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Monday, July 9, 2012

Art and air-conditioning: two great tastes in one


The entrance to Washington, D.C.'s Chinatown. The city has one of the most pathetic Chinatowns I've ever come across - a small handful of restaurants set among the usual chain store/franchise branches made "Chinese" by virtue of having their names rendered in characters on their signs. Skip it.

But don't skip what's just around the block. The National Portrait Gallery is worth several hours of exploration, and you're going to need a lot of time to do the place justice. The building itself is huge (the gallery shares the Old Patent Office building with the American Art Gallery, which we didn't visit this afternoon) and the collection is vast:


The first thing we did upon entering was to take a moment to appreciate the air-conditioning on yet another blistering hot day. Then we took a gander at the Kogod Courtyard, before plunging into the exhibits:


Or before I took the plunge, rather. My wife and daughter didn't seem the appreciate the gallery's collection as much as I did - Amber, because she was too young to understand the cultural and historical figures on display, and Pamela, because she was too Taiwanese to understand the cultural and historical figures on display (the victim of a Sino-centric education). The two of them bailed out after visiting the first floor, retreating at first to a workshop where they created some art of their own, before going up the third and top floor to check out the Art of Video Games special exhibit:


So I was basically on my own on the second and third floors. What follows are some shots of just a few of the things that caught my untrained eye:



Grant and His Generals (top) by Ole Peter Hansen Balling, and Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (bottom) by Emanuel Leutze, are two paintings I remember from history books I had when I was a kid.

The presidential portraits were especially of interest to this old Political Science major. There was Franklin D. Roosevelt looking very stylish in a 1940's kind of way...:


...Alexander Healy's portrait of Abraham Lincoln, as well as Alexander Gardner's famous cracked photograph of the 16th president...:



...Gilbert Stuart's classic "Lansdowne" portrait of George Washington...:


...and Norman Rockwell's somewhat disturbingly flattering portrayal of Richard Nixon:


Other highlights for yours truly included Washington Sea Eagle by James Audubon..:


...Still Life with Fruit by Severin Roesen..:


and the stained-glass windows of John La Farge's Peacocks and Peonies Parts I & II:


I was particularly struck by some of the landscapes. The United States must have looked incredibly beautiful in the days before tourism became an industry (from top to bottom: Among the Sierra Nevada, California, Albert Bierstadt; The Chasm of the Colorado, Thomas Moran; and The Grand Canyon on Yellowstone, also by Moran) :




Another of the National Portrait Gallery's more popular attractions is the depictions of famous Americans. There was proof that Dashiell Hammett had some very poor taste in fashion...:


...a very powerful portrait of Paul Robeson as Othello...:


...a painting of my favorite baseball player, the Express, Nolan Ryan...:


...a suitably apt portrayal of Buckminster Fuller...:


...a young and handsome Isamu Noguchi...:


...and, of course, Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe portrait:


Finally, there was proof that the gallery wasn't just static portraiture. The top floor also featured some exhibits of modern art, including the above-mentioned video games exhibit, and this striking installation by Nam June Paik, entitled Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii:



The National Portrait Gallery is just one of eight museums and galleries coming under the wing of the Smithsonian Institution. In the weeks and months to come, I hope to check out a few more of them.



1 comment:

  1. Wow, some pretty impressive stuff there. Love those historic paintings!

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