Saturday, March 30, 2013

Albrecht Dürer: Master Drawings, Watercolors, and Prints from the Albertina

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through June 9, 2013

In case you haven't heard, the National Gallery's East Building is closing at the end of the year for renovations.  Repair work needs to be done on the building, and a major expansion of the exhibit space will occur at the same time.  It sounds like great things will be happening, but the catch is that the building will be closed for three years.  Oh well, at least the building is going out with a bang.  In addition to the Durer exhibit discussed in this post, a show on the Ballets Russes will be opening in May.  That promises to be spectacular.  But enough about future events, let's talk about a current exhibit - the big Albrecht Durer show that just opened this week.

Durer was the German equivalent of da Vinci for the Northern Renaissance, and his drawing and printmaking increased the importance of those forms as independent types of artistic expression.  He "reconciled faith and curiosity, art and science in his work."  Most of the pieces on display are from the Albertina in Vienna, which has the finest Durer collection in the world.  Unlike so many artists, Durer was popular and successful  during his lifetime, which must have been very satisfying.  No need for pity here; he was no starving artist.

This is another big exhibit, so rather than give a lot of detail about each room, I'll just mention a few items that particular struck me.  "Innsbruck Castle Court" made me look twice.  The drawing is so precise, you might mistake it for a photograph, until you look closely.  Much of his work shows this incredible attention to detail and a sense of total control.  You might think of him as the polar opposite of the Pre-Raphaelites, who were all emotion.  As you might imagine, I liked the Durer show better!

Durer was a student of human proportions, in fact, he wrote a book on the subject.  There are numerous studies he did of the human form, showing each body part's share of the whole picture.  It takes the romance out of the nude, I must admit, but no one would find a wildly inaccurate nude very attractive.  I suppose it makes the non-artist like myself realize that art isn't just inspiration; there's a vast deal of hard work that goes into each piece.

Two of Durer's best-known works are here: "The Great Piece of Turf," pictured above and described as "a scene balanced between scientific observation and artistic poetry," and "Praying Hands," possibly the most famous drawing in the world.

Durer's career was helped along greatly by Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor, who sought to increase his image and fame and preserve his memory through prints and illustrated books - would that today's rulers would do the same.  Durer painted the only known picture of Maximilian taken during his lifetime; it forms the basis of all other paintings of the Emperor.

One thing to note is that, when I was there, this exhibit was incredibly crowded.  That could be because it just opened, or because it's the week before Easter or because lots of local school districts are having spring break.

Verdict: Well worth seeing.  Note that this is a big show, and you'll have to move quickly to see it in a lunch hour.

Ambrotypes from the National Portrait Gallery

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through June 2, 2013

It's hard to believe that I'm already seeing exhibits that will end in June, but it's true.  I'm not sure if that's because I've taken a couple of days off here and there and seen several shows in one day, or if the Smithsonian hasn't put on as many shows this year.  Whenever I think I might run out of temporary exhibits to see, I remind myself of the system's permanent collection - I'll never have seen everything!

This show is in a little alcove at the Portrait Gallery.  I saw a show there before once on miniatures.  It has low light, so I suspect they put items in there that are delicate and would be damaged by being displayed in one of the regular rooms.  This alcove is also a good spot to view small objects, as you can get quite close to them and take in the detail.

So what, you ask is an ambrotype?  Good question; I'd never heard the word before I saw the title of this display.  It's an underexposed collodion negative that was made to appear as a positive image when viewed against a dark background.  All clear?  Me neither.  Basically, it's a photograph, except the technicalities are different.  They were cheaper to produce than daguerreotypes and were packaged in presentation cases, for use as gifts or mementos.  They were popular for over a decade.

Several Civil War figures are on display here including George Armstrong Custer, who, although now best known for his ignominious defeat, was a Civil War hero, commended for his bravery and battlefield daring.  Two women of note in the 19th century (and new to me) were also pictured: Anna Elizabeth Dickinson, the "Girl Orator," an ardent abolitionist and women's rights advocate, who captivated audiences with her "youth, intensity and dedication to reform" and Mary Ann Brown Patten, the first woman to sail a clipper ship around Cape Horn.  Her husband was the captain, who fell ill with tuberculosis, and the first mate had been jailed for insubordination.  Cape Horn is a dangerous location, and the fact that she was able to captain the ship, although only 19 years old and pregnant at the time, is amazing.

There are also several pictures of Abraham Lincoln, taken early in his career, before he grew his beard.  So much has been said about Lincoln, especially in recent years, that I won't add to the chatter.  If you're interested in Lincoln or the Civil War generally, there's much at the Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum to entertain you for quite a while.

Verdict: This is a nice little exhibit.  Very easily managed in a lunch hour, and you get some information about the persons pictured.  You could combine this with a trip to the Archives exhibit or the One Life show.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Civil War in America

Where: Library of Congress

When: through January 4, 2014

Although the Library of Congress is not on my usual list of destinations, a friend recommended this show, and since I was taking some time off this week, I decided to go a bit off my beaten path.

The first thing that struck me was the security in place; aside from the fact that you could keep your shoes on, it's like being at an airport.  This similarity extends to the clueless people in line, who don't understand that "remove your keys" means you should take your keys out of your pocket.  There was a couple ahead of me that was baffled by many such instructions.  After you get in, however, the building itself is quite something to see.  Frescoes and statuary abound, and that's before you even get to the exhibit spaces. 

The Civil War is marking its sesquicentennial (a word I just love and too rarely get to use) and this show is part of that remembrance.  The exhibit is quite large, so plan on spending a bit of time there.  I made it through in about an hour, but I didn't dawdle.  The show is very well-organized and everything on display is carefully labeled - clearly librarians had a hand in this!  It's set up as a timeline: the show begins with the period immediately before the war and ends with Lincoln's assassination and the surrender at Appomattox.

I learned a few things at this exhibit; if you're a Civil War buff, this may not constitute new information - feel free to skip this paragraph!  The majority of the men who enlisted in the Confederate Army were not slaveowners themselves; they were poor rural people who had been told that they were fending off an invasion by Northerners.  Clever of the wealthy to get the poor to fight their wars.  The District of Columbia was not only home to the federal government, but also to many Southern sympathizers, which must have made for interesting times here in the place where I spend so much of my life.  About 400 woman concealed their identities and fought on both sides of the conflict.  I can only imagine that the medical examinations were quite cursory!  This I knew before, but it's worth mentioning: at the battle of Antietam, over 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing in action - that's just one day.  That number is so staggering that I can't even comprehend it.  Hot air balloons were used for aerial reconnaissance - you'd think they would have been unwieldy and easy to shoot down, but perhaps they could stay above the fighting and there certainly were no airplanes available!  Only 48 copies of the Emancipation Proclamation were printed.  These were signed by Abraham Lincoln and offered for sale for $10.  Not all of them sold.  Now I realize that $10 in the 1860s was far more money than $10 today, but still...

I was reminded of two exhibits from the Portrait Gallery/American Art Museum.  One was the small show on Adalbert Volck - one of his drawings was on display.  The other was the exhibit on the Civil War and its influence on American Art.  There was (no surprise) a Matthew Brady photograph on display here, and I remembered that the ability to takes photos and distribute them at home brought the horror of the war into America's living rooms.

The part of the show that drew the most attention was the arrangement of the contents of Lincoln's pockets on the night he was assassinated.  Aside from a slight feeling of ghoulishness, I couldn't help but think he had quite a few little items with him, and wonder why a $5 Confederate bill was among them.

Verdict: Well worth a trip to the Library of Congress to see this very well-organized show.  Take plenty of time and plenty of patience with you. 

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848-1900

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through May 19, 2013

I'll confess right away that I have a problem with the Pre-Raphaelites.   They're too emotional, too dramatic, too Romantic with a capital R for me.  If you've read Sense and Sensibility, they're all Marianne, and I'm all Eleanor.  However, they're all the rage at the National Gallery at the moment, so I'm giving them their moment in the sun.

As a bit of background, the Pre-Raphaelites (or Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, as they called themselves) felt unhappy about the industrialization of the Victorian era and looked back with admiration on an earlier, less industrial time in their art.  Now I'm quite in sympathy with their idea that mass-produced goods are not as fine or artistic as ones made by hand.  Where I part company with them is in the idealization of the Middle Ages.  They felt this was a purer, more artistic age, and I see how chivalry, and the poems of courtly love and knights in shining armor have their attractions.  I cannot help but remember, however, that the Middle Ages were ones of brutal violence and oppression, minimal intellectual advancement and no decent health care.

But enough of my quibbling, let's talk about the show.  First of all, know that this is ENORMOUS.  I lost count of how many rooms I walked through, each one full of pieces to examine and admire.  The paintings are terribly dramatic, but they are well done and quite colorful, always a plus, as far as I'm concerned.  The picture above is quite typical of their style.

My favorite bit came towards the end, with a room devoted to the decorative arts.  William Morris, who I have long admired, was part of the PRB, and he extended their artistic reach into furniture, wallpaper and tapestries.  The designs are wonderful; if you like William Morris, it's worth going to the show just to see these things.

Outside the show exit is a small gift shop set up to allow you many opportunities to purchase.  They have some beautiful things, including Williams Morris design umbrellas and coasters, among the requisite mugs and tote bags.

Note that there is a related exhibit on the Ground Floor called Pre-Raphaelites and the Book.  It features books illustrated by the PRB, published by William Morris and his Kelmscott Press.  As you might imagine, these tend to be stories of knights and ladies, as seen in the picture here.  Drawn from both the National Gallery's own collection and the collection of the University of Delaware, this is a nice accompaniment to the main show.

Verdict: If you like Pre-Raphaelite works, do not miss this colossal show.  If you find that a little bit of this goes a long way, you might want to skim.  Not doable in a lunch hour, unless you run through the rooms.

Color, Line, Light: French Drawings, Watercolors, and Pastels from Delacroix to Signac

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through May 26, 2013

In the 1800s, almost all French artists drew, in addition to painting, and some of them drew quite a bit.  The improvements in papers and writing instruments made this more than merely pencil and paper exercises.  Artists were able to try out ideas for paintings without having to use up their canvases or oil paints, and many of the drawings were quite good.  Good enough, in fact, to warrant collecting on their own merits, aside from their famous creators.  James Dyke and Helen Porter did just that, and this exhibit is a selection of 100 drawings taken from their private collection and their gifts to the National Gallery.  The show gives a "tantalizing sense of the range of drawings" created by French painters in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The show is divided into five sections, the first of which is "Romantic Impulse" - these works are meant to evoke feelings in the viewer with the use of color, sentiment and emotion.   Two drawings I liked very much were "Coastal Landscape" by Gustav Dore (I liked the purple color) and "Normandy Cliffs" by Eugene Delacroix (a simple watercolor, but it holds your attention).  In fact, although I was unfamiliar with Dore's works previously, I saw several drawings by him that I liked quite well.

The second section is "Natural Landscape and Everyday Life."  These artists sought to show nature and people as they really were, warts and all.  They wanted to show the natural world as it actually appeared, not as it might be idealized.

The third section is "Impressionist Drawings."  Although best known for their painting, the Impressionists drew as well.  I, of course, knew this already, having seen the "Pissarro on Paper" exhibit several weeks ago.  In fact, his "A Country Girl Seated on the Ground" appears here.  I know I've seen this before, and it must have been in the small Pissarro display.  I like seeing things I recognize; it reminds me of what I'm learning on these visits.

"The Nabis and Symbolists" move beyond a realistic portrayal of the natural world to show a less objective depiction of reality.  As you might guess from the name, these works are more symbolic than natural.

The show finishes with a section on the "Neo-Impressionists," who used dots of pure color in their works.  If you're thinking of Georges Seurat, you've got the right idea.  I was reminded of my trip to the Art Institute of Chicago in this room.  The idea is that, as you stand farther away from the work,   the colors blend optically to make the piece come together.  I liked several pieces by Paul Signac, another artists with whom I was previously unfamiliar.

Verdict: Certainly not a splashy as the Pre-Raphaelites exhibit (about which more presently), but interesting nonetheless and far more manageable on a lunch hour.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through April 28, 2013

True confessions: I had never heard of Cyrus or his cylinder before I went to see this show, but I gather he's been the focus of much debate and discussion for centuries.  Shame on me for missing out all these years, but I know about him now!

Cyrus the Great, in case any of you are also living in ignorance, was a King of Persia, who defeated the last ruler of the Babylonians in 539 BC.  After his victory, he issued a proclamation allowing his new subjects to continue to worship in the shrines they had been using heretofore, and allowed those deported from their homes to return to their native lands.  Although not mentioned by name, this is widely believed to refer to the Jews, who subsequently returned to Jerusalem and built the Second Temple.

Cyrus has, over the years, been an inspiration to many rulers and philosophers, including those of the Enlightenment.  His proclamation has been described as the first declaration of human rights, as he allowed for religious freedom.

The Cyrus Cylinder generally resides at the British Museum, and is now on loan to the Sackler; I believe it will travel a bit more before returning to London.  The Sackler has pulled out all the stops for this exhibit; although not large enough to warrant the use of their big special exhibit space, they've constructed a small, but impressive, space for it on the first sublevel.  There's an antechamber, freshly painted with dark blue paint that offers basic information and two videos.  The cylinder itself is in the first room of the exhibit, with dramatic lighting to focus your gaze immediately.    Also in the first room are other artifacts of the same time period.  In the second room, there are many quotations on the wall, along with Thomas Jefferson's copy of the Cryopedia, a novel written about Cyrus, extolling his many virtues.

The thing that struck me as I went through the show is that the cylinder is probably the least impressive looking object on display.  The other items in the room are lovely gold jewelery, coins and other pieces; beside them the cylinder looks like, well, a clay football covered in chicken scratch (actually Babylonian cuneiform) that has clearly seen better days.  Is it the most important object on display?  No question.  Is it the most eye-catching?  Not really, even with the special lighting, but that's no slap at the curators at the Sackler, who deserve an enormous amount of credit for setting up this fine show.

The second room, the one full of quotations about Cyrus, demonstrates the uses to which his proclamation has been put over the years.  Everyone from Machiavelli to Isaiah to Jefferson has had something to say about him.  I couldn't help but wonder what Cyrus would have made of their comments.

Verdict: One of those "do not miss" exhibits.  Quite easy to see in a lunch hour, even with the videos and all the commentary.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Out of the Ordinary

Where: Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden

When: through May 19, 2013

I went to see this exhibit on a Saturday, the first time I'd been to the Hirshhorn on a weekend.  I found it far more crowded than usual, so my guess is that modern art appeals more to locals, who are working during the week, and less to tourists who don't have such restrictions, as they are on vacation.  The number of people didn't really change my view of the Hirshhorn - an ugly building filled with some very questionable artistic choices.  This show, although no where near so ridiculous as some I've seen here, didn't prompt me to alter my views.

The exhibit, composed entirely of works in the Hirshhorn's own collection, demonstrates that copying, faking and duplicating are works of art in and of themselves, and I was, of course, reminded of the National Gallery show I'd just seen on manipulation in photography.  One of the first pieces I saw was Katharina Fritsch's "Display Stand with Madonnas."  It's hard to improve on the title's description, but I'll say that there were LOTS of Madonnas, and they were all painted bright yellow - I couldn't help but think that they were terribly festive and Easter-y looking.

I was puzzled over Rachel Whiteread's "Untitled (Yellow Bed, Two Parts)" which is made entirely of dental plaster.  Okay, I thought, it's certainly well done - one would never guess that what looks like a bed is really made of dental plaster, but WHY?  Why make a bed out of dental plaster?  Who wakes up one morning and decides - that's what I want to do today!

Christo made an appearance - if only a small one.  His "Green Storefront" is a shop window which is wrapped so you can't see what's in the window.  Quite small potatoes for Christo; I think the wrapping as art only works if it's on a monumental scale.  I also saw a video (?) by John Gerrard entitled "Grow Finish Unit (Eva, Oklahoma)."  This is really a 3D animation, so I'm not sure video is the right word.  I'm pretty sure I saw a show of his work at the Hirshhorn several years ago; it's interesting as a technique, but nothing happens, and after a while, you just lose interest and walk away.  I can't quite remember what the point of it was, but I'm sure there was one...

Finally, several photographs by Nicki S. Lee were on display, including a couple I'd seen in a National Gallery show just a couple of months ago.  I like her stuff, so I was happy to see it again, as well as some pieces that were new to me.  The only problem is that there was no explanation of her work given.  If you didn't know that she disguises herself and joins various societal sub-groups, you wouldn't understand the photos.  I guess that's the advantage of being able to see lots of shows.

Verdict: It's the Hirshhorn, so you know I won't be telling you to rush right out and see this, but if you're there anyway to see DEMOCRACIA, you can add this on easily.

One Life: Amelia Earhart

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through May 27, 2013

Just next door to the Archives of American Art exhibit space is the room dedicated to the displays in the "One Life" series.  The Portrait Gallery chooses one notable American to highlight, with a biography and numerous portraits.  The current choice is Amelia Earhart, whose quote, "I chose to fly the Atlantic because I wanted to" opens the show.

As with all exhibits, I learned some things: Earhart designed clothing, in addition to being a pilot.  She adapted wingnuts into buttons and made buckles from ball bearings.  She became friends with Eleanor Roosevelt; they shared an interest in women's rights.  She was married, but judging by a letter she sent her husband accepting his marriage proposal, she would much rather be flying than living a domestic life.

She died when she was only 40 years old; a shame, as she would certainly have done more with her life, had she lived.  Her remains have never been found, which, since numerous people have taken some very sophisticated equipment to do just that, makes you realize just how large the Pacific Ocean really is.

Verdict: Yet another worthy entry in the "One Life" series - easily managed in a lunch hour.

A Day at the Museum

Where: Archives of American Art

When: through May 16, 2013

Before I started going to the Smithsonian on a regular basis, I had no idea there even was an Archives of American Art, let alone that they put on exhibits. 

Their exhibit space is one rather small room in the American Art Museum, but they make the most of it.  Each time I enter for a new show, I'm struck by how different the room looks from the previous display.  It's not just that they've put new materials in the display cases, they've painted the room a new background color and have put up new material on the one large wall.  I give the curators a lot of credit for what they're able to do in a small space and with almost no fanfare.

And it's not just that they decorate the room nicely, although that's what I always notice first.  Most of their shows involve the papers of artists, as opposed to their artwork, and this can be a bit dull.  Even the most interesting person's letters are only of so much interest, especially if you're only seeing one or two letters and not a full record of their correspondence.  The people setting up these displays do an excellent job of telling a story and letting the papers add to it - they add the visual impact that papers, by their nature, tend to lack.

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you can well imagine my delight at the idea of an exhibit on artists' reactions to museums.  Other than going to museums myself, nothing's better than discussing museum exhibits with others, or reading about other people's reactions to museums.  Now I would be able to go to a museum to learn about how other people enjoyed their trips - makes my head spin a bit to think about it, but a grand time for me, nonetheless.

My favorite quote from the show is from Paul Cadmus, "...but I would never travel just to see the Grand Canyon because there are no paintings there."  Although I love to see beautiful scenery, and I've wanted very much to go to see the American West (especially since seeing the exhibit on photographs of the American West at the American Art Museum several years ago), I do know what he means.  A trip featuring nothing but scenery would wear on me; a trip featuring nothing but museums would never get old.

I also enjoyed William Penhallow Henderson's cutting remarks on smelly Parisian tourists in the Louvre and Richard Tuttle's letter saying that gallery hopping, "threatens to become a habit."

If you love museums, and enjoy the thoughts of others who do as well, this is a great exhibit.

Verdict: A wonderful show, easily managed in a lunch hour.