Posts Tagged ‘National Gallery’

Whenever we get to DC for any appreciable time, we try to get to the National Gallery.  We can spend hour after meandering through the maze of viewing rooms, taking a vurtual tour through the timeline of art history.  There’s so much to see that we never see it in its entirety, often leaving out entire eras and movements.  But one section that we never miss is that area that features the Byzantine and early Italian Renaissance art.  Maybe it’s the beauty of the gold-leafed backgrounds that give the religious scenes an iconlike feeling or maybe it’s the thought of all the history that many of these pieces had witnessed and how amazing it is that they have weathered the vagaries of many wars to survive in such beautiful condition.

Take for example, the painting above, St.. Jerome Reading from one of my favorite artists of this era, Giovanni Bellini.  The surface and colors of this piece are stunningly pristine looking even though it was painted in the 1480’s.  It looks as fresh as a newly painted work.  I don’t know how much conservation this painting has underwent but one of Bellini’s masterpieces and another of my favorites, St. Francis in the Desert, which is in the Frick Collection in NYC, underwent conservation last year and they said it basically just needed a good dusting off.  Even if it has underwent a little plastic surgery, which I doubt, it is incredible to see it’s surface.

Another favorite is a piece from Andrea del Castagno made from leather stretched over a wooden  frame called The Youthful David that features the image of the biblical David with his sling in hand and the head of Goliath at his feet.  The piece was painted as a shield for probably some wealthy Florentine family to brandish during  the festivals and parades of the time.  I love the color and action of this piece as well as the thought of how many events it has been witness to over the ages, how many parades in which it was carried since it was painted in the 1450’s.

I could go on and on about some of the work there, so many pieces that stop me in my tracks in awe.  I thought I would just mention these two because they hit me most the other day and continually inspire in ways that are not always evident.

Just plain good stuff…

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This painted, The Plumed Hat, from the artist Henri Matisse was attcked the other day at the National Gallery in Washington, DC.  There wasn’t any apparent damage to the painting itself after the attacker took it by the frame and slammed it a few times against the wall.

That in itself is not that interesting except when one note that the attacker was the same woman who had attempted to deface Two Tahitian Women from  Paul Gauguin at the same museum in April of this year.  After being tackled while trying to protect the Gauguin painting from its protective plexiglass case she was quoted as saying, “I am from the American CIA and I have a radio in my head. I am going to kill you.”

It’s pretty rare when the same person makes such an attempt at the same museum.  With the Gauguin there seemed at least a hint of her motivation in trying to destroy the painting that she described as “evil” and “homosexual.”  To some, could the the idea of two bare-breasted women standing next to one another might be perceived as evil?  I guess.  And could the idea of one woman looking over at the other could be seen as homosexual to some folks?  I suppose, although I think she is actually casting a hungry eye at that watermelon.

But why attack this Matisse?  There is nothing overtly evil or gay in  it that would offend delicate sensibilities.  It’s hardly provocative in any way.  Or attractive.  It’s not a piece I would give much thought to in any way, other than thinking it is definitely not one of Matisse’s finest examples, at least in my eyes.  I don’t find much in it that excites me in one way or the other.  Certainly nothing that makes me want to freak out and try to destroy it.

So what is here that I’m not seeing that might excite the obviously troubled mind of the woman who attacked it?  Is it that same thing in it that another mind might perceive as beautiful?

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Gassed  John Singer SargentI’ve always loved the work of the great John Singer Sargent, best known for his exquisite portraiture.  Several years ago I saw a large retrospective of his work at the National Gallery in DC and was overwhelmed by the quality of his work in the show.  It was not in a style in which I work nor was the subject matter always my cup of tea but the beauty of his brushstrokes was gorgeous.  There was something beautiful in  how a nose on a portrait that appeared so perfectly modeled from a distance when inspected up close was a slash of paint, singular and perfect.

But for me the star of the show was his epic painting, Gassed, shown above.  It is a massive atmospheric  painting, nearly 8 feet by 20 feet, and depicts soldiers in World War I who have been the victims of a gas attack.  Blinded, they struggle ahead, linked  together, seeking help.  A departure from Sargent’s  trademark portraiture, it’s a powerful image and really captures the horror of  the first truly modern war that was hitting the entire world at that time.  The War to End All Wars –if only that were true.

I am reminded by this painting of a poem written in that same time, decrying the horrors that had been unleashed and the feeling of chaos that seemed pervasive.  It’s The Second Coming from William Butler Yeats.  The first verse is particularly powerful and the last two lines of it are often quoted and could apply to just about any time of turmoil, such as the present.


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Both the painting and poem are interesting spotlights on the time.  I don’t know why either sprang to mind this particular day.  Maybe it’s all the doom and gloom, end of the world, here comes Jesus and he’s carrying a really big hammer stuff that is bombarding us around the clock.  Maybe the chaos and consuming din has caused us to not be able to hear our own falconer, our own guiding voice.

Or maybe I simply like the works of Sargent and Yeats.  It’s a mystery…

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