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Summer at the Museums: National Gallery of Art

After a visit to the Hirshhorn, Ionarts recently stopped by the National Gallery of Art to see what looked good. The first thing that looked exceptionally good was waiting right under the West Building Rotunda, the Beffi Triptych from the National Museum of Abruzzo in L'Aquila, the Italian city that was hit by a severe earthquake this past spring. In gratitude for the United States acting quickly to offer aid to the victims, the Italian government has loaned one of the Abruzzo museum's most important works, miraculously unharmed during the earthquake, to the National Gallery for the summer. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi visited the museum on Monday to see the triptych installed -- he was accompanied by the Italian ambassador, not by a troupe of naked girls.

The National Gallery has a rather beautiful collection of medieval and early Renaissance Italian art, but it consists of mostly exquisite panels, pieces of larger altarpieces (including, rather stunningly, two panels from the front and back of Duccio's Maestà for Siena Cathedral). The loaned work is a complete triptych, created for the altar of the church of Santa Maria del Ponte, in a small village named Beffi, by an unknown artist who may or may not have been a follower of Taddeo di Bartolo. It is a gorgeous example of the Sienese style, extending elements of the Byzantine icon tradition into the early 14th century, unfortunately (but understandably) displayed in a glass case. The greater naturalism of the figure of the Virgin, and the sumptuous drapery behind her, are mesmerizing. The little details -- the kneeling (anonymous) donor figure in the left panel and the frozen hands of the priest who dared to doubt the holiness of the Virgin in the right panel -- are also absorbing. It is one of the joys of visiting smaller museums in Italy, like the one in L'Aquila, that one can stand in front of this sort of masterpiece without any elbowing competition for long stretches of time. Even when the National Mall is heavily infested with summer tourists, we enjoyed the same opportunity on our visit to look at the Beffi Triptych. Through September 7

Illumination by Belbello da Pavia (Annunciation to the Virgin, 1450/1460) as capital for the responsory Missus est Gabriel (compare to another version at the bottom of this folio)
There was more to quench my insatiable thirst for medieval art in the East Building, in the two rooms dedicated to Heaven on Earth: Manuscript Illuminations from the National Gallery of Art. These are mostly single leaves from the Rosenwald Collection, with a couple of more or less complete codices, added to the museum's holdings in the 1940s and not generally shown to the public (apparently, the last time was in 1975). The illuminations are the primary focus of the exhibit, and understandably so since they are in an art museum's collection and are generally stunning (see this slide show for a taste). The problem with the way that the Middle Ages are curated, in general, is that it is too specialized. Too many documents like these have been sliced up and dispersed abroad, for the interest in their illuminations, which makes these gorgeous books less available to the other scholars for whom they would also hold great interest, those who study literature, the Bible, history, liturgy, Gregorian chant, and so on. True, from a musicological point of view, most of the sources diced up this way are choir books of later time periods in nota quadrata (like the pages with music on display here), making them not as crucial for the study of notation and the early history of chant. Best not to think about it and just enjoy the beauty! Through August 2

Most definitely worth several viewings is another visiting work, Edouard Manet's "Ragpicker" from the Norton Simon Foundation. It is now being shown on the wall with two of the NGA's other Manets, in the West Building, the Old Musician and the Tragic Actor (frankly, those two paintings mostly serve to point out the superiority of the Simon work). The somber, neutral background of the Ragpicker, a Realist portrait of a person "of no consequence," is reminiscent of some of the great portraits of David. The use of creamy shading, especially in the foreshortened shoe and the hatted head leaning forward, is masterful. Through September 7

Time was also well spent in Luis Meléndez: Master of the Spanish Still Life in the East Building. Meléndez is no Chardin or anything, but a few of the still lifes, especially one with an amazing glass placed on a silver plate, are damn virtuosic. Through August 23

The NGA's tower space is one of those odd places that never seems quite right (where's the view?), but the little Philip Guston exhibit there right now is worth a peek. We spent the most time looking at Courtroom, in which an angry finger is pointed at Guston's famous blood-spattered Klansman, cigarette nonchalantly in hand as he poses in front of a trash can with human feet emerging from it. The comic book qualities are in damning contradiction to the subject matter. Through October 18

By July, there will be two more reasons to stop by the National Gallery of Art, with new exhibits on Judith Leyster, 1609–1660 (opening on June 21) and The Art of Power: Royal Armor and Portraits from Imperial Spain (opening on June 28). For more food for thought before you visit, see also Tyler Green's recent rant against the NGA's American collection.

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