. It made me realize I don't pay any attention to the backdrops on sitcoms, but I will from now on. The penultimate section is "Nudes"; the comic book women from "Romance" are back, but now their faces are attached to naked bodies. Okay, but they left me cold, I'm afraid.
The final section is "Landscapes in the Chinese Style," which was amazing. They are clearly Lichtensteins; the dots are there in every piece, but I might have been walking in the Freer. The pieces are exactly like things I've seen there, and I was delighted with them. The love of nature, with tiny figures to show man's place next to enormous mountains or in mighty rivers was there in abundance. There's even a sculpture, "Scholar's Rock," which reminded me of a show I saw at the Sackler that included rocks used for contemplation by scholars. "Landscape with Philosopher" and "Yellow Cliffs" were the pieces that caught my eye in this section.
Verdict: A great show - a real must-see. Note that this is the biggest show I've seen at the National Gallery, so plan on spending more than one lunch hour, or look quickly.
When: through January 21, 2013
This small exhibit is the latest in the Portrait Gallery's series of shows dealing with the Civil War. I'm assuming it's in honor of the War's sesquicentennial (there's a word you don't get to use often). It's set up in a alcove close to portraits of Civil War figures on the first floor.
Adalbert Volck was a Baltimore dentist with Confederate sympathies. A German immigrant (as you might have guessed from his name), he was bothered by the Northern slant displayed by all of the newspapers and magazines of the time. Determined to do something to present the Southern cause in a favorable light, he began drawing sketches under an assumed name. He collected these in a publication, Sketches from the Civil War in North America. The core of this publication is on display in this show.
Volck, and others at the time, believed that the North was making war on the South in part for profit. In one of his drawings, he refers to it as the "Holy War of the Contractors." Lincoln he portrayed as the devil incarnate - the sketch pictured above is typical. It's disconcerting to see anything about Lincoln that isn't utterly reverent, especially now that the movie "Lincoln" has just come out. These pictures are distinctly unflattering.
Southerners, on the other hand, are depicted as pious people, set upon pitilessly by the North. Jackson's soldiers are drawn with their heads bowed in prayer, brave Marylanders are shown in a boat crossing the Potomac to join the rebels (in a sketch reminiscent of Washington Crossing the Delaware), and residents of Vicksburg, Mississippi are shown hiding out in caves during the siege of that city. I had no idea people did this, but apparently, this is true, and not just propaganda. One of his sketches shows Southern citizens giving up their church bells to be melted down and made into cannonballs. I could not help but think this was an interesting turn on the "swords into plowshares" quote from the Bible.
In later years, Volck regretted his sketches of Lincoln, who he described as "great and good." He stood by his other work, however, so he did not recant his support for the Southern cause.
Verdict: Well worth a look, if you're in the Portrait Gallery or Museum of American Art anyway. Not large enough to make a full lunchtime trip, but you could easily combine it with a visit to the One Life show on Amelia Earhart, which is only a few steps away.