Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The Radiant Glories of D.C. Museums

D.C. is always too full of museum delights to do anything but give terminal fatigue to the persevering. This holiday season is no exception. So let me tell you how I recently spent a day and tell you how you can find out what’s going on to pick and choose your own itinerary.

First, pick up a copy of the free weekly, the City Paper, in vending boxes and bookstores all across the city. It gives a week’s forecast of highlights and lists all the galleries and museums with their current attractions and telephone numbers.

I came by Greyhound but was leaving via Amtrak, so I carted my light luggage up First Avenue to Union Station, which is itself a newly rehabbed marvel. They don’t have lockers, but they do let you stow your gear for $1 a piece a day.

My primary mission was to see the art of the Japanese war lords at the National Gallery, so I asked the guy in the subway booth where to get off. He spoke Deep Southern—I mean way down—so it took him three repeats for me to understand he was saying, “Archives.” He was fairly nasty and should have told me to transfer at Metro Center. So I got off at the “Gallery” stop, a faux pas. But lo and behold, when I emerged at Seventh Avenue, there was the National Portrait Gallery.

Serendipitous error, because they’re playing a really interesting show from New York’s Museum of Broadcasting called “On the Air: Pioneers of American Broadcasting.” What a kick.

Edward R. Murrow slouching toward Oxford Circus in his correspondent’s trench coat, aiming to cover the War from London with style and eloquence. And Pat Weaver, the pioneering TV executive at NBC, mugging with J. Fred Muggs the chimp, who kept Dave Garroway from being a ratings chump on the early Today show.

And Jack Paar doing his tricky simper on old Tonight shows. And Rudy Vallee and Bob Hope and Burns and Allen. Oh me, oh my. What an electronic nostalgia farm it is. Through January 2nd.

Also showing there is a gallery of instant Polaroid portraits. And Time sports covers. The NPG has really jumped into the popular orbit lately.

It’s in the same building as the National Museum of American Art, where they’re about to unleash a major Man Ray and Dada exhibition to honor the creative genius’s 100th birthday next year. It’ll be there into spring 1989, but you could catch it over New Year’s just as well.

It makes a fine pairing with the broadcasting exhibition—allows you to speculate on which was the real America in the 1920s, the pop culture or the avant garde.

South on Seventh Avenue, at the National Gallery, I was after the East Wing and “Japan: The Shaping of Daimyo Culture, 1185-1868,” a mega-show on how the feudal lords became some of the greatest art patrons in the history of all culture.

You’re probably familiar with their kimonos and their ceramics. But until you’ve seen the great baroque suits of armor made of leather and lacquer, silk and iron, you ain’t seen it all. And the swords.

I’m a peaceful man, but the swords are so elegant in their carving and appurtenances it’s almost enough to send a surge of warlike sentiment rushing through unsuspecting veins. There is a real tea house on site where they perform the tea ceremony, a ritual at the heart of Japanese art and culture.

Great banners with the logos of the lords hang splendidly from the second floor balcony. And there is a delicious corridor of huge, backlit color transparencies of a number of Japanese gardens.

This is so good you may have trouble getting in. It’s free, but you have to get a timed ticket; if you don’t get there early, yours will be for late afternoon—if you’re lucky. For a $2 per ticket fee, you can order by phone from Ticket Center (800-448-9009). I advise you to use it.

There are four restaurants at the Gallery, but I would urge architecture buffs to try the Cascade Café for the sheer water of it. The cascade in question is one of the marvels in I.M. Pei’s many-marveled East Wing. And believe me, you’re going to need rest and refreshment after attending to the Daimyo’s glories.

After lunch, try Raphael Peale’s still lifes, also in the East Wing, just to the left as you come to the door. He was fooling the eyes of the folks with how realistically he painted fruits and fish and God knows what, showing as much wit and irony as fidelity to the surfaces of things.

I call the Peales of Philadelphia the First Family of American culture. The father, Charles Willson, was so confident America had a great artistic future that he named three of his sons after Raphael, Rubens and Rembrandt. And you know what? They all turned out to be creditable artists at the beginning of the 19th Century, which was not all that hospitable to the Arts with a capital A.

So there, I’ve primed your pump. Now the bad news: There’s just so damned much art to see in D.C. (I haven’t even dropped the “S” word, Smithsonian) that you will grow to love your fatigue and frustration, as I do.

From Welcomat: After Dark, December 28, 1988

No comments: