Saturday, December 28, 2013

A Visit to the Newseum


Yesterday, I took a trip over to the Newseum, a museum that's been around for quite some time, but which I had never visited before.  The entrance fee had dissuaded me from going - why pay to go to a museum, when there are so many here in DC that are free?  However, a friend of mine had given me a free pass, so I decided to check it out.

It's a very large place, with lots to see, so if you're planning a visit, allow a full day to see everything.  In addition to the exhibits, there are several films and interactive displays.  It's a very nice space - everything looks brand new, although it's been in this location for years now.  My criticism (which I trust is constructive) is that it's rather confusing to move around.  The elevators are tucked away in almost hidden locations, and the stairs don't go all the way to the top or bottom.  I think you're probably best off to take the express elevator to the top floor and work your way down from there.

I didn't realize this, and was working off a list of "top 10 things to see at the Newseum" that I'd pulled from their website, so was trying to move up and down to hit everything on the list.  Not so easy to do.

I didn't see everything (not by a long shot), but the highlights for me were: the Berlin Wall Gallery, the 9/11 exhibit and the Pulitzer Prize photograph collections.  All of these were moving and very well done.  Also of interest were some artifacts from Watergate (perhaps the high water mark of DC journalism).  My favorite piece was a picture of Gerald Ford, with the caption: "I got my job through the Washington Post."  Hilarious.

I also made time to see the Anchorman exhibit, which is only there temporarily.  Lots of fun, if you've seen the movie(s).  They had a listing of other fictitious newscasters which I thought was great: Ted Baxter, Roseanne Roseannadanna, Murphy Brown and Kent Brockman.  Along with pictures were quotes, which brought them to life very well.

Verdict: If you're willing to shell out some cash to visit a museum in DC, this is a great one to choose.  It's across the street from the National Gallery, so you needn't stray too far from the Mall, and it's got an excellent collection of news-related objects.  Plenty for kids to do, as well as things to keep adults interested.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Smithsonian AIDS Memorial Quilt Block

Where: Ripley Center, Concourse

When: through February 28, 2014

The 2012 Smithsonian Folklife Festival featured a program in which parts of the AIDS Memorial Quilt were displayed each day.  Inspired by this program, staff and others at the Smithsonian created a quilt block honoring all of those staff, family members and friends who have died of AIDS.  The block is quite large, 12' by 12', and includes the Castle and gardens in the background, with an inset of small quilt pieces - some replicas of existing blocks and others, newly created.  Flowers and bushes from the garden are crocheted, reminding me of the display at Natural History of the coral reefs.  Over 140 full-time workers, docents, volunteers, interns and friends across the Institution contributed to the effort, which took over a year to complete.

It will be sent to Atlanta, to the NAMES Project Foundation, which is the home of the AIDS Memorial Quilt.  The Quilt is enormous: 48,000 panels honoring over 90,000 people.  As the AIDS crisis has faded in the United States, as people are now able to manage the disease for quite long periods of time, I think it's easy to forget just how devastating this disease was.  So many people died, in such terrible circumstances.  It's when you see the Quilt, or even a part of it, that the memories come flooding back.

Verdict: Have a look at this, both for the quilting and for the chance to be grateful that we're no longer in the midst of the crisis in the US.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

In Focus: Ara Guler's Anatolia

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through May 14, 2014

I mentioned in my last post that you could see the Rina Banerjee piece on your way to see something else at the Sackler.  This is the show I was on my way to see today.

It's a collection of photographs by Ara Guler, a photographer (still alive and now in his 80s) who took pictures of Turkey in the 1950s and 1960s.  He thinks of himself as a photojournalist, not as an artist, but the art world thinks differently.  His work has been the subject of several museum displays and large coffee table books.

This display was set up by undergraduates at Johns Hopkins, which apparently has a program in museum studies (oh, if I had it to do over again...).  The students were able to choose the photographs to include and write the wall notes (never knew that was the name for those - glad to know that now).  It's a great opportunity for someone looking to break into the field of museum work, which I can only imagine must be a terribly competitive field.

The photographs are interesting, although perhaps I would have found them more so, if I knew more about Turkish history.  What they did remind me of was the Charles Marville exhibit at the National Gallery.  Both of them were documenting a way of life that was passing due to modernization.  Guler also did portraits of famous people - shades of Yousuf Karsh!

Many of the photographs were of buildings falling into ruin.  I was reminded of the poem Ozymandias; everything falls into oblivion eventually, no matter how powerful.

Verdict: Worth a look.  It's only two rooms, so it doesn't take long.  Note that it's in the exhibit space by the museum store, so it's convenient for last-minute holiday shopping!

Perspectives: Rina Banerjee

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through June 8, 2014

The Sackler has a series of works of contemporary Asian art in its main entrance on the ground floor (which, since the museum is underground, is the top floor).  I usually have a glance at these works as I'm on my way to see other exhibits on the floors below.  Today, I stopped and had a real gander at the latest in the series, an interesting work by Rina Banerjee.

It's title is horrifically long, but begins "A World Lost..." so that's how I'm planning to think of it in future.  Banerjee was born in 1963, which means this year marked her 50th birthday.  As that milestone approaches in my own life, I'm starting to have thoughts about what I want to accomplish before I turn 50.  Although I would love to create a work of art (highly unlikely to occur, since I am once of the least artistically talented people I know), I don't think I could dream up anything even close to "A World Lost..."

To say it's an odd piece is a gross understatement.  Banerjee's work focuses on the movement of people from one place on the globe to another, starting with the increase of tourism in the 19th century to the massive migrations that happen today.  This particular piece is meant to represent rivers in India, where Banerjee is from.  It's terribly difficult to describe this piece, but it involves lots of shells, stones and coins spread on the floor, in what I suppose do look like rivers or streams.  What the plastic cups were meant to be, I can't fathom.

Verdict: Go ahead, have a look.  You're in the Sackler already to see something else, and you can get the gist of this pretty quickly.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Puppetry in America

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through March 26, 2014

This exhibit is in the display cases in middle of the first floor, just as you come in from Constitution Avenue.  There is a wide variety of things in the cases, lots of popular culture items - things that would attract the eye and lead you to wander further into the museum.  The cases themselves look rather dated; I think they're not the best venue for the items contained within them, but perhaps they are the best the museum has to offer at present.  We can only hope that a wealthy donor will visit and share my views - offering to replace them with nicer fixtures.

The small display of puppets is actually quite interesting, and I learned an enormous amount in a very short period of time.  I had no idea shadow puppets were originally from Asia, or that hand puppets have been around since the stone age.  I didn't realize the word marionette was French and referred to the Virgin Mary, one of the earliest figures to be used in morality plays.  I learned that the only puppet factory in the United States, one of the largest in the world, was founded by Hazelle Hedges Rollins.

In addition to all of this education, I also got to see some great puppets.  Not only did they have a Punch and Judy from the late 19th century, they also had some modern-day figures on display.  Persons a bit older than myself will probably be drawn to the Howdy Doody, the Charlie McCarthy or the original Jim Henson muppets (pictured above).  I was thrilled to see Mr. Moose and Bunny Rabbit, from Captain Kangaroo.  All they needed was some ping pong balls!

Verdict: Give this a look whether you're in the museum for another show, holiday shopping at the Museum Store, or if, like me, you haven't been to American History for a while.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Dying Gaul: An Ancient Roman Masterpiece from the Capitoline Museum, Rome

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building, Main Floor

When: through March 16, 2014


I think this is the first time I've gone to see an exhibit on the day it opened, which happened to be the only day I was able to get to the museums this week.  I prefer going two or three times per week, but sometimes life intrudes!

Like the Capitoline Venus, on display in the same place earlier this year, this sculpture is a masterpiece of ancient art and is on loan from the Capitoline Museum in Rome.  This is the first time the piece has left Italy since Napoleon carted it off in 1797 and put it on display in the Louvre in Paris.  I'm assuming the National Gallery asked nicely, rather than sending an army to pillage it.  It's part of the celebration of Italian culture that's been going on this year, as was the Venus and the da Vinci Codex at the Air and Space Museum.

The Dying Gaul has been admired by students of art (for whom a copy was part of their standard curriculum) and art lovers generally for hundreds of years.  Thomas Jefferson was eager to acquire a copy for a never-realized art gallery at Monticello.  The work also became a required stop on the Grand Tour, and inspired works by many other artists.

This piece is quite impressive - the musculature is incredible.  It's not a terribly pleasant work, as it depicts a dying warrior, but you can't help but admire the craftsmanship.  Happily, you can walk around the entire sculpture, so as to get a full sense of just how good this is.  There's almost no damage to the piece, which considering that it was created between 1800 and 1900 years ago is quite an achievement.  I noticed that the sword depicted next to the Gaul looks as if the tip has been broken off, but other than that, it seemed to be intact.

My only criticism is of the location of the work, and this is a problem that will resolve itself in a few weeks.  The Gaul is in the rotunda on the Main Floor, in just the same spot as the Venus.  As a general rule, this would be an excellent bit of placement.  Amidst the massive marble columns and fountain, it's the most dramatic area of the museum.  So what's my beef?  At present, it's decorated for the holidays, which means it's a festive display of lighted greenery and bright poinsettias.  Incongruous to say the least for such a serious sculpture.  Oh well, after the holidays, the Gaul will fit right in.

Verdict: Absolutely worth seeing, although I might wait until after the holiday decorations are put away.  On the other hand, the floral display is lovely and worth a visit all on its own!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Whales: From Bone to Book

Where: Natural History Museum

When: through June 15, 2014

On the Ground Floor of the Natural History Museum, quite close to the Constitution Avenue entrance (tip: much less crowded than the Mall entrance), are two large display cases that have exhibits in them.  I suspect, although I don't know for sure, that these are done by the staff in the Smithsonian library, as they often focus on books, or the history of the museum's collection.

I don't know that I've ever seen anyone else looking at these, so they remind me of the exhibits from the archives at American History.  Since they're right on the main corridor, they're not exactly quiet, but you won't have to stand cheek by jowl with 50 of your closest friends to see what's in the cases.

The current display is on whales - how the museum finds fossils, uses them to gain information about whales and then shares that information with other scientists by publishing, including in the Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press.  When one thinks of the Smithsonian, one thinks of the museums on the Mall, but there's a vast deal more going on in the organization than just what one can see on a casual visit.

The Smithsonian's collection of whale fossils is the best in the world.  They started collecting in the 1850s and continue to this day.  They collect from every ocean basin and continent in the world.  The size of the specimens makes them challenging to unearth and transport, as you can well imagine.  The Smithsonian Libraries have the most extensive collection of resources (not just books) on marine mammals, and some of them are on display here.  The exhibit features both very old items and pictures of scientists using the latest technology.  The whale drawings brought home the intersection of science and art, which I've noticed in other displays here and at the National Gallery of Art.

Verdict:  Have a glance at the big cases when you're in the museum - not sure it's really worth it for a separate visit.

Sylvan Sounds: Freer, Dewing, and Japan

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through May 18, 2014

"For those who have the power to see beauty, all works of art go together, whatever their period."  - Charles Lang Freer

Or, as a friend of mine put it when discussing furniture, "good goes with good."

Freer liked to combine Asian and American art; the painted screens and hanging scrolls he purchased were meant to complement his collection of Whistler and Dewing paintings.  The courtesans of the floating world were similar to Dewing's American models.

I found Dewing's works, of which the above is quite typical, a bit too pre-Raphaelite for my taste.  Any of the women appearing in his art could model for the character of Marianne in Sense and Sensibility.  Perhaps all the green backgrounds reminded me of the paintings in the National Gallery show earlier this year.

What I found most interesting about this one-room show is that I was able to find out a bit more about Freer himself.  Grateful as I am to him for his generous gift of art and money that's given me so many happy hours, I like to know a bit more about him: why he chose the things he did.  In the same way that he traveled in order to escape "the harness of business," he wanted art to be soothing, to transport him away from his daily cares.  Although I appreciate art's ability to speak truth to power and questions society's assumptions, I also like paintings that take me to a more relaxing and quiet place.

Verdict: A lovely small show, with both American and Asian art.

Handmade Holiday Cards from the Archives of American Art

Where: Archives of American Art

When: through January 5, 2014

A festive exhibit, in keeping with the time of the year.  It's clearly meant as a Christmas treat, as it will close at the beginning of January, so if you're interested in seeing the cards that artists send at the holiday season, head over to the American Art Museum now.

I'm not entirely certain what I expected from this show; I guess I thought that artists would make far nicer cards than anything I send each year.  Some cards were lovely, others, not so much.  One by Lyonel Feininger, that was supposed to be the Three Wise Men, looked like something a child would have drawn.  According to the notes, it represented the "sketchy idiom of his drawing."  I've been underestimating my own artistic talents, as I could have drawn something just as good.

I was more impressed with the work, or at least the dedication,  of Andrew Bucci who drew and painted every card he sent each year (about 125) by hand.  And I feel hard done by writing a couple of sentences in the 60 or so I send out.

I learned that the LOVE motif developed by Robert Indiana originated as a Christmas card - by the way, if you've not been to the Sculpture Garden recently, there's a new addition: AMOR set up just like the LOVE sculptures.

Umichi Hiratsuka's card with the Washington Monument and a cherry blossom was my favorite - I'd love to send those out, if only someone would sell them!

I noticed an error in one of the write-ups, which made me think how infrequently they appear.  Rather than criticizing the writer, I offer my kudos to the Smithsonian generally for making so very few mistakes.

Verdict: If you like Christmas cards, or are in the area (at the Downtown Holiday Market, perhaps), you can add to your holiday spirit with this show.  If not, it's not a must-see.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Damage Control: Art and Destruction since 1950

Where: Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden

When: through May 26, 2014

I'm not sure that I've ever been quite so far ahead in seeing exhibits as I am right now.  This show doesn't close until next May, but I've already crossed it off my list.  I'm trying to see everything I can, before the government shuts down again in January.  I know that's not certain to occur, and some Congressional leaders are insisting it won't, but my source for House gossip tells me it will happen, so I'm taking no chances.

Ironic that I'd be off to the Hirshhorn on the week of Thanksgiving as, when I think of the museums for which I am thankful, the Hirshhorn does not spring to mind.  It's so ugly and uninviting on the outside and so full of nonsense on the inside.  Long-time readers must surely have wearied of my rants on this subject, but that's how we roll here at "Luncheon of the Museum Goer."  Hirshhorn = ick.

To be fair, I have seen some interesting things over the years at my least favorite Smithsonian museum.  The "Black Box" series is always worth a trip (who could forget "Floating McDonalds" or the video of the flamingos with the gunshots in the background?), and I enjoyed the Ai Weiwei show as well.

This exhibit, however, does not fall into that small category of "good things at the concrete donut."  It's on the 2nd floor, so it's one of their Bataan Death March shows - you just keep walking and walking through room after room, thinking, "when will this be over?"  The theme is destruction, and so we get lots of damaged goods - a smashed grand piano greets you in the first room.

As if an endless line of examples of broken objects isn't enough, we also have a letter (not damaged in any way that I could see) from Yves Klein (NOT my favorite artist) making an exciting offer to the President of the International Conference called "Blue Explosions."  He tells this body that he will undertake to paint all bombs blue, so that they will be recognizable when they go off.  If it were anyone else, I could appreciate the attempt to make countries or other groups accountable for their use of weapons of mass destruction, but it's Yves Klein, so my eyeballs just rolled back into my head.  Apparently there is nothing he won't do to call more attention to himself.

One item I at first thought was a jar of moldy cookies (check the back of the fridge for art!!), but turned out to be the cremated remains of an artist's work.  He just burned up everything he'd done over the course of several years and exhibited that.  That was followed by an erased de Kooning drawing by Robert Rauschenberg.  I could erase countless drawings; does that make me an artist?

Not content merely to exhibit static works, the Hirshhorn has kindly set up numerous videos for your delectation.  One features Yoko One having people in an audience come up to the stage and cut off her clothes.  I feel like Cindy Lou Who from "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" asking "Why Santy Claus Why?"  At least the Yoko Ono video was quiet.  The others were all loud, and I do mean LOUD.  I felt sorry for the guards who have to listen to this cacophony all day long.  I think the destruction must be to their hearing, or their sanity.  I saw one family watching a video of someone dragging an amplified guitar behind a truck (such a racket as you cannot imagine).  The mother turned to the father and said, "But what's the point of it?"  Good question, I thought to myself.  One  might ask that of the show as a whole.

I made more notes, and I could write up even more about this show, but really, why?  You get the picture.  I'll close by saying my favorite piece was one by David Ireland that I saw at the very end of the show - it's of the Hirshhorn on fire.

Verdict: Feel free to just walk on by this exhibit.  There's plenty of other things to occupy your time at the holiday season.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Women in Chinese Painting

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through April 27, 2014

Two trips to the Freer in one week - heaven on earth!  This show, considerably larger than the small case of Freer bibles I saw on Monday, is on both representations of women in Chinese painting and on paintings by Chinese women.

Even though they had none of the rights of men, women were critical to Chinese society; as Mao put it, centuries later, "women hold up half the sky."  In traditional Confucian philosophy, however, women had no control over their own destiny or ability to determine the course of their own lives.  They existed simply to serve men, to assist them to fulfill their potential.  How depressing.  Attending this show made me wonder why women have been assigned this second-class role in so many societies and to be thankful that I live in a (sometimes only slightly) more enlightened period.

Women painters were most likely to come from the households of male painters, and in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the figure of the courtesan artist emerged.  Women's paintings tended to look a great deal like men's paintings - dealing with the same themes and using the same techniques.

One of the themes I noticed particularly was that of the sad woman: neglected, idle and lonely, with nothing to do.  Even though they were members of the wealthiest part of their society, they had no role to play and no contribution to make.  A sad life to live.

Verdict: A more somber exhibit than I'm accustomed to see at the Freer, but one with a vast deal of food for thought.

Yousuf Karsh: American Portraits, Part I

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through April 27, 2014

The Portrait Gallery is really on a roll lately.  This is the second excellent show I've seen there in just the last couple of weeks.  I blogged earlier about the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition (if you've not seen that, I highly recommend it); this entry is about the first of two exhibits of Yousuf Karsh photographs.

Yousuf Karsh was born in Armenia and fled from that country's genocide to settle in Canada.  He apprenticed with a Boston photographer, John H. Garo, after his uncle saw great promise in his abilities with a camera.  He returned to Canada after his apprenticeship, determined to photograph "men and women who leave their mark on the world."  His big break was photographing Winston Churchill on a visit to Canada.  The bulldog expression became the iconic representation of Britain's determination to defeat the Nazis.

Each of the photographs on display is interesting, both for the great photography and for the subject matter.  They are each a marriage of style and substance.  Even though almost all of them are in black and white, I didn't miss the color, and if you've read this blog for any length of time, you know what a statement that is.

Perhaps my favorite of the pieces on display is one of Franklin Roosevelt with his son James and two Canadian government ministers.  It's an outdoor shot which is atypical of Karsh, and the story goes that everyone was posed very stiffly for the picture.  After it was over, the men relaxed, and that is the shot that Karsh took.  The thing I noticed is that you have to look carefully to see the President being supported by his son; his hand on James' arm is just visible.

Karsh died in 2002, and in 2012, his widow donated 109 of his portraits to the National Portrait Gallery.  Happily, there is another Karsh display that will go up in May and run through November.  I'm eagerly awaiting that show now.

Verdict: If you are at all interested in photography or 20th century American history and culture, do not miss this very fine show.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Exhibiting Freer's Bibles

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through February 16, 2014

The Peacock Room has a temporary addition - two Bibles that Freer acquired in Egypt.  These are from the 5th and 6th centuries, so as you might expect, they're not in the best of shape.  The picture above is from the cover of one of the Bibles, which is probably the most interesting of the three objects on display.  The color is still pretty good, and you can imagine that these wooden plates would have given the manuscript a certain heft.

The shutters were closed when I went to see these antiques, and it made me realize that it's well worth it to visit the Peacock Room when the shutters are open.  The light sensitive nature of these manuscripts means that they won't be opening the shutters until next February, so you'll have to endure the darkness (and the room is really dark without some natural light).  It also felt smaller to me than it had on my last visit.  Not sure if that's also due to the shutters, or to faulty memory...

Verdict: Always worth while to see anything as old as these, plus you can easily add on another Freer exhibit in a lunch hour.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Bound for Freedom's Light: African Americans and the Civil War

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through March 2, 2014

The National Portrait Gallery has a large collection of Civil War-related pieces, as one might expect, and as we're now marking the 150th anniversary of the War, they've set up a series of exhibits on different aspects of that conflict.  They are displayed in a little niche in the area where the Civil War portraits are hung, and they change each year.  Right now, to mark the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the focus is on the role that African Americans played in the Civil War.

At the beginning of the conflict, neither side would allow African Americans to take up arms, perhaps in part due to the fact that both North and South believed the War would last only a short time.  Sadly, that proved not to be the case, and in 1863, the Union Army accepted African American recruits.  Mention is made here of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the focus of the larger show at the National Gallery of Art.  I realize that the National Gallery is not part of the Smithsonian, but it would have been nice to see a reference to that show.  If someone's looking at this exhibit, they'd probably like to know about the NGA display.  I guess it's the librarian in me - always looking for cross-references.

The South did, however, make use of slave labor in non-military roles.  This struck me as incredibly awful.  To force people to assist their captors in fighting to make sure they can continue to own other human beings is yet another demonstration of how repugnant the institution of slavery was.  Many Confederate officers brought their own slaves to serve as body servants, but almost no images of these people exist.  One is on display here, the only such photograph in the Gallery's collection.  by 1865, things were sufficiently desperate that the South did enlist African-Americans in the Army, but by that time, the writing was on the wall.

Some African Americans escaped from their captors and gained their freedom by crossing the Union lines.  Until they were allowed to enlist in the Army, they served in the Navy or in support roles.  Women served as nurses.  One slave, Abraham, was literally blown to freedom.  The Union Army was attempting to break through a Confederate fortification in Vicksburg.  Abraham, working in the tunnels underneath, was blown across the Union lines by an explosion and gained his freedom in a spectacular fashion.

There's also a portrait of Major Martin Delaney, the first African-American major to receive a field command.  He'd been concerned that, although there were African-American troops, there were no officers to lead them.

Verdict: A good display, especially if you're interested in the Civil War or African-American history.  It's small, so easily managed in a lunch hour.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: through March 2, 2014

A Washington Post art critic gave this exhibit a pretty ho-hum review recently, positing that Latino art wasn't really a meaningful concept.  His opinion is that the works of art displayed here are too diverse to make a coherent show.  This has been a controversial opinion, with Latino artists objecting to the idea that they are often overlooked from general surveys of American art, and when they get an opportunity to display their work, they get criticized then as well.  I decided to see what all the fuss was about and make up my own mind if there is such a thing as Latino art.

I'll grant you that the works displayed here are certainly diverse.  With so many different artists, how could they not be?  This show also covers a fairly wide time period, with some works from the 1960s and 1970s, and others quite recent.  A lot has gone on in the art world in the last 40+ years; there's no reason to think that Latino artists would be immune from these changes, any more than any other groups of artists.

What I did find was that there was a unifying characteristic to this art that transcended the different types of work on display.  I'm not entirely certain exactly how to describe it, but the best word I could come up with was exuberance.  There's something uninhibited in each of these works, something that's unafraid of being expressed.  To describe it as "in your face" sounds pejorative, and I don't mean it to be.  There's a determination to speak out, without fear and without dissembling.  Is this a uniquely Latino quality?  Is this what marks a work of art as not just American art, but Latino American art?  I'm not qualified to say, but that's my opinion - make of it what you will.

Setting aside the question of whether there is or is not Latino American art, the question becomes is the show any good or not?  I liked many of the pieces I saw, but others I passed over fairly quickly.  This is typical of my reaction to most shows; it's rare that I like or dislike everything that I see.  It's a great way to see artists with whom you might be unfamiliar, and I must say, the work "An Ofrenda for Dolores del Rio" by Amalia Mesa-Bains is worth seeing all on its own.  It's interesting to see a group of people making art that influences the mainstream American community while feeling isolated from that world.

Verdict: Go and see this show to make up your mind for yourself.  As for me, I think there is such a thing as Latino art, and I look forward to seeing more of it in years to come.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building, Main Floor

When: through March 2, 2014

There's lots of heaven and not much earth on display in this exhibit at the National Gallery.  If you like religious iconography, this is the show for you!  If you don't, you may want to give this a miss, or spend your time in just a couple of the rooms.  Personally, I grew weary of the religious art after a short time and was happy to move into a part of the show that dealt with jewelry and coins.  This is the Gallery's first show of Byzantine art, and I'm always happy to be part of the first of something or to see works that have not been on display in the US before, so that was satisfying.  Overall though, this just wasn't to my taste.

The Byzantine Empire began in 330, when Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to the site of the ancient city of Byzantium.  The city was renamed Constantinople and is now the modern city of Istanbul.  The Byzantine Empire lasted for over 1,000 years before it was sacked by the Turks in 1453.  This gives a wide scope for artistic expression, as times and tastes will undergo numerous changes in a millennium.  Interestingly enough, the art doesn't really change all that much.  Once Christianity displaced paganism, there's a certain sameness to the works, until the end of the Empire, when gothic influences can be seen to appear.

The first room has several examples of pagan statues, sadly defaced by Christians.  If you like noses, you'll be sorely disappointed.  Why knock them off, one wonders?  Is it because it's the easiest way to destroy a statue?  They were also moved by religious fervor to carve crosses into the foreheads of these representations of the ancient gods.  I was appalled by the senseless destruction, much like when the Taliban blew up those Buddhist statues.  Anyone who destroys art is a poor excuse for a human being.

Once the Christians had firm control of Byzantium, a new movement sprang up called Iconoclasm.  This is a belief that graven images are evil and must be destroyed.  Obviously, you don't have a great deal of artwork from this period.  The original Iconoclasts (this must be where the word comes from?) seem to have a lot in common with Oliver Cromwell, who also had a problem with art almost a thousand years later.  A pox on both their houses, I say! Cooler heads eventually prevailed, and the icons returned.

Although I lost interest in all of the religious paintings after a while, I did enjoy the mosaics on display.  I like tilework generally, and this was quite nice, although not in the best of shape after so many years.

The section entitled "The Pleasures of Life" held my interest most strongly - lots of jewelry, not so many paintings of a dying Christ.

Verdict: Overall, not a show I'd go to see again, although I did like seeing the early, pre-Christian work.  It was quite crowded when I went, so be prepared to share your experience with many others.

Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition 2013

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through February 23, 2014

This is the third Outwin Boochever competition, and the second display of winners that I've seen.  Over 3,000 entries were submitted to this open competition.  You can see the 48 finalists now at the Portrait Gallery, and I can't urge you strongly enough to do so.

Since I started working in the Penn Quarter and have been able to go to the Mall on my lunch hour, I've probably seen between 200 and 300 exhibits.  Very rarely do I think that each piece in a show was wonderful, interesting or really eye-catching.  This was one of those times.

The first piece I saw when I entered the show was what looked like a picture of a little mad person.  Imagine my surprise to discover that it was a self-portrait!  I wondered if the artist really looks like this or if this is just how she thinks she looks.  I looked her up, and it turns out she's a completely normal looking person - not sure if that's good or bad.  Another self-portrait I can describe only as ruthless.  It's the torso of the artist, with every wrinkle and lump and layer of fat on full display.  The wall notes (another great thing about this display is that there's an artist statement accompanying each piece) indicate that the artist feels her stomach shows a life well lived.  My immediate reaction was to disagree with that idea, but then I thought, "who am I to insist that the only well-lived lives are those that end with beautiful flat stomachs?"  Still, not a piece I'd want hanging in my living room...

The piece pictured here is of the artist's niece and would be lovely as a photograph.  It's actually one unbroken black thread strung over numerous brads.  It took me a moment to really understand what that was - the artist had put an endless number of brads on a wooden panel, then strung a thread (unbroken, mind you) over them to copy a photograph of her niece.  The talent, the dedication - awe-inspiring.

To choose a favorite out of this amazing group was impossible.  I would happily go back and look at each piece again.  The layout of the show is excellent also.  It's in a large space, so there's plenty of room for each work to stand on its own (no salon style exhibit here!).  There are also some painted backgrounds - the little mad person who "welcomes" you to the show is on a yellow wall.  Kudos to those who set up this show, for doing such a fine job with the display.

Verdict: Run, don't walk, to see this excellent show. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Farewell to the Renwick

I said goodbye to the Renwick Gallery today.  Not forever, I'm happy to say, but for about three years, which is bad enough.  They're doing some major renovations (which I have no doubt are necessary), and that means the building will be closed to visitors, beginning in December and continuing until 2016.  I'm just hoping the construction stays on schedule, and I won't be waiting even longer to return to one of my favorite Smithsonian museums.

If you've not been to the Renwick, run right out and see it before early December when it closes.  It's off the beaten track, as far as museums go.  It's across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, next to Blair House.  It's part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and focuses on American craft.  Currently, there are two rotating exhibit spaces on the main floor and the permanent collection (which closed on October 1, before I could get over there - another reason to detest the government shutdown) on the upper floor.

The permanent collection has already been removed.  I don't know whether they'll try to find room for some or all of the pieces elsewhere - maybe at the American Art Museum? - or if they'll simply put the items in storage.  Maybe things will rotate between storage and display?  Maybe they'll put some things in the Castle?  If only the Arts and Industries Building was open, they could set up shop there.  Oh well, they'll re-open in time, no matter what they do with their collection now.  Here's what I saw today before the doors close for the present:

Grand Salon Installation: Paintings from the Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: through November 11, 2013

If you want to have a look at the Salon arrangement of paintings, hurry over, as it closes on Monday.  As I mentioned in one of my recent posts, I just don't like this style of presentation.  Today's visit did nothing to change my mind.  I find that I can't really concentrate on any one painting, as I'm being constantly distracted by something else.  I tried to determine why the paintings had been hung as they had, but, although some of the pieces did seem to go together, I found myself shaking my head in confusion a good bit.

It's also hard to see the paintings.  I was craning my neck trying to see the things hung at the top, which does not make for a comfortable way to pass the time.  The room itself is lovely, and a great space for this type of display; it's just not to my taste.

I was happy to see several pieces by Romaine Brooks.  One of them, her "Self Portrait" had been featured in the National Portrait Gallery's Hide/Seek.  I recognized it immediately (which is always an ego boost), and was happy to see other of her works.  She has a definite style to her work, so once you've picked up on it, you can see others quite quickly.  It was nice to see the piece again, rather like running into an old friend unexpectedly.

Verdict: If you like the salon style of display, don't miss this opportunity to see what I suppose is an excellent example of it.

Infinite Place: The Ceramic Art of Wayne Higby

When: through December 8, 2013

I was unfamiliar with the work of Wayne Higby before I saw this exhibit, and I'm glad I made time to have a look.  His stuff is very interesting and unlike anything else I've seen.  To say his ceramics are three-dimensional doesn't really do them justice.  They are commonly interpreted as 3D landscapes, and I see what the people who describe his work this way mean.  It's as if a landscape painting has leapt off the page and emerged as an topographical object.  It's hard to describe, but very neat to see.  Higby doesn't care for this description, as he finds it too limiting.  He likes to say that the viewer can imagine an infinite expanse in his ceramics; that they are limited only by their own imaginations.  I confess, the 3D landscape description is the best I can come up with!

Higby has also done work in tiles.  His pieces tend to be major installations in public buildings and corporate headquarters; no small scale stuff here.  Obviously, only a sampling of his work is on display, but between that and the photographs of the full works, you get a sense of what he's doing.  I'd very much like to see one of his full works; they looked very impressive.

Although Higby is from Colorado and much of his work has a decidedly Western feel to it, one of his series of bowls was inspired by his trip to the Maine coast.  It's always nice to see something with a Maine connection (I've spent many happy days in the state, visiting friends), and these were very fine pieces.

Verdict: Don't miss this show if you like ceramics; Higby's work is fantastic.

A Measure of Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets

When: through December 8, 2013

I ended my visit to the Renwick with a look at this lovely show on American baskets.  Steven Cole and Martha Ware have given the Renwick a wonderful collection, all of which are functional, made from natural materials harvested by the basket makers.  People making baskets this way live a life that is far removed from urban or suburban America.  Their lives are lived in rural communities, where they can find their raw materials easily, or else they are spent seeking out raw materials.  In either case, their lives are a journey of collection and creation.

Theirs is also a dying art, as most people purchase cheap plastic baskets when they need them.  Even in the heyday of basket making, it never paid well, and when people no longer had to make baskets, they stopped and turned to more lucrative pursuits.  The only exception to this rule is the seagrass baskets in South Carolina, where the craft is passed down from one generation to another within families, and the tourists are happy to purchase them.  I particularly liked the baskets made by Darryl and Karen Arawjo (not sure if they're a married couple, or brother and sister or what).  Also, Jeffrey Gale's baskets reminded my very strongly of baskets I've seen at the local craft fair year after year.

The other great thing about this exhibit is the "hands on gallery."  You can actually touch the baskets, which is a great way to appreciate and understand the craftsmanship.  I only wish more museums would try to incorporate more things you can touch.

Verdict: A great show, especially if you like basketry.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Views of Africa

Where: Air and Space Museum

When: through February 16, 2014

This exhibit is put up in conjunction with the "Earth Matters" show at the African Art Museum.  I don't remember any information about this display when I went to see "Earth Matters," but it's possible I read something about it, and just forgot.  I'm always happy to see references to other exhibits when I go to a show; it's very helpful for tourists to know that if they liked one display, there are others they might also enjoy.

This is a collection of satellite photographs of earth, featuring the continent of Africa.  As the wall notes tell us, "Applications of aerospace technology and expressions of fine art both provide new views of the world around us."  Very true, and a connection not often made.  It's a combination of style and substance: useful information packaged in gorgeous images.

It occurs to me that Air and Space really has quite a bit of art in its collection, although the vast bulk of what it owns seems to be very large, heavy objects suspended from the ceiling.  I'm never entirely comfortable walking around there, as I fear one of those rockets is going to make a final journey, right onto my head.

Setting aside my timidity (let alone my distaste for large crowds of screaming boys), this is an interesting show, especially if you like photography.  The images provide lots of information about the continent and how increasing industrialization is changing the landscape.  My favorite piece is something entitled "Rivers Flow to the Sea," a Landsat 7 Satellite image.  It looks like a painting, with the gorgeous blues of the rivers and the Atlantic Ocean.

The show does have an actual artwork, meaning something created by an artist, rather than by a satellite.  It's called "Core," and it's by Jeremy Wafer.  It focuses on the underground, so it reminded me of the "Earth Maters" show, and its several works about the underground.  The work is a set of 54 "logs" that are meant to represent core samples used to study layers of soil.  There is one for each African country and each is slightly different, showing the diversity of soils and landscapes in the continent.

Verdict:  Not your typical Air and Space show, but if you like a little art with your airplanes and rocket ships, this is the show for you.

Charles Freer and the Arts of Japan

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through February 9, 2014

Between 1895 and 1910, Charles Lang Freer visited Japan four times.  That's neither a cheap nor short trip even today, but at the time, it was tremendously expensive and time-consuming.  To have gone four times in 15 years shows how interested he became in Japanese art.  On his first trip, in 1895, Freer was a knowledgeable tourist, but nothing more than that.  By the time he made his second trip, in 1907, he was a world-class collector.

Freer was able to obtain Japanese art in Europe and America due to the increased interest in all things Japanese in the mid to late 1800s.  This is the same craze that brought us "The Mikado."

The paintings on display are lovely.  There's one of a peacock that Freer described as "delightful," and I agree with his assessment.  Another that caught my eye was one of a crane - it's so realistic, you can see each feather delineated.  The technique is exquisite.

The show also highlights the work of Ernest Fenollosa, a great friend of Freer, who sold him a vast deal of Japanese art.  Fenollosa helped Freer to cull and shape his collection, to make it ready to give as a gift to the nation.  There's a wonderful sake ewer in this room with a copper glaze - the colors are muted, but grand nonetheless.

Verdict: A lovely way to spend some time.  Nothing like getting some information on how such a wonderful collection came to exist. 

Korean Style in Japanese Ceramics

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through February 9, 2014

Gallery 6A is a small space inside Gallery 6, one of the main exhibit rooms at the Freer.  Clearly, it's been my week to see shows in little places.  It's not large enough to show pieces of any great size, so it tends to focus on small items, like tea utensils or bowls.  The current display is Japanese ceramics with a Korean influence.

Korean ceramics arrived in Japan in the 15th and 16th centuries.  At that time, the Koreans were able to make ceramics that were far superior to anything available in Japan, thus, their work was in high demand.  Even after Japanese works were able to duplicate the quality of Korean pieces, their techniques were long admired in Japan, and Korean handiwork was often used as tea bowls.  Items with an inlaid decoration were particularly prized.

The works on display here are Japanese pieces from the 17th - 19th century, which show the influence of Korean design.  An item that caught my eye was a tea cup with a crane motif.  It's a beautiful small piece - the work is very fine.

Verdict: A trip to the Freer is always worthwhile; this small display can be combined easily with the larger show on Freer and Japan.

From the Library: The Transformation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses

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

When: through February 9, 2014

Although the National Gallery's main library is in the East Building, they have a small exhibit space in the West Building.  It's a bit off the beaten track, and the first couple of times I went to see a display there I got lost.  Now, I've realized that there's a statue of an archer that points in the direction of the room, and I've made my way there many times without incident.  I appreciate that the library's offerings would not appeal to a large audience, and would therefore not merit space "front and center" in the gallery, but it's hard to attract attendance when your space is so tucked away.  The happy part for me is that the location means I'm almost always the only person in the room, so it's a way to see pieces at the National Gallery without the crowds.

The current display concerns the various versions of Ovid's Metamorphoses that have appeared over the centuries.  Ovid was a Roman poet who lived from 43 BCE to 17 CE.  He enjoyed much early success, but was exiled to present-day Romania by Augustus.  Apparently, no one is exactly sure why he was sent off from Rome, but away he was certainly sent.  The Metamorphoses are his most widely-read book, and concern themselves with the Greek and Roman myths and gods.  It's a combination of mythology and history, and uses the theme of transformation throughout the stories.

In the 16th century, it was the most important source of mythological history available.  Over the years, it has been translated, adapted and reworked to appeal to contemporary audiences - a book about transformation has itself been transformed.

The display features several illustrated volumes, all of which are lovely.  Some date as far back as the 1500s, which gives you a sense of the National Gallery's collection of books dealing with art.  The illustration art changes over time, to match the changes in art generally, but the basic stories remain the same.  They have been transformed, yet they are timeless.

Verdict: Worth a few minutes for a look in, if you're in the museum anyway.  Once you've found the space, you'll enjoy the solitude!

Monday, October 28, 2013

In/finite Earth: A National Juried Exhibition for Emerging Artists with Disabilities, Ages 16-25

Where: Ripley Center

When: through January 2014

I had planned to see this show right after the government re-opened, but when I went over to the Ripley, it wasn't up yet.  Obviously, they hadn't been able to get it in place before the shutdown, unlike the Sackler's yoga exhibit.

No matter, it's up now, and in a new, nicer space.  This show is a display of contest-winning art work by young artists with disabilities.  The idea behind the contest is to encourage these folks as they're deciding whether to make art their life work.  Not only do the award winners get to see their work exhibited in a traveling show (so to speak), but they also get a cash prize, made available by Volkswagen, which co-sponsors the contest.  The winners are on display at the Ripley every year, and I look forward to seeing what each year will bring in the way of new artists.  My thought is that, when one of them makes it REALLY big, I'll be able to say, "Oh yes, I saw his/her work years ago..."  Dare to dream, I always say, even if it's only about the success of other people.

In years past, it's been presented in the hallway leading from the concourse to the International Gallery.  It's a small show (there are 15 winners), so it doesn't require a lot of room, but the hallway isn't the most inviting space, and I think there just isn't much foot traffic there.  Frankly, there's not a lot of foot traffic at the Ripley period, so the show needs all the help it can get.  This year, it was in the main concourse itself, which is far better.  There's much more room, so each artist's work has plenty of display area.  You don't have everything displayed practically each on top of the other, and it's easier to evaluate each artist separately.  I know that displaying paintings one on top of the other is a legitimate style, but I just don't care for it.  It just seems too higgledy-piggledy to me.  So sue me, I'm not a fan of salon display.

The one criticism I would make is that the plaques describing the work and giving some details about the artist are placed very low.  Even someone as short as I am had to stoop to read them.  I kept thinking the whole time that I wished they were higher on the wall.  Someone tall would be quite uncomfortable, I think.

The stories of the artists and how they've overcome their disabilities, or used them to express their artistic talent is quite amazing.  One person in particular, Emilie Gossiaux, was diagnosed with severe hearing loss at age 5, then lost her sight in a bicycle accident when she was in college.  I couldn't blame her if she'd just given up her artwork at that point, but she's still creating.  Her sculpture, Bird Sitting was lovely; I was shocked when I read that she is blind.  It's a small white clay piece; the wings look like hands, so it's a portrait of a bird and of a person.   It was my favorite piece in the show.

The other item that really caught my eye was one by a dyslexic artist, Madalyne Hymans.  It's about her dyslexia and people's (boneheaded) responses to it.  It's a large rectangle, with quotes from various teachers, fellow students, and others with whom she's interacted, about dyslexia and how it means she's stupid or lazy.  Her artwork clearly proves them wrong, and I wish her well in her career.  Doesn't the quote go, "Living well is the best revenge"?  I hope it proves true for her.

Verdict:  Well worth a visit, as usual with this show.  The new setting does much more justice to the artists' work than the hallway!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sense of Place: Landscape Photographs from Asia

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through November 11, 2013

If yoga is not your thing, or if you've seen enough of this big show and would like to look at something completely different, wander over to the other side of the Sackler and see some more contemporary art, landscape photographs. 

This is the first in a series of shows highlighting the gallery's photography collection, so if this appeals to you, you're in for further treats to come.  Although one might associate the Sackler with ancient treasures, it is committed to collecting modern works as well, and this series is meant to emphasize that commitment.

This two-room display features artists from Iran, China, Japan and Vietnam, a wide survey of Asian photography.  My favorite of the pieces is the one pictured above, entitled Cherry Blossoms by Moryama Daido.  A great quotation from Abbas Kiarostami, which is part of the show commentary, is "Nature has no particular culture or ethnicity."  Perhaps that's why I'm able to appreciate Asian landscape painting so much?  I don't need to be an expert in a culture so different from my own; I can simply appreciate the natural beauty depicted.

Another artist whose work is on display is Hai Bo.  I'm sure I've seen him before - perhaps as part of the "Perspectives" series?  Wasn't he the one who returned to the same spot over the course of a year and drew the different seasons as reflected in the trees?  I feel certain that's right...

Verdict: A nice small show, easily managed in a lunch hour; in fact, you could combine it with the Strange and Wondrous show, or with a look at the current "Perspectives" display in the main atrium.

Strange and Wondrous: Prints of India from the Robert J. Del Bonta Collection

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through January 5, 2014

This one room exhibit is a nice accompaniment to the yoga show, as it deals with art about India, specifically with Western impressions of India.  The more global travel increased and the more Europeans and Americans were able to travel to India, the greater grew the interest in this country and its culture.  Increased travel brought a greater knowledge of Indian culture, but also increased the opportunity for stereotyped views to proliferate.

Just as the final part of the yoga exhibit demonstrated, negative views of Indian religious figures were everywhere - they were depicted as tricksters, among other things.  Western observers didn't understand Indian religious practices, especially the aesthetics, who renounced society, and interpreted their actions through a Christian framework.  These depictions began as early as 1675 and continued through the Victorian era.

For their part, Indians were unable to explain their culture or religious practices to Westerners, so the lack of understanding existed on both sides.  Europeans and Americans tended to categorize Indians either as aesthetic saints or as criminals, with little middle ground.  Eventually, they turned against the holy men, and viewed them with disgust, as vagabonds.  Interestingly enough, this viewpoint came to the fore at the same time as they turned against vagrants in Britain itself.  The British Raj also attempted to regulate religious ceremonies according to their own principles.  All in all, a lack of understanding on both sides that fed on itself.

If you're thinking that the picture above is a Norman Rockwell, you're quite right.  You can imagine my surprise to see this in a show about India.  It was done during WWII and shows an American GI amazing a fakir with a rope trick of his own.  This is one of the milder depictions of Indian holy men.

The show focuses on Western art about India, so I felt as if I wasn't learning much about India itself, but more about Western views of India.

Verdict: A nice addition to the yoga show - if you've got enough time, you could add this on to your visit.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Yoga: The Art of Transformation

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through January 26, 2013

Long time readers of this blog can well imagine my delight at seeing three shows at the Sackler in one week.  To walk over to my favorite museum in lovely weather is such a treat, and the shows I went to see were all interesting.  Who could ask for anything more?

The first exhibit I saw was on yoga and its artistic representations through history.  Since I've been practicing yoga since 2006, I was eager to see this show and had been counting down the days to its opening for months.  It was very fortunate that the government shutdown ended just before the opening.  I was wondering, in fact, how much work they would have been able to do on the show, and if it would look thrown together at the last minute, but they must have had this set up weeks ahead of time, as it's quite large and clearly required a vast deal of work to set up.

Yoga has been around, in one form or another, for centuries.  It began in northern India, between the 5th and 3rd centuries BCE and was part of three major religious traditions: Hindu, Jain and Buddhist.  Both men and women practitioners of yoga renounced society and lived in austerity.  There are two concepts that were central to the thinking of people at that time.  One is karma, which is the idea that actions produce results and the other was samsara, which is the idea that humans go through a perpetual cycle of inherently painful lives.  Yogis and yoginis (female yogis) retreated from society in order to escape samsara, which they believed could be accomplished by their austere way of life.  Common people from all three religious traditions established a practice of worshiping these enlightened renouncers.  The first room shows artistic representations of these people, mostly statutes.  They're in quite good condition, minus the occasional hand, of course.

A subset of the yoga of the period was the Tantric tradition.  It involved a set of practices that frankly seemed quite bizarre to me, including haunting (their word) cremation grounds, and carrying skull cups.  I'm afraid this name was a literal description.  Orthodox Hinduism eventually co-opted the Tantric followers; they moderated their practices and became mainstream.

In the section entitled "The Path of Yoga," we see representations of people practicing yoga, meditation or austerity.  I liked the works here; some of them are very colorful, despite their age.  Some lovely landscapes are also included.  Yogis were travelers, and as such, became quite useful to the ruling elites as covert agents.  Yogi spies - who knew?

I'm always interested to see how various cultures treated women, and yoginis were just as important as yogis.  They were viewed as very powerful and possessed of magical powers.  Sometimes, they were depicted as erotic princesses, but they were also valued for their fighting skills.  I got no sense from this show that they were second class citizens at all.

At this point, one might think the show ends.  I went back out to the main atrium and was on my way back to work, when I happened to look across the space and see another room, painted a different color.  I glanced in and realized it was another part of the yoga show.  Much as it pains me to criticize the Sackler, they might have either used the same paint color, or put up a sign indicating that the show continued.

The other part of the show involved European depictions of yoga, beginning in the 1800s.  As you might expect, they had no real understanding of yoga, and why people who practiced it lived as they did.  The popular press latched on to the aspects of the practice that could be best exploited in the West, and never bothered to explain why these wild "fakirs" practiced yoga.  The charlatan with matted hair was a common depiction, in the newspapers, in books and magazines and in the movies.  A Thomas Edison film, "The Hindoo Fakir" is playing in the room.  It's as stereotypical as you think it's going to be.

In the late 19th century, yoga began to be marketed in the West for its healthful properties, and there were scientific studies done to show that the practice wasn't merely for con men.   The modern practice of yoga comes from the 1896 publication, Raja Yoga by Swami Vivekehanda.  This publication stressed yoga as as spiritual system and a source of pride for Indians.  Another video shows yogis in various asanas (postures) - not looking like wild snake charmers at all.

A side note: at the back of this room, I noticed a door leading to the African Art Museum.  I didn't realize the two were connected, except through the Ripley.  Truly, you learn something new every day!

Verdict: If you have any interest in yoga or Indian culture or history, don't miss this very large show.  If you only have a lunch hour, you'll need to move quickly, or take two trips.  The Sackler has re-opened with a bang.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Lines, Marks, and Drawings: Through the Lens of Roger Ballen

Where: Museum of African Art

When: through February 9, 2014

First of all, hale and hallelujah that the shutdown has ended, and the Smithsonian is open again! As you can imagine, it was a long and horrible 17 days, with no exhibits to see.  I could feel my brain cells shrinking due to lack of intellectual stimulation.

I went to the Mall several times over the last few weeks to gaze at the buildings and pout.  Happily, the Haupt Garden behind the Castle was open (not sure why, as it would have been easy enough to shut the gates), and I spent some time sitting there, taking in the fall flowers.  Still, no substitute for going to an actual exhibit.

Now, however, the Smithsonian is back in business, and my plan for the foreseeable future is to see as many shows as I possibly can, just in case we go through this insanity again in January.  Truly, this is no way to run a banana stand.

The first show I saw after the shutdown ended was a collection of Roger Ballen's work at the Museum of African Art.  Ballen is actually an American, who has lived and worked in South Africa for over 30 years.  It's difficult to describe his photographs; they're sort of collages, involving people, animals, objects and drawings of lines.  The picture above is typical of what you'll see.  In addition to over 50 photographs, there's also a video.

I had high hopes when I went over to the Museum, as I've found that I like contemporary African art very much.  Yinka Shonibare, for example, is my favorite artist.  I also very much enjoyed the Laila Essaydi show I saw a while ago.  This, however, was really bizarre.  I can't tell you what any of this was supposed to mean, or symbolize, as I could make neither hide nor hair out of it.  It was as if I was trying to have a conversation with someone speaking a language I couldn't understand.  I wanted to say to Ballen, "I just don't know what you mean."

Perhaps my exile from the museum world has made my brain sluggish, and I should have another look at this before it closes, in hopes of seeing something more in these photographs.  On the other hand, perhaps they're just weird.

Verdict: If you're a fan of Ballen, this is a great show, with examples of his many series of photographs, along with a video.  If surreal collages are not your cup of tea, you can safely give this a miss. 

Monday, September 30, 2013

Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris

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

When: through January 5, 2014

Charles Marville (1813-1879) took up photography in 1850, following a lack of success in his first chosen profession, book and magazine illustration.  Photography was a relatively new medium at that time, having been invented only eleven years earlier.  When you look at the photographs in this exhibit, you are looking at the beginnings of an art form.

Marville photographed locations throughout France, Germany and Italy, but it was his photographs of his native city of Paris that earned him his acclaim and that served as his greatest inspiration.  The first room of the show focuses (no pun intended) on his early career.  Many of the shots are self-portraits.  He would set up the shot, then pose and have an assistant take the actual picture.  The wall notes suggest that his interest in posing in pictures, often as someone other than himself, in the guise of a dandy, for example, are evidence of his desire to re-make himself.  Born of humble parentage, he sought to rise above his lowly station.  That may well be true, or it might be he just found himself able to work well with his own figure as a part of the picture.  Whatever the reason, we are treated to several shots of European landscapes and ruins with the artist included.

By 1855, Marville developed a network of wealthy and important patrons.  In 1862, he became the official photographer of the city of Paris, and was tasked with documenting the city's re-birth under the Second Empire.  Napoleon III wanted to modernize Paris, to eliminate the narrow city streets and make everything more open.  The idea was to move air, water, people and goods more freely about the city.  In order to do this, a certain amount of destruction was necessary, and there were those who viewed the modernization as the end of the world they knew.  It was certainly the end of Old Paris.

One of the first targets of the modernization was the Bois de Boulogne.  It was transformed from a royal hunting ground to a public park, and Marville took pictures of the transformed space.  Ponds and streams were created, straight lanes were made into meandering walks, all so that city dwellers could have a taste of country life.  I couldn't help but be reminded of Marie Antoinette and her masquerading as a shepardess, as this was a fantasy of the countryside, rather than the reality.  Perhaps the fullest embodiment of this idea was the restoration of the Longchamps windmill.  Although no longer functional, it was picturesque, which was apparently all that mattered.

Marville, when not photographing destruction and new construction, did a number of sky and cloud studies.  Photographers of the time had great problems taking pictures of the sky, especially clouds.  I remember this from the Faking It show I saw earlier this year.  Marville did any number of experiments with photography, trying to get the sky and clouds right, and his are some of the first successful studies.

But mostly what Marville busied himself with was documenting the changing nature of the city of Paris.  In some cases, the photographs he took are the only existing record of streets that had run through the city for centuries.  Along with greater circulation, the wider streets would be harder to blockade, so there may have been more than one reason to change the look of the city.  On one wall is a reproduction of a map from 1871, showing the streets that were transformed - very little of the city was left untouched.  One photograph appealed to me very much, a photo of the Saint-Andre-des-Arts, a clump of buildings covered in advertisements.  This horrified those who were looking for a more homogenized aesthetic, and it, along with many other similar groupings of buildings, was torn down.

Along with the loss of character, was a loss of raw sewage running in the streets, the hazard of the unwary pedestrian.  On the one hand, one sees the romance of the old city, with its winding little streets and haphazard architecture, but on the other hand, there's nothing romantic about raw sewage.  After the modernization of the Second Empire came the Franco-Prussian War and the French Commune, so there was yet more re-building, and more to photograph.  Marville was also chosen to document the installation of "street furniture": lamps, fountains, benches, even public urinals.  His photographs of the street lamps are lovely.

Sadly, by the time Marville died in 1879, he, like the old city, had been replaced and forgotten.  The man who had been such an important part of documenting the city's transformation received not one single obituary.

Verdict: See this if you like photography or French history; it's an interesting examination of both.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Fire & Ice: Hindenburg and Titanic

Where: National Postal Museum

When: through January 6, 2014

2012 marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic and the 75th anniversary of the crash of the Hindenberg.  In honor of these melancholy remembrances, the Postal Museum has set up a display on both of them together, focusing on the postal angle in both.

Both vessels carried mail in order to underwrite their expenses, and both had post offices on board, along with postal employees.  It was a mark of social distinction to send a letter from the Titanic or the Hindenberg; it showed you were rich enough to travel on them!

There's plenty of information in this exhibit about both accidents: the terrible loss of life and the resulting popularization of the two incidents.  In addition to being disasters involving modes of transportation, they've both become 20th century icons.  Both are cases of the mighty falling, a reminder that human beings cannot always control nature.  We seem to get this lesson brought home to us every night on the news now, but there's something about the rich and elegant being forced to contend with forces beyond their control that grabs the imagination.

A Smithsonian connection in relation to the Hindenberg: it had sailed over the Mall before heading north to New Jersey, where it crashed.

A sad fact about the Titanic: all of the musicians in the band, the one playing "Nearer My God to Thee," perished in the shipwreck.

Verdict: Worth a visit if you are interested in the Titanic or Hindenberg - it also provides an opportunity to see the expanded museum.  There's now a set of galleries on the main floor, where the post office used to be.  Philatelists take note!

Tell It with Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens' Shaw Memorial

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building, Main Floor

When: through January 20, 2014

The plaster copy of Augustus Saint-Gaudens' Shaw Memorial is on long-term loan to the National Gallery of Art, and there are no plans to remove it any time soon, so far as I know.  What will be closing on January 20 is the exhibit set up around it, which seeks to shed some light on the soldiers who fought with Shaw and whose stories have been lost in the attention give to their commander.

If you've seen the movie Glory, then you know the story of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the African-American regiment he commanded during the Civil War.  Although they were defeated at the battle of Fort Wagner, South Carolina, and lost 1/3 of their number, including Shaw himself, their dedication and bravery proved that African-Americans were every bit the fighting men that white soldiers were.

The memorial itself is worth an extended look - it's the first to feature not only the officer being remembered, but also the men he commanded.  Although the idea of honoring the common soldier is not controversial today, it had not been seen before this work was completed.  Booker T. Washington said of it that it stood "for effort, not victory complete."  The original bronze statute is in Boston, at the edge of the Boston Common.  The plaster copy on display at the National Gallery was exhibited at the Paris Universal Exposition in 1900, where it won an award.  It is considered to be one of the finest examples of 19th century American sculptures in existence.

The display around it focuses on the lives of soldiers in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment and the efforts of civil rights leaders to encourage young African-American men to enlist.  Included are photographs of African-American soldiers from the time period.  I was reminded of the several exhibits I've seen over the past couple of years of Civil War portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery - that solemn expression on the soldier's face.

Verdict: I recommend this exhibit - it's small, so easily managed in a lunch hour.  It's not everyday you get to see an award-winning piece of sculpture, with an informative historical display.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Northern Mannerist Prints from the Kainen Collection

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

When: through January 5, 2014

The Kainens, a married couple, were great benefactors of the National Gallery, and this is the first of three shows highlighting works they have given.  And there's a lot to choose from in setting up these shows: beginning in 1975, they gave 1289 works to the National Gallery, then in 2012, Mrs. Kainen bequeathed another 781 works.  Thank you very much, Mr. and Mrs. Kainen, for sharing your collection with those of us able to the visit the gallery.

Mannerism flourished in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, in both Haarlem and Prague.  It was an artistic movement characterized by sophisticated, often obscure, subjects, elaborate compositions and an elegance that bordered on the distorted.  These are highly cerebral works, designed for those with a classical education, who could understand and appreciate them.

Hendrick Goltzius, from Haarlem,  specialized in mythological and allegorical subjects.  His deeply cut, individual lines, which vary in width, convey the appearance of volume, texture and tone.  The skill necessary to achieve such effects was as enticing to buyers as the subject matter of the prints.  The exactitude in these works made me think of them as a sort of anti-Impressionist movement.  One sees them as satisfying to create, but perhaps not much fun to draw?  There's no sense that the artists let himself go, so to speak, in creating these works.

The works of Bartholomaeus Spranger, from Prague, feature prurient but elegantly styled erotica, most notably the transgressions of the gods.  His works came from deep sustained curving lines that give an impression of a 3D surface.  To illustrate the difference between the two men, consider that both of them created a picture of Mars and Venus together.  Goltzius' work shows them being found out by Venus' husband, Vulcan.  Thus, adultery is punished.  In Spranger's work, the couple are shown together before their discovery, a far different picture.

Verdict: A small show, easily managed in a lunch hour.  Very interesting, if you like Mannerism or are curious to learn more about it.

Yes, No, Maybe: Artists Working at Crown Point Press

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

When: through January 5, 2014

This is an exhibit about the long slog, the terribly hard work that goes into making a work of art.  In case you thought that artists just woke up one day with an idea fully formed in their head for a great work of art, think again.  There's a vast deal of trial and error that goes into the creative process.  Inspiration is a factor, but perspiration is a given.  This show pulls back the curtain on the process, and lets the viewer seeing the workings behind the work.

Crown Point Press was one of the most influential printmaking studios of the late 20th century.  The works on display here were created between 1972 and 2010.  The first three rooms focus on the work of three particular artists; the final two rooms cover the work of many artists who were influenced by the first three.

The first room is devoted to the work of Chuck Close.  He set limits and restrictions on the work he would do, which he found gave him a kind of freedom.  It seems contradictory, but I understand what he means.  Sometimes, when you have unlimited choices, you become paralyzed.  You are unable to choose, which means you are trapped by your own indecision.  If you limit your options, you are then able to choose, able to work freely, within the constraints you've set.  His work involved pictures of heads - those of his friends and family and his own head.  A self-portrait is in the room, and I know I've seen it before, but where?  Perhaps it was in another show I saw at some point, or maybe it was on a website I visited.  I've been wracking my brain, but to no avail.  The perils of middle age...

Richard Diebenkorn, the focus of the second room, sets his course for "rightness," which I'm interpreting as a sort of "I'll know it when I see it" model.  He works in an incremental way on his pictures, until they are exactly to his liking.  It's interesting to see the changes he makes along the way to what's "right," although I confess there were points at which I might have made different choices.

The third room is devoted to the "art" of John Cage, who I've seen before and not liked.  This display does nothing to change my opinion.  He relies on chance, making no choices in his art, but allowing various outside influences, including the I Ching, to make the choices for him.  Please.  It's as if he wants to take no responsibility for his work; everything is the result of some other force.  You might just as well have a robot put paint to paper according to a computer program.  Note that he also "composes" music that consists of total silence.  Again.  Please.  I did find out that the works I'd always thought of as rings from a coffee cup are actually from a teapot, so I can't say I didn't learn anything.

Next we have a room entitled "Echoes," works by other artists that are reminiscent of or influenced by the first three artists.  One work, by Anne Appleby, with its squares of color, reminded me more of Ellsworth Kelly than of any of the work I'd just seen.

Finally,  the last room focuses on the title of the show: Yes, No, Maybe.  Some are things that worked, some are things that didn't and were abandoned and some are things that were never really resolved - where the journey is the destination.

Verdict: An interesting show, if you like to see what's going on behind the scenes.  If you don't care for John Cage, you can just skip his room entirely; there's nothing here that's going to make you sit up and take notice.