Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Cyrus' HQ

Where: Sackler Gallery of Art

When: through July 31, 2016

This is an exhibit of items from the Freer/Sackler archives, an enormous set of 160 collections on Asian and Middle Eastern art and culture.  Whenever I see something from the Smithsonian archives or libraries, I'm reminded that the displays are merely the tip of the iceberg.  The institution has vast amounts of information that rarely sees the light of day.  Happily, the Sackler has a room that (now that I think of it) often displays items from its archives, so the casual visitor can get a glimpse of the "rest" of the collection.

Among the Freer/Sackler Archives holdings is a large collection of the papers of Ernst Herzfeld, a German archaeologist and the discoverer of Pasargadae, first capital of the ancient Achaemenid Persian Empire and the final resting place of Cyrus the Great.

You may recall that the Sackler had a wonderful display of the Cyrus Cylinder in 2013; it was in fact the first time the cylinder (viewed as the first human rights document in world history) had been exhibited in the United States.  This is the same Cyrus; Pasargadae was his capital and contains his tomb.  Over the years, Cyrus' monument had been turned into a mosque, and was subsequently misidentified as the burial place of a woman.  Herzfeld changed all that, and established that it was Cyrus' tomb.  It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Verdict: This is a very interesting small show on the discovery of Pasargadae's real purpose.  If you have any interest in archaeology, it's worth a look.

Monday, May 30, 2016

A Bit of the Freer

Where: Sackler Gallery of Art

When: through July 24, 2016

If, like me, you've been missing the Freer and its beautiful things beautifully displayed, visit the Sackler's exhibit of paintings, poetry and calligraphy from the Wu School.  Many Freer objects are on display, including some of the temporarily closed museum's display cases (I'm pretty sure).

To really see everything and read all of the explanatory notes would take far longer than a lunch hour, but you can immerse yourself in the life of a Chinese gentleman scholar in a shorter time.  The music playing helps to remove you from the present day; it makes it easier to imagine that you are sitting in a pavilion, waiting for your poet friends to arrive.  In fact, the piece was chosen by NASA to represent Chinese music when they gathered 50 musical pieces to be put on a disc aboard Voyager I on its way to deep space.  I'm going to set aside my cynicism about this project (Why would we think that life on other planets intelligent enough to appreciate music would have 1970s era technology available to them to listen to it?), and say that a desire to share the best that humans have created is a worthy thing.

One of the poems that struck me was one entitled "At Leisure in my Studio at Year's End" by Wen Zhengming.  This line, "...all my affairs have slipped into arrears..." Who among us hasn't felt that at some time or other?  The melancholy notion that we could have done more with the past year is a universal one, I think.  Or is that just what I'm hoping?  That I'm not the only one feeling like time is slipping away all too quickly?

The thing I most liked about the art on display is the scale of people to nature.  The human figures are often tiny; you have to really search for them amidst the mountains or the rivers or the trees.  When life gets you down (see above), just think of the magnificence of nature and gain a better perspective.

If I'm being honest, the calligraphy didn't do that much for me.  It's the sort of thing I know I'm supposed to appreciate, but I couldn't help but think that it seemed a bit like looking at great penmanship.  If the words were written in English, would I think the letters were beautiful?

Verdict: Worth seeing, both for the poetry and the painting.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Lots and lots of prints

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through July 24, 2016

It's been a while since I've blogged - between the bad weather here in the DC area and some very busy days at work, I've not been to a museum since I went with my friend to the Renwick.  Yesterday, however, I made up for my exhibit drought by swimming in shows - three to be exact, the first of which was this one at the National Gallery.

As part of their 75th anniversary celebration, the Gallery has put together this large show of selections from their print collection.  It's arranged in chronological order (my favorite kind of order), which allows you to see the various uses to which prints have been put.  In the earliest ones on display (from the American colonial period), it's not art per se that we're looking at, but depictions of current events.  Think of them as an early version of a news magazine - the Time of their day.

By the late 1800s, prints had turned from news sources to the artistic expressions we know today.  They have not lost their political overtones, however.  Two of my favorites pieces on display were a linocut by Elizabeth Catlett, an artist I encountered for the first time at the African Art Museum not long ago and whom I like very much, entitled Untitled (Harriet Tubman) and a color offset lithograph by the Guerilla Girls collective entitled Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?

The Catlett piece shows a powerful and commanding Tubman - strong and fearless.  The Guerilla Girls offering questions the Metropolitan's small number of modern artworks by female artists, while noting the large percentage of works featuring nude women.  Both pieces challenge the status quo as regards women.  Women are not merely objects; they are a force to be reckoned with.  Both pieces demand the viewer take notice.

Verdict: If you like prints, have a look at this show - the scope is broad enough that there's something for everyone.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

The WONDER of it all

Where: Renwick Gallery

When: second floor through May 8, 2016; first floor through July 10, 2016

I'd been holding off on visiting this exhibit until a friend of mine from out of town came to DC.  I thought he'd enjoy this show, and he'd not been to the Renwick before.  I'm very glad he came when he did, as part of this show is closing tomorrow, so we got in just under the wire.

Smithsonian, why was this staggered closing not more prominently shown on your website?  Having enjoyed this show so much, I'm horrified to think I could have missed most of it.  You know I love and support you (by visiting, by blogging and by contributing financially), but when you make a mistake, I call you out on it.  Better info in future please!

So what was the show like?  It was WONDERful.  It takes up the entire museum space (which is not terribly large, but still, that's a big exhibit) - each installation gets its own room.  Each installation needs its own space because they are all HUGE.  You can walk around the pieces, for the most part, or are immersed in them - they are interactive in a way that paintings on a wall are not.

The work shown here was perhaps my favorite - string in the colors of the spectrum that looked like a prism.  It may not sound like much, but it was hypnotic to watch.  I was also very much taken with the piece on the ceiling of the Grand Salon, meant to represent the waves of the Japanese tsunami.  I don't think there were any wall notes suggesting that people lie on the floor and look up at it, but that's what people (of all ages) were doing.  And the bug room!  It reminded me of the "Day of the Dead" decorations I'd seen in a Mexican restaurant in Philadelphia last summer - and those are real bugs on the wall.

Note: unlike every other time I've been to the Renwick, this show is CROWDED.  If you added up every person I've seen in the museum the other times I've been there, it wouldn't be a tenth of the number of people there yesterday afternoon.  And all of them have phones.  Which they are using to take pictures of themselves standing next to the art.  Repeatedly.  More than once, I had to wait to enter a room because someone was taking photos.  I'm happy for the museum that it's getting so many visitors, but I confess, I'll also be happy to see a show there without so many other people.

Verdict: If you can possibly see it this weekend, do not miss it.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Feeling a Bit Morbid

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through May 31, 2016

It feels as if I've seen a lot of "In Memoriam" pieces lately.  Famous people have been dropping like flies.  I know they tend to die in threes, but I think it's been multiples of three this year.

The latest star to fall from the firmament is Prince, so I went to see his portrait this week.  (If I'm seeing depressed, imagine how the people who have to put up and take down all these artworks must feel.)

What I found most interesting about the photograph is that it's in black and white, which I thought was an unlikely choice for someone as colorful as Prince.  In fact, I'd been thinking that many of his songs involve color ("Purple Rain," "Raspberry Beret" and "Little Red Corvette").  So why did Lynn Goldsmith choose to use black and white to depict him?

Otherwise, I think the picture is quite good - I like the vaguely rain-like background, and the designs on his jacket seem to mirror the look of his guitar (which may be the same guitar now on display at American History, just FYI).  I was also struck by the serious expression on his face; perhaps meant to reflect the artist behind all the flamboyance?

Verdict: Worth a look on your next visit to the Portrait Gallery.