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.