Tuesday, 11 January 2011

December 7, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery

On my second day I particularly wanted to see the well-received Arcimboldo (1526-1593): Nature and Fantasy show at the National Gallery and the controversial Hide/Seek show at the National Portrait Gallery. But several other exhibitions also called for attention.

Entering the National Gallery through the West Building, again nearest the Metro stop, I wandered through the enticing shops, checking out cards, ties and scarfs, tschotchkes, and the latest art books on the way to the East Building and the Arcimboldo exhibition. To give an engaging context to the few paintings in the show, the curator had chosen to include nature studies, including the fabulous Hans Hoffman Red Squirrel, 1578, a 1526 Durer of cowslips, and several ink caricatures generally attributed to Leonardo. In addition, the exhibition includes publications and drawings, not only of exotic animals but also identifying medicinal plants in carefully illustrated herbaria, 16th-century Italian bronzes of animals and a French Bernard Palissy platter depicting plants and animals. The National Gallery generously provides a lovely illustrated brochure in the exhibition and an illustrated checklist online.  The relatively small gallery reminded one of a Wunderkammer or Studiolo, the cabinets of curiosities sprang up at Renaissance courts.

I've seen paintings attribute to Arcimboldo often in museums and knew some of his works from illustrations, but the extravagantly detailed sea creatures in his Water, 1568, the strangely 20th-century look of Librarian, ca. 1566, and the amusing double images in the three paintings that showed a different aspect of the portrait when turned upside down were all revelations. A lovely video narrated by Isabella Rossellini also gave the exhibition additional context, showing bits of the castles of his major patrons, Maximilian II (1527-1576) in Vienna and Rudolf II (1552-1612) in Prague. But still it consisted of only 16 paintings (checklist total objects: 48) and I went to the bookstore to see if I could get an idea of how many Arcimboldos are actually identified. I still don't know.  I do think that seeing many more would have felt repetitive and tiresome, especially if they were of lesser quality, and that 16 made an excellent revelation of his work and its scholarly and princely context.
Big sign for a small show
The National Gallery was also featuring the Chester Dale Collection, a key component of its 19th-entury painting holdings. I think many works in this exhibition, which meandered through the lower exhibition gallery in the West Building, are not generally on view, and I was really struck by how significantly Chester Dale enhanced the impressionist and other 19th and early 20th century holdings at the National Gallery. One of many examples I enjoyed was a pair of Monet paintings of Rouen Cathedral.

Then, branching off from this exhibition were three more: two of them displaying German drawings, one from the National Gallery collection and the other of works recently acquired from a private collection. The labels indicated that the private collection had been purchased by various patrons rather than donated by the collector. The two included hundreds of drawings, many beautiful, but altogether more than I felt I had the stamina to examine or think about. I stopped at a few of the more beautiful ones, the Friedrichs, a Blecly hen, landscapes by artists whose names I have forgotten, and continued on. But surely this makes the National Gallery a major resource for the study of German drawings, particularly of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The third show was presented as being about the influence of photography on the pre-Raphaelites. The Wall Street Journal recently mentioned this exhibition in a review of the two photography exhibitions in DC in December. I agree with the reviewer that it seems quite unlikely that photograpy could have influenced the painters by offering more detail of observation, since I'm finding more and more that photographs do not usually capture detail with the same attention that painting can. And paintings are in color and early photograpy was not, so it's quite difficult to make a case for photograpy being more realistic. I did find the photographic portraits by Watts quite engaging, was interested to see Julia Margaret Cameon's work looking persistently  more pretentious, and to find through photographs that Rossetti's model looked more like his paintings than one could imagine a real human being could.

On to the National Portrait Gallery, on a cold day, passing a wonderful Mexican restaurant, Oyamel, where we later ate dinner. To get to Hide/Seek, I had to pass through an exhibition of photographs of Elvis Presley taken in 1956, just as he was bursting on the music scene. There was a video of him performing "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Heartbreak Hotel" that brought back memories, although several people my age just passed right though and ignored it.

Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, which seems to call attention to the gay and lesbian impact on 20th-century art, is an odd show in juxtapose with Elvis. The exhibition publicity refers to "sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture," but in other statements their terms are more specifically "gay and lesbian." I had wanted to see it since I'd heard Susan Stamberg talk about it on NPR earlier in the fall, but the protests and removal of the David Wojnarowicz video had made it mandatory. The show was very interesting, but also quite confusing, John O'Hara, Andy Warhol's videos of beautiful people, the Carl van Vechten photograph of Anthony Tudor and Hugh Laing secretly holding hands, Romaine Brooks's self portrait and in drag portrait of Una, Lady Trowbridge, 1924 were all understandable, as were the paired images by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. But what's Georgia O'Keeffe doing here and does that slightly female image of a red goat's horn have something to do with portraiture or gayness? Does it really mean the subject is gay if a Grant Wood portrait includes two guys skinny dipping in a rural stream in the background? Was Agnes Martin sexually different in some way because she did self portraits with bare shoulders that she later tried to destroy? I couldn't tell.  Why just show an unfinished Keith Haring and no others? I kept getting sidetracked, wondering what the exhibition was really supposed to be about, at the same time it seemed that just about everybody in the art world was gay, something that shouldn't have been a surprise to me, There certainly were a lot of gay artists and gay subjects, and they certainly did have an important role in the development of some modern art (I don't recall reference to abstract expressionism.).

The exhibition culminates in the age of AIDS, with a few select works, including Robert Mapplethorpe's Self Portrait  and the Felix Gonzales Torres pile of candy in the corner (to be taken away piece by piece, like life). The David Wojnarowicz video would have been essential to that part of the show, since he and his furious reponses to the plight of gay artists in the 80s and early 90s dramatize the agonizing helplessness we in the art world felt as artists and art world leaders succumbed to a disease we couldn't counter. Nonetheless the huge photograph by General Idea, Felix, June 5, 1994, taken hours after Felix Partz's death from an AIDS-related illness made a powerful impact and relived the horror of those times. I'm glad I could see it at the Portrait Gallery, upsetting as it is. The request to remove it in protest to the removal of the Wojanarowitz video also seems totally appropriate and, as a former art museum director and AAMD member, I'm disappointed that the National Portrait Gallery could choose to have a spine in response to the demand of an artist but has none in response to the comment of a legislator. In New York, at the New Museum, I watched a small part of the Wojnarowitz video, didn't have the patience to see it all, but what I saw was clearly not worthy of the exaggerated criticisms of the Catholic whatever it was and any congressman with a sense of honor.

The second bizarre juxtaposition with this show was at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which is in the same building as the National Portrait Gallery. It was showing Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas's collections of paintings by Norman Rockwell. Despite its persistently uplifting presentation of illusionary small-town life, this show was more appealing to a professional than might have been expected. Rockwell was a wonderful painter and seeing the amazing color combinations in just the skirt of a figure, and the virtuoso brushwork in shaping a face or an arm made it a delight. Spielberg and Lucas also chose some of the more narrative, sometimes amusing but also occasionally more substantive subjects of Rockwell.

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