Thursday, October 30, 2014

Out of Many, One

Where: National Mall Reflecting Pool, visible from the Washington Monument

When: through October 31, 2014

I took the afternoon off today to go up in the Washington Monument and see this portrait made of sand and soil, set up next to the Reflecting Pool, between the WWII and Lincoln Memorials.

It had been at least 25 years since I'd visited the Washington Monument, and the views from the top are lovely.  DC is a beautiful city, although it's easy to lose sight of that, when your mired in traffic, or dealing with a barely functional subway system or trying to find a bit of peace and quiet downtown.  You can see in all directions from this height, and there's something picturesque out of each observation window.

Of course, for today and tomorrow, you can also see this portrait by the Cuban-American artist Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada.  It's a composite picture, made of the facial features of several people, hence the title.  It's an interesting idea, and having it visible only from above does make it more of an event than it might otherwise be.

The problem is that you're so far away from the piece that seeing it from the Monument is not much different than seeing it online or in the newspaper.  You don't feel as if you're in the presence of the "real thing" in the way you do when you see a painting or sculpture in a museum.  Even if it's behind glass, you're still in the room with it.  With this installation, you're still at a remove.  I feel as if I've seen it, but I haven't experienced it.

That having been said, I'm glad I went up and would go again if something similar were on display in future.  Note that beginning next May, the Park Service will be offering "walk down" tours of the Monument.  You take the elevator to the top, but walk down with a guide.  It takes two hours, so you need to block out some time for this.  If I'm feeling particularly energetic some day, I'll give it a try.

Verdict: Come for the views, whether of the portrait or of the city generally.  You have to plan ahead in order to get tickets, but it's worth taking the time to do at least once in your life.

From the Library: The Book Illustrations by Romeyn de Hooghe

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through January 25, 2015

Lots of pieces have moved at the National Gallery of Art, as the West Building has made way for works from the East Building, but the little room where exhibits from the museum's library are displayed is still in the same place.  It's tucked away on the ground floor in room G21; happily there's a sign over the door that lets you know you've reached the right place.

The current display is one of book illustrations by Romeyn de Hooghe, a person with whom I was completely unfamiliar until I saw this offering of some of his work.  Sadly, I'm not much more informed now than I was before I looked at this display.  Rather than put up some wall notes to give the visitor a little background information, the Gallery has put out brochures to take.  I appreciate the trouble they've taken to create and print these, but frankly, I just want a few sentences - not pages of info.  I suppose it's my own fault for not looking at the brochure, but a short description of each piece, with a paragraph or two of introduction would have suited me better, and saved a few trees in the process!

I was further stymied by the fact that that the text of the books is almost entirely in Dutch, which I don't read.  I tried a bit of a French text, but didn't get very far.  I certainly can't blame the National Gallery for my own lack of language skills, but I can't imagine most other visitors would have fared any better.

On the plus side, one of the books displayed seems to be picturing a festival, and it reminded me of the View Painting exhibit I saw some years back.  I enjoyed that show and was happy to have it recalled to my memory.

Verdict: Unless you're a great fan of 17th century Dutch book illustrations (in which case, I advise you to run right out and have a look at this), you can safely skip this little show.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Degas's Little Dancer

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through January 11, 2015

It's worth the trouble to find Degas' lovely sculpture, the only one he made with his own hands.  It's on the Main Floor, at the 4th Street end of the building.  You have to walk through several rooms to get to it, but there are helpful signs along the way.

Placed in a glass case that both protects the piece and allows you to see it from all sides, the sculpture is accompanied by several Degas paintings, including two from the Corcoran collection.  They blend in beautifully; unless you looked at each piece to see where it was from, you'd never know which were the newcomers to the National Gallery's Degas pieces.

The star of the show, of course, is the little dancer herself.  The model for the piece was a 14 year old girl, originally from Belgium, who had a promising career in the ballet, but never became a famous ballerina.  What happened to her is unknown.  Her image, however, is well known to art lovers; she continues to delight us long after even a successful career on the stage would have ended.  Little consolation to her, of course, but a kind of immortality, none the less.

The piece is wonderful; the expression on the girl's face and her pose are quite appealing.  There's a realism that extends beyond the clothing and wig made of real human hair.  You almost expect her to begin practicing her steps as you walk around the room.  There's also an earthy quality to the piece; the model would have come from modest circumstances, and there's nothing pampered or cosseted about this depiction of her.  It's a fascinating piece that draws the eye.

I was happy to see that, in addition to situating the sculpture in a room filled with Degas dancer paintings, there's also information directing the visitor to other Degas works in the museum.  Nothing like a little cross-referencing to help those who might not be familiar with the Gallery's layout and holdings.

Verdict: Don't miss this opportunity to see a captivating work displayed very well indeed.

The Journey: A National Juried Exhibition for Emerging Artists with Disabilities, Ages 16-25

Where: Ripley Center

When: through January 5, 2015

At long last, an opportunity to return to the Ripley!  I can't remember when they last had an exhibit in the International Gallery, and I don't see one scheduled any time soon.  It's a shame, really.  As much as the space itself is not terribly appealing, I've seen some great shows in there.  Oh well, I can only hope that 2015 provides me with a chance to return.

The show I saw earlier this week is set up in the main space, a sort of hallway that provides access to various lecture rooms, offices and other museums.  It's a bit of an odd area for a display, but it's better than the little corridor they've used for this show in the past.  For I wasn't just happy to be returning to the Ripley, I was also happy to be seeing this exhibit of works by young artists with disabilities.  This is the third, or maybe fourth, year I've seen this, and it's always full of interesting (well, sometimes weird) pieces.

The piece that caught my eye this year was "Never Stopping" by Gianna Paniagua.  Gianna is the recipient of a heart transplant, and the piece was meant to portray that major event in her life.  Her piece consists of paper cuttings put together into a collage; I can't imagine how much work that must take, to cut all that paper by hand.  She describes it as a form of meditation, and I can see how, once you had learned how to do the cutting, it could become meditative.  Her images include legs, bananas and hands in circular patterns, along with cutout paper, that has a flowing motion to it.  What I took from this piece was that life is a flow; we're always running, always reaching for something.

At what point, though, does this reaching and striving become too much?  At what point do we need to slow down, to turn inward, to think before acting?  Isn't that what art asks us to do?  To pause and examine what's in front of us; to get wisdom not only from the journey, but from the stops along the way?

Verdict: This show is worth a look every year.  You never know when today's "emerging artist" will become tomorrow's celebrated master.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

A Subtle Beauty: Platinum Photographs from the Collection

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through January 4, 2015

Yoga classes and lunch meetings meant I only took in one exhibit this week: photography at the National Gallery.  Rather than venturing off to Burma and India with Captain Tripe, this time I joined the Photo-Secessionists and went no further afield than Europe.

The Photo-Secessionists were early 20th century rebels, who viewed photography as a fine art.  Yes, yet another display that asks "is photography art?"  One can only imagine it must get wearisome to create a spectacular photograph, and then be greeted by people certain they can do the same thing with their new phone.  At least if you're a painter, critics may like or dislike your work, but they will admit it's art.

I decided some while ago that photography is art, and I was struck while looking at this small show by how abstract it can be.  Included in the second room is a photograph of Aubrey Beardsley taken by Frederick Evans, and it's almost entirely angles.  You'd think Picasso had created it.  The terribly long fingers, the straight line of his hair, his quite pointed nose - all very linear.  Contrast that with many of the other shots, which would have been right at home in the Pre-Raphaelite show from last year.

Verdict: A small show that's worth a look, especially if you're interested in the history of photographic techniques.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

A visit to Hillwood

Where: Hillwood Estate

When: Cartier exhibit is on display until December 31, 2014

Marjorie Merriweather Post, the heir to the Post cereal fortune, purchased Hillwood in 1955; it opened to the public in 1977.  It contains her collection of art and decorative items, which focus on both French and Russian pieces.

From a chair owned by Marie Antoinette to Russian icons purchased after the revolution, each room is, in its own way, fabulous.  It is, frankly, a bit overwhelming, especially for the first-time visitor.  Happily, an audio tour is included in the price of admission, so you at least know what you're looking at as you wander from room to room.

My particular reason for going was to see the special exhibit on her collection of Cartier pieces, which is set up in the Adirondack Building.  (Note that there are several buildings on the estate, plus the gardens, so it's a good idea to get a map at the information desk.)  Post was one of the Cartier brothers' most important clients; she purchased pieces from them for many years and wore their jewelry while being presented at Court, while attending diplomatic social events in Russia, as the wife of the ambassador and while serving as a prominent socialite in the United States.  The display is relatively small - just one room, so you can look at everything in a short time.

Hillwood has a lovely gift shop, which is open to the public, even if you don't pay admission to the house, so think of it as the holiday season approaches.  You can easily spend the best part of a day here, especially if you have a fine day and want to walk around the gardens.

Verdict: A wonderful place to visit, a bit off the beaten path, but well worth a trip!

Captain Linnaeus Tripe: Photographer of India and Burma, 1852–1860

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through January 4, 2015

Several new shows have opened recently at the National Gallery, and this display of photographs from mid-19th century India and Burma is one of them.  Tripe worked for the British East India Company when he took these pictures; they were designed to inform his employers about these two countries.  You might think that they would be rather dull - nothing artistic about them, but that's not the case.  Even though he took these photos for work purposes, they are well composed and very interesting to look at, even if you're not working for the British East India Company.

Tripe's military precision and attention to detail served him well in India, where the climate made photography quite difficult.  He managed to achieve consistent results, even with all the heat and humidity.  Granted consistency and a detail-oriented personality doesn't make one think of great artists, but when you need to contend with conditions that are working against your developing any sort of picture, those humble virtues are what allow you to create at all.

Two photographs really stood out for me.  The first is Rangoon: Signal Pagoda which is of a pagoda on which the British had put a signaling apparatus.  They thought they'd successfully transformed a local building into a useful device; the Burmese thought they'd desecrated a holy site.  It serves as a depiction of the British occupation of the area in microcosm.  The British believed they were bringing civilization; the Burmese though they were destroying their culture.  Perhaps they're both right.

Lest you think the British were entirely successful, the locals may have had the last laugh.  The second photograph I particularly noted is Royacottah: View Overlooking the Country, South-Southeast from Inside the Fort Gate.  This fort had been occupied by the British in the late 1700s and viewed by them as impregnable - a great triumph in their battle against the natives.  Fifty years later, when Tripe took his picture, it was abandoned and overgrown.  So much for the immortality of anything foreign to a local environment.

As I looked at these pieces, I was reminded both of Kiyochika and Marville, recording their cities in times of change.  These photos give you a sense of a particular time period and a particular point of view.  Don't look for people in these shots; the technology didn't allow for the capture of movement without blurring.  These are, for the most part, only empty streets and landscapes.  Also like Marville, there came a time when there was no more work for Tripe; the British Army took over India and the British East India Company ceased to hold the reins of power.  Tripe was therefore out of a job, as far as photography went, and he hung up his camera when he was only in his 30s.  A shame, as he could doubtless have turned his eye to other subjects, had he wished to do so.

Verdict: Worth a look, especially if you're interested in India or Burma, English history or early photographic techniques.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Hawaii by Air

Where: National Air and Space Museum

When: through July 2015

Hawai'i is one of the most remote places on earth.  If you look at a map, it's in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, many hours flight, even from the West Coast of the United States.  There are 120 islands in the chain, which is far more than I realized.  In addition to the major islands that make up most people's vacation itinerary, there are numerous smaller atolls and islets.

People have been traveling to Hawai'i for hundreds of years, mostly by water.  Although it was originally used by sailors as a way station, some visitors went purely for pleasure, including, in 1866, Mark Twain, who fell in love with the islands and included a description of them in his book Roughing It.  In 1898, the United States annexed the islands and the number of visitors increased.  In the 1920s wealthy travelers took luxury liners to see the sights, and Waikiki Beach became a tourist destination.  For those who couldn't make the journey, Hawai'i came to American homes via a radio show called "Hawai'i Calls," which featured island music.

Flying clipper ships replaced ocean liners, and passengers traveled to the islands in first class - the only class there was.  After World War II, more airlines were able to fly to Hawai'i, and the trip became both faster and cheaper.  Now, it's hard to think of Hawai'i as remote, as so many people have made the trip.

The display is informative and well done; I was delighted to see several signs directing visitors both to other exhibits at Air and Space, as well as to other displays on the Mall.  Finally, a little cross-referencing!  Was that so hard?  One can only hope that other museums will pick up on this idea.

As much as Air and Space is not my favorite museum, I have seen some intriguing shows there, and happily, this one was located on the west side of the first floor, which is much less crowded than other parts of the building.

Verdict: If you're at all interested in Hawai'i or the history of travel generally, have a look at this small show - easily managed in a lunch hour.