Sunday, April 28, 2013

One Man's Search for Ancient China: The Paul Singer Collection

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through July 7, 2013

This is an interesting small show, tucked away in the back of the Sackler, close to the gift shop on the first Lower Level.  I suspect it's lost in the excitement over the Cyrus Cylinder and the new show on illustrated books that take up so much space on that level, but this little exhibit is worth seeking out.

Paul Singer was a psychologist who became interested in Asian art.  In the 1950s, he met Arthur Sackler, who was a psychiatrist also interested in Asian art.  The two became friends, and eventually, Sackler gave Singer an annual stipend to spend on collecting pieces, with the understanding that the collection would eventually be given to a Sackler museum.  Fast forward to 1987, the Sackler Gallery opens in Washington, and in 1997, upon Singer's death, the collection is donated there.

Singer's collection was extensive, over 5,000 objects that he displayed in his two-bedroom New Jersey apartment.  I can only imagine things got a bit crowded!

Singer had a tremendous ability to pick things that experts had dismissed as fakes, but which later proved to be genuine.  He chose small things, that alone might not be so interesting, but taken together provide lots of information to scholars.  He particularly collected ancient ceramics, metalwork and jade.

Verdict: If you like the Sackler and are interested in its history, this is a great exhibit to see.  If not, you can skip it without missing something terribly important.

Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color

Where Renwick Gallery

When: through July 28, 2013

I enjoy going over to the Renwick Gallery; it's in the neighborhood where my office used to be located, so it gives me an opportunity to see my old stomping ground.  It's in a lovely location, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House and next to Lafayette Park.  Add to that the cherry blossoms and warmer weather, and what's not to like?

The only fly in this ointment is that the Renwick will be closing in 2014 for renovations, so go see this very pleasant, quiet museum while you can!  The plan is to re-open in 2016, so after I go over to see the upcoming exhibit on their collection of contemporary baskets, it will be a while before I am able to return.  I may have to take a day off and see the permanent collection as well, since it will be closed for two years...

The current exhibit is on Thomas Day, an African-American craftsman, living as a free man in North Carolina in the 1800s, before the Civil War.  He came from a family of cabinet makers, and set himself up as a furniture maker and maker of architectural elements - the only known American to do so.  He lived in Milton, NC, and was able to duplicate the very expensive designs for sale in the large cities at a fraction of their cost.  He became very popular with the elites of the area, who hired him to help them restore the houses they had purchased in a neo-Classical style, as well as design and build furniture for them that would fit in with their decor.

He became so admired that when he married a free woman of color from Virginia, the people of Milton petitioned the North Carolina State Assembly to let her come to live in Milton.  They were welcomed into the Milton Presbyterian Church, and allowed to sit with the white congregants.  The slaves that Day owned (African-Americans also owned slaves, although certainly not in the numbers that white people did) were encouraged to join the church as well, sitting in the segregated section.  States passed laws placing severe restrictions on free persons of color (which made me think they may have been free, but they didn't have much in the way of freedom), but local communities often ignored them.  The town of Milton gave great support to Day and his business.

Day's style incorporates a scroll motif, visible in the picture above.  This was not uncommon among designers of the period, but his work became so distinctive that it was called "Day's Exuberant Style."  Frankly, it's a bit too exuberant for my taste, which runs strongly towards the Arts and Crafts style of the early 1900s, but the furniture is very well-made and, if you like that kind of thing, beautiful.  Two pieces which I did like (note they are not typical of his work) were a mirror he made for North Carolina Governor David S. Reid and a blanket chest in the "Neat and Plain" style.  Neither has much in the way of ornament, so there's nothing to distract from the craftsmanship.  In 1853, Day said, "It is not pleasant to have any thing in the way of furniture like an eyesore."  Hard to disagree with that!

A room at the end of the exhibit contains contemporary photographs of the houses in which he designed architectural elements - lots of scrollwork there too.

Verdict: Well worth a trip over to the Farragut Square area of town, an interesting show and an opportunity to see the Renwick before it closes.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Evolving Universe

Where: Natural History Museum

When: through July 7, 2013

Truth be told, I've always had a bit of a problem with the concept of deep space.  When something is so far away that distance is measured in years, I have a hard time comprehending its existence.  I know that deep space exists, I'm not that much of a cretin, but I can't really fathom it.  It seems as distant as a world in a fantasy novel.

Despite the limitations of my imagination, deep space is out there (far, far out there) and this exhibit at the Natural History Museum attempts to explain it to those of us who are not professional astronomers.  Pictures of different types of objects are on display, with straightforward descriptions and beautiful photographs - the one pictured above is typical.  Each of the planets in our solar system has a photograph, which reminded me of the show I saw at Air and Space a couple of years ago.  Frankly, these photos are not as impressive as those were, but yet again, I walked away thinking Neptune is the most beautiful planet.

For each of the different types of space objects, the description tells you how long it takes for light from that object to reach Earth, and what our planet was like at that time.  Some of the light we see today started its journey to us before humans even existed.

The Sun and the Earth were created 4.6 billion years ago, contrary to the (sadly) popular belief that the Earth is 5,000 years old.  And of what is the Earth and all its inhabitants created?  The remains of dead stars.  I seem to recall that Carl Sagan said we are all star stuff, and (no surprise) he was quite right.  Think of it as cosmic recycling.

I would have enjoyed my visit to this show more had there been fewer other visitors, but class field trip season is now upon us, so the place was very crowded.  When I find something difficult to understand, I do better if I can read in silence, but no such luck.  Even though the exhibit space is well off the beaten path, plenty of people managed to find their way back.  Ah well, I try to remind myself that the more people visit, the safer the museum's funding will be.

Verdict: Great photographs of deep space objects, as well as good information.  Crowded, but so is everything at Natural History at this time of year.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Pictures in the Parlor

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through June 30, 2013

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that I was already seeing shows that closed in June - this is the last one at the moment, so next week I'll be onto July closings.  Of course, the Smithsonian or National Gallery could always add a show, but right now, I feel as if I'm racing through the year!

This exhibit is different than every other art show I've attended, in that all of the pieces are done by unknown artists.  It's a collection of photographs that middle class people in the 19th century had in their living rooms (parlors), taking the place of painted portraits owned by wealthy Americans.

This represented a democratization of home decor; in the colonial period only the very wealthy could afford to have their pictures painted.  By the 1840s, the price of photographs (and their precursors) had dropped to the point that the less well-to-do could put up pictures of themselves, their children or their homes.  On display are some hand-colored photographs - reminiscent of the early photos I saw in "Faking It."  Some were also clearly meant to look like oil paintings, taking the mimicry of the upper classes a step further.  Many of them really did look like oil paintings; one wonders if the guests of the owners were fooled.

One thing I noticed was the bored or puzzled looks on the faces of the children - not unlike many photos you see of modern kids!  You can almost hear them saying, "Mom, when will this be over so I can go play?"  The photo pictured above is a good example.

Perhaps my favorite photograph was one entitled "House with Decorated Car in Front" from 1910.  I can't improve on the title in terms of describing the subject of the photo, but I'll say the car was decorated with what looked like fringe.  It reminded me of the beaded car I saw at the American Indian museum last year.  What prompts people to decorate their cars?  I just can't imagine waking up one morning and thinking, "I know what I want to do today!  I'll put fringe all over my car."

Another part of the exhibit is dedicated to "scrapbook houses."  These can best be described as collages that young women would make out of pictures clipped from magazines.  They were meant to represent items that they would want in their homes one day.  They might feature pieces of furniture, people, musical instruments, linens, pets, flowers - anything, really that one might reasonably find in a family residence.  The idea behind this activity was to train girls to run and decorate their own homes.  Frankly, it strikes me as rather a dull way to spend an afternoon; I'd much rather read a book.

Finally, there are several examples of painted tintypes.  These are photographic images on black-lacquered iron.  They were very popular in rural areas and small towns, in the later part of the 19th century.  It was a way for the less affluent to mimic the fine portraits of the upper class.  The thing I noticed was that it was clearly not the custom for people to smile for the camera.  Every one looks terribly dour.

Verdict: An interesting show.  Nothing in comparison to the big Civil War exhibit at the American Art Museum in the same building, but an intriguing way to spend a few minutes.