Sunday, September 27, 2015

Come for the Pope, stay for the art?

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through December 1, 2015

I went over to the National Gallery on Friday to see this visiting Vermeer painting, and I was not alone.  A very large crowd of people greeted me, both in the room where this work is hanging and at the Caillebotte show, which I re-visited briefly.  The Caillebotte show closes next Sunday, so perhaps it was just a rush of people eager to catch it before it leaves, but I wondered if perhaps these were people who had flocked to Washington to see the Pope and decided to see some art after he decamped to New York?  Whatever the reason, it was busy and then some.

This Vermeer piece is on loan through the end of November from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  It's not been seen in the United States since the mid-1990s, when it made up part of the big Vermeer show here at the National Gallery, and it's been restored in the years since.  Even if you saw it before, it's worth another look now.

There's the effect of the light from the window, of course; this is a Vermeer we're talking about after all.  There's also the lovely blue color of the woman's smock, along with the darker blues of the chairs and the rod holding down the tapestry on the wall.  Looking at the woman, I wondered if she were pregnant?  Perhaps it's just her dress.

I noticed that what I call the "Mona Lisa effect" was a bit in evidence in the room where the painting was hanging.  All the attention was directed to this piece, and the other items got short shrift.  Not so much as in the room in the Louvre where the Mona Lisa hangs (all those other wonderful Leonardos, and no one gives them so much as a glance), but still, most of the attention was on the "Woman in Blue."  I suppose this is understandable, considering that this painting is only visiting, and the other works we will have always with us, but still...

Verdict: There are so few Vermeer paintings in the world, that any time you get to see one, you should do so.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

A Selection of Hirshhorn Pieces

Where: Hirshhorn Museum

When: through April 17, 2016

The third floor of the Hirshhorn has re-opened after being closed for renovation, and to mark the occasion, a number of items from the museum's permanent collection are on display.  Many of them are forgettable and ridiculous, but I'll focus on a couple of things I actually liked.

First, and this is the reason I recommend seeing this show, they have a Yinka Shonibare piece.  It's from his "Age of Enlightenment" series; this is of Antoine Lavoisier.  Shonibare has given the chemist a disability he did not possess in life, so he's presented seated in a wheelchair.  In addition to clothing Lavoisier in the Dutch wax cloth which is a trademark of his, Shonibare has covered the chair in it as well.  Great colors on both the mannequin and the chair.  It's always fantastic to see one of Shonibare's pieces, especially when you can get close up and really look at all the terrific details.

I also had a chance to see "Display Stand with Madonnas" by Katharina Fritsch, which I'd seen before in another Hirshhorn permanent collection display some years ago.  This is what I call "Yellow Virgin Marys" because it's a big display stand with lots of yellow statutes of the Virgin Mary.  You don't see that every day.

Verdict: Typical Hirshhorn, whether you like that or not.  Go for the Shonibare, but feel free to move quickly through the rest.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Ideas for a Postage Stamp Yard

Where: Ripley Center

When: through January 31, 2016

Hooray - another trip to one of my favorite subterranean destinations!  The Ripley concourse, having finished playing host to the winners of the Smithsonian employee art contest, is now the home of a few garden tableaux designed especially for small spaces.

The display pictured is sitting on a settee, and all of the displays would fit comfortably on an apartment balcony or in a townhouse front yard.  You need not abandon your green thumb simply because you don't have a mansion-sized estate.  You just have to scale down your ambitions a bit.

Featured are a fairy garden (pictured above), several terrariums, green walls, stumperies (plants grown in tree stumps or logs) and dish gardens.  The trick with these is to group together plants that need the same amount of water and sunlight.  An obvious point, but one worth making before you spend a lot of effort to put things in a small plot that look lovely, but just can't live together.

This exhibit is put on by the Smithsonian Gardens, a vital part of the institution that I suspect is often overlooked by visitors.  They have a huge orchid collection (which is where the plants for the annual orchid display originate), many tropical plant specimens and a greenhouse full of nectar plants that are used to provide sustenance for the Butterfly Pavilion at the Natural History Museum.  In addition to all this, they have a collection of over 1,700 garden furnishings, including items as old as the mid-1800s.

Verdict: If you have any interest in adding a bit of greenery to a small space, or are just a fan of gardening in general, this small display is worth a trip underground.

Pueblo Pottery Meets Art Deco

Where: American Art Museum

When: through January 31, 2016

When I saw this image on the Smithsonian, I became very interested in seeing this show.  I'd never heard of this artist before, but the idea of combining Native American design with Art Deco sounded great to me.  I LOVE Art Deco, and am in favor of combining it with anything.

To offer up just a bit of background on Tsireh, he was a Native American artist who took the pottery designs of his Pueblo people and made stylized watercolors that incorporated modernist trends that started in New York and spread across the country.  If he'd been working now, rather than in the early 20th century, I suppose I would say his work is a mash-up of traditional designs and Art Deco.

The first room of the show is Tsireh's early work, which is more traditional Native American art.  If you like that, you'll enjoy this.  The drawings are reminiscent of things I've seen at NMAI, and I admired their precision and depictions of rituals that were unfamiliar to me.  I was, I confess, a bit disappointed though.  Where was the Art Deco bit?  None of this looked the least bit modernist.  Remembering that I hadn't yet seen the image from the website, I soldiered on, and it was in the second and third rooms that I found some truly wonderful pieces.

As Tsireh's style matured, he incorporated modernist techniques, so if you like Art Deco, it's his later stuff that will appeal.  In addition to the piece pictured here, Basket Dancers, the things I liked the best were his "Rainbow Paintings."  These are pictures of animals with a rainbow over top - very Art Deco, and wonderful colors.  It was all I could do to tear myself away.  I'm happy I did, as I was then able to see his series of "Animal Designs," which are also great.  These are fantastical creatures inspired by Pueblo, Navajo and Mayan art with an Art Deco flair.

I was happy to see that this show is mentioned as a critic's choice in the Washington Post's Fall Arts Preview (in today's "Arts and Style" section).  I'm hoping this will bring more people to see this work.

Verdict: Don't miss this great little show.  Easily managed in a lunch hour, it's time very well spent.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Staring back at celebrities

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through July 10, 2016

I went with a friend to see this show, an examination of celebrity portraits.  I enjoy going with another person to exhibits from time to time; it gives me a fresh and different perspective on what I'm seeing.  When one has only oneself for company, one can start having the same reaction to everything.  Having a companion helps to shake things up, and that's all for the best.

The subjects in this show come from all walks of famous life - there are musicians, actors, filmmakers, athletes, even a Supreme Court justice.  They look at us, the viewers, as we look at them.  These are all recent additions to the museum's collection, some of which have not been displayed before.  Some, though, I recognized, which always makes me happy.  "Cupcake Katy," pictured here, is one that is quite familiar, as it was a featured portrait several months ago.

Perhaps the piece I enjoyed most was a video of Esperanza Spalding by Bo Gehring.  I'm pretty sure I saw one of his pieces in the portrait competition exhibit a while ago.  The subject lies flat and listens to a musical work of his or her choice while the camera moves up their body.  It sounds odd, but it's captivating.

Verdict: This is a great show, manageable in a lunch hour.  Lots of interesting people to see and many interesting ways to see them.

Civil Rights in Stamps

Where: National Postal Museum

When: through February 15, 2016

If you think you've seen every possible presentation of the history of African-Americans in the United States, think again. This exhibit tells the story of Black America with stamps and other pieces of postal memorabilia.  From the use of slaves to deliver messages, to the Black Heritage Stamp series, this show, easily managed in a lunch hour, gives you a new perspective on the odyssey that Americans of African descent have taken in the years that they have lived in the United States.

Exhibits include mail carried by slave messengers from one plantation to another, communications dating from the time of the Civil War and mail from the Civil Right era.  African-Americans honored on stamps include Booker T. Washington (whose stamp is pictured here), Marion Anderson (whose stamp is a lovely portrait) and W.E.B. DuBois (whose stamp features a double portrait), and their stamps, along with many others are on display.

Not shying away from the ugly aspects of history, a case with Ku Klux Klan materials is also part of the exhibit, including a hood and mask.  It was disturbing to see, and I realized I'd been very fortunate never to have seen one before.  My hope is never to see one again.

Verdict: A nicely done show, that probably won't get as much traffic as it deserves, tucked away off the Mall.