Sunday, October 30, 2016

Several Exhibits at American History

Where: American History Museum

When: until November and December, 2016

I took the afternoon off on Friday, just because you need an afternoon off every once in a while.  I met some friends for wine and pastries in Georgetown later in the day, and spent the time between work and my gathering at several museums.  Because that's what I do with a few free hours - I go to museums.

I saw three small shows at American History: one on giving in America - about philanthropy.  There was a time when the very wealthy and successful felt an obligation to give back to the society which had given them so much, and some of the great cultural and artistic institutions we all enjoy today, like the Smithsonian to take but one example, are the result of this giving back.  I was particularly happy to see a mention of Andrew Carnegie and his support for what came to be known as "Carnegie libraries."  The industrialist believed that libraries were a path to good moral character and self-improvement.  A noble sentiment that greater funding for public libraries would help to continue.

The second show I saw was from the archives and was on the subject of Cyrus Field and the first transatlantic cable.  Running a wire from England to the North America still strikes me as an amazing undertaking, even though I'm typing this on a desktop computer and sending it out over the Internet, accessible to billions of people worldwide.  The humble cable was the basis for modern telecommunications, and really did make the world a smaller, more connected place.

The final display I saw was on celebrations in African-American culture during segregation.  It's in honor of the opening of the new African-American museum and features many photographs from the Scurlock Studio, which was the subject of a large exhibit at American History several years ago.  The photos were chosen by a poll of Smithsonian staffers and visitors to the museum's website, and they chose well.  Birthday parties, weddings, anniversaries - all of them happy occasions - just what I needed to lift my spirits during what has been a contentious and stressful election year.

Verdict: The pick of this litter is the photographs - they're on display through December 27, on the lower level.  Who doesn't need a little extra joy?

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Times, They Have a-Changed

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through October 30, 2016

I made a return trip to the Portrait Gallery this Wednesday and was able to see this photograph of Bob Dylan.  Taken by John Cohen in 1962, it pre-dates his transition to electric guitar.

I attended Dylan's concert this summer at Wolf Trap, and when I heard the news about his award, I e-mailed my husband and said, "Now you can say you've seen a Nobel Prize winner!"

The photograph is interesting; it has a triangular look to it, with the rug he's sitting on, the untrimmed guitar strings and the way he's sitting and playing.  I'd like to see more of Cohen's work.

Verdict: If you're at the Gallery, take a few minutes to see this photo.  Note the quick closing date!

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Some Questions for the Portrait Gallery

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through October 16 & 30, 2016

I spent my museum-going time this week at the Portrait Gallery, which is located a block away from my office.  On Wednesday, I took a close look at this painting of the four female Supreme Court justices.  I've walked past it often in the three years it's been on display, but hadn't really taken the time to stop and examine it.

It's a very interesting painting - lots of windows.  There's the large window to the right, in which one can see many more windows, plus the mirror on the wall behind the justices.  In the reflection, there appears to be a door or window.   The painter, Nelson Shanks, drew on Dutch portraiture conventions, according to the wall notes; does this explain the windows?

Each portrait is very good individually, and they work well together.  That's an advantage over photography - everyone looks their best.  The notes also say that the setting is based on Supreme Court interiors and a courtyard.  Does this mean the location is real, or not?  Is this another example of the "view painting" - where the artist creates the location?

I'm sorry to see this painting leave the museum and am hoping that its owners will decide to give the piece to the Portrait Gallery at some point.  I'll be happy to have them back anytime. 

I returned to the Portrait Gallery on Friday, intending to see the "Recent Acquisitions" exhibit and the portrait of Arnold Palmer in the "In Memoriam" space.  And this is where my questions come up:  first of all, where's Arnie?  I walked all over the first floor, but couldn't locate him.  I think the show of jazz portraits has taken up the "In Memoriam" space, but in that case, don't list it on the website!  Weird.  It's supposed to be up until the end of the month, so I've got a little time.

My other question is about the recent acquisitions.  I don't think they're so recent.  I saw the Neil DeGrasse Tyson piece, which I've seen for a long time now.  Don't get me wrong: I'm a big Tyson fan and couldn't be happier that his portrait is in the collection, but it's not new.  Also, the painting of Hank Aaron is something I've seen before.  And those weren't the only familiar faces.  So what's up?  I had thought that these would be works acquired in the past six months, but perhaps it's more expansive than that?  Perhaps I just need to treat this not so much as an exhibit, but as a way to get a quick look at things that are new-ish.

Verdict: Portrait Gallery is always worth a look, and it's close by, so even if it's just a walk around, it's a nice break in my day.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Lesbians in Black and White

Where: American Art Museum

When: through October 2, 2016

I first saw Romaine Brooks' work in the National Portrait Gallery's "Hide/Seek" exhibit, six years ago.  Hard to believe it's been so long since that show was generating controversy, but it's true.

Now Brooks has her own show, with lots of her paintings and drawings.  The paintings are mostly of her social circle in Europe and feature a muted color palette.  Black, white and gray, with the occasional flash of color, is what's on offer.  She blurs the lines of gender, picturing women in men's clothing.

Later in her career, she focused her attention on drawing, and her pieces are heavily influence by the surrealist movement.  They focus on themes of captivity and entanglement.

Brooks was independently wealthy, which meant she could choose her own subjects and live as she wished.  Who says money can't buy happiness?  It also meant that she didn't have to sell her pieces in order to make a living, so many important works were still in her possession when she died.  Some of those on display have not been seen in decades.

Verdict: Very fine show, even though black and white is not my favorite color combination.  An interesting person, living her own life and refusing to conform to society's ideas, as well as an excellent artist.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Who Says Women Don't Have a Sense of Humor?

Where: American History Museum

When: through October 3, 2016

The only thing better than a trip to see a museum exhibit is a trip to see a museum exhibit featuring a Muppet.  The one I saw recently had memorabilia from Carol Burnett and Phyllis Diller, including Burnett's famous charwoman costume and Diller's fright wig.  I remember watching The Carol Burnett Show when I was a kid - those skits where Harvey Korman would crack up were a riot.  The charwoman was more than a comic figure; she was an intelligent person, hampered by her class and her gender. 

Diller made an entire career out of skewering the ideal vision of the wife and mother.  No happy homemaker she!  She pulled back the curtain and revealed that things were not all "Ozzie and Harriet" on the home front.

The best part of the display for me though, was Miss Piggy.  She's a hand and rod puppet, but she's so much more!  She's a high-maintenance diva, unafraid to speak her mind since she was first introduced in 1974.  In June 2015, she won an award from the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.  Of course, I had to look up Elizabeth A. Sackler, and it turns out she's a public historian and activist, as well as the daughter of Arthur Sackler, of the Sackler Gallery.  A juxtaposition of two of my favorite things: the Sackler and the Muppets.

Verdict: I hope you got a chance to see this fun display.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Robert of the Ruins

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through October 2, 2016

This exhibit has now closed, so I hope you got a chance to see it before it left the National Gallery.  I was unfamiliar with Hubert Robert before seeing this show, and I'm glad I have become acquainted with his work.

He painted pictures that juxtapose the ancient with the modern (or what was modern when he pained it, in the 1700s and early 1800s).  His work is of ancient ruins, populated with people going about their everyday business.  His works were known as cappriccios, puzzles to be solved.  He would put buildings together in a work that were not anywhere near each other in real life.  So the viewer must determine what is real?  And what is from Robert's imagination?  I was reminded of the "view paintings" of Venice I saw in a show several years ago.  They were often the view you wish you had seen in Venice, rather than the view that actually exists.

Unlike the romantic idea of the starving artist, living in a garret, refusing to compromise his vision for mere money, Robert was a bon vivant.  He painted for the elites of the day and lived very well himself.

Robert was also a chronicler of architectural change in Paris; I was reminded of the Marville show several years ago, which also detailed changes in the city.  It made me realize that Paris is always undergoing renovations.  Robert showed both those buildings going up and those being torn down - the latter becoming ruins for future everyday people to conduct their business around.

Verdict: An interesting show about a painter that I knew nothing about beforehand.  Great to expand my knowledge of art history.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

I'm back!

It's been a long time since I've blogged - a month!  I've been teaching a graduate class at Georgetown's Law School, volunteering at the National Book Festival, dealing with some family issues and visiting the Midwest on a long-planned vacation with friends.  Most of these things are great, but they take up time, and this year, they all happened at once.

But now, I'm back and ready to blog about museums I've visited since I last put fingers to keyboard.

Before I get into that, I'll share a few pics from my vacation:

 This is the house used in the exterior shots for the movie "A Christmas Story."  It's located in Cleveland.  We stayed with some friends there while on our way to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and they were kind enough to show us many great Cleveland sites. 

 This is the law library reading room at the University of Michigan - just gorgeous.  We were in Ann Arbor for the Michigan-Wisconsin game, with long-time friends of ours who are from Michigan.  We've all worked in law libraries (either now or in the past), so the reading room was a "must see."

One of our friends is from Frankenmuth, Michigan.  It's a German town, with the largest Christmas store I've ever seen.  This photo is of the public library, where our friend worked during her youth.  Note both the English and German on the sign.

This is, of course, the famous view of Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece in Pennsylvania.  It's off the beaten path, but worth the trip.  We stopped on our way back to the DC area.

It was a great trip and allowed us to see several people who are close friends.  Wisconsin lost a defensive struggle against Michigan, but seeing a game in the Big House (we were part of the largest group of people to watch a football game that day anywhere in the country) was quite an experience.