Wednesday, July 21, 2010

July 20, 2010: Washington - The Bus, American Art, The Library

I have now successfully used the DC Circulator bus system - the beginning of the line is just at our subway stop, and it ends at a fairly central point downtown. It's cheaper than the subway (just $1 per ride, even during peak times), runs frequently, and it let me see some new neighbourhoods along the way (looks like there's some useful retail in Columbia Heights). It took about twice as long as the subway, but that still only added up to 30 minutes.

Once downtown I went to the Smithsonian American Art Museum & Portrait Gallery. It was better than I expected; I suppose I thought it would pale in comparison to the National Gallery. But it had a nice mix of early American, modern and contemporary pieces. The main exhibition was paintings and drawings by Norman Rockwell from the collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (it's rather extraordinary that both of these filmmakers have collected his work so extensively). Some beautiful drawing - convincing handling of light and shadow, texture, and some very interesting distortions of space suggestive of extreme telephoto lens compression.

There were also some crazy pieces of folk art (so earnest; irony has no place in folk art). Grand landscape paintings were displayed with trappings of the time - theatrical curtains, buffalo hides draped over benches. And the building was great - a mix of an early section that used to the U.S. Patent Office, which had small rooms at the sides of a grand hall that were used to display patent models - a fascinating mix of large and small-scale architecture. The upstairs level has a great contrast of monumental, classical architecture and cutting-edge contemporary art. There is also a central atrium that was recently roofed over, with a great undulating grid of glass, which casts interesting shadows across the space below - it's better than just open sky.

Afterwards I checked out the nearby Martin Luther King Jr Memorial Library - I have hit the jackpot. It's huge. Browsing amongst the DVDs was the best part - so many odd selections. I ended up selecting 'Travellers and Magicians' - a Bhutanese film (one of Mark's colleagues spent some time working in Bhutan - a beautiful, unusual place), and the other 'IP5', an adventure of two Parisian street kids in the forest near Grenoble (since I'm interested in all things Grenoble before we end up there ourselves in the spring). I would never have stumbled across these if I'd just been looking up DVDs in the collection online.

Photos: Norman Rockwell's 'Forsaken' 1952 (collection of George Lucas, photo Smithsonian website); Norman Rockwell's 'Going and Coming' 1947 (collection of George Lucas, photo Smithsonian website); Norman Rockwell's 'Let Nothing You Dismay' 1941 (collection of Stephen Spielberg, photo Smithsonian website); Norman Foster-designed roof over atrium at Smithsonian Museum of American Art; Albert Bierstadt 'Among the Sierra Nevada, California' 1868, installed with theatrical curtains as was done in hyped-up unveilings by Bierstadt himself; Jenny Holzer's 'For SAAM' 2007, with ever-changing rotating messages displayed in LED lights; over the top aluminum foil and cardboard folk art creation of James Hampton, 'The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly' c1950; The Great Hall of the former Patent Office, which has at times been the largest room in the USA, the first national museum and the setting for Lincoln's second inaugural ball

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