Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Consolations of Everything

In 1905 in Kansas there lived a retired man. He had been a farmer, a teacher, a Civil War nurse, and at the age of 64 it occured to him to be a legend. He began to build massive sculptures out of concrete and steel, turning his yard into a larger-than-life hallucinatory vision of his Populist interpretation of the creation story. He built himself a log cabin out of limestone. He built himself a mausoleum, and ordered his heirs to charge tourists a buck to see his corpse lying in the Garden of Eden that he had constructed around himself.

This is not a story about him. This is a story about the richest woman in America, Marjorie Merriweather Post Close Hutton Davies May, who, for obvious reasons, is now generally referred to only by her first three names. Heiress to a fortune built on coffee substitutes and breakfast cereal, she became a collector of important husbands and Imperial art. She had a movie made about her and a daughter who became a movie star* (these did not, however, overlap). She also had a mansion tucked into the side of Rock Creek Park, and it was this mansion that I came to visit.

Our group was led through by a guide of knowledge and discretion whose stately, ladylike demeanor may have been inborn, or may have been accented by the surroundings. After a short, moderately reverential film on the life of the foundress, (why not watch for yourself?) we proceeded into the house itself. The initial impression was one of a splendid clamour** - walls with more imperial Russian portraits than CNN has commentating heads, a chandelier on a velvet rope, a pair of absurdly ornate chairs that reminded me that confusion about whether you are to admire or sit on a piece of art did not begin in the modern era.  (Apologies for lack of images - Hillwood is in process of digitizing its collection. )

From the Front Hall into the French Drawing Room. You know how certain cultures and/or historical periods will capture the individual's imagination? It's an experience that, among my acquaintances, seems more common than the alternative. Something about another place and another time makes them medievalists, Japanophiles, Civil War buffs. The place-and-times that seemed to capture the heart of our absent hostess were the 18th century in France and Imperial Russia. France is a freebie - who doesn't love Louis XVI and his embroidered chairs? but Russia seemed a bit more personal.

The film included reminiscences of her as a young ambassadors wife in 1930s Russia, scrambling up shelves in dark shops, collecting relics of the Imperial age on their way to the smelters or the scrap heap. She acquired what seems to be every possible china service (each order of nobility had one), as well as some paintings. Portraits of Russian royalty line the entrance hall. In the Icon Room, shockingly green malachite tables display icons, whose raw surfaces contrast starkly with their gilded covers. And in the only room in the house that looks like a museum (glass cases, gray walls, track lighting) Russian ecclesiastical treasures take on a strange second life.

Post didn't just live in her own personal museum - she took the duties of a hostess quite seriously. An extraordinary ballroom (she enjoyed square dances and first-run movies) features a kind of metal grillwork around the ceiling. The attack-of-the-fifties kitchen was really a charming contrast to the rest of the house (relentlessly practical with just a few china sets making an appearance) and the upstairs rooms were surprisingly personal.

I didn't explore the grounds in detail - it was on the very edge of spring, and most things weren't blooming. The greenhouse, though, was filled with exotic flowers. "Of COURSE orchids," I mumbled to myself, surveying the rows upon rows of the convoluted plants that to me resemble alien creatures.

Marjorie Merriweather Post was one of those rare individuals to whom money is no object, and she went about snapping up priceless items for her private possession with an instinct somewhere between a trained curator and a magpie. So why did I find her so sympathetic? Wasn't this ostentation that should repel?

The museum bills itself as "Where Fabulous Lives" - a carefully chosen tagline. There's something in her defiant grandiosity that seems cut from the same cloth as those divas who have attained the status of gay icons. This museum is confident enough in its own identity not to have to worry about justifying its decisions or those of its foundress. I think I like Marjorie Meriwether Post for the same reason I like Samuel P. Dinsmoor. Sometimes, you've just gotta do what you gotta do, whether that means building a cabin out of limestone lincoln logs, or collecting the china of every Russian imperial order. Charming or profiting from society may have some part in it, to be sure. In the end, not only do these people follow their hearts, but in leaving such extravagant legacies, make it possible for us to follow their hearts as well - no matter into what strange places they take us.

*And a member of the board of Lehman Brothers. Wikipedia, some days I love you best.

**I nearly said "a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty" - and thought I thought of it. Dammit.

***Apologies for the inordinate delay in posting this - every time I had free time to write, it occurred to me that I actually had to be doing my taxes. Taxes are my second least favorite thing in the world, so I didn't actually do those taxes. But I didn't do useful things either. Like this post.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Living up to Ourselves

I'd been to the American History museum once before. I don't remember the time of year, so I don't know whether it was impending heat prostration or frostbite that drove us into the shelter of the huge front hall. I remember a silver flag. I remember crowds of people. I remember being profoundly unimpressed.

It looks like an air conditioner the size of a city block. 
I wasn't optimistic when I came back. This building has a powerful case of the uglies. I'd much rather look at the Art Deco EPA across the street - but in I went, and found myself in a hall that did nothing to dispel the impression of a 70s office building on steroids. Behind glass on either side of the hall were random items, a hodge-podge of the detritus of history. From an anti-stamp act teapot to pop-culture icon C-3PO, the items were presented without logic or coherence. More moving was the broken school bus window from integration riots. The fire hats were hilarious, the missionary quilt was touching - but the display so resembled a high-school trophy case that I had to struggle to muster emotion.

Continuing through the downstairs I came upon the Hall of Invention. Here there was more coherence - colors, vertical and horizontal displays, mixtures of text and objects - but there was still more to see than to do. You're targeting this toward the young and celebrating the creative and analytical process that leads to inventions like Kevlar and folding strollers. Why not let the museum-goers experience the problem-solving? Have them push an old-style stroller and ask what might be inconvenient about it! You have the favorite toys of celebrated inventors - but under glass. Perhaps I'd have a more charitable opinion if I had a chance to go through the Spark Lab, but it was full of small children (a good sign) and I didn't want to increase the chances of my trampling someone.

Descartes "De Homine" - Latin for "Pat the Bunny"
That was another problem I had with the museum's lighting. If it wasn't lunch-period fluorescent, it was so dim that I had to practically stick my head into the text-heavy exhibits to read the tags - stumbling over the smaller museum-goers and obstructing the view of the larger ones. I can understand the need for dim lighting in the paper engineering exhibit, but it's still unfortunate. Maybe I should just get my eyes checked. Anyway, it was a small, delightful display about to extract three dimensions from two, and about how we've always loved a pop-up book. Even Descartes wrote one, who knew.

Not all of the smaller exhibits were so coherent. Trying to find my way to the escalators I came up against a small wall showcasing the history of.. the "Maid of Cotton" beauty pageant. What? Why? Perhaps it has some greater significance to people who aren't me, like the packed room displaying Julia Child's kitchen and stage set. It was a strikingly ordinary kitchen, but from the videos of her show playing all around the room, she seems like a pretty awesome lady.

The elevators at last! Up on the third floor, trying to find my way, I came across Stephen Colbert's portrait staring patriotically into... the freight elevator. At least the curatorial staff seems to have a sense of humour about their building's terrible design.

So it's been a hundred and fifty years since our country's most serious attempt at suicide, and any museum that touches history at all has got something up about it. The Museum of American History can hardly be outdone - Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life has plastered pictures of his top hat all over the subway and the exhibit has raided many of the museum's other collections to try and present a complete portrait of the president. Using objects to present history is trickier when describing an individual than a culture, I think, but there are some gems - like a pocket watch in whose workings the watchmakers appear to have carried out a graffiti war. But, as with so many exhibits on Lincoln, the president's own words wind up dominating the narrative. He's articulate, dry, and self-deprecating - his writing has the idiosyncratic cadences of the autodidact combined with the terseness of a man who has actually had to make things work rather than merely comment on them. I thought at first that his "railsplitter" political persona might be disingenuous for a man who has (at that point) spent the better part of his life at law than at manual labor, but he has in word as well as deed a streak of relentless practicality. He dubbed himself and his wife "the long and short of it", and the museum's exhibit of both their costumes shows the accuracy of that characterization.

 The exhibit loops a History Channel special on slavery and emancipation, trying to get into our heads what it meant when we ceased to be a slave society. 3 times the value of manufacturing held in human beings! 50 times the federal budget! How do we properly understand that? "Eeeeaaagh! I DON'T need to see that!" proclaimed a young boy, recoiling from a battlefield image of bodies bloating. Score one for history, if it still retains the power to horrify.

Out of the Lincoln exhibit, and into the permanent exhibit on the presidency. This was rather less well put-together, with a propensity to indulge in enthusiastic generalizations like "Americans are wary of pomp and circumstance" and "The President is America's leading man!" Three kids jostled behind the photo-op podium where you can pretend to address the nation. "The three knuckleheads for President," sighed a woman I assumed to be their mother. "Sure, why not?"

My feet ached and my brain throbbed with the beginning of an information headache*, but I suppose I** can't really visit this museum and not check and see if our flag is, in fact, still there. Yup, it is. Bombarded by time and age instead of British guns, the ragged, mammoth banner now occupies pride of place in a newly designed exhibit space. Though its constant use in the museum's promotional materials makes it seems like the apotheosis of American history's knicknack collection, in the flesh (well, cloth) it really does have a certain majesty. A montage of flag-waving images loops at the end - from new citizens clutching pocket-sized flags to WWI doughboys riding giddily off to Europe  Set (of course) to the National Anthem, the video is moderately successful in a relatively decent goal: to make Americans proud of the country that's worth being proud of. No images of the flag appear in negative or embarrassing contexts - at protests and blazoned on t-shirts is as far from hagiographical as it will stray. (And now you have the song in your head - the only song in the world that actually works better as a national anthem than it does as a drinking song.)

There's not necessarily anything wrong with that. What's praiseworthy should be praised. The danger is that we should come to believe that praiseworthy is all we've got, and that American flag never signified to anyone what the Fourth of July did to Frederick Douglass. Fortunately, the American History museum is incubating some of the collections of African American History and Culture, and there're few commentaries more horrifying or more hopeful on the US's potential as a nation. Currently they're displaying the collection of the Kinseys, and while the exhibit takes a positively medieval tone toward its patrons, the combination of art, document, and artifact is strikingly well-done. Rather than a litany of old sorrows and old hates, it celebrates the accomplishments of men and women, free and slave, throughout US history.

In addition to the heroes of the past, the exhibit includes chilling evidence of what it meant to be a slave society. A bill of sale for William Johnson. A letter describing the domestic talents of one Frances Crawford, mentioning "She does not know that she is to be sold". A newspaper ad for two runaways, saying that anyone "may kill or destroy said slaves."

Can you read that unmoved, knowing that they're talking about you? Knowing you're doing the talking? We have to face up to both if we're going to be America. The Museum of American History could be an important part of that process - and it's working on it. I guess that's all the best of us can say.

* Like an ice cream headache, but without delicious chocolate.

**Especially not as a St. John's graduate!

Place: The Smithsonian Museum of American History
Pros: Imposes a measure of coherence on a cluttered past.
Cons: Hasn't yet transcended its attic-like nature.
Definitely Check Out: Lincoln's patent model. 
Rating: 3-8/10 objects

Monday, January 17, 2011

What Price History: A Visit to Mount Vernon

LivingSocial, that friend of the cultured and broke, told me one day that it could get me tickets at slightly less than half of Mount Vernon's usual price of $15 for an adult. I had borne something of a grudge against the estate ever since I had taken a brisk bike ride down the superb Mount Vernon Trail and found at the end that I was expected to fork over some cash if I wished to stroll about the grounds. Living in DC has quite spoiled me for pay-museums.

Miniature animatronic house
But now, an opportunity to fork over somewhat less cash while checking off an item on the MusePrint list! I took it. Thus it was that on an unpleasantly cold day I found myself nose to nose with a life-size bronze of our first President. Well, not quite nose to nose. Washington was tall even by modern standards. This was one of the few things I gathered from the orientation center,* which consisted of four photo-op bronzes, a motorized miniature of the Mansion House, and a 20 minute movie billed incessantly as an action oriented epic. It features Washington crossing the Delaware river, killing some French and Indians, falling off a horse, and smooching Martha Custis, not exactly in that order but not in any order that makes much narrative sense. The attempted whiz-bang-FORD rebranding of someone I assume is a complex man of a fascinating period left me dissatisfied; I was relieved even by the cold as we set off up the hill toward the Mansion House itself.

As a plantation, Mount Vernon seemed to be somewhere between a castle and a small town. The outbuildings surrounding the main house included the gardener's house, the salt house, the overseer's house (apparently he oversaw both slave and free labor... wonder how that worked) but we had time for little more before the Mansion House tour began. Having grown up in a house built in 1779, I regarded the uneven floorboards, the four-poster beds, and the game efforts at right angles with a familiar and affectionate eye. There was, however, a considerable difference of style between the New England houses of my youth and Washington's manor - not just in wealth, but in spatial quality. Corners of rooms were cut off much more frequently, curves and pillars figured more prominently in the design.

The place was staffed by assiduous volunteers, mostly women of middle age with bright lipstick and stiff smiles.** Each seemed to know mostly about the room they explained (fair enough). I learned a few things from the house: Washington placed a great emphasis on agriculture and wished his visitors to know it, the family underscored their wealth through the day-glo green dining room, and Martha Washington custom-ordered their bed. Hanging in the front hall was a key to the Bastille, a souvenir from Lafayette- perhaps in fond memory of his revolutionary internship.

The Sixteen-Sided Barn (fifteen sides just aren't enough)
The view of the Potomac from Mount Vernon looked very familiar. Perhaps this is because I've seen it in pictures, but I suspect that it's because it is very nearly the Form of the River View. Walking down the hill brought us to the farm, which works from April to October but which was now inhabited only by a few well-insulated sheep. This was only one of five farms that Washington managed over the original 8000 acres of the plantation.  Washington maintained a steady program of architectural expansion and improvement as well as agricultural experimentation.

Appreciation for the personal and political character of the man who helmed this enterprise was undermined by the uneasy consciousness of the slave labor on which it was created and sustained. The Estate seems to have no notion of how to address this disconnect. The periodic references to some named slaves, and the insertion of "by enslaved workers" into passive constructions in the signage only reinforce the unease. A less begrudging approach might have done better service, even if the goal was to focus all the attention on Washington. As it is, I found myself constantly wondering what he, or the estate, had got to hide. It may be worth noting that he bought teeth off his slaves.

Our visit ended in the museum, a place that seems to have a bit more money than it knows what to do with. In between the obsessive fascination with just how accurately the team of forensics experts had been able to reconstruct Washington's appearance, and the nervously commercial plugs for products in the Mount Vernon store, the museum conveyed a number of interesting and humanizing historical details. I had previously no idea just how far across the world the French and Indian war had ranged. Nor did I know of Washington's involvement in precipitating the conflict, or his bitterness over his failure to obtain a commission in the British army. The transition from identity as British colonist to American fascinates me.

But again, opportunities to learn about Washington and the tenor of his timers were obscured by a hagiography that veered from the uncomfortable to the absurd. The final chamber in the museum was a theater-in-the-round, which was used to play what amounted to a powerpoint showing a montage of positive words. "Will we ever see his like again?" intoned the narrator. "Perhaps, if we remain true to his memory." And exit through the gift shop. Washington plates. Washington spoons. Washington stained glass. Washington on a horse. The once and future Washington! Surely Washington doesn't need to be sold to compel attention.

But it's easy for me to decry commercial obtrusion into my history museum experience. I don't have an estate to run.

*Fun exercise: click that link and see if the references to Ford outnumber those to Washington.
**To be fair, I defy you to smile any other way when the temperature goes below 30.

Place: Mount Vernon
Pros: The best river view on the East Coast.
Cons: Weirdly commercial vibe.
Definitely Check Out: The combination hothouse/slave quarters.
Rating: 5/10 silver spoons.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Natural and Artificial History

κατέβην to the Mall (from 'most any part of the city, it's always "I went down" to that notable agora of America) and visited the Natural History Museum.  The museum itself is rather too much to take in at a time, as befits an institution of its scope, so I had to pick which exhibits I wanted to focus on. Some come to Natural History for the dinosaur bones, others for the Hope Diamond. I came for the crochet.

Part I: Crochet.   
Back behind the ocean hall is a fiber phantasmagoria, a science fair as rendered by a hallucinatory knitting circle with a fixation on marine life. The Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef is a project to, well, crochet coral reefs. Why? Apparently crochet builds upon itself in much the way that corals do. It's part public art project (yes, I would like to see one outside a metro station) part advocacy, and part math experiment. 

As exhibited at the museum, the first two aspects dominated. One ghostly white reef (a "bleached reef") illustrated the effects of the death of microorganisms on corals.  Another was constructed entirely from plastic trash. The knitted wire sea creatures, delicate and translucent, were a testament to the unique expressive power of the needle arts. A section of reef had been done by DC-area crocheters.* The exhibit doesn't really delve into the math of hyperbolic space, which is really a pity. "There's some kind of science of ruffles!" is cool, but only in a BBC science headline kind of way, the way where you learn that drinking tea will extend your life by an average of ten years, or that women have evolved a superior sense of smell which explains their shopping habits.

Part II: Cyprus
Cypro-Archaic II period (ca. 550-500 BC)
Biodetritic limestone
Cyprus Museum, Nicosia
All right, I'd surveyed the crochet pretty throughly.  Where next? There's not really a natural flow through the museum (though the most logical sequel would probably have been the ocean hall) so I picked my next special exhibit priority. Upstairs to Cyprus! A pair of sphinxes guarded the door to the exhibit, traces of polychrome still visible on their wings.  Time replaced the alarmingly brilliant paint with the bare form in stone**;  perhaps our far future will imbue even us with dignity!

Within, the exhibit is strictly chronological; a straight shot down the long hall. Artifacts from each time period, generally including religious objects, tools, and occasionally bones, illustrate each chunk of the timeline from the Neolithic to the Byzantine. 

Where does stylization come from?  Is it a case of compensation for our own imperfections - that is to say, if we had the ability we would have a woman's form in exact miniature instead of slab with a nose and arms? Classical Greek statuary would argue yes. But the more naturalistic you become, the harder it is to easily signify one person or one idea in an easily replicable way. Does religion depend on stylization? Is religion itself a stylization: picking an image and sticking to it?

No point in pretending, if I'm in an archaeology-focused exhibit, I'm going to make a beeline for the pottery. (A literal beeline - I will ambulate from piece to piece, circle them several times, then do an dance to show all the other nerds the awesome things I have found. File that under "Things that will get me into trouble someday.") Anyway, my takeway from Cypriot pottery was the raised rather than incised figures, the spiral motifs and the large, enthusiastic slip decorations featuring birds. They looked more Egyptian than Greek, but that was part of what the exhibit was trying to emphasize; the crossroads-of-cultures thing. I could have done with more notes here - something about the introduction of the potter's wheel and more commentary on what kinds of ware Cyprus imported and why - but honestly, just stick me in front of a double-spouted jug and I'll be too distracted to protest

In the later ages, each section featured a selection of coins from that era. There's a tight connection between coins and history - pity it doesn't interest me in the slightest. Perhaps because the coins are too small to look at properly?  That doesn't seem right - I'll survey tiny inscriptions in alphabets I can't read, and scrutinize thumbprints on jars. Even without the coins, there were plenty of physical objects that plainly showed forth the march of time and empires across the face of the island. Statuettes of the Great Goddess became statuettes of Aphrodite and were replaced by large lively icons. The spiral designs of the earliest pottery reappeared on sophisticated glazed wares. And right at the end of the exhibit is a Last Judgment from the monastery of Agii Anargyri.

If there's one thing I love even more than pottery, it's the end of the world. No, this isn't the entry where you get the explanation of this peculiar fixation.

Part III: Other Stuff

There was still a good hour before the museum closed. Downstairs to the dinosaurs!  But though no one can fail to find triceratops skulls compelling, and gallivanting through time periods with names straight out of pulp sci-fi is always fun, yet I think that I was not quite the right person for the exhibit. Fossils of sea life appeared as sketches on clay, their ridged edges curiously similar to the ancient works upstairs. But unless they're beautiful I don't start thinking about them. 

Art moves me more than science. Art gets me asking questions, while facts get me saying "Huh. That's cool."  Perhaps it's because the scientific method requires me to sustain a viewpoint more optimistic than my own. But if there's one thing I've learned from feminism***, it's to refrain from assuming my experience is universal. Thus, not everyone shares my own shortcomings, and I can't fault the museum for not making more of a missionary effort to bring me into the science-question camp. With such an overplus of artifacts from every age and discipline, perhaps it is better served by targeting each exhibit to those who are inclined to love the subject.

"Wooooooooow!" hooted a small boy, racing past me. "Jellyfish! Jellyfish!"

And, after all, are they really so separate - history, science, and art? We can see a healed abscess in a dinosaur leg. Do we draw conclusions about the ineradicability of pain, the probable age of the creature, the nature of human knowledge? Keats wasn't writing exhibition tags for an archaeology show, and probably shouldn't have been. The sheer abundance of the Museum of National History encourages extradisciplinary forays, and we're usually the better for it. 

*This is the link you should click on if you want to see cool pictures. The Institute of Figuring has pretty strong language about use of their images, so I'm not including any.

**And even Sappho, glory that was Greece's/Lives best, I blasphemously think, in pieces.

***Add this to the list of things that I will expand on the future. 

Place: The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
Pros: Lots and lots of things
Cons: Exhibit notes could be be more rigorous and pedagogical.
Definitely Check Out: Whatever you're into. They have that..
Rating: 5-9/10 artifacts

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Art Class: The Phillips Collection

The Phillips Collection is like a friend you admire and are slightly intimidated by.  How is it that she manages to be both erudite and gracious? So put-together even in adverse circumstances? Has she noticed yet that you're not nearly cool enough for her? Even if she has, she's far too classy to ever let you know it.*

The Sun and the Moon, Elizabeth Murray
A fire forced the closing of the Phillips House, one third of the three-building complex that takes up most of the 2100 block of Q. Still, there's plenty left to see while they complete repairs. In large open rooms suited for displaying large open work, some of the modern installations really stand out.Jae Ko's great decaying quillwork Force of Nature is a series of slumped, stacked rolls of kraft paper covering the walls of one room. I want to see Elizabeth Murray's jazzy, energetic The Sun and the Moon (shown) outside a Metro station.** They also have - or almost have - one of my favorite pieces of art, for which I made a beeline as soon as I entered.

In 1941 Jacob Lawrence completed his 60-painting epic "The Migration of the Negro", telling the story of the great 1930s migration from rural South to urban North. In form it resembles nothing so much as storyboards; the addition of terse, understated captions anticipates the comic book as a serious art form. In a gold medal at the Missing the Point Olympics, the Phillips got the odd-numbered paintings and the Museum of Modern Art got the even-numbered ones. What Solomon proposed this division?! Maybe the same one who displayed the paintings in a loose grid on the wall rather than in a linear progression down a hallway.

After Lawrence, however, I have no quarrel with the displays in the Phillips - indeed, the display philosophy is a major strength. Art in the museum is ordered not chronologically, but as a series of "conversations". The Phillips doesn't just display its art, it hosts it. Quite literally in this case - a visiting collection from Oberlin was on display, integrated into the Phillips' own arrangement. Organization sometimes seemed to be by visual resemblance, with an emphasis on continuity. "Oh, Still Life with Newspaper, you have to meet The Glass of Absinthe, he's also an example of analytic cubism and he's really interested in household objects."

The Syrian Bull, Mark Rothko
The exhibition notes are perfectly calibrated as well, neither too wordy nor too brief, and including the occasional input from the artists themselves "No possible set of notes can explain our paintings," protest Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb in a perhaps unconscious irony.  "It is our function as artists to make the spectator see the world our way - not his way."  I was right there with you, guys, until you started in with the bit where your work "must insult anyone who is spiritually attuned to interior decorationpictures for over the mantle; pictures of the American scene; social pictures; purity in art; prize-winning potboilers; the National Academy; the Whitney Academy; the Corn Belt Academy; buckeyes; trite tripe; etc." Like it or not, fellows, your work depends on those who are spiritually attuned to interior decorating. Quit insulting your host when you're at a party, it's bad form.

The conversations go on.  A hallway is devoted to moonlit scenes. A room of self-portraits (in my notes it's The Room of Dour Faces) features artists staring out at each other from their canvases. Other arrangements are less intuitive.  The large room dominated by St Sebastian Tended by Irene (which is, incidentally, the most evocative depiction of semi-consciousness I've ever seen) includes other nudes, bodies supporting other bodies - and also Manet's Spanish Ballet.  The juxtaposition is a bit unsettling. The juxtaposition of Ossorio's Excelsior and the anonymous "The Fountain of Life", however, is made of awesome: two hallucinatory altarpieces, one from the 60s, one from the 16th century. 

The impressionist rooms are an education. What I wouldn't give to see Van Gogh at work, to watch the process as his paintings got that way! But again, when the artists are allowed to speak for themselves, they show a regrettable lack of awareness of the system that makes their works possible. Monet criticizes the Louvre for being "a dull schoolroom whose doors are open to any dauber." Respectfully, sir -- on behalf of all daubers who might seek improvement -- shove it up your je-ne-sais-quoi.***

One other special exhibition is on display at the moment: TruthBeauty, an examination of the birth of art photography. (I mean photography as art, not photography of art - which I am sure is another discipline that Rothko would unjustly scorn.) I find photos hard to focus on as art unless - and this is odd - they are blown up to at least a yard long. Otherwise I start to read the entire room, with its grey squares on the wall, as a newspaper. This is quite unjust to the photographers, and once I realized I was doing it I made an effort to stop.  Nonetheless, the photos that drew my attention were almost universally the largest ones, not the best ones. I'm sorry, The Phillips! This is one of the things that makes me not classy enough for you.

Still, classy or not, I will be back as often as I can, and maybe, just to spite Monet, I'll bring a sketchbook.

*Yes, this museum seemed distinctly feminine to me. Odd, since it represents the collection of a guy.
**This is a compliment.  The fact that I give compliments like this may explain why I am not an art critic...
***This brilliantly articulate rebuttal (my original was terser and not printable on a family blog) is thanks to friend and literary critic at kagenjoujo.

Place: The Phillips Collection
Pros: Gracious atmosphere and brilliant arrangement of art
Definitely Check Out: Oh what the heck, check out the Boating Party, it really is all that and a bag of chips.
Rating: 8/10 smiling gallery attendants

Friday, October 15, 2010

American Fantasy: Rockwell and the Folk Artists at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art

Boy, this one I just keep coming back to! Part of it's the late hours (the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, alone among its peers, keeps its door open until 7:00) part of it's the vastness of the collections, and part of it is that fascinating paradoxicality that is American art. I've covered the SAAM's contemporary art here, and the American history collections here. This time I blew in through the doors and barrelled straight to the Norman Rockwell exhibit. The pictures (it's a Flash presentation and I can't link to the individual images, but do scroll through the whole thing) were from the personal collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. The spotlight illuminating the exhibit's title proclaimed both its theme and its nature.  This exhibit is about telling stories like they do in movies.  This exhibit is not subtle.

Neither is Rockwell. I came pre-loaded with the bloatware of other people's judgements and my own reactionary desires when looking at his work - he's practically a byword for saccharine idealization of Middle America, and I wanted to see what was actually awesome about him. I was surprised, and a little discomfited, to find truth in the stereotype.  He's an able, workmanlike illustrator (and according to the photos at the beginning of the exhibition, really did seem to be constantly chawing on a pipe) but his images, while they may quirk a smile, are hardly challenging. They do a very solid job of telling stories, but they leave no room for the viewer to participate in the creation of that story. Back to Civvies, for instance, is a young soldier come home to discover he has outgrown his work suit. Carefully chosen details - pinups by the mirror, fishing rod by the wall, decoration on the folded uniform - give the illusion of depth and discovery. But really, it's the same simple story all the way down. What you see, folks, is what you get - no matter how long you keep looking.

In fact, the very completeness of the stories stops the images just short of being emotionally manipulative. Rockwell had the makings of a propagandist.  It's no wonder that so much of his work in this exhibition (The Stuff of Which Memories Are Made, Merry Christmas Grandma, And Daniel Boone Comes to Life) is advertisement. Some of Rockwell's propaganda is absolutely top-of-the-genre (The Four Freedoms), some is cringingly bad (Charles Lindbergh) and some just plain middle-of-the-road (A Time For Greatness - Shepard Fairey he ain't.)

But, since this is a personal collection, I don't have to rely on my own reactions to make sense of it. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg talk about why they chose the images in a 12-minute looping video. Nervous at first when Lucas started spouting things like "The audience wants to be informed in a way that's not only entertaining but informative," I was soon mollified by the actual insights the two directors provided not only into Rockwell's work, but into their own hearts as viewers.  Spielberg described seeing Boy on a High Dive and instantly relating to the it.  "I thought 'That's going in my office, so I can look at it every day.'" That's the kind of art collector I respect: one who sees an image and has to have it - not for power or prestige, but simply to be able to continue looking at it.

I learned a few things about Rockwell's techniques as a painter.  Apparently he cast his paintings, taking multiple photographs of his models and showing them exactly where to stand and what expressions to wear. Lucas also pointed out the prevalence of over-the-shoulder views in Rockwell's paintings. There he goes creating a point-of-view character.  There's definitely something Spielbergian in Rockwell's use of child protagonists.  Is it something about the purity of childhood emotional experience? I wonder if I would have the same criticisms of Rockwell if he were explicitly a children's book illustrator?

The Mermaid
Rockwell's proficiency and prolific output remind me of another purveyor of the popular: Stephen King. King has the same deftness of hand when it comes to evoking strongly drawn American types, the same relentless focus on narrative.  And one surprising image in Rockwell's collection illustrates a similarity that should have been.  Rockwell would have made a top-notch science fiction illustrator.  He infuses his people with plain and vivid character.  Juxtapose that with surreal or sinister situations, and you have some real imaginative potential. As it was, the fantasy world he constructed was America.

Exiting the exhibit I ran into a hall of bronzes (why does that always seem to happen?!) and then looped back around through the American Experience and Folk Art sections on the ground floor.

I'm basically going to ignore the American Experience section.  I usually walk right past landscapes, and when I was drawn closer by the electric blue of The Chief's Canoe it refused to reward my interest. There was also a giant stone donut, perhaps a sly tribute to the archetype of American masculinity? But I was in a hurry to get to the Folk Art room, where mute inglorious Miltons got their chance to mouth off.

Thornton Dial, Sr.Top of the Line (Steel)
I really dig this collection.  Sure, some of it looks like it was produced at Crafts Hour at summer camp, but for the most part it's refreshingly free of the convoluted introspection of capital-A art. I'm inclined to suspect that a lot of the things that art still has to say concern materials, and works like Root Monster and Top of the Line (Steel) are speaking loud and clear. That's not to say that folk art is somehow purer or more admirable than the art of the establishment and its loyal opposition. If anything, it's messier. And in its messiness, it gets at part of what it is to be American.

Religious motifs, particularly apocalyptic ones, are everywhere.*  Almon has Christ chaining Mr. and Mrs. Devil. Finster's crossing of the Jordan is an overwhelming tide of text. Roberg paints a technicolor Babylon. Not coincidentally, many of these artists are also street preachers, that glorious meld of huckster and prophet. If you have this in your head, let alone in your house, you're crazy. But we do. And we are. And we're running with it. Christine McHorse makes the scintillatingly paradoxical declaration "I can make my own taboos and traditions." America gonif!

I haven't even visited the National Portrait Gallery yet, so you can be sure I'll be back with yet another "American Noun" titled blog post.

For another perspective, check out iowasthinking's review of the Rockwell exhibit.

*I find the apocalypse, as a motif, endlessly fascinating.  I'll elucidate in another post one of these days.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Close-ing Time: The Corcoran

It was Labor Day Weekend (that's the one at the end of the summer, yes?) It meant the end of all kinds of things: super-cooled office environments,  tank tops, and free Saturdays at the Corcoran. If there was ever a time to gather rosebuds while I might, this was it.

On the steps of the neat square Beaux-Arts building, an artist was crouched.  Earbuds in his ears, he was laying out blocks of color for a portrait of George Washington, riffing on Gilbert Stuart's classic. 

The Corcoran is a college as well as a gallery, and the atrium has an elegant, intimate feel.  A group was sketching from a model in one half; the other was taken up by a cafe.  I had just biked in from Arlington, so went to get some water before art. It was blood-warm from the fountain and as I raised my head a burst of song rang out through the atrium.

Really, there's only one thing to do when you hear a distant strain of music.  I followed.  Upstairs I found two choirs in handsome black and magenta.  The Washington Revels were presenting their program of America music: Ren-fest-sounding songs of the American Revolution, spine-tingling spirituals, and apocalyptic shape-note hymns.

I hunkered down to watch the singing beside a striking sculpture, all feathers and claws in black metal.  As soon as I saw the comical sculpted eye, though, the figure of a bird flying through reeds leaped out, and the effect was ruined.

After the concert I wandered around the upstairs level, which was entirely dedicated to Chuck Close.  He's the one who does those portraits made of multicolored squares ("Hey, that's so derivative!" I though, before realizing it was the opposite). Close has been around for a while - long enough to have anticipated in mindboggling manuality the techniques that were to become standard in computer printing technology. I didn't think to check the dates, so I don't know if he was deterred or discouraged by the fact that Photoshop made it possible to do in microseconds what he accomplished with so much labor, but the labor did seem to be at least half the point of the exhibition.

The information labels left a lot to be desired.  Poorly placed, they jammed visitors trying to read them into corners, and took a weirdly reverential tone toward Close himself.  They referred to one work (according to my somewhat illegible notes) with the statistically improbably phrase "typically important." In all, I came away respectful, but strangely unmoved.

All of the other upstairs galleries were closed, but my tour of the permanent galleries downstairs began with a really delightful exhibition of early American art.  This kind of exhibit is one of the real strengths of smaller galleries, showcasing not beauty or even importance but sheer overflowing personality. Rembrandt Peale's portrait of Joseph Outen Bogart resembles an early Photoshop disaster, Charles King's deadpan Artist's Cupboard (including the book "On a Vegetable Diet" and a stack of unpaid bills) is as accurate as ever, and Joshua Johnson's portrait of Grace Allison McCurdy and her daughters is stop-you-from-across-the-room beautiful. A Light On the Sea appears at first glance as being a portrait of a sailor cross-dressing on shore leave.  And the final standout, to me, was Cecilia Beaux's Sita and Sarita, which is possibly the most subversive thing I've ever seen.

For the most part the paintings had the immediate presence of being in someone's home rather than the occasionally clinical feel of museum works.  But why were some hung so high on the walls?  One Sargent painting appeared curiously elongated, as it were meant to be hung above eye level - but that was right there in front of the viewers.

The European galleries weren't quite as engaging as the American ones, although I did enjoy hearing a mother telling her enrapt six-year-old daughter what was so cool about impressionist art. "The farther away you go, the more detail you see." The daughter backed away from the painting, squeezing her eyes shut.  "I see it!  I see it!" she yelled joyfully. The Dutch room was very dark, the English painters got carried away with sfumato, and although I usually don't give a damn about French art, Jean-Jacques Henner's "Standing Woman" was so notable that it doesn't appear to have any images online.

The other galleries included a claustrophobogenic little closet with what appears to be the sweepings from the desk of Olga Hirshhorn and a collection of bronzes which, though varied and intriguing, weren't really a medium that spins my wheels. Lachaise's massive female torso, though, made me realize something.  Women's rights were set back millennia when Venus popped up in Milo missing her hands.  Seriously, how is this trend of depicting women from the neck to the thighs anything but gruesome?

Place: The Corcoran Gallery of Art
Pros: The really kick-ass American art collection
Cons: Ten bucks!
Definitely Check Out: Sita and Sarita
Rating: 7/10 chalk drawings of Washington