Sunday, June 25, 2017

Saying Good-bye to the Sackler

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through July 9, 2017

As many readers may know, the Sackler Gallery is my favorite Smithsonian museum.  I've loved it for years, full of beautiful Asian art, both in its permanent collection and in the special exhibits it hosts.  I'm always excited when I see a new show is coming, as it gives me an excuse to visit once again.

My visit yesterday was a melancholy one; the museum is closing on July 10 for three months.  So no Sackler to welcome me into its cool interior through the heat of the DC summer!  You will doubtless recall that the Freer has been closed for quite a while now (I think about 15 months, although it seems much longer...).  Now that the big renovations are done there, both spaces will be closed for a time in order to reorganize and reinstall the entire collection.

It's hard to view this closure as a good thing, but as much as I will miss it in the short run, in the long run this is the right thing to do.

I saw many things while on this visit, including the exhibit of three immense paintings by Utamaro: Snow at Fukagawa (missing for nearly 70 years before turning up in Japan recently)Moon at Shinagawa (purchased by Charles Lang Freer and now in the Freer's collection) and Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara (owned by the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut).  Reunited after 140 years apart, these three paintings would be wonderful separately, but are astounding together.  Each piece bears close examination; if you saw them every day, you would find new elements with every look.  The entrance to the display is marvelous - big banners with examples of both Western and Asian art, all of tall, beautiful women.

I thought it a nice touch that, at the end of a show glamorizing the "pleasure quarters" of Edo, the Sackler included some information on the reality of these women's lives.  Needless to say, the truth is rather less pretty.

This is the Cosmic Buddha, a Chinese work from about 575.  I love antiquities and the connection they provide to people living so long ago, in circumstances so different than our own.  One thing we have in common is art, and this is a lovely example.  Although the sculpture is old, the technology now being used to study it is new - 3D printing is allowing scholars to examine this piece in great detail.  There's a bit you can actually touch (and you know how much I love tactile exhibits) that's been printed with a 3D printer, and you can even order your own Cosmic Buddha online!

This is Ganesha, one of the most popular Hindu gods; his elephant head makes him easily identifiable.  He is revered as the remover of obstacles, which is probably another reason for his popularity - who doesn't need some help removing obstacles in life?  He and this Buddha below (I really like his blue hair) are part of the permanent collection.  I hope they'll be back on display in October.

The last piece I saw on my visit was this one (see below) from Michael Joo.  It's in the entryway, so you can't miss it.  I took the time to read the wall notes, and it's a representation of cranes that winter in the DMZ between North and South Korea.

Verdict: Visit the Sackler before it closes for renovations.  And be sure to visit again in October when it re-opens!

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Unanswered Question of Frederic Bazille

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through July 9, 2017

I had heard of Bazille before I went to see this show, and I'm pretty sure I'd seen at least one of his works at the National Gallery, but I wasn't really familiar with his work, in the way that I am with the bigger names of Impressionism.

I suspect that's true of many people as regards Bazille: vague sense, but no real knowledge.  This show should change that, and that's a worthy goal.  The one thing the show doesn't do, and perhaps it really can't do it, is answer the great question of Bazille's life: why did he give up a promising artistic career, leave his friends behind and join the army to fight in the Franco-Prussian War?  It was a decision with tragic consequences, as he was killed in his first battle.

Bazille had a comfortable upper-middle class upbringing.  His parents wanted him to be a doctor, and he studied medicine for several years before giving it up to become an artist.  He became friends with a who's who of Impressionist luminaries: Monet, Renoir, etc.; he lived, worked and exhibited with them throughout his very brief career.

The show begins with several portraits, then moves on to still lifes, including one called "The Dog Rita, Asleep" which caught my eye, as Rita looks very much like my own dog, Sherlock.  I would have taken a picture, but it was labeled as "no photography,"  so I was out of luck.

His largest, and in my opinion, best work comes towards the end.  The Family Gathering is considered his masterpiece, and it is wonderful.  It's the sort of painting that makes me imagine a backstory for those pictured; I think there's more going on than just a family enjoying the sun on a summer afternoon. Summer Scene and another piece of a fisherman (I've forgotten the name now) are also marvelous.

The show ends with a room of floral paintings, which seems sort of tacked-on, as if there wasn't any other space for these, so they were put in where they fit.  I think it would have been better to end with the large works, but I understand that sometimes, the physical space has other demands.

Verdict: I highly recommend this show; a welcome exploration of an overlooked artist.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

JFK and the Greek Slave

Where: National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum

When: through July 9, 2017

 I saw two exhibits in one trip this week.  They were small and in the same building, which helps.

The first was Hiram Powers' The Greek Slave.  This was the most famous sculpture of the 19th century, and its full nudity meant that, in some venues where it was shown, men and women had to view it separately.  Some claimed that the statue was not indecent, as it was "clothed all over with sentiment."  Yeesh.  SAAM allows everyone in at the same time, and it doesn't seem to be a problem.

There was an X-ray of the statue on view, which I always find interesting - what's going on beneath the surface?  Not as surprising as the Rodin dancer X-ray I saw at the National Gallery a while back, but still a treat to see.

Powers received several patents for the tools he used in his artistic work, so that tied in neatly with the building's past identity as the home of the Patent and Trademark Office.

On display was the plaster model of the statue; there were several marble replicas made for private patrons - wonder where those are now? Minton & Company made small porcelain replicas that were sold as souvenirs and are now collected in their own right.  There is a human desire to own great art, even if it's just a little copy.

On my way out, I stopped by the "Celebrate" wall, where a portrait of John F. Kennedy is on display.  It's the centenary of his birth, and there are any number of Kennedy-themed shows up, so watch this space for further reports.  This is a pastel on paper by Shirley Seltzer Cooper from 1961; he looks both young and serious.

Verdict: Both of these are worth seeing; don't leave the JFK portrait too long, you know how those "Celebrate" works will go down in a moment if that space needs to become the "In Memoriam" wall.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

A Trip to Korea

Where: Natural History Museum

When: through July 5, 2017

The Korea Gallery is located at the back of the 2nd floor of Natural History, and amidst all the hubbub surrounding the Hope Diamond and the gem collection, it's easy to overlook.  The easiest way to get there is to take the stairs by the Constitution Avenue entrance, the ones surrounding the totem poles.

This one room show highlights various aspects of Korean culture; there's some history, some art, some ceramics and some discussion of societal norms.  I learned that Korea (both North and South put together) is the size of Minnesota, a state I've visited several times.  So it's pretty decent size, but small in comparison to the entire United States.

Did you know that Koreans had moveable type almost 200 years before Gutenberg and his Bible?  I didn't, but I do now.  It's a bit embarrassing to have been educated in such a Euro-centric way, but all I can do is try to fill in the gaps now.

The picture above is of two bowls.  The one on the left is from the 12th century, and the one on the right is from the 20th century.  Both of them feature a celadon glaze, for which Korea is famous.  Pieces of ceramic that the visitor could actually touch were just next to these - I love a tactile exhibit, and one sees them so seldom.  Good job for including this, Natural History!

Verdict: Informative displays in a small space - the out of the way location is my only criticism.

Saturday, June 3, 2017


Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through June 4, 2017

I left this visit very late in the show's run, so you need to go see this today or tomorrow.

Walter McConnell is the artist and he's created two big piles of porcelain.  The one pictured here is the "White Stupa"; the other is called "Dark Stupa."  There are meant to be a riff/satire/homage on the Victorian craze for Chinese blue and white porcelain and on our modern day craze for acquisition.

You can walk around these creations for quite a while, picking out pop culture representations - Disney characters, religious icons, even E.T. makes an appearance.

The larger question, of course, is left unanswered.  Why do we want so much stuff?  How much happiness does it truly bring us?

This is in the same area as the "Peacock Room/REMIX" installation - another reflection on acquisition.  I'd seen that before, but took the opportunity to enter the space again.  A really wonderful take on Whistler's masterpiece.

Verdict: Well worth seeing.  Both fun and thought-provoking.