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18.1.06

Ionarts at the National Gallery

Other NGA Exhibits:

Other Exhibits at NGA (Winslow Homer, Orsanmichele sculpture, October 8, 2005)

Photography on Ionarts:

Disparition: Henri Cartier-Bresson (August 7, 2004)

Ionarts in Paris: Photography at the Jeu de Paume (Part 1 of 2) (July 13, 2004)

Photography at the Jeu de Paume (Part 2 of 2) (July 14, 2004)

What's a Negative? (November 30, 2003)

Nicéphore Niépce (November 25, 2003)

Photographs at the Musée d'Orsay (October 16, 2003)

Gabrielle de Montmollin (August 22, 2003)

Eugène Atget Photographs for Sale (August 21, 2003)
I spent part of the holiday on Monday with the family at the National Gallery of Art, taking in a few exhibits before they close. We went first to see Nicholas Nixon's photographs, The Brown Sisters. I was interested in this show since reading about it in an article (The Inscrutable 'Brown Sisters', November 18, 2005) by Michael O'Sullivan in the Washington Post. Nixon has taken photographs of his wife with her three sisters, always in the same order, once a year since 1975. He chose one photograph of the many he took each year, to make a series of thirty-one photographs in all, hung together on a wall in a small, narrow room in the West Building's ground floor galleries. The work has in it the concept of family photography, but watching these four women age when a viewer is disconnected from them, when they are not our family, changes the whole experience.

Nicholas Nixon, The Brown Sisters, 1986, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.Personhood is so plastic, and none of the women comes across as a single being but as a series of them. Nixon's wife, Bebe, who is always the second from the right, is the most individual of the sisters, always identifiable throughout the series (images available from 1978, 1984, 1986, 1993, 2000, and 2004). This is probably only because her hair is of a lighter color. The other three sisters, all dark-haired, are often interchangeable visually, at least to my eye. That uniformity is partly the work of the photographer, who usually frames the subjects tightly in a large view camera. He seems to have preferred exposures that reveal no emotion -- or at least enigmatic ones -- on the faces of the sisters, although their embraces in some pictures are touching. If you want to see this exhibit, you have until February 20.

Right across the hallway from the photographs are two rooms of master drawings from the Armand Hammer Collection, on show through May 7. A set of sketches by Leonardo da Vinci is only one of the delights. Seeing these lesser works by major artists, from the Renaissance through the Rococo, especially those of the superlative Antoine Watteau, makes you realize just how talented the best of the best were. In the second room is Raphael's cartoon for a major painting of the Madonna, which provides an interesting look into the work process of Renaissance artists, too.

Of the exhibits we saw, Mini-Critic enjoyed Audubon's Dream Realized: Selections from The Birds of America, which is on view through March 26. John James Audubon is one of those artists you may think you cannot learn anything new about, but this exhibit proves that assumption false. (See also Paul Richard, Audubon's Birds, Flightless, And Soaring, Washington Post, November 26.) The exhibit is mostly his famous watercolors, part scientific documentation and part Romantic idealization of nature, with one rare oil painting, Osprey and Weakfish.

After failing at several other enterprises, Audubon financed his own crazy plan to travel through the wilderness documenting America's birds. The drawings he made for his book, Birds of America (7 vols., 1840), not only show the birds, male and female, but their habitats and what they ate. The big revelation of this exhibit for me was Audubon's illustration of the Golden-Eye Duck, which was almost certainly the visual inspiration for the ducks in Winslow Homer's Right and Left (1909). Peter Schjeldahl, in his article on the Homer exhibit for The New Yorker, didn't mention this connection. It wasn't my idea either, but the work of some observant curator, who put some text about it on the wall in the Audubon exhibit, but not in the Homer.
John James Audubon, Golden-Eye Duck
Audubon
Winslow Homer, Right and Left, 1909, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Homer

We then took Mini-Critic and Tiny-Critic through part of the East Building collection, to see what tickled our fancy. Mini-Critic was most taken by Anselm Kiefer's Angel of History (1989), which I led him to because I thought he would like it. He has a thing for planes right now. We walked around this big piece of lead and talked about it as a plane first. Then we addressed the issue of the heavy books that weigh down the plane's wings and the dried poppies that clog its jet engines. He is too young to understand Kiefer's work related to Germany and World War II, but he got the idea that this plane was not meant to fly, that it was about something else.

We also got a giggle out of Mini-Critic at the NGA's Claes Oldenburg statues, Clarinet Bridge (1992) and especially Soft Drainpipe - Red (Hot) Version (1967). We think his favorite was Calder, however, beginning with the room full of beautiful mobiles and stabiles. A note to parents: Calder's set of animal sculptures in that room is right up a three- or four-year-old's alley. Mini-Critic said the following morning that the cow (La Vache, 1970) was his favorite. He was also fascinated with Untitled, 1976, Calder's massive mobile constructed especially for the East Building's main atrium and now turning once again above our heads. You may recall that I observed its absence on a visit in the summer of 2004. I didn't realize that it was reinstalled this past summer, and it's like the return of an old friend.

2 comments:

Mark said...

Mini and Tiny have cool parents! I am concerned, when they start school with those names. One of my favorite Homers and the atrium was down right naked without the Caulder. I always think of the PBS special that followed the building progress of the wing. In it were the interactions of the artists with the architect and staff and the fabrication issues of each piece. It would be Caulder's last installation, which he never got to see installed.

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