Monday, April 28, 2014

The Early Sixties: American Science and Culture

Where: American History Museum

When: through December 14, 2014

Enter the American History Museum through the Independence Avenue doors and you'll travel back in time to 1964.

Two display cases, one focusing on scientific achievements and one on cultural phenomena, allow you to see what was new and exciting in the early 1960s.  Computers were entering the workforce, albeit in room-sized form.  The mini-computer could fit in a closet.  I'm assuming the smart phone that fits in my coat pocket can do more than any of these behemoths.

The calculator (also enormous) was replacing the slide rule.  I remember when they first became popular in my elementary school and were very expensive.  Only the lucky students among us had them.  Now, of course, one hardly sees them anymore, as they've been replaced by an app.

Also appearing on the scene was The Pill.  I won't even bother to talk about the changes in American society that has made, as there's really nothing I can add to the discussion with which we're all familiar.

On the cultural side, the rights revolutions (as Steven Pinker calls them in one of his books) were having their day: civil rights, women's rights, environmental causes. The Beatles arrived in America; we sent men into orbit.  Perhaps my favorite artifact was the "Bonanza" Christmas album - yes, that Bonanza, Michael Landon and the rest of the cast featured on the cover.

On the floor are newspaper headlines from 1964 and in the middle of the floor space is a 1965 Ford Mustang (introduced in 1964) donated by one of the museum's conservators.  Also on display is information on the 1964 New York World's Fair, where the Mustang was introduced.

Seeing how long ago 1964 was, how antiquated the technology, how "classic" the cars, makes me feel old, since it was also the year I entered the world.  It seems as if the year so far has been one long celebration of people and things turning 50.  Enough to make me hide my head until 2015 has come!

Verdict: It's easy to have a look at these items on your way to something else, or you could wait and combine these with the other exhibits going up shortly on the Museum's history. 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Mr. Lincoln's Washington: A Civil War Portfolio

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through January 25, 2015

This show is on the 2nd floor of the Portrait Gallery/American Art building, in a room that's placed exactly in the middle.  I'm never entirely certain to whom this room belongs, but since this is listed as a Portrait Gallery display, I'm categorizing it that way.

The Civil War years were busy ones for Washington, D.C., which the wall notes describe as "dangling on the fringes of what Unionists deemed a rebellion."  Indeed, if Lincoln hadn't prevented the Maryland legislature from seceding, the nation's capital would have been located in Confederate territory - a sobering thought.  D.C. bore little resemblance to the city we know today; again quoting from the wall notes, "cows grazed freely around the stone block stump that was the Washington Monument, while pigs preferred the putrid open canal in the shadow of the Capitol building."  Yeesh, not a place I'd want to spend much time.

The Portrait Gallery building, which was then the Patent Office, served as a military hospital during the war, and when the 1st Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry arrived, they were quartered among the patent models.  The first Secretary of the Smithsonian lived with his family in the Castle, which I knew from an exhibit I'd seen there several months ago.

Truly, a different time, far less pleasant than our own.

Verdict: Easy to add on to a visit to another show here.  Worth a look, especially if you like Washington, D.C. history.

Face Value: Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through January 11, 2015

This show is a bit tucked away; it's behind the "American Cool" exhibit on the 2nd floor.  The show has an interesting premise: after the Second World War, abstract expressionism became the dominant (dare I say "cool") artistic movement.  Critics decried portraiture as old fashioned, nothing that new artists would wish to try.  Portraiture was dead, abstraction was everything.

Turns out that people are attractive subjects for artists, and even some expressionists turned to portraiture in the course of their careers.  In 1976, Andy Warhol and Jamie Wyeth (son of Andrew Wyeth, grandson of N. C. Wyeth) exhibited portraits of each other and drew lots of attention.  Portraiture was back!  Shows you should never trust the opinions of art critics when they declare something dead.

I didn't find lots of things that really grabbed my attention in this show.  It wasn't awful, by any stretch of the imagination, but when I think back on some of the spectacular shows I've seen here, this just isn't one of them.  I did notice a portrait of Joseph Hirshhorn, surely the donor of the money behind the Hirshhorn Museum?  It was nice to be able to put a face to the name, although I can't say the artist, Larry Rivers, painted a very flattering portrait.  Perhaps he was just not a terribly handsome man?

Happily, the Warhol/Wyeth portraits were on display - there must be some word for that, when a display's wall notes mention a piece, and then it's in the display itself?  If not, there should be.  It was nice to see them, after reading about the important role they played in bringing portraiture back to the art world.

Verdict: Not my favorite show at the Portrait Gallery, but I suppose it's a big much to expect every exhibit to be a home run.

Pacific Exchange: China & U.S. Mail

Where: National Postal Museum

When: through January 4, 2015

My first exhibit that's closing in 2015 - a bit dizzying, since we're not even halfway through 2014 yet.  I've been seeing shows pretty frequently, so I'm well ahead of the closings now.  Of course, new shows open all the time, so I'll have plenty to keep me busy indefinitely.

I don't go to the Postal Museum all that often, as it's not a very large museum and only occasionally has special exhibits.  It's a bit of a hike from my office, but going there takes me to my old stomping grounds (I used to work very close to Union Station before I took my current job), and it's always interesting to see what has changed in the neighborhood since my last visit.

I have to say that, as much as I try to be interested in the exhibits they put on, I just don't find them that scintillating.  I think the most intriguing one I've seen was one on FDR and depression-era stamps, and that's because I'm interested in the Roosevelts, not in stamps.  This show on the history of Chinese/U.S. mail failed to grip.

I think the point of the show was to demonstrate the history of U.S.-Chinese relations in stamps, which they did, but somehow it just didn't hold my interest.  I noticed several very pretty stamps: one of cranes and one of pandas, and a very colorful Chinese New Year stamp, but those were a few bright spots in an otherwise pretty dull show.  It did give me a chance to go to the Postmaster Suite in the new stamp gallery, which was quite nice, but that didn't really make up for the show itself.  It was rather like being more interested in the Founders' Room at the National Gallery, rather than in their Monuments Men exhibit.

Verdict: If you're a stamp aficionado, run right out and see this show.  Otherwise, you can give it a miss.

The Rex Room

Where:  Natural History Museum

When: through October 20, 2014

Since I went to see The Rex Room, I've been trying to think what I might find worse than having to do my job while thousands of strangers gawked at me through a glass wall.  I suppose having no job at all would be worse, but being on display like an animal at the zoo is plenty bad.

My brother and sister-in-law are both scientists, and they tell me that paleontology is the glamor field.  All the money and attention flows in its direction, so I guess having to be on display is the price those who study dinosaurs pay for fame and fortune.  Still, I was happy to return to my backwater library when my lunch hour was over - able to work my research magic far from prying eyes.

As I suppose I should have mentioned at the beginning of this post, the Natural History Museum has just taken possession of a T. Rex.  When the dinosaur hall re-opens in 2019 (which seems like forever from now), it will be the star of the show, but at the moment, it's a long way from being ready for its close-up.  The scientists on display are cataloging and studying each piece of the skeleton prior to shipping it to Toronto to be mounted.

Some background on the T. Rex, in case you've not been following this story, 66.5 million years ago, this dinosaur died, near a river in what is now Montana.  River sediment covered the carcass and over the years (many, many years) the sediment turned to stone, encasing the T. Rex.  In 1988 Kathy Wankel, a Montana rancher, was hiking, and spotted a bone protruding from the earth.  She brought it to the Museum of the Rockies, who took a lively interest in her discovery.  It took them two years to fully excavate it, and on April 15, 2014, it arrived in a FedEx truck at the Natural History Museum.

This fossil has already provided information to researchers on dinosaur growth, life span and reproduction, and the hope is that it will yield answers to even more questions.  Like: why did T. Rexs have such little arms?

Verdict: I felt a little guilty staring at the scientists, but their work is interesting.  Starting next week, this will be on the only dinosaur on display, so join the line and gawk away.

Off the Beaten Path: Whistler's Early Works on Paper

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through September 28, 2014

When you enter the Freer from the Mall entrance, there's a staircase to your left in the entryway that leads down to a small exhibit space and connects to the Ripley, Sackler and African Art museums.  The small exhibit space on this lower level is where you'll find this Whistler show.  Usually, I'm off to see Asian art when I go to the Freer, but the museum also contains a nice selection of American pieces, especially pieces by Whistler, who, if my memory serves me correctly, was a friend of Freer.

These drawings and sketches were made when Whistler took a trip to the Rhineland with a friend of his, Ernest Delannoy.  They left Paris, intending to travel to Amsterdam, wandering around the French and German countryside along the way.  Wandering about can be an expensive business, and they ran out of money before they arrived at their ultimate destination, but their trip was not a total loss.  The works on display were the basis for some of Whistler's more mature works and represented his early explorations of themes to which he would return later.

Verdict: None of these drawings is terribly memorable; it's more of a show to satisfy one's cerebral interest in Whistler than one to provoke an emotional response.

Chinese Ceramics for Tea in Japan

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through September 14, 2014

Although this little exhibit is located in Room 6A, just off Room 6, where the "Bountiful Waters" show is currently on display, it's really more of an accompaniment to the "Chigusa" show at the Sackler.  These are examples of tea ceramics produced in China, but intended for export to Japan, where (as we know after our trip to see "Chigusa") a tea culture was flourishing.

One of the things I admire about Japanese tea culture is that it embraced flaws in ceramics.  I remember (vaguely now, I admit) seeing a show in this same room on ceramics that had been damaged and repaired, and how they were often more greatly valued after their injury, as to speak, than they were before.  The repairs themselves were works of art.  Since ceramics are inherently fragile things, it's really best to anticipate that they will suffer the slings and arrows, if not of outrageous fortune, then certainly of everyday use.  Celebrate the defects, rather than tossing out anything that has a scratch or dent.

I also like the fact that these utensils are both useful and beautiful.  So often, we tend to overlook the opportunity for beauty in our everyday lives that comes from owning  and using something well-designed and artistic.  There's no reason to think that, just because something is a common tool, that it can't be lovely.  These are all certainly both.

 I was also able to indulge my love of antiquities, as one of the bowls was from the 12th century.  Granted, that's not quite an antiquity, but it's old enough!  It's amazing to think of the things that were in the future when this bowl was made in the 1300s.  I'm always flabbergasted to think that any object could survive so many hundreds of years in good shape.

Verdict: A lovely little display, which dovetails nicely with the "Chigusa" and "Jars" exhibits in the Sackler.   

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Marian Anderson: Artist and Symbol

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through September 7, 2014

This is the latest display in the Museum's section devoted to African-American themed exhibits.  I think of this area as a preview of what we can expect when the National Museum of African-American History and Culture opens next year.  I'm really looking forward to having a new museum to visit.

Assuming that everyone is familiar with the story of how the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow Marian Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall, I won't go into that in detail.  This ensemble is what she wore when she sang on Easter Sunday at the Lincoln Memorial.  This is the 75th anniversary of the concert, which one cannot help but see as foreshadowing Martin Luther King's speech at the same site years later.

It's a lovely skirt and jacket - one realizes that she was not a large woman, looking at her clothes.  One often sees proof of how far we have to go to realize a truly race-blind society, but it's displays like this that remind us of how far we have come.

Verdict: Stop by on your way to see the 1863-1963 show or when you're in the museum to see something else.

American Heroes

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through June 2, 2014

Although over 110,000 Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II, more than 33,000 young Japanese-American men served in the U.S. armed forces during the conflict.  It's amazing to me that someone would risk one's life for a country that had imprisoned his family, but that's what these men did.

Japanese-Americans served in the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service. This Congressional Gold Medal was presented to them in 2010, 65 years after the war ended.  It is the highest civilian award in the United States.

Although I was glad that this medal was awarded, I couldn't help but think, "too little, too late."  By 2010, many of those men would have died.  I wondered, did each of them get a medal, or was this a group award?  I hope they each got one.

Verdict: If you're in the museum anyway, it will only take a few minutes to check this out.  I combined this with a look at Marian Anderson's outfit.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Bountiful Waters: Aquatic Life in Japanese Art

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through September 14, 2014

Imagine my surprise to head over to the Freer and be confronted with both noise and crowds!  As part of the Cherry Bloosom Festival (I'm assuming), there was a troupe of musicians on the front steps of the Freer, playing the drums.  And when I say playing, what I mean is pounding, and VERY loudly.  The cacophony drew a crowd - more people than I think I've seen at the Freer ever.  Happily, I was able to enter on the Independence Avenue side, and the noise was inaudible from inside.  Clearly, marble is an excellent insulating material.

Once inside, quiet and solitude reigned as usual, and I set out to see this lovely show on Japanese aquatic art.  Beginning in the 18th century, depictions of natural life became quite important in Japan, as sources of information on different species became available through trade with Europe and China through the port city of Nagasaki.   Mostly, Japanese artists were copying what they had seen in books, although some were able to work from life.

This exhibit features many painting of carp, especially leaping up waterfalls, as in the picture accompanying this post.  I like this idea; there's a playful quality about it that appeals to me.  One thing I saw that I don't think I've see before is a print block, from which numerous prints can be made.  Of course, I've seen many prints before, but not an original block.  Granted, the block itself isn't that exciting to look at - I wouldn't want to see a whole room full of them.  But one is interesting.

Another prime feature of this show is the "Large Fish" prints by Utagawa Hiroshige.  It's a series of fish painted with flowers, and very nice it is too.  I'm delighted to say that my favorite, Hokusai, was also on display; a very fine painting of 100 types of crustaceans was the thing that held my attention longest.

Verdict: A wonderful way to celebrate the blooming of the cherry blossom trees and the return of spring to DC, without the crowds.

Spirit & Opportunity: 10 Years Roving across Mars

Where: Air and Space Museum

When: through September 14, 2014

As much as I don't care for the Air and Space Museum generally, I have seen some wonderful exhibits here.  They've been the ones that feature photographs; there was one about the planets that was phenomenal, and the one of the underside of jets was really interesting as well.  This is another in that vein: it's photographs sent back by the two Rovers that were sent to Mars ten years ago.

The original goal was for them to spend a few months and travel about one kilometer.  Instead they've traveled long distances and although Spirit gave up the ghost after six years, Opportunity is still going strong.  For all that you hear about government waste and cost overruns, this program has succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams and continues to provide useful information about our neighboring planet.

Although Mars is close to us as far as outer space is concerned, it takes several months to get there from Earth.  The Rovers were sent to Mars to obtain information from soil and rocks, so that scientists could determine if there had ever been water on the planet.  The idea is that if there was once water, the planet could have been inhabitable.  My question is: inhabitable by whom?  I'm pretty sure there's no air on Mars, so it couldn't have been humans.  Plus, at night, Mars has temperatures of about -80 degrees, not exactly comfortable.  I assume we're talking about microbes of some sort, not "little green men."

The Rovers have sent back lots of information, as well as wonderful pictures of Mars.  It's completely serendipitous, the pictures the little gadgets send, so it's a lot like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, "You never know what you're going to get."  Some of the photos look like they could have been taken on Earth, albeit in a desert, rather than in downtown Manhattan.  There are pictures of lovely sunsets that have a familiar look to them, not alien at all.  As the wall notes said, "Other worlds can seem eerily familiar."  I didn't view it as eerie, so much as comforting; it's certainly different than my usual environment, but not incomprehensible.

It struck me, looking at the photos with the Rovers' tracks on the sand, that we humans are now leaving our traces on other planets, in addition to completely transforming Earth.  I think my favorite of all the pictures was one called "Abstract Dunes."  It's of sand dunes, with a beautiful, blue-ish light on them.

Verdict: If I enjoy an exhibit at Air and Space, despite the crowds, you know it's worth seeing!

Visions from the Forests: The Art of Liberia and Sierra Leone

Where: African Art Museum

When: through August 17, 2014

True confession: I'm not a fan of traditional African art.  I like lots of the contemporary things I've seen; in fact, Yinka Shonibare, who is from  Nigeria, is my favorite artist, bar none.  But traditional masks and figurine carvings, they just don't speak to me.  I keep coming to shows here, hoping to see something that will allow me to "get it," and I keep walking away as mystified as ever.

I remember coming to the African Art Museum to see highlights from the Tishman-Disney Collection.  The Tishmans were a husband and wife who collected African art, and when asked why, they responded, "Who can say exactly?  How do you know why you've fallen in love?"  I guess what it comes down to is that I'm just not in love with African art.

And, after seeing this show on art from Liberia and Sierrra Leone, I'm still not in love.  The show is largely masks and carved figurines, so if you like that sort of thing, run right over.  There were a few textiles that I enjoyed seeing, but that's a small part of the total show.

The exhibit features art collected by William Siegmann, the former curator of African art at the Brooklyn Museum, who worked in Liberia from 1965-1987.  The wall notes describe him as a connoisseur of African art, and give you information on how to judge the pieces you see.  Clearly, I'm not the only one who finds the work a bit alien.  Even armed with this new information, I still couldn't really like it.

Oh well, perhaps the next exhibit will be the one to do the trick?

Verdict:  If you like masks and carvings, you'll very much enjoy this show.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Monuments Men and the National Gallery of Art

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through September 1, 2014

This small exhibit is in the Founders Room, a place I'd never been before, as I didn't know it existed.  It's off the main rotunda on the Main Floor, and it's a lovely room, all wood paneling and comfy sofas.  I'm happy I looked in, just to know about this space.

The exhibit itself was a bit of a disappointment.  It's one small exhibit case, placed so close to the window that the glare was annoying.  Mind you, it was a cloudy day when I visited, so I can't imagine you'd see much of anything if the sun were really shining.

Those difficulties aside, there's really not much to this - just a series of short descriptions of what the Monuments Men were set up to do and how they did it.  There are a few documents included, and that's it.  I did learn that the National Gallery of Art was heavily involved in setting up the MFAA (the official designation for the Monuments Men), and that many of the officers and their families gave their papers to the National Gallery.  It occurred to me to wonder how they did that, since I would have thought those papers would have been government documents.  Oh well, they're in good hands, so no matter.

There is a good summary of the MFAA's work, and it was daunting.  First, they had to find the artworks the Nazis had plundered.  There were over 1,000 different sites where the Nazis were storing their ill-gotten gains; it wouldn't surprise me if there were undiscovered sites to this day.  Then, they had to move the art from those locations to a central processing area where they could be kept safe.  Finally, they had to reunite the art with its rightful owners - a process that continues, as we're seen with the discovery of so many works of art in a Munich apartment building.  I was delighted to learn that the MFAA put on exhibits of the art they had recovered, as a way to boost morale among the soldiers.  I like to think that art is a way to keep peoples' spirits up in the most trying of times.

Verdict: Not worth a trip on its own, but if you're in the building for something else, you could wander up to the rotunda and spend a few moments.

Monday, April 7, 2014

American Cool

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through September 7, 2014

I have to give the Portrait Gallery credit for even putting up this show - it's the sort of listing that makes no one completely happy, and will lead to nothing but bickering.  Who was included that should have been left off?  (My nominee: the woman pictured here.  I seem to remember Debbie Harry as more strung-out than cool.)  Who was conspicuous by his/her absence?  (George Clooney and Gene Kelly are my nominees.)

The Gallery lists their criteria for inclusion in the wall notes at the front of the show.  I won't go through them here, but will note that their definition of cool is a person who exudes the aura of something new and unattainable; it's an earned form of individuality.  They state that the figures included are the successful rebels of American culture, and that each is an original person without precedent in American culture.

The show is divided chronologically: the pre-1940 era gets one room, 1940-1959 gets several, 1960-1979 gets two (if my memory serves me correctly) and the years from 1980-present are in the hallway.  I would offer as a definition of cool that someone who is cool in one era would be cool in any era - it's hard to pull off.  Anybody can be Fonzie in his trademark leather jacket, the epitome of cool in the mid-1970s, but he looks a little dated now.  Paul Newman, on the other hand, will always be cool.

Some things of interest: the photograph of Jimi Hendrix (no points for guessing he's one of the honored) was taken by Linda McCartney.  It's a very good snapshot; I was unaware of her talent in this arena.  There's a photography of John Wayne that's truly bizarre.  It was taken two years before his breakout role in Stagecoach and depicts him in a fancy business suit, smoking a cigarette.  If you're interested in showing the cool side of John Wayne, wouldn't you show him in one of his movies, with Monument Valley as his backdrop?

Bruce Springsteen makes an appearance towards the end of the show.  I'd always said that a Springsteen concert is like a tent revival meeting, and apparently the curators of this show agree with me.  They describe his audience as a "secular congregation."  Always nice to have your analyses confirmed by no less an institution than the Smithsonian.

Verdict: This show is worth a visit - allow plenty of time; there are lots of people and each one has notes to read.  You won't agree with every choice, but there will be several people who will make you think, "Now that's cool."

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Pop Art Prints

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: through August 31, 2014

Is it possible that I could be a fan of pop art?  I'd never thought much about it one way or the other before.  I didn't have strong feelings for or against.  But, reading the wall notes for this show, and finding out that pop art was a reaction against abstract expressionism, an art movement for which I do not have fond feelings, I thought I'd better give pop art a closer look.  The notes went on to say that pop art was a "sly commentary" on American consumerism, the country's fascination with celebrity, glamour and superficiality - I was prepared to be hooked.

The first show of pop art was in October 1962, and the featured artists catapulted to fame.  All of a sudden, they were no longer outsiders mocking the rich and famous - they were the rich and famous.  I imagine it must be difficult in those circumstances to avoid becoming that which you have satirized.

Prints were a way to satisfy the enormous demand for this art form.  These prints are part of the museum's permanent collection and are rarely seen - I'm not sure why exactly, although perhaps it's a preservation issue.

Like most shows, there were some things I liked and some I didn't.  There was quite a bit of Roy Lichtenstein, and after his big show at the National Gallery last year, I felt as if I'd seen enough to last me for a while.  Surprisingly enough, one of his prints was my favorite item in the show - Moonscape was such a vibrant shade of blue - it seemed to shimmer.

Claes Oldenburg was also represented with a piece called Pile of Erasers.  They're the same type of erasers as the one in the sculpture garden.  Yet another of his pieces that will be unfathomable in a few decades.

Verdict: If you like pop art, this is worth seeing - it's a small show, so easily manageable in a lunch hour, and these are not prints you see every day.

Red Bull Stratos: Mission to the Edge of Space

Where: Air and Space Museum

When: through June 26, 2014 (per Smithsonian exhibits page) through May 26, 2014 (per A&S page)

You may remember Felix Baumgartner and his trip through the sound barrier.  I thought at the time that he was a madman; that this was a ridiculous stunt and giving it TV coverage was just encouraging a crazy person.

Truth be told, I do still kind of think that you have to have a screw loose in order to free fall out of a space ship, but after seeing this display at A&S, I also see the purpose of doing it.

As the prospect of commercial space travel becomes more and more real, preparations for emergency evacuations are becoming more and more necessary.  After Baumgartner's trip, we know that human beings can survive supersonic speeds, even if they are not in a vehicle.  If you were traveling at the edge of space, you would have a way to get back to earth, even if your vehicle could not.

In addition, Baumgartner was wearing a large number of monitors, providing medical data to scientists which will doubtless be useful as space travel becomes more commonplace.

Verdict: Worth a look-see.  Both informative and exciting.  Be prepared for crowds, as with any Air and Space show.

Modern American Realism: The Sara Roby Foundation Collection

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: through August 17, 2014

So what exactly is realism?  I had thought when I walked into this show that I would see paintings much like the one to the left: readily identifiable objects and people, pictures that are realistic.  Granted, art is not a photograph (and sometimes photographs are not exact replicas of their subjects), but I had anticipated that I would at least know what the painting or sculpture was meant to be.

Surprise, surprise!  It turns out that not everyone has such a narrow definition of realism as I do.  This show, in fact, has such a broad idea of realism that the term seems meaningless.  "Modern American Art" would have been a better title - then one wouldn't come in with any expectation at all.

Some of the works can only be described as abstract, and even of the many that have subjects that are easily identifiable, some of them are surreal.  In one painting, Gertrude and George by Ricard Merkin, there was a cat smoking a cigarette.  In what world is that realism?  I've lived with many cats in my life, and although they were possessed of bad habits, none of them smoked.  I was actually relieved to encounter a still life with vegetables and a quilt.  Although it was cliched, at least I knew what it was and it wasn't bizarre.

This is not to say that there wasn't some good stuff in this show.  Several mother and child pieces were placed together, inviting comparisons to one another and to Mary Cassatt, that master of the maternal portrait.

A memorable sculpture (is that the right word?) was a pile of cannonballs, each sliced open to reveal a human face inside.  A friend of mine described it as creepy, and I can't really improve on that adjective.  If that seems a bit pejorative, I would offer "haunting" as a substitute.

A lovely Vermont landscape by Edward Hopper is also on display; White River at Sharon is a wonderful piece.  Even though the scene itself is still, the brushstrokes evoke a feeling of movement - very nicely done.

I think my favorite piece in the show was A Night in Bologna by Paul Cadmus.  I've seen this several times before, as it's part of the SAAM permanent collection.  It was also part of the Hide/Seek show a few years ago.  I think there's more to this painting than any discussion I've yet read suggests.  Clearly, I need to investigate this artwork more.

Verdict: An uneven show.  There are good pieces there, but you have to push through a certain amount of odd stuff to find it.

Kiyochika: Master of the Night

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through July 27, 2014

If you like nocturnes, views of a city by night, this is the exhibit for you.  Kiyochika chronicled the life of Tokyo, from 1874 (when he returned to the city after having been exiled during a change of political power) until the city was largely destroyed by fire in 1881.

I was reminded of Charles Marville and his photographs of a bygone Paris.  This exhibit is a trip back in time, to a city no longer available for us to visit.  I think the fact that Kiyochika's Tokyo is gone forever makes the night paintings particularly appropriate.  Although he didn't know it at the time, Kiyochika was painting the end of a day for Tokyo.

Several of the paintings show the difference between natural and man-made light - the moon and the gas lamps.  This is a show about the end of an era, and for all the advantages of modernity, it is a show about what is lost when progress has its way.  His people are largely in silhouette - the focus is not on them, but on the city, the light and the darkness.  One interpretation is that the people are in shadow because they are alienated by the changes in their environment.  That may be true, but perhaps it is also a way to make the viewer a part of the picture.  Rather than being distracted by a human face, you take your place with the silhouettes, watching the fireworks, or the reflection of the moon on the water.

Verdict: A show I liked very much.  Perfect, if you're in a reflective mood, and want art to match.