Thursday, November 17, 2011

More Washington

By Charles Kessler

A lot of paintings at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington struck me as funny. I recently wrote that I found some of de Kooning’s women comical (and there is support for this in the de Kooning biography  by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan — highly recommended, by the way). I also recently found some of David Smith's sculptures playful, so maybe it's just my mood. But intended by the artist or not, I thought these paintings were a riot. See if you agree.
Frans Hals, Portrait of a Member of the Haarlem Civic Guard, c. 1636/1638, oil on canvas, 33 7/8 x 27 3/16 inches (National Gallery of Art, #1937.1.68).
Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Daniel in the Lions' Den, c. 1614/1616, oil on canvas, 105 1/2 x 147 1/2 (National Gallery of Art, #1965.13.1).
Titian, Venus with a Mirror, c. 1555, oil on canvas, 49 x 41 9/16 inches (National Gallery of Art, #1937.1.34).
This is one of my favorite paintings and Titian obviously loved it since he kept it in his studio until his death, so I doubt it was intended to be funny. Nevertheless I can’t help thinking she’s saying: “Who, moi?” There’s less doubt about this painting though:
Giorgione and Titian, Portrait of a Venetian Gentleman, c. 1510, oil on canvas, 30 x 25 inches (National Gallery of Art, #1939.1.258).
Raphael, The Niccolini-Cowper Madonna, 1508, oil on panel, 31 3/4 x 22 5/8 inches (National Gallery of Art, #1937.1.25). 
I know this is no ordinary baby, but come on.


The contrast between the way traditional and contemporary art are displayed is more extreme at the NGA than anywhere else I know of. The West Wing, where their traditional art collection is housed, is a quiet, sedately lit, intimate space with plenty of places to sit, whereas the East Wing is over-bright and uncomfortable, and most of the galleries are way out of human scale. Some very public art like Stella, Calder, and Pop Art, can handle that, but most contemporary art isn't helped by this kind of dramatic space.

And some of the East Wing installations are just plain disrespectful:
From the left: Robert Morris, Nam June Paik and Richard Tuttle installed in a vestibule near an elevator.


Mel Boucher's art has become decorative and more popular. Coincidence?
Mel Bochner, Amazing!, 2011, oil and acrylic on canvas.
Mel Bochner in conversation with James Meyer, November 9, 2011, NGA East Building Auditorium


Who said nothing’s perfect:
Jun ware bowl with rosewood stand, early 12th-mid 13th century, China,  Jin dynasty (Freer, #F1982.14a-b).


"The Invention of Glory" (until January 8, 2012), an exhibition of The Pastrana Tapestries, considered among the finest surviving Gothic tapestries, is at the NGA. Why are tapestries always so drab?


I was surprised I liked Warhol’s Shadows so much, but the other major Warhol exhibition in Washington, the NGA’s Warhol: Headlines (until January 2, 2012), was a surprising disappointment. They seemed crude and unresolved — not always a bad thing, but not something I’d expect, or want, from Warhol.

Andy Warhol, A Boy for Meg, 1962, oil on canvas, 72 x 52 inches (National Gallery of Art, 1971.87.11).


Some good surprises:
Alberto Giacometti, Standing Man, 1929-30, painted plaster (NGA 66.2043)

Giacomo Balla, Futurist Flowers, 1918-25 (reconstructed 1968), wood and paint (Hirshhorn, #86.222.1-10)
Bernardino Luini, The Magdalen, c.1525, oil on panel, 23 x 19 inches (National Gallery of Art, #1961.9.56).
I guess there’s a hole in my Italian Renaissance art history, but I don't remember Bernardino Luini. Strangely the NGA website doesn’t have anything on his paintings, only his Fresco Cycle with the Story of Procris and Cephalus, and those frescos don’t look at all like his paintings.

1 comment:

Carl Belz said...

Great reports, just enough (of the right kind of) commentary to make your reader--certainly this reader, in any case--make a visit to DC. Thanks.