Thursday, May 28, 2015

Deviled by the Details

The Entrance to the Tautira River, Tahiti. Fisherman Spearing a Fish, John La Farge (detail)

So, under the twin thumbs of mandated exercise and my impending return to the grindstone, I decided earlier this week to hie myself downtown to reacquaint myself with the city.

I read somewhere, also this week, that by some measure of such things, Our Nation's Capital is set to be the country's top tourist destination this summer.  Based on the sampling encountered on the Metro, on the streets, and in that prime destination the National Mall, all I can say is that there is a surprisingly large correlation between tourism and unfortunate tattooing, one that very definitely enhances the overall impact of neither.

Despite the less than aesthetic appeal of so many of my countrymen (and I sadly have to admit that the vast majority of the most benighted seemed to be in fact domestic rather than international visitors), there are many worse things than wandering around downtown on a fine early summer day.  It had been yonks since I've been to the National Gallery, so that was my prime destination.  In my heart of hearts, I was hoping to encounter dear Princess Sparkle Pony, who is well-known to be an habitué of that distinguished institution, but alas that was not to be.

Even so, it was an enormously satisfying visit.  I much prefer museums that I can visit repeatedly, one result, I think, of having for so long lived in Manhattan and gone to the Metropolitan Museum on average two or three times a month.  While I don't make it to the NGA quite as often (it lacks, among other attractions, the Met's fabulous weekend evenings of cocktails and salon orchestra on the mezzanine that once upon a time was a regular stop on our going-out circuit), even so, it's an old friend.

Familiarity removes the pressure to see everything all at once, allows one to seek out particular favorites, and provides the impetus to concentrate more deeply on enjoying very specific moments and incidents.  Just as, in literature, I tend to prefer the domesticity and minutiae of Benson or Pym to, say, the sweep of War and Peace,* I tend to take in paintings in increments and pieces.  Mr. La Farge, for example, up top there, created a sweeping vista of the South Seas with a little fishing action in the foreground; I prefer this vignette, which is altogether more serene.

Lot and His Daughters [reverse], Albrecht Dürer (detail)

Similarly, Mr. Dürer's painting concentrates, as the title might lead one to expect, on the fleeing family as they make their way from doomed Sodom.  Looking at it, though, I was taken with the spectre of poor Mrs. Lot, left behind in saline form on the left there as the twin cities (Gomorrah tiny in the distance) go up spectacular, apocalyptic fashion.  It's not a large work, and this snippet is only a few inches wide, but the artist has taken infinite care to show every detail; I'm especially fond of the rocks, which seem almost Asian in their supreme disregard for the drama unfolding on every side.

Some works, though, do benefit from being taken in altogether, as a piece; I don't think I've previously spent much time with this one, Mary, Queen of Heaven, by the enigmatically monikered Master of the Saint Lucy Legend, which is as busy and extravagant as a psychedelic '60s album cover (actually, I can almost see a 1969 album called Mary, Queen of Heaven by an obscure Bay Area quintet called Master of the Saint Lucy Legend, can't you?).  Even though it's a remarkably cohesive, incredibly elaborate composition as a whole, still the eye is drawn to the rich fabrics, the impassive faces, even the glimpses of sky and landscape around the roiling figures.  Some day I want to write a little treatise on why the Virgin is so often depicted as a very early adopter of that very contemporary syndrome, Bitchy Resting Face.

The Annunciation, Jan Van Eyck (detail)

Of which this lovely Van Eyck is a prime example.  Poor Gabriel (and do go check out the full painting - my poor little picture has sadly clipped the archangel of his elegant rainbow wings) is just pleased as punch to be delivering the good news (which really is the Good News, if you're into that sort of thing), but despite her closed-captioned pro forma enthusiasm, it's clear that Mary's having none of it.  "Oy," she seems to be thinking to herself, "at least that explains my swollen ankles..."

In the end, though, it's some measure of my general philistinism that when it comes down to brass tacks, among my favorite things about the National Gallery are the two little winter gardens at either end of the long central promenade.  They are serene and frequently fairly quiet, with lovely plantings and a soothing diffuse light even on a brightly sunny day.  Also, it amuses me no end that they're furnished, even in these days of ruthless updating (the Metropolitan sadly ruined its not dissimilar fountain court years ago), the atria are still furnished with the kind of fussy scrolled wrought-iron lounge furniture that was such a feature of the Florida rooms and sun porches of my grandparent's friends.  I always half expect to see an ashtray dotted with Pall Malls and a cooling cocktail on the matching glass-topped tables...

So that was my Day Out.  I made only one real mistake.  I had hoped, on the way home, to stop in at the Sackler Gallery across the Mall, where they are currently featuring a piece of installation art, a kind of deconstructed version of Whistler's magnificent Peacock Room, the sort of contemporary froufrou that either engages or enrages me (but is so likely worth seeing in either case).  What I hadn't counted on is that the central swathe of the Mall is, for the moment, a vast construction site, and after a considerable distance I gave up on finding a way across and instead ventured into the Museum of Natural History for a refreshing glimpse of its tempting jewel collection.  I had completely forgotten that on any given summer day, that particular corner of the Smithsonian is a horror show like unto a shopping center on Black Friday, with the added atrocity that the average age of those present is about 12.  After a disconsolate glimpse from a distance of the Hope Diamond (doubtless the only one present doing so with thoughts of dear Mrs. Evalyn Walsh McLean in mind), I beat a hasty retreat.

All was not lost, though, for joining me in my distaste for the disreputable mob was the last piece on display on one's way out to Constitution Avenue.  I had no idea that the Museum had in its possession one of Easter Island's mysterious Mo'ai, let alone that its dour expression could so closely mirror one's own feelings after a busy day of museum-going:

Poor boy.  Perhaps he wishes he were down the street, with the real art.  He looks almost as out of sorts as your average Mary...

* One of the rare works that has repeatedly defeated my best intentions - I wish someone would create an edit-for-the-limited call simply Peace, concentrating on the Rostovs and the amusements of tsarist high society and omitting the endless stretches of Napoleonic tedium.


  1. That Mo'ai has the distinct look of Margaret Rutherford about it...

    An excellent blog, all round! Jx

    PS It is times like these, when even thinking about attempting Tolstoy, that one should contemplate - whatever happened to "Readers' Digest"?

  2. What a great post! Wish I was there to wander around with you...

    1. If only!

      On the other hand, I've not yet visited the Art Institute, and really it is time to see La Grande Jatte...

    2. Well then that's something to look forward to! One of those places where one day is not enough. I haven't been there in several years, I'm afraid. So it's a date!