Friday, August 29, 2014

Style in Chinese Landscape Painting: The Song Legacy

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through October 26, 2014

With all due apologies to Carolina in the morning, what could be finer than a trip to the Freer in the afternoon?  Very little, and this is yet another lovely display that repays a visit.

I'm very fond of landscape paintings, and many of these are quite fine.  The Song Dynasty lasted a long time, from the mid-10th to the mid-14th century.  This period was the apogee of traditional Chinese painting.  Landscapes came into their own as subjects; they moved out of the background, as it were and took center stage.

The paintings from this time had a great effect on later painters, and often these later works have been mistaken for the efforts of earlier masters.  There are very few genuine Song Dynasty paintings still left, which is hardly surprising given their age.  Some of them are here in the Freer - yet another reason to be grateful for living in DC.

My favorite works were those in the Mi Family style - not much color to them, but they made the most of the blacks and grays at their disposal.  Mist is featured in all of these pictures - which is really untouched paper, a charming effect.

My only criticism is that many of the works are rather dark, which makes it hard to see any detail.  This is hardly the Freer's fault, as I can only imagine this is the effect of age and environmental conditions.  One thing I wish could be changed are the display cases - there's quite a bit of glare, which doesn't help matters.

Verdict: Another enjoyable time at the Freer.

In Memoriam: Robin Williams

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through September 9, 2014

I took a few minutes this week to walk over to the Portrait Gallery and see their tribute to Robin Williams.  This is getting to be a habit, to see portraits of recently deceased celebrities.  I can only imagine someone else famous will have died by the time they take this portrait down.  A gruesome thought, I must watch out for a tendency towards morbidity.

My memories of Robin Williams date back to his days as Mork from Ork, so I was happy to see that this picture dates from that time period as well.  Williams was just crazy on that show, much of his dialogue ad-libbed, which must have been a challenge for his co-stars.

A sad loss; we must content ourselves with his body of work from now on.

Verdict: A fine photograph that captures both Williams' madcap antics and the sweet side he brought to many of his performances.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Arts of China

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through September 7, 2014

I rarely get the opportunity to see the permanent collections of the Smithsonian; I'm usually well occupied looking at limited-time shows.  I only see the long-term displays when they're closing.  This week, I discovered that the "Arts of China" area of the Sackler is closing after being on display since 1990.

I don't know why they're taking this exhibit down.  Perhaps it's to put up different Chinese art objects?  I can't imagine they wouldn't display Chinese works.  Maybe it's to open up more space for traveling shows?  Only time will tell; I'm eager to see what will come next.  Of course, that's assuming they're not closing down part of the museum due to budget cuts, something I've noticed in other places.  Oh well, we'll just have to wait and see.

I enjoyed looking at the Chinese objects on display at present.  Some of them are terrifically old, and I do love antiquities.  Looking at jewelry items from thousands of years ago made me realize just how ancient is the need to adorn ourselves with beautiful objects, and to adorn even our most everyday objects with pictures and designs.  It's part of the human condition, and appears in every culture's objects.

I also liked looking at some of the furniture on display, of a far more recent vintage.  I could see how the Arts and Crafts furniture makers were influenced by Asian designs.

Verdict: Have a look at this good stuff before it vanishes!

Perspectives: Chiharu Shiota

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: August 18-21, 2014

I saw something I'd never seen before at a museum this week: an installation of an exhibit.  Usually, when a new show is being put up, the doors are locked or dividers surround the work, so you can't see what's going on.  A bit frustrating, but understandable.  I wouldn't want people looking at my half-finished projects either.

The Sackler took a different approach to their latest offering in the "Perspectives" series.  Rather than hiding the efforts of the artist, they've put the creative process on display.  I went over on Tuesday and saw about half of what's in this picture.  No work was going on when I was there, but I thought that might be because it was lunch time.  I went back later in the week, and they were holding some sort of press reception, so lots of activity, but the piece looked pretty complete.

I didn't get to see the artist at work exactly, but I did get to see the display in process.  It was interesting, and I hope they do this again.  Maybe then I'll go at a non-lunch time period and see the artist actually at his craft.  I'm looking forward to seeing the finished product when it opens at the end of the month.

Verdict: If you get a chance to see a work being installed, take advantage of the chance to look "behind the curtain."

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Tale of Two Exhibits

Yesterday, I took myself to the Natural History Museum, intending to see two exhibits.  One was the interactive "Walk Among Dinosaurs!" and the other was "Once There Were Billions" about several species of extinct birds.  For all the hype about the ability to "meet" dinosaurs, the real star of the show is in the basement, with nary a sign to guide you to her.

Where: Natural History Musem

When: through September 2, 2014

What could be more exciting than seeing yourself face-to-face with prehistoric creatures?  You can "pet" them and make horror-struck faces and swerve to avoid being eaten.    Somehow, though, the whole thing fell flat.  The movie technology is fine, and I think the small kids in the audience enjoyed themselves, with the help of some fun-loving dads, but this just isn't my thing.  Perhaps you get what you pay for with these "augmented reality" displays, and since I paid nothing, well, you get the idea.

I appreciate that the museum has a big problem right now.  The dinosaur area, one of their most popular exhibit halls, is closed for a long time, and although it will doubtless be greatly improved when it re-opens, at the moment, they're scrambling to find something to fill this gaping void in their offerings.

Verdict: If you've got little kids, by all means go see this, as they'll doubtless enjoy themselves.  Adults can probably give this walk a pass.

Where: Natural History Museum

When: through October 2015

The second exhibit I saw was about as unlike the dinosaur walk as it is possible to imagine.  There are two big display cases next to the gift shop by the Constitution Avenue entrance, and the Smithsonian Library uses them to put up displays.  They tend to feature books from the Smithsonian holdings and artifacts from their warehouses.  Where the dinosaur walk used cutting-edge technology, this is heavy on text, and those display cases have been around since I was a child (possibly longer).

This display provides information and specimens of extinct bird species.  It is, in fact, all the info I had wished for when I saw the bronzes of these birds outside the museum and in the Haupt Garden.  Why, why is there no indication that this exhibit is here on the plaques identifying the statutes?  Just a few lines saying something to the effect of: if you're interested in these species and how they became extinct (spoiler alert: it's people), go see the display "Once There Were Billions" on the ground floor of the Natural History Museum."  How hard would that be?

Correction 8/23/14:  As it happens, I was in the Haupt Garden this week, and I saw that they do reference the "One There Were Billions" exhibit on one of the informational plaques.  So I take back my criticism for the lack of cross-referencing.  The rest of my rant stands.

If it were only a matter of a lack of cross-referencing, I would just shake my head and move on.  I've seen this before in the American History museum.  Come on people, help the tourists out.  They come for a day, they don't know exactly what you've got, give them some information so they can see things that interest them.

But it's not just that.  In this display case, is Martha, the last passenger pigeon, who died in (I think) 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo.  I don't mean it's a model of her, or a photograph; I mean it's actually her.  Her body was stuffed after she died, and she belongs to the Smithsonian.  Usually, she's in a climate-controlled cabinet somewhere, far from the museum itself, but until October 2015, she's on display.  The last passenger pigeon!  And you can see her!  This should be big news; they should be promoting this all over their website and with big signs when you walk in.  Instead, nothing.  If I hadn't been reading the notes in the display case carefully, I would have missed her entirely.

What were they thinking?  If you're going to pull a specimen of this level of historical significance out of storage, why not make a big deal out of it?  Make Martha the centerpiece of a big display on extinction and the need for conservation.

Verdict: Go see this.  It's informative, it's small enough that it's easily managed in a lunch hour, and you can see the last passenger pigeon.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Our Lives: Contemporary Life and Identities

Where: National Museum of the American Indian

When: through July 6, 2015

This is one of the major display areas of the NMAI, and I'm assuming it was formerly a permanent exhibit.  It's quite good, although too large for a lunch time visit, unless you work across the street from the museum and can waste no time in travel to and fro.  I work a good distance from this part of the Mall, so I'm always in a hurry when I visit.  That's why I like the shows in the Sealaska Gallery so much: they're small enough that I can see them without rushing.

The exhibit is well-organized; in the middle of the very large space is general information on the current-day lives of Native Americans.  Around the walls are information on individual Indian tribes from around the country.  There's even a group (who are not officially recognized as a tribe) in Virginia, which was news to me.

Each group lives differently and faces different challenges in incorporating their traditional way of life into modern American society.  Two of the tribes must deal with living on opposite sides of borders: one group in the United States and Canada and the other group in the United States and Mexico.  When the boundaries between the nations were established, the tribe members were given the right to move freely back and forth, but maintaining those rights has been a struggle over the years.

One can only wonder what will go in this space after this show closes next July.  The issue of how Native Americans hold on to their culture, while living in the United States is one that I think would resonate with many people whose ancestors came from other countries and had to decide how much of their old ways to abandon in order to become Americans.  We can only hope something equally thought-provoking will move into this area on the 3rd floor.

Verdict: You've got plenty of time to see this show before it closes next summer.  You may want to take a couple of lunch hours in order to see all of it.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

One Life: Grant and Lee: "It is well that war is so terrible..."

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through May 25, 2015

The latest installment in the excellent "One Life" series features Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee; half the room is devoted to one and half to the other.  Turn in one direction as you enter the room to learn about Grant and turn in the other direction to learn about Lee.  Directly across from the door are two representations of the meeting at Appomattox Courthouse.

The look of the room is excellent.  The walls are painted a deep maroon color, and the windows have matching drapes in an 1860s style.  You feel as if you've stepped into a Civil War-era parlor.  The content is also quite informative.  I know a little about the Civil War, as my husband is quite interested in the period and a few stray facts have entered by mind by osmosis, but I'm certainly no expert.  I learned about the final year of the war and the Battle of the Wilderness, in which Grant pressed his numerical advantage in troops to finally defeat the Confederate Army.

My quarrel with this exhibit is that it's part of the "One Life" series.  It's not one life; it's two.  The whole point of "One Life" is to showcase one person, not to show the relationship between two people, no matter how intertwined their lives.  If the Portrait Gallery would like to start a new series called "Two Lives" and set up displays showing other pairs of important Americans, I'm all for it.  As it is, this just doesn't belong.  I think they could have set this up, either in another space, or in the "One Life" room (they could have taken a hiatus from "One Life" to accommodate this) as part of their Civil War displays, and I would have been all for it.  As part of "One Life," it just makes no sense.

Verdict: I've recommended this to friends with an interest in the Civil War, but you'll need to be a bit less anal retentive than I am in order to get over the fact that it isn't "One Life."