Saturday, March 28, 2015

We Three Kings

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through July 5, 2015

There's nothing I like better than seeing works of art that haven't been seen in a long time, or won't ever be seen outside of their home country again or haven't been together in many years.  The three paintings by Rubens meant to represent the "Three Magi" who came to bring gifts to the infant Jesus were painted around 1618 for a friend of Rubens (who had been named after one of the kings; his two brothers had been named after the others).  They currently reside in three different museums and haven't been on display in one place in over 130 years.

The National Gallery owns the middle aged king and is the reason they aren't often together.  The terms of the gift of the painting from Chester Dale mandate the the painting not only never be sold, but also that it is not allowed to travel to another museum.  I have no problem with stipulating that a painting can't be sold, but to insist that it never be loaned?  That seems wrong to me.  So many people will never have an opportunity to travel to Washington, why not make a piece available to other museums in other places?  What if some other museum was putting on a big Rubens show?  Wouldn't it make sense to get as many pieces together as possible?

Oh well, I'm fortunate enough to live here in the DC area, so I can take advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity and see all the kings on one wall.  Even though these are not portraits of actual kings, they are certainly realistic.  The young king with his bright eyes and glowing box; the middle aged king with his fine robes and the old king, with his kindly expression of having seen much in his lifetime all are more then symbolic - they look like real people.

In Antwerp, where Rubens' friend lived, the story of the Magi had great resonance.  It was a city that operated for international trade, so the idea of traveling monarchs carrying goods was one that the city adopted readily.  The old king, whose portrait now resides in Puerto Rico and the middle-aged king are now far distant from Belgium, but the young king remains in Belgium.

Verdict: How could you pass up the chance to see these paintings in a group?  The only thing better would be if it were Christmas time!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Other than that, how was the play Mrs. Lincoln?

Where: American History Museum

When: through May 25, 2015

The Conestoga Wagon and 1964 Mustang are gone from the 1st floor main hall of American History, and the carriage that took Abraham Lincoln to Ford's Theater is now in their place.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's assassination, and in conjunction with an exhibit at Ford's, the American History Museum has borrowed Lincoln's barouche (shades of Mrs. Elton from Emma!) from its current location at the Studebaker National Museum.

It's in such good condition, you'd swear you could hitch up some horses and ride around town, and I suppose this is because it's never gotten much use.  It's really a lovely vehicle, despite its somber association.

If you're at American History, be sure to stop by and see this.  You can easily add this on to a trip to see another exhibit in a lunch hour.

Verdict: A great way to see a piece of history that's usually not in the DC area; some good information on small plaques around the vehicle provides historical context.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

More Benin History than Photography

Where: Museum of African Art

When: through September 13, 2015

It's been a while since I've been to the African Art Museum; I think that's because they don't have as much space for rotating exhibits as the Sackler does.  Of course, much of the available space at present is taken up with the Cosby Collection show.  A pity that what should have been an interesting display has been overshadowed by the disturbing news concerning Bill Cosby.  I still intend to go see the show - it's not the art's fault that (if the stories are true) he's a predator.

But enough of that, let's focus our attention on the exhibit at hand, which deals with Benin and its photography.  I knew very little about Benin before I came to this show, and didn't think I'd learn so much about this part of the world by seeing it.  In fact, the show is far more about the history and art of Benin than it is about Chief S. O. Alonge, one of Benin's early photographers.

Alonge became the official court photographer and produced the first official photographs of the royal court.  Many of the photographs included in the show come from the Eliot Elisofon photographic archives, which called to mind the show I saw a while back about that collection.

Benin is a region in what is now Nigeria, and the king rules from Benin City.  The British were involved in the area for many years, not always happily, either for themselves or the people of Benin.  Perhaps my favorite historical photograph in the collection is one of Queen Elizabeth II on a visit to the area in 1956 greeting Oba Akenzua II (the ruler at the time), who is in full regalia.  The Queen looks like she could have stepped out of a London garden party, so the juxtaposition does provoke a smile.

Alonge also had his own photography studio and was a successful wedding and portrait photographer.  The photograph shown above is quite arresting - the reproduction really doesn't do it justice.  The young woman pictured is very pretty and her expression is quite charming and friendly.

Of the art on display, I was very much impressed with an enormous elephant tusk with quite elaborate carving.  I felt guilty about admiring it: the craftsmanship is amazing, but the poor elephant!

Verdict: An intriguing show of interest both to those who like photography and 20th century African history.

The 1960s as Seen by TIME

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through August 9, 2015

How to capture the turbulent, exciting, violent, cultural upheaval that was the 1960s - this was the Portrait Gallery's mission in a small exhibit now on in a hallway on the 2nd Floor.  Since they have an extensive collection of art from the cover of TIME Magazine, they've used those covers to illustrate what was going on, and what was of interest to people living through this tumultuous period.

All the people and events you'd expect are here, from the worlds of politics, art, music and science.  Perhaps the most interesting objects on display are not covers per se but models of Raquel Welch and The Beatles used to make covers.

Verdict: If you're interested in the 1960s, or in how current events are recorded in popular periodicals, spend a few moments walking down this hallway, transformed into memory lane. 

Yet More Nature Photography

Where: National Museum of Natural History

When: through late Summer 2015

As if the Nature's Best photography display weren't enough, there's a second exhibit of fantastic nature shots on offer at Natural History.  It's on the 2nd floor close by the Korea Gallery and the "Beyond Bollywood" show, so a bit off the beaten path.  Whatever time you spend finding the room will be well repaid; this is top-notch nature photography by incredibly talented photographers.

The theme of the work is the American Wilderness, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, signed by President Johnson in 1964.  Out of the 5,000 photographs received for this display, 63 are here in the show.  They are divided into professional, amateur and student offerings - each is wonderful.  Just like the Nature's Best display, these are largely oversized photos, printed on the finest paper.  I noticed that one young photographer, Thomas Goebel, aged 18, was named the Winner of the "Scenic Landscape: Student" category and received an Honorable Mention in the Inspirational: Student" category.  I can only imagine that I'll be seeing more of his work in years to come.

In addition to the photographs, there's an actual dinosaur fossil on display as well.  The Bisti Beast, who lived 10 million years before the T. Rex, has taken up residence in the room, so even though the main dinosaur exhibit is closed for the present, these ancient creatures are still on display here and there.

Verdict: If you like nature photography, this is a do not miss show.

Madness and a Few Common Household Items

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: through August 2, 2015

"Mingering Mike" - who was he?  Why did he decide to create a phony musical career?  Why not channel his artistic talents in another direction?  There are no answers, but his show at the American Art Museum makes it fun to ask the questions.

Found at a flea market and now owned by the museum, this collection of album covers, records and other evidence of  a vast musical career is the work of a young DC man who clearly loved the R&B and funk music of the city from the 1950s - 1970s.

It's hard to describe the collection exactly, as it's not like anything else I've ever seen.  Everything is fake; there was no Mingering Mike (at least, not a Mingering Mike who was a musician) and he never released these albums and singles.  The artist created all of this out of cardboard.  The 45s are the most impressive works, in my view, as they look so realistic.  He's even pained in the grooves, at the point at which they would appear on a real record.

The amazing thing is not so much that he made one album cover, but that he made them for so long.  This represents the work of years.  I was reminded of the tin foil sculpture in the museum's folk art collection - where is the line between madness and artistry?

As the wall notes at the beginning of the show state, "His musical career was never real, but everything he made was entirely authentic."

Verdict: If you like R&B or funk music, if you're interested in the musical history of DC, or if you are a fan of outsider art, this show is a can't miss.

Two exhibits from the National Gallery of Art Library

 Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through June 12, 2015 and through August 2, 2015

The National Gallery of Art's two library spaces have new (well new-ish) exhibits on display, and you can make a luncheon trip to see both of them.  Very different in content and presentation, they allow you to get an idea of the breadth of the library's collection.

In the East Building (inside the library itself) is a selection of items from the Feller Collection.  These are not art books in the sense of being reproductions of art, or surveys of a particular artist or art movement, but are more "how to" guides, instructional manuals, books about artistic techniques.

Meanwhile, in the West Building, the library's little outpost room has a display focusing on Florentine publishing during the Renaissance.  The books on display are interesting to examine, some of them quite ornate.  My problem is that there's not a lot of explanation - no wall notes or cards next to the books.  There are pamphlets available, but that's a bit more information than I really want.  I'd like something between nothing and a multi-page description, and I suspect I'm not alone.

Verdict: If you have an interest in books about art, these small displays are worth a look.  While the weather remains inclement here in DC, take advantage of the underground connection between the two buildings to stay out of the cold and damp.