National Gallery of Art

Off at Sea

Wyeth Off at Sea

On Father’s Day, a few connected thoughts:

Today I came across this quote from Meghan O’Rourke’s memoir of grief, The Long Goodbye:

“The people we most love do become a physical part of us, ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created.”

And today I saw this stunning watercolor by Andrew Wyeth, currently on view at the National Gallery of Art exhibition, Looking Out, Looking In.

The painting is called, “Off at Sea,” a phrase used by residents of coastal Maine when they mean to say “lost at sea.” I like this because it implies continued presence, a watchful beam of light connecting land and sea, sweeping through the fog when needed but beyond human grasp.

If I lived in Maine, in a place where people understood the meaning, I would make use of this phrase, as in: “My father, he’s off at sea.”

Ballets Russes on Paper


Though the National Gallery of Art’s Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes includes lots of costumes and video clips meant to bring the legendary dance troupe alive, the works on paper are the beating heart of this show.

The illustrated costume designs by Léon Bakst, like this one for a rajah in the ballet Le Dieu Bleu, are the best representation of the ballet’s innovative and lasting style, and are just plain beautiful to look at. What I wouldn’t give for a framed series of these watercolors hanging in my apartment.

I don’t deliberately think about the Ballets Russes when I see a ballet today, but I should. One thing the National Gallery show makes clear is that the company’s legacy is still very much alive, through the teaching of Balanchine and others. The company’s aesthetic, however, is of a time and place all its own.

George Bellows’ Swan Lake

Swans in Central Park
The National Gallery of Art’s George Bellows show is full of surprises. Based on the artist’s affinity for raucous boxing matches, I expected more testosterone. I didn’t expect so many quiet landscapes and portraits of women.

I liked this painting of swans in Central Park best, not least because it echoed an Instagram pic I snapped in Central Park a week earlier.

Aailboats Central Park

Japan Spring: A Diplomatic Coup

Score one for Japan; this is cultural diplomacy at its finest.

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Japan’s gift of cherry trees to Washington, D.C., two of the city’s most prominent museums have organized once-in-a-lifetime exhibits of Japanese art, one with heavy involvement from the Japanese government.

Both exhibits succeed wildly; you know you’re looking at some of the finest Asian art ever created.

In partnership with the Japanese Imperial Household Agency, the National Gallery of Art presents “Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird and Flower Paintings“, a collection of 30 painted silk panels by Ito Jakuchu, the son of a wealthy merchant who retired early to paint and study Buddhism. His birds and flowers are fantastical and heavy with Buddhist meaning; the peacock pictured here represents culture and virtue, for example, while crowing roosters represent spiritual awakening.

Though the exhibit was crowded on a Saturday morning (it’s only on for one month, through April 29), the paintings positively glowed–a testament to the artist’s technique of painting both the front and back of the panels.

They’re rich and lustrous and made me want to go on a meditation retreat in Nara — precisely the effect the Imperial Japanese Household was hoping for when they agreed to let the paintings travel, I’m sure.

(On a side note, it’s great to see the National Gallery do something creative online, as they have with this haiku-writing activity.)

At the Sackler Gallery, Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji brings perennial dorm-room favorite Hokusai into fuller view, with the artist’s series of woodblock prints showing Mt. Fuji, near and far, as Japan’s True North.

Hokusai pioneered a new art form, introducing landscapes in print instead of painting, and showing the daily life of commoners around Tokyo (Edo) at a time when the country was on the brink of opening to the West.

There are beautiful landscapes here, but the prints depicting travelers and pilgrims in the foreground resonated with me the most. For them, Hokusai makes clear, Mt. Fuji is part-spirit guide, part-patriarch, and ever-present reminder of man’s place in the natural world.

Living in a city with no dominant natural features, I wonder if I’d feel a mythic connection to a Mt. Fuji in my midst.

National Gallery of Art Opens Up


I’ve long been baffled by the National Gallery of Art’s sub-par website and stodgy social media presence, but they may have turned a corner.

Today, the gallery launched a new website offering more than 20,000 open access digital images from its collections. Great news for academics, Pinterest fans, bloggers and art enthusiasts of all stripes.

In my day job, I’ve seen up close how open access can change public perception of an institution for the good. It will be interesting to see if the National Gallery can leverage this move on social media and elsewhere to expand to new audiences. I hope so.

Now, if they can only figure out how to make it easier to donate on their website.

Cherry Blossoms 2012: Samurai and Hokusai

Though this year’s cherry blossoms are officially predicted to peak the week of March 24, a number of trees have already popped in my neighborhood. It’s been a warm winter.

Aside from lifting the city’s mood, the blossoms bring a constellation of Japanese art exhibits to DC. A few I intend to check out this month:

> Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji (Freer/Sackler)

> Samurai: The Warrior Transformed (National Geographic Museum)

> Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird and Flower Prints (National Gallery of Art)

Consider these a Tidal Basin alternative. They’ll be a lot less crowded.

Venus, For the Summer

I woke this morning to hear NPR’s Scott Simon talking about the Capitoline Venus, a welcome summer visitor to Washington this year. She’s in the rotunda of the National Gallery of Art West Building, on loan from Rome, through Labor Day.

This is the only time she’s left Rome since Napoleon absconded with her in 1797. Part of the emperor’s war chest, she was paraded through Paris in triumph and wasn’t returned home until 1816.

This tour’s a little more dignified, though she might have a few summer interns to contend with.

I saw the Venus this morning, holding her own among a few buzzing Italian tourists. She more than met expectations. Che bella.