More DC…

Monday, December 21
After a cold, damp weekend with a frozen water hose, Monday we headed back into DC. We got off the METRO at the Gallery Pl/ Chinatown Station, to visit the Smithsonian American Art Museum and to see what DC Chinatown would be like. We first strolled down a long block of white pop-up tents, full of local crafts and foods, that were tempting but we were on a mission: to see the Irving Penn photography show.

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The National Art Scene was late to elevate photography to its deserved level in the arts, but amends have been made. This was a sweeping, comprehensive show that went on and on, to delight at every turn, in the many bays and niches of the museum’s second floor.

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SAAM Atrium

Images of the famous: a soaring leap of Willie Mays, an almost cubist photo of John Cage tuning a piano, an aging Truman Capote, a very young Rudolph Nureyev, to the anonymous, veiled women of Morocco, clustered in Penn’s large, shipped-ahead tent photography studio. Penn’s wife took home movies of the tent being assembled, which served as a diverting spectacle and lure for locals. After Penn finished an assignment for Vogue or Condé Nast, he’d allow himself the freedom to capture the local people, with an open and appreciative eye. They were agreeable subjects.

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We also saw a show called American Expressions, which chronicled many of the works of WPA and PWA artists, during the Depression. I think of the lack of art funding now, and the many artists who might never have the starting chance in today’s economy.

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Massive size and abundant materials seem to be the attention-worthy in today’s art world. Although vast, room-sized canvases and installations using almost unlimited resources do place the viewer into a child-like awe by sheer scale, the small, thoughtful pieces can be unfortunately by-passed. I wish I could remember who said that many modern artists must take a whole room to express one idea, whereas Joseph Cornell, within one small box, could encapsulate the entire universe.

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Absorbing art is hungry work, so we passed through the large Chinatown Gate to a rather small Chinatown in search of dinner. A few restaurants caught our eye but we let our instincts rather than eyes lead us to the Chinatown Express: a rather unassuming, (translate; tatty-looking) step-down level restaurant that boasted great Washington Post reviews and articles, as well as a woman hand-forming noodles and dumplings in the front window. The crowded interior was full of all sorts of people who looked like local DC cognoscenti, and the food lived up to our hunch!

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Tuesday, December 22
Once again, into the breach! Emerging from the metro at Archives Station, we dodged puddles to the I.M.Pei East wing of the National Gallery. As I was about to check my bag, a kind docent told us that the current renovations had closed all but the 3 atria, with only their 25 permanent sculptures on view.

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We puddled across instead to the main building. An elegant woman at the desk, (a former prosecuting and defending attorney in the Washington courts system, now volunteer) said she loved her new job and her former job had taught her so much about reading faces. She told us that despite her initial indifference to the idea of ‘Power and Pathos’ exhibition of Hellenic bronzes, she’d become a convert and recommended it highly. She was right! Seen close up, the sculptures of athletes, leaders, and deities were so engaging.

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Cast by means of lost wax process, these sculptures were often created in multiples. A sculpture of a winning athlete would grace the site of his victory and another would go to honor his hometown. Bronzes were lighter than marble and more easily transported, and many on exhibit had been found in shipwrecks in the Mediterranean. One particularly beautiful sculpture of a boy wrapped a cloak, had been found washed up on a beach in Crete. I can only imagine the thrill of its finder!

Realism was important to these artists, so beyond faithful contours of swelling veins and tendons in the bodies, copper was also used to color the lips, nipples, and fabric adornment. Eyelids were lined with copper, cut to mimic eyelashes, and the eyes, themselves, were made of white marble and glass for realistic expression. The show’s galleries were filled with admiring visitors, but also filled with the enduring presence of these subjects, whose inner lives could still be read in their immortalized faces.

Visiting shows often forbid photography, and absorbed as we become just taking everything in with our memories, we sometimes forgot that some galleries did permit photos. We’d discover, long after, that we could have recorded much that will now dwell only in our minds’ eyes.

Washington, DC is an endless buffet of art: rooms full of Cezanne, Dega, Pisarro, Monet, Picasso, Gauguin, and Van Gogh, await to nourish all comers. These images are all beautifully reproduced in art books, but only in the flesh can one appreciate the rich texture of a Van Gogh, his energetic brush-strokes thick and rhythmic, catching the light like bas relief. Many rooms even have an easel and stool for copyists who come, on appointed days. The guard with whom I spoke was very proud of his particular copyist’s abilities.

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We saw a startling wall of photos of Washington politicians, taken by Richard Avedon. An entire wall, scores of images lined up in a grid, with George Wallace being the odd man out, one extra in the lower right corner. When I asked our prosecutor/defender later, if she could read many of those famous faces, she said that she had known most of them! I wish I’d asked her name. Lesson of the day.

Wednesday, December 23
Heat wave hit DC and along with it, heavy rain. So, it was a quite day in the Airstream with a short, damp run for groceries and a visit to Best Buy and Home Depot.

Thursday, December 24
Another warm, damp day–70 degrees on Christmas Eve! Another run to Best Buy to finally solve, we think, our wifi signal problem. Bought a Netgear wifi booster that actually works with the Mac! Easy to set-up and it works.

A nice quiet evening with Christmas Eve dinner in the Airstream. Our favorite Swedish meatballs from IKEA, with roasted potatoes, peas, Lingonberry sauce, and a glass, or two, of Pinot Grigio.

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Wishing all our readers a merry and fun day tomorrow!

PS: This is an edited version of the blog entry; several photos didn’t upload the first time!

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