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!