Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Play's Not the Thing

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through October 2, 2015

I don't get over to the East Building of the National Gallery of Art very much anymore, now that it's under construction and no exhibits are going on there.  I'll be glad when they re-open, as the West Building just doesn't have the space necessary for a blockbuster show.  Plus, there will be a roof garden!  And who doesn't like sitting in a roof garden on a lovely day?

For the moment, however, we must content ourselves with the display case in the Gallery's library.  Not so exciting as the Ballet Russes, but with its own quiet charm.  The current display is of books dealing with theater set design.  These aren't books of plays, but books about famous theaters: architectural drawings and big fold-out floor plans.  Several European countries are represented: France, Italy, Hungary, Germany and England.

I liked the display; the over-sized books and foldouts are eye-catching.  I'm no student of the technical side of the theater, so the content was lost on me, but if you are interested in that sort of thing, this would be of interest.

Verdict: Worth a visit, just to escape the heat, humidity and hurly-burly of tourists that is Washington in the summertime.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Just Not a Big Fan of Prints

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through October 4, 2015

The National Gallery has recently added to its collection of prints, and they've set up a display on the ground floor to highlight their new acquisitions.  The show is in the two-room space across from the main special exhibit rooms.  I like this space; you get a very manageable number of things to see, making it ideal for a lunch hour excursion.

These prints are from the Italian Renaissance, a period which has been celebrated more for the historical importance of its prints, rather than their beauty.  The wall notes suggest that it is time to reconsider this assessment and look at these works as works of art, not just as technical achievements.

One of items on display is the "Hyperotomachia Poliphili," which is billed as the most beautiful illustrated book of the Italian Renaissance.  I wish the prints had been in color, as black and white is just not very interesting to me.  I tried to be enthralled with the artwork, but it was hard going.  I did appreciate the typeface and the arrangement of the print on the pages on view - it was shaped like a banner, coming to a point at the bottom - very clever, I thought.

Verdict: If you like prints, go see this show.  If not, well, you can safely skip it.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

A Pleasant Surprise

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through January 10, 2016

I flatter myself that I usually know whether I'm going to like a show or not before I step foot in a museum.  Either I'm familiar with the artist or the genre, or I'm intrigued by the historical subject, and I'm pretty sure I'll like it, or I make myself go see something out of a sense that perhaps I'll learn something, or maybe it won't be as bad as I think.  By this time (I've been going to museum exhibits regularly for almost six years now), I'm usually right.

But every once in a while, I'm wrong.  Happily wrong.  I think I'll not really care for something, or it won't be of much interest, and instead I'm quite taken with an artist or fascinated with a subject.  The current display of portraits by Elaine de Kooning at the National Portrait Gallery is just such an instance: I walked in thinking I'd not care for her work, but I left a fan.

Her portraits are unusual, in that rather than faithfully recreating someone's features, they use abstraction to express the sense of a person - how they move or the gestures they make.  They are portraits of the things about a person that makes them recognizable, even if you can't see their face.  And often, you can't see her subject's face, as she's erased it, or painted it out.

Something I really liked about this show, and it's not a technique I've seen before, is the inclusion of pencil studies for the portraits.  These are surprisingly precise, much more like a traditional portrait.  You see the starting point for the painting, and then you see the finished artwork.  And I think that shows just how artistic the portraits are.  Usually, you look at a portrait, and you evaluate it based on how much it looks like the subject.  You think, "That's a great portrait of so-and-so; it looks just like her!"  You can do that with the preliminary studies, because (I'm assuming) that's their purpose.  Once you see the paintings, however, you've moved past the point of expecting a photographic image - you can see the art as well as the subject.

There were several pieces in this exhibit that I'd seen before.  One of the Kennedy paintings was on display in 2013, and I know I've seen the Donald Barthelme and Merce Cunningham pieces before.  (But in what show?  Curse this middle-aged brain!)

I also felt quite intellectual when I read the wall notes for a pencil study she did for a self-portrait.  The writer indicated that the piece was so precise that it might have been a silverpoint.  Imagine my self-satisfaction in knowing what that meant!  Thank you very much, National Gallery of Art.

Verdict: I highly recommend this show.  It was, to me at least, surprisingly good.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Couldn't help but be reminded of the Stonecutter's Song

Where: American History Museum

When: through September 30, 2015

The Central Hall on the 1st floor of the American History Museum is turning into a display area for historic modes of transportation.  First, we had the Prairie Schooner, then the 1964 Mustang, now an electric car from the 1990s.  Plus, now that I think about it, the carriage Lincoln rode in the night he was assassinated.

The electric car is a concept almost as old as cars themselves.  I read somewhere (was it in Smithsonian magazine?) that the earliest car manufacturers had to decide between gasoline and electricity as the power source for automobiles, and opted for gas, as it was cheaper at that time.  The mind reels at thinking of how world history would have been different if they'd chosen electricity instead...  In any event, electric cars are starting to come into their own now, with hybrids a common sight on the roads, and Teslas available to those with plenty of ready cash.

In the 1990s, however, all of that was in the future, and electric cars existed, but weren't getting much traction (no pun intended).  In 1996, GM decided to make a few (1,117) electric cars and sell them in California, Arizona and Georgia.  By 2003, they canceled the project, as increasing costs led to decreasing demand.  Clearly, the EV1 (the car on display) was ahead of its time.  Of course, by 2010 the Chevrolet Volt made its way to market and enjoyed some success.

The thing that struck me about the EV1 is how it appears both old-fashioned and ultra-modern at the same time, a look I've decided to call "retro futuristic."  It's what I imagine people in the 1950s thought Americans would be driving in the 1990s.  Or, as Lisa Simpson put it about Epcot Center, "It's what the people in 1965 thought the world would be like in 1987."  In case you're wondering about the title of this blog entry, that's a Simpsons reference too.

Fun vocabulary fact I picked up while reading the notes: an invention is an idea for a new product; an innovation is actually creating the product and bringing it to market.

Verdict: If you'd like to get an up close view of an early electric car, this is the next best thing to a test drive.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

A Blast from the Past

Where: American History Museum

When: through January 2016

I've mentioned before how much I enjoy the exhibits in the Small Documents Gallery on the 2nd floor of American History, and this display is another interesting examination of a piece of America's story - this time with a twist.  Rather than printed documents, which make up the usual show here, this time the documents are audio recordings.

Alexander Graham Bell, of telephone fame, was very interested in recorded sound, and worked on the idea of a phonograph.  Bell and two friends set up a company called Volta Laboratory here in Washington, at 1221 Connecticut Avenue, NW.  (Since that's close to the area where I used to work, I'm sure I've walked past that location numerous times, unaware of its historical connections.)

Lost to time for decades, as technology advanced and left these formats behind, the recordings they made languished in silence in a box at American History after they were donated to the museum for safekeeping, in case of a patent fight.  One usually thinks of donations to a museum as a noble gesture, designed to preserve the nation's history for future generations.  In this case, not so much.  Whatever the reason for the gift, I'm glad this is where the recordings wound up.

Now, thanks to a partnership among the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, the Library of Congress and the American History Museum, they are audible once again.  Not only can you see the recordings and read transcripts of their contents, you can actually hear them.   A software called IRENE allows old recordings to come to life - a way for content from endangered historic media to be heard by modern ears.

Among the recordings you can hear is Bell's actual voice, the only authenticated example of him speaking.  He reads out a text a couple of minutes long that closes with the words, "Hear my voice."  Now, after so many years, we can do just that.

Verdict: This is a small show and well worth seeing and hearing!