Our last visit to Washington DC was a few years ago What better time to go back than in spring. We began with several of the city’s incomparable collections of free museums that are part of the National Treasure that is the Smithsonian Institution.
National Museum of African-American History
Get Tickets in Advance
We didn’t realize that this recently opened museum was so crowded that it virtually requires tickets to be reserved months in advance. Luckily for us, a handful of tickets are retained for same-day admission (first come at 6:30 AM) and walk-ins (after 1:00 PM on weekdays only).
The experience was well worth the challenge in getting in. Tom set the alarm for 6:30 AM and maneuvered his way through the website to snag a couple of tickets. Once we got there at our appointed time, we discovered the museum was having a slow day and we could have gotten tickets once we arrived there. But don’t depend on that. Book your tickets in advance and sleep in. And, plan to spend hours going through it.
The visit begins in the third-sub-basement (i.e. Concourse) in the pre-colonial days. We went through brief histories of increasingly powerful African city-states, European exploration of the African coast, and the co-equal trading relationships in the 15th and 16th centuries.
This relationship changed in the 17th century. The growing European powers expanded their African trading posts into military forts and began raiding African villages to capture slaves for use as domestic labor and servants and especially to man Caribbean (and later North American) plantations to replace Indians who were dying out from European diseases to which they had no immunity.
The exhibits highlight the horrid conditions by which these slaves were force-marched to the coast, packed into ship’s holds with little food and no hygiene, sold on auction blocks and forced to work in equally barbarous conditions in Caribbean sugar, and eventually North American cotton plantations. While fewer than half the captured Africans ever made it to the Americas alive, those who did had a lifespan of only seven years.
In the end, the slave trade totaled about 12.5 million people—the largest forced migration in history.
North American Slavery
The three Concourse-level floors trace the history of North American slavery. It showed how it differed in each region of the colonies and how the British, and later the Americans sought to enlist blacks into the Revolutionary War efforts with promises of freedom. Although a few slaves did gain their independence in the war, the institution of slavery expanded after the revolution, particularly after the Louisiana purchase and the cotton gin invention. The effort to expand slavery into new states led to the Civil War, emancipation, and the still dreadful conditions in the Jim Crow, KKK-laced south.
The exhibits trace African American history through waves of migration into industrialized Northern and Western States, and the discrimination blacks faced as they began to move into white neighborhoods and compete with whites for jobs. It explains the roles of local, state, and federal governments, and the U.S. Supreme Court (at least until the 1954 Brown v Board of Education ruling) effectively restrained African-American rights and how, over recent decades, growing numbers of blacks have slowly moved into American middle, upper and in a few instances, even ruling classes—and how many challenges still remain.
Integration into American Life
The museum’s upper levels trace the effects of the African diaspora, and African-American integration into American life, on all forms of U.S. culture, including our food, language, dress, music, dance, arts, crafts, and much more. These contributions are explored in detail in areas including the military, journalism, art, entertainment, sports, and especially music. The exhibits provided detailed overviews in genres including folk, gospel, soul, R&B, Rock & Roll, Pop, Go-Go, Hip-Hop, Rap, and especially Blues and Jazz. Then there are the less known contributions in areas such as country, classical, and genre-busting cultural icons including Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Sammy Davis Jr., and more.
Another exhibit traces the many paths to African-American inclusion in the American Dream, beginning with education, but also the military, entrepreneurism, sports, music, and among the most important, self-help organizations. A special exhibit traces the life, the broadcasting success, charitable contributions, and overall cultural impacts of Oprah Winfrey, who is also one of the museum’s primary contributors.
To truly experience the museum, not to speak of its many interactive opportunities, you should plan to spend a full day. And while there, be sure to have lunch at the much better than expected, cafeteria-style Sweet Home Café (see our accompanying post on D.C. Restaurants).
National Gallery of Art East Wing
The East Wing of the National Gallery focuses on 20th Century Art. Although the collection is relatively small, it is a lovely building and provides a nice cross-section of each of the major styles, each generally covered in a single gallery.
Cubism and Fauvism were in a two gallery introduction to the century’s two defining artists: Picasso and Matisse, and the styles that each created (Cubism and Fauvism), even though Picasso was more heavily represented by his Blue Period works than by his cubist works.
American Art was shown in three galleries with a particular representation of Bellows, Hopper, O’Keefe, and Pollock.
Early Abstraction included Matisse and Kandinsky.
Dada art showed Arp, Christo, and Oldenburg.
Surrealism was represented by Magritte, Miro, and Ernst.
Purism included Brancusi and Mondrian.
Postwar European included works by Dubuffet and Bacon.
Abstract Expressionism included Rothko, Giacometti, and David Smith.
German Expressionism portrayed works by Ernst, Kirshner, and others.
Pop art included Lichtenstein, Warhol and Johns.
The museum also has a handful of galleries devoted to works of individual artists. Included among this exclusive list are galleries with Mark Rothko field paintings, Barnet Newman’s series on ‘The Stations of the Cross”, and a delightful selection of Alexander Calder’s smaller mobiles, stabiles, and wire sculptures, which are in addition to some of his large-scale mobiles that are suspended from the ceiling of the gallery’s large covered courtyard.
When we visited, the museum had just opened a wonderful special exhibition dedicated to the paintings of Oliver Lee Jackson, a lesser-known and greatly underappreciated Oakland CA artist that uses the movement of the human body as a launchpad for exploring emotions and feelings through the imaginative use of vivid colors and varied surfaces.
National Gallery of Art West Wing
This huge museum displays a large and representative sample of European and American Art from roughly around the Renaissance through the end of the 19th century. Rather than even attempting to explore the entire museum, we focused on styles and periods in which we have the greatest interest. Among our favorite galleries in this museum are those focused on:
- 19th century European and American Sculptures, where we particularly enjoy those of Rodin and Paul Manship, an American whose work we had not previously known.
- Impressionist paintings, with multiple galleries filled with large selections of works by all of the prominent, and many of the less well-known Pre-Impressionists, Impressionists, and Post-Impressionists. While we were familiar with many, such as Monet’s landscapes, Renoir’s portraits, and Degas’ ballerinas, the collection includes examples of less seen types of paintings by these and other artists. These include a plein d’air-style portrait by Monet, vividly colored, abstracted works by Cezanne, Renoir landscapes, the softer colors of some of Degas’ later paintings, and subtler styles that we normally expect to see in works by Gaugin.
- 19th-century British paintings, including many works by masters including Turner, Romney, Gainsborough, and Reynolds.
- 19th-century American art with ample representation of landscapes, portraiture, and other works by artists including Stuart, Church, Bierstadt, Homer, Whistler, and Sargent. Also included are Copley’s “Watson and the Shark”, a plaster cast of Saint-Gauden’s iconic “Shaw Memorial” and Hassam’s glorious “Allies Day, May 1917”.
Also on display, a special exhibit, Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice.
Although we had never been particular fans of religious paintings by Tintoretto or most other artists, this exhibition put these paintings, along with a number of Tintoretto styles with which we were not previously familiar, in a different light. We learned, for example:
- How the artist’s bold styles, speed of painting, use of shortcuts and aggressive pricing of his works earned the scorn of many of his contemporaries;
- How his use of bolder strokes and lighter, more atmospheric application of paint differed from what was common among other Renaissances painters; and
- That his paintings went well beyond the religious paintings for which he is best known to include allegories, portraits, and even, at least the times, erotic works.
While the exhibit consisted primarily of finished paintings, it also included a number of sketches—both chalk and oil—and even one of the artist’s sculptures.
The Hirschhorn Museum focuses on contemporary art, including a number of large-scale installations. Our visit provided access to a number of large-scale installations. These include:
- Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s “Pulses”, a three-part, interactive installation that allowed people to visualize their own pulses via projected displays of rectangular patterns, projections of waves in a pool and as a series of flashing lights;
- A multi-artist installation that examined the range of meanings that can be conveyed by “absence”;
- Mark Bradford’s “Pickett’s Charge”, which consisted of eight large panels that formed something of an abstract, cycloramic representation of the deadliest day of fighting in the Battle of Gettysburg. It uses multiple layers of strips of colored paper to both highlight different stages of the charge and to provide commentary on more contemporary political engagements.
- Charline Von Heyl’s “Snake Eyes”, is a series of paintings in which the artist uses jagged forms, grids, flames and other dramatic shapes to convey the symbolism that she draws from sources as varied as comics, literature, history, and film.
- The museum whose entrance is currently graced by a car whose top has been crushed by a boulder with a set of expressive painted eyes is surrounded by an arrangement of often whimsical sculptures. Its “backyard” consists of a formal sculpture garden with dozens of works from renowned artists.
The Sackler Museum had several interesting exhibits including the Art of Iran (with its especially lovely gold chalice and silver drinking horns), Images of the Buddha (with an array of spectacular Buddhas plus complimentary Bodhisattvas, guardians, and stupas), Ancient Bells of China (which demonstrated superb artistry and according to the placards, tonal quality) and another on The Empresses of the Forbidden City, a very informative exhibit which we saw last summer at Massachusetts’ Peabody-Essex Museum.
In our Spring 2015 post, we talk about how we saw and admired many Oriental statues, bronzes, ceramics, and scrolls. Unfortunately, one of our favorite exhibits (James Whiter paintings) was closed for renovation. However, one of his more lovely works, Variations in Blue and Green did find its way into another gallery.
Meanwhile, the Peacock Room, one of the museum’s crown jewels, was still open. But, since it too was being prepared for renovation, it was temporarily stripped of the many superb ceramics, jades, and other pieces that graced its many shelves, although a few of these too did find their ways into a temporary display in a nearby gallery.
Museum of African Art
We especially enjoyed two special exhibits, one on Treasures of Africa and one on contemporary African Art. Both exhibits had some lovely pieces, ranging from finely carved elephant tusks to beautifully carved masks and a couple of particularly striking large-scale works: one a roughly 15-foot diameter sculpture of a serpent swallowing its own tail and the other, an el Anatsui curtain made of scrap metal.
We caught two exhibits in which we had a particular interest. The Renwick Invitational consisted of samples of crafts by four artists that the gallery considered to provide particular insight into critical cultural issues. While we enjoyed several of the pieces, we were particularly struck by those of Dustin Farnsworth who had a particularly poignant way of showing the burdens that stressed people faced in today’s world.
We were equally impressed by an exhibit titled David Best and the Temple Crew. Although we regret to say that we have never attended the Burning Man Festival in spite of it being in our back yard, we learned, that Best designed and managed the construction of more than half of all the temples built for the festival (and burned on its final night) since 2000. The reconstructed wooden temple, which took up the gallery’s entire largest space, emulated an ornate Indian temple. Several of the pieces from the gallery’s permanent collection—not to speak of the LED light show put on by installation above the main stairway, are worth a visit even without the special exhibit.
This superb private collection bills itself as America’s first modern art collection. The gallery’s permanent collection consists of more than a hundred pieces (at least those that are currently on display) of art ranging from the late 19th through the end of the 20th century. Although its French Impressionist collection is very limited, it is superbly represented by Renoir’s incredible “Boating Party” and a few nice works by Cezanne, Van Gogh, Degas. Post-impressionists are more liberally represented, especially by a few paintings by Vuillard, Corot, and a number of Bonnards. There is a nice Matisse, a couple of Picasso prints, and a cast of a panel from Rodin’s “The Gates of Hell”
The collection focuses particularly on American artists, with a few representative works by artists including Whistler, Twactman, and Stewart Davis. Later-era American art is also nicely represented by works by artists including George Innes, Willem DeKooning, a wall of paintings by Arthur Dove, and a small gallery, lined by four, large-scale color field paintings by Mark Rothko.
Among our personal favorites—in addition to the “Boating Party” and the Rothko Room—were a number of works from artists with who we weren’t previously familiar. These include a duo of Nicholas de Stael semi-abstract sketches of nudes that are splashed with subtle colors, a Roberto Matta, and a number of watercolor washes by Maggie Michael.
Another gallery was dedicated to Jacob Lawrence’s especially poignant “The Migration Series”. This body of 60, small-scale panels (narrated by brief captions taken from poems and other lyrical wrings) use bold colors and forms to create a chronology tracing the African-American migration from the rural South to the industrialized North over the century after WWI.
The chronology begins with the life of cotton sharecroppers through devastating droughts and boll weevil infestations, combined with their mounting debts to sharecroppers and the persistent harassment, torture and lynchings by the KKK and other white groups. It looks at the ways in which agents for Northern factories scouted the south in search for disaffected African-Americans who could be tempted (often to break strikes) by pre-paid train fares (fares that would be recovered from factory wages) and the steps farm owners and local governments took to minimize this challenge to their bases of captive, cheap labor. Subsequent panels trace the men’s journey on overcrowded trains, their work in factories (especially steel mills), their life in tenements, the tuberculosis epidemics that spread in the crowded buildings and the discrimination, and in some cases violence and home bombings, perpetrated by threatened white workers. It ends with their gradual moves into their own homes and their sending for their wives and children to join them in the big cities. A separate section of the building offers archival photos and videos of the million-man migration, an animated map of migration patterns, and an opportunity for viewers to design their own “61st panels” and to create captions from Harlem Renaissance poems.
Less compelling, at least to us, was a special retrospective of the work of Cuban artist, Zilia Sanchez. Although we did like her hand-drawn self-portrait, which was actually hung outside and was not part of the formal exhibition, we were less engaged by the main body of her work. This consisted of a few of her early-stage (1950s and early 60s) flat-canvas paintings and dozens of “topologies”. These are canvases that are stretched over custom frames into her self-described “erotic” shapes (primarily breasts) that typically have painted nipples and occasionally, somewhat more interesting line drawings. While most of the works’ tells refer to “erotica” or” islands” a theme she views as pieces representing the disconnectedness of both her home island and herself, a few of her works are notably named after particularly strong and assertive women, including Joan of Arc, Atigone, Trojan Women and Amazons. She attempts to emphasize the island theme with a video showing a buoyant model of one of her erotic pieces floating aimlessly in the surf. Although a few of the unusual pieces were interesting, they quickly become repetitive. An interesting experiment? Perhaps. But an entire body of work based on variations of this one idea? Really?
More on Washington DC Museums
Here are links to previous blogs on Washington DC museums
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