Saturday, August 17, 2013

Two small exhibits at the National Portrait Gallery & Archives of American Art

This week, I was able to see two shows: one at the National Portrait Gallery and one at the American Art Museum, sponsored by the Archives of American Art.  It's handy that these two museums are in the same building (which was once the Patent Office), as it allows the visitor to make good use of a lunch hour and see two shows in one trip.  They're even on the same floor, so you won't lose time traveling from one to the other.

The Art of Handwriting

Where: Archives of American Art

When: through October 27, 2013

Perhaps the best part of this exhibit for me was the description the archives had written which included the phrase, "elegant flourishes of cursive sashay across the page."  What a lovely way to describe handwriting.

I must admit, the premise of this show is one of which I'm rather skeptical.  The idea is that you can glean information about an artist or see elements of the artist's style in his or her handwriting.  I'm not so sure that's true, and some of the examples seemed to be trying too hard to make the hypothesis work.

A letter of Georgia O'Keefe's shows her lack of attention to grammar and spelling.  So, I not only don't like her art, I also don't like her writing - people who refuse to use commas generally don't have to read their own writing, and clearly have no concern for those who do.

Even if it is the case that artists write as they draw/sculpt/paint, I'm not sure that's terribly interesting.  Perhaps it's simply that I'm just not that intrigued by random letters.  I've read several books that are collections of letters between correspondents spanning several years, and I like those very much; you get a sense of the relationship between the writers.  One off letters, though, don't provide anything like that; there's no context for the correspondence.

I happened to be looking at the exhibit at the same time that a young woman came in with an older couple, and was showing them the display.  It was clear that she works for the Archives as she was telling them that they had contacted an expert on each artist to write the commentary for that artist's letter.  They actually got a much greater response to the project than they had anticipated, which is why some of the letters were mounted on the wall.  It's always interesting to hear a bit of the background of an exhibit, so I was glad to hear this information.

Verdict: If you find handwriting or letters of interest, this is the show for you! Everyone else can safely give this a miss.

Recent Acquisitions

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through October 27, 2013

Periodically, I think perhaps every six months, the National Portrait Gallery puts up a new set of works they've recently added to their collection.  It's always interesting to see what a museum decides to add - what works it considers worthy and appropriate for its collection.  I seem to remember discussing their philosophy the last time I saw one of these displays, so I won't go into it again.  Suffice it to say, that lots of thought goes into what they purchase.

This collection features both old and new paintings, of persons historical and modern, all famous (or at one time famous) for their contributions to American society, culture or politics.  You can see a wide variety of artistic styles, as well as a wide variety of subjects.  I noticed that a portrait of Samuel Adams hangs quite near to a portrait of Charles Townshend, whose acts Adams so vigorously opposed.  Also, the museum has purchased two examples of the Civil War figures series (Andrew Johnson and Edwin Stanton) done by the Ehrgott & Forbriger Lithography Co.  They point out that the backgrounds and bodies are exactly the same; they merely changed the faces!  There's a way to make portraits on the cheap.

Verdict: If you're in the museum anyway, it's worth a look at this hallway exhibit.

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