Wednesday, July 29, 2015

My Thanks to the Donors

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through December 13, 2015

The Sackler and Freer Galleries, although they owe their existence to the tremendous generosity of their naming donors, are the recipients of additional gifts each year.  Some patrons give works of art; others give money that allow the museum to make purchases.  Several new and anticipated gifts are currently on display at the Sackler in its South Galleries, close to the museum's shop.

Interestingly enough, two of the donors are from the field of mental health.  Both Dr. Arthur Sackler and his friend Dr. Paul Singer (whose collection of Chinese art Sackler in part financed and which was donated to the Sackler) were psychiatrists - is this coincidence or correlation?  Does the study of the human mind lead one to appreciate Asian art?

The exhibit does not have a theme per se.  As the wall notes indicate, "the only unifying element is the generosity of the donors."  And a fine unifying element that is.  I particularly liked a ceramic piece entitled Gathering Morning, an example of stoneware by Miyashita Zenji, pictured above.  The colors reminded me of a sunrise and the shape was very unusual - not symmetrical at all from front to back - a sort of rectangle that juts out in the front and back.  I've not seen a piece like it before, but I'll keep my eye out for more of Zenji's work in future.

I also enjoyed a statue of the Medicine Buddha.  He was worshiped in order to fend off disease, hunger, thirst, cold and mosquitoes.  I love the specificity of that last complaint.  The next time I'm bitten, I'll send a request to the Medicine Buddha and see if that's any more effective than bug spray.

Verdict: Seeing this display was an excellent reminder of the debt of gratitude I owe to the Smithsonian's donors.  Thanks to them, I've had many happy hours and learned a multitude of things.  This is worth a look if you're headed to the Sackler.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A Man of Contradictions

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through October 4, 2015

In addition to the Caillebotte show, the National Gallery has an exhibit of Joachim Wtewael paintings and prints on display on its Main Floor.  It's closer to the 4th Street entrance than the 7th Street entrance, so if you enter on 7th Street, you'll have the opportunity to walk through the museum and see what else is on the walls as you make your way to this show.

Joachim Wtewael was from the Netherlands and worked in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.  The first pieces you see in this show are family portraits, and they show a typical Dutch group; the men all have Van Dyke beards and ruffs; the women caps and Bibles close at hand.  A very proper gathering of merchants, you might easily think.

Not so fast.  Once you move past these offerings, you'll see quite the display of fleshy delights.  You get a hint of this in a Shepherd and Shepherdess set, that are far more earthy in tone than the rest of the portraits.  It's believed that Wtewael's daughter and son-in-law were the models for these.  If so, one wonders what the proper matron identified as Wtewael's wife would have thought of this.  One can only imagine that years of looking at her husband's mythological paintings made have inured her to art with sexual overtones.

But on to the non-family work, which is extensive and interesting.  Some of it is religious in topic.  Saint Sebastian gets some play, as well as Moses, the Christ Child and various shepherds.  If works of art inspired by the Bible are not your cup of tea, have no fear; there's plenty else to see.  Several takes on Mars and Venus being surprised in flagrante delicto by Vulcan are in the show, as examples of Wtewael's work on copper.  It was amazing to me that paintings completed over 400 years ago should be so vibrant and colorful today, but apparently copperplate does that.

There are also numerous scenes of mythological merry-making.  Lots of handsome gentlemen and voluptuous ladies behaving in ways that gentlemen and ladies are not supposed to behave.  It's all very sumptuous, no dour Dutch propriety here.  Something I noticed in all of these paintings is Wtewael's incredible attention to detail.  The smallest objects are rendered with fantastic precision.  My favorite work in the show is entitled Woman Selling Vegetables, and the fruit in the picture are so realistic, you want to reach right into the picture and pick them up.  It's not just the people who are sensuous.

The one jarring note is the way Wtewael paints feet.  There are any number of barefoot men and women depicted, not to mention various cupids, and everyone of them has big, ugly feet.  One expects this on men, especially if they're meant to be working men, but even on quite beautiful women, there are those big, ugly feet again.  What's up with that?  I understand that he was a Mannerist painter, and they do go in for distortion, but I'm pretty sure the distortion is meant to be elegant, not misshapen and hammer-toed.

Verdict: Feet aside, this is a good show, one I enjoyed and would recommend.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Taking a long view of the shore

Where: Sackler Gallery of Art

When: through September 13, 2015

When you walk down the stairs to the exhibit space at the Sackler, this video will meet your eyes.  It's long, over an hour, and focuses on the shoreline.  Driftwood is moved about by waves, people walk past the water on their travels and curious shapes (are they people, dogs, otters?) enjoy the beach.

This is a compilation of five films by the Iranian Abbas Kiarostami and they are dedicated to Yasujiro Ozu, a Japanese filmmaker who influenced Kiarostami's work.  This is presented in conjunction with the Shirin Neshat show at the Hirshhorn, and, I'm happy to say, you are directed to that show, so that those who wish to see more contemporary Iranian art can get their fill.

If you, like me, are unfamiliar with both of these artists, no worries.  I was mesmerized by the driftwood film, regardless of my ignorance.  It's just driftwood on a beach, but I got caught up in wondering if the waves would grab it and move it down the beach or out to shore.

Imagine my excitement to see people walking down what appears to be a boardwalk in the next film!  I think some of them were the same people, but it was hard to be sure.  And then, I was enthralled by the figures on the beach.  I thought at first they were people, then decided they were dogs, and was about to consider if they were otters or something similar when one of them got up - dogs!

There are two other films in the series, but I had a limited amount of time to spend, so only saw three.  If you've got 74 minutes, enjoy a visit to the beach, without packing your sunblock!

I think the thing that has really stayed with me was not so much the visuals, but the sound.  The waves coming in, crashing on the shore and going out again, reminded me of family vacations to the ocean.  That sound never fails to relax me, even in the middle of a busy day, in a busy part of town.

Verdict: If you need a trip to the ocean, but can't quite make it out of the city, head to the Sackler - salt water taffy not provided! 

It's a Grand Old Flag

Where: American History Museum

When: through September 28, 2015

On opening day of the Innovation wing of the American History Museum, visitors and LEGO Master Builders created the world's largest American flag constructed out of LEGOs.  This flag is now on display in the center of the first floor of the museum.

I happened to be there that day and saw people putting the bricks together, so I guess this is the first time something I've seen an artifact being created.  If I'd realized it was going to go on display, I would have joined in! 

It's great, although if I were a nitpicker, I would point out that stars don't really look star-like.  Other than that, it's quite an achievement, especially when you consider it was put together in a matter of hours.

One question: how exactly does one get to be a LEGO master builder, and is it too late for me to choose that as my career path?

Verdict: If you'll be at American History any time before the end of September, make sure you have a look at this.

A trip to Philadelphia means a trip to the Barnes

Every so often, I leave the Washington, DC area, usually on business, and travel to another city.  I don't know what other people investigate first when they're traveling somewhere new, but I always figure out what art museums are open to the public, and how I can make my way there.

I've been to Philadelphia before, but the Barnes was pretty far out of town and inaccessible for someone without a car.  Now, it's moved into the city, and I was able to walk to it from my hotel.

What a fantastic experience!  The Barnes is not really an art museum, it's the collection of Dr. Barnes (now deceased) who ran an art school and used his collection in teaching.  He set up displays in order to demonstrate certain artistic techniques to the students, so the art is not arranged the way it is in other museums.  You don't have a room of Van Goghs (although you could) and a room of Renoirs (although you could) and a room of Picassos (although you could).  Everything is mixed together, and your job as a visitor is to find the connections between what, at first glance, are quite disparate pieces.

In addition to the art, there are also crafts - metal work hanging on the wall, and furniture in front of the paintings and pottery and candlesticks.  Dr. Barnes believed that all of these things are "art" and all of them are worthy of study and display.  And they all are part of his art - the arrangement of the items on a particular wall.  One doesn't usually think of collectors as artists; they're the people who support the artists, and one admires (or doesn't) their taste in art, but one thinks of them as consumers of art, rather than producers.  Dr. Barnes turned that idea on its head.  He made each wall of the building his canvas (in fact, the walls look like canvas) and the arrangement of great works on that canvas was his art.

More than any other museum I've visited, I recommend going on a guided tour with one of the docents.  I did that, and I feel like I not only gained an enormous amount of insight into this collection, but learned a lot about art in general.  I'm now a more intelligent viewer of works of art, and for someone whose primary non-work activity is going to museums (well, maybe secondary activity, since reading is doubtless my primary activity), that's saying a lot.

No museum is complete without a gift shop and the Barnes is no exception.  There are lots of lovely things for sale; I picked up a T-shirt that reads, "I stayed behind the line at the Barnes Foundation."  This is a reference to the line on the floor that dictates how close you can get to the artworks.  One is reminded to "stay behind the line" if one gets too close.

Verdict: If you are ever in Philadelphia, DO NOT miss this.  It's wonderful and eclectic and worth very dime of the (admittedly not cheap) admission fee.

The Photographer's Eye

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through October 4, 2015

The name of this exhibit is actually Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter's Eye, but I'm calling it "The Photographer's Eye," because some of this work is so precise and so of the moment, that you'd think you were looking at a photograph.  But a bit of background before we get started.

Gustave Caillebotte is one of the least well-known French Impressionists.  In part, this was because he had plenty of money and could afford to give his paintings away to friends.  Thus, not many of them turned up in museums.  Those "starving artists" had to sell their work, so more of it wound up in public spaces.  Caillebotte was also a collector of his friends' work, and he left his wonderful collection to the French state.  Since this included only two of his own works, he languished in obscurity until the mid-20th century.

I was first introduced to Caillebotte by the Masterpiece game.  It sounds ridiculous, but I'm willing to bet others got their earliest exposure to great art from that board game.  One of the works included was the one pictured above, Caillebotte's most famous work, Paris Street, Rainy Day which resides at the Art Institute of Chicago.  I saw it there almost three years ago, when on a business trip to the city, and I was happy to see it again.

What I noticed this time is how much like a photograph it is.  In addition to the precision of the painting, the scene is exactly the sort of thing you'd see walking down a busy street.  Clearly, it's composed: the umbrella handles mirror the lamppost and the spokes on the carriage wheels.  Everyone is carrying an identical umbrella.  The streets converge at a perfect point to show perspective in all directions.  But it doesn't feel composed.  It feels as if Caillebotte went out into the street on an overcast, gloomy, wet day and snapped a photo of Parisians scurrying out of the rain.  It's very cleverly done, precisely because it doesn't feel "done" at all.

Paris Street, Rainy Day dominates the room where it's displayed, as you might expect.  I read in a review that the National Gallery would not have put on the show without it, and I can understand why.  It's the star of the show and for good reason.

But, it's not the only reason to see the exhibit.  I would recommend another painting, The Yerres, Effect of Rain.  It's raindrops on a river, which doesn't sound like much, but which I think perfectly shows Caillebotte's mastery of precision and Impressionism.  The rain on the water (which one doesn't see terribly often, it seems to me) is very carefully done.  You see the circles on the water in a totally realistic way.  The trees on the opposite shore, however, are far more reminiscent of Monet or Renior - impressions of trees, rather than faithful recreations of the trees themselves.  The photographer is on display in the water, but the painter dominates in the background.

Verdict:  Don't miss this opportunity to learn more about Gustave Caillebotte - there's more to him than simply the rainy Paris streets you already know.

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Re-opening of the West

Where: American History Museum

When: through September 1, 2015

For several years now, the west wing of the American History Museum has been closed.  I never saw any announcement of the closure; I just realized one day that I hadn't been over there in a while, and when I went to investigate, I saw it was closed.  The museum is in the midst of a multi-year renovation of that part of the building, which is sort of surprising since they did a full renovation several years ago.  How could they need to renovate again?  I can only imagine that they got some money and are now able to do work they weren't able to do before.

Whatever the history behind all this, the first floor's west wing is now open again.  If I'm being honest, it still looks like an airport to me; I always feel like I'm making my way to a gate, worried that I'll miss my plane in a long line at security.  I'm hoping that's just me - American History was always my favorite museum when I was a kid, and I want people to like it.

Dedicated to American innovation and invention, it's a bright and shiny new array of exhibits, many of them interactive and designed to hold the interest of the museum's younger visitors.  I'm all in favor of displays that will leave a lasting positive impression on kids.  That's how you build a constituency for museum funding in years to come.  Some of my fondest memories are of class trips to the Smithsonian, and I like to think that other children are now having a great time there, just as I did.

For me, the best thing about this re-opening is that the museum's library and archives are open again.  Both have exhibits, and because they are a bit less "whiz bang" than the rest of the displays, they tend to be a little oasis of quiet in a desert of noise and hustle-bustle.

The current archives center display is on the television show, "Mr. Wizard."  I confess, I racked my brain, trying to remember this program on my way over to the museum, but try as I might, I could conjure no image.  Thinking that middle age was destroying my memory, you can imagine my relief when I discovered that the show was on the air from 1951-1965.  I don't feel bad about not recalling a show that went off the air when I was one year old.

Don Herbert was the star of the show, which revolved around science experiments suitable to be replicated at home.  The idea was that it was a way to interest kids in science, by allowing them to do actual experiments.  Each episode involved a young assistant, both boys and girls.  In its heyday, it had over 800,000 viewers, which seems like an enormous number.

Verdict: Have a glance at these two display cases and learn something about 1950's television.  If nothing else, it's a bit of breathing space amidst all the hoopla of the new exhibits.