Elegance, History and Encounters

March 29th / 2018

When you’re chronically ill, you often feel bored. And boring. We’ve all been there. I am so fortunate that I live within minutes of some of the best museums in the country, if not the world. Whenever I do venture out, I will try and bring you along with me and share some of the highlights of the excursion so that your world can be expanded a bit too. I hope you enjoy this “virtual” museum tour.

The other day, I woke up and was feeling stronger. And a friend called that morning and asked if I wanted to go to a museum. An exhibit I’ve been keen to see at the National Portrait Gallery was leaving soon – Marlene Dietrich: Dressed for the Image. Also the Obama portraits had just been unveiled in the same museum a few weeks before. I was ready to set aside my undone list.

With everything going on – in the world and in my body – I felt like my spirit need a bath. Nothing does that better for me than a trip to a museum. We had some fabulous hours meandering through the museum, enjoying engaging images and encountering some surprises. I learned. I felt moved. And one piece of art made me dizzy and another immediately made my stomach turn, and even those works were instructive.

The afternoon was full of surprises and intrigue. But first, Marlene. Wow.

I’d always been intrigued by Marlene Dietrich, but I never got it.  I’d only ever seen her in one movie, Witness for the Prosecution, and found her stilted and not a very good actress. But I recognized her mystique and what she did for to open minds by openly conducting affairs with both men and women. And then when Carolyn Bessette Kennedy was compared to Marlene Dietrich, fairly I think, I became more curious and interested about what it was, exactly, that made Marlene so compelling for so long. What is that “Je ne sais quoi” quality that demands attention?

Marlene Dietrich was born into an upper class Berlin family. Her mom was the daughter of a rich jeweler. Her father was a Prussian officer and later in the Berlin police. Her father died when she was young, and the family struggled financially for a time. I also learned a German word- pflicht – which obliges a respect and responsibility for others. Dietrich was raised with that sense of duty. She married very young and had one daughter, Maria, who she did not treat well.  That sense of duty seemed to be more to her country rather than to her family. Marlene put Maria in painful braces as a child and ignored her as a teenager.

What struck me about the exhibit was the beauty of the photographs. The exhibit notes how she learned about lighting. Also I read that after giving an interview to the press in which she felt unprepared, she exerted control over her image in the press ever after.

There were many images of her with her various lovers and friends. And some clips of some of her films too, though I wish the audio had been louder.

Her life and her image reminded me of a favorite movie set in Berlin in 1943 about a pair of women lovers living under the Nazis – Aimee & Jaguar.  That film is one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve ever seen.

This image of Marlene Dietrich was taken when Marlene was in her 50s.  My age.  I love everything about it – the hidden face, the shoes, the lines of her legs, the lighting.  And the mystery.  The exhibit closes April 15th 2018.

Our next stop was of course the recently unveiled Obama portraits, which I liked even more in person.  And there were crowds at both which was fun to see.  And yes, I saw a little African American boy just beaming and posing in front of Barack Obama.  And yes, moments like that were heartening to witness. For both Barack’s and Michelle’s portraits, the essays in The New Yorker helped me appreciate the images deeper and with more meaning.

Vinson Cunningham, writing for The New Yorker, explained the flora in the background,

The flora in the portrait represent the stations of Obama’s scattered personal and ancestral past—blue lilies for Kenya; jasmine for Hawaii; chrysanthemums for Chicago—and their momentary intrusions might hint at the ways in which the man was somewhat shrouded by the dazzling story that delivered him into his nation’s arms.

It was also fascinating to compare Kehinde Wiley’s work here to his portrait of L.L. Cool J, which is in the same room as Michelle Obama’s portrait.  I remembered this funny bit from Obama’s speech at the unveiling,

Maybe the one area where there were some concessions was, as I said before, Kehinde’s art often takes ordinary people and elevates them, lifts them up and puts them in these fairly elaborate settings and so his initial impulse maybe, in the work, was to also elevate me and put me in these settings with partridges and sceptres and thrones and chifforobes and mounting me on horses. I had to explain that I’ve got enough political problems without you making me look like Napoleon. We’ve got to bring it down just a touch and that’s what he did.

Look how big Barack’s hands are – that’s what struck me in person. I hadn’t noticed before.  For me, he was a president who got a lot done and those oversized hands seem to represent that.

We went up to the third floor to see Michelle’s.  Since she was not president, she was not in the gallery with the rest of them, but it seemed strange in a way to separate them because they are such partners. Michelle Obama’s portrait was/is not universally liked. It’s grown on me, and I appreciate what I’ve learned from it.

And The New Yorker essay by Doreen St. Félix definitely helped deepen my understanding of what Amy Sherald was up to:

before one of Sherald’s figures, you think not about the passage of time or the oppressive reach of the state. Instead, these paintings make the viewer speculate about the quieter wants and wishes of the black common men and women who have emerged on the linen en grisaille—Sherald’s taupe variant of grayscale—like ghosts.

This lack of veris makes the viewer think, and ask why. Why these choices?  What do they say about the subject?

To Sherald, the photorealistic depiction of race—a quality determined by others’ eyes, externally—is a dead end. Applied to Michelle Obama, the lack of brown in the skin feels first like a loss, and then like a real gain. This is a different Michelle, a woman evacuated of celebrity, who appears provisionally dreamlike, nearly a shadow. The mouth and the eyes and the strong arms that we know are present, but fainter. 

In the same room as Michele Obama’s portrait was this moving one of Toni Morrison. Though it looks like a photograph it is oil on canvas and Robert McCurdy created this piece in 2006.  The caption explained that the process beings with a photograph, selected from hundreds.  The lack of gesture or expression is purposeful and aims to convey no past or future but a perpetual present. The neutral background is also intended to allow the viewer to see her clearly and relate to her personally.

Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 and was the first black women to become a Nobel laureate. She wrote Beloved in 1987, which won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a movie. And her Song of Solomon (1977) won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

I wandered around and on another wall, I learned about a woman about whom I’d like to know more.  Her portrait arrested me and the description sealed the deal.  I’m just going to quote from the caption,

Mary Francis Kennedy Fisher wrote elegant books and essays about the history, sociology, and pleasures of food.  From the joys of the tangerine section toasted on a radiator and then cooled on a snowy windowsill to the taste of her first raw oyster.  Fisher, with her sensuous prose, won the respect of many literary figures, including W.H. Auden and John Updike, who called her “a poet of the appetites.”  

In 1942, she wrote a book on how to cook within wartime rations called How to Cook on a Wolf.  That’s amazing!  She also founded the Napa Valley Wine Library.  You can learn more about this fascinating women here.  This painting by Ginny Stanford was done in 1991, one year before Fisher died.

The other portraits of the presidents were neat too. I’d seen them before but not in some years. I was struck anew at how uncomfortable Clinton’s portrait made me. Research I did when I got home revealed the painting on display is not his official portrait. The Clintons apparently didn’t like the official one and pushed to have it removed from display in the National Portrait Gallery. I didn’t take a photo of the one in the gallery by Chuck Close, but you can see it here. His face is pixelated and chopped up – like his compartmentalized personality. What a legacy.

Norman Rockwell’s portrait of Richard Nixon because Nixon seemed more attractive than I remembered him. And apparently this favorable treatment was deliberate. The painting also intrigued because I associate Rockwell with an earlier, more pastoral time such as the 40s and 50s rather than the turmoil of the 60s and 70s. I know Nixon was Vice President from 1952-1961, but I associate him with my childhood, with Vietnam, with Watergate and with his resignation.  So to see this romanticized, smiling portrait of him, a man who seemed like a monster to me as a child, was surreal.

I loved Kennedy’s portrait.  He is the only one, I believe, without a jacket.

Elaine de Kooning was known for her gestural portraits, and she had several informal sessions with President Kennedy in Palm Beach over the holidays from 1962-63, less than a year before he was killed.  According to the caption, Kooning “was so moved by the president during these sittings that she went on to create dozens of drawings and paintings of him over the next ten months. This is dated 1963

But I loved this casual sketch even more.  The lines are barely there, yet I believe even without the caption I would recognize President Kennedy.  The eyes are haunting.

The top floor of this building used to the US Patent office and which also used to house our nation’s founding documents before we erected the Archives Building in the 1930s for that purpose.

The building actually holds two museums, and, as both are a part of the Smithsonian, both are free. The National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum are now in what Walt Whitman called, “that noblest of Washington Buildings.” He tended to ailing soldiers billeted here during the Civil War, and President Abraham Lincoln celebrated his second inaugural in the Great Hall.  He would be assassinated the following month. And Red Cross founder Clara Barton walked these halls when she worked as a clerk to the Patent Office commissioner. This photo to the right is from the old library. You can learn more about the past uses of this building from this Smithsonian article – including a hospital, ballroom, patent office and the civil service commission office (now known as the Office of Personal Management).

Up on the third floor, we encountered some moving statues.This one with two women dancing with three children seemed so joyous, especially with the light throwing multiple shadows against the wall.  Chaim Gross created this piece, called Happy Children, in 1973.   He was born in Austria and emigrated to the United States in 1921 due to anti-semitism.  He was the first president of the Sculptors Guild too.






This one reminded me of dance, of the ballet. And indeed the piece is called Firebird, a famous ballet. (Here is a 9 minute clip of Russians dancing an excerpt)  Created by Isaac Witkin in 1983, he was born in South Africa but ended up teaching for years at Bennington College in Vermont.





I’d been doing a lot of crying lately, so this piece looked like a black tear, a tear in motion. But it is called Chandelle.  John Safer is a local DC artist and this piece was made in 1969 and revised by the artist in 2013.  From the caption,

The French word chandelle means “candle,” and this sculpture…evokes the form of a flickering flame. The title of the work may also reflect John Safer’s knowledge of aviation, gain from his experience in the US Air Force.  A chandelle is an aircraft maneuver in which the pilot combines a 180-degree turn with a sudden climb.  Viewed from the side, Chandelle’s form captures the elegant motion of this movement. “What I see and try to capture,” the artist has said, “is the movement of beauty. I try and freeze a line of a motion that expresses strength, power or grace…I try to grasp and make permanent something ephemeral.

Not the beauty of movement, but the movement of beauty.  And having realized I first thought this sculpture represented a black tear, I considered how those tears express strength, power or grace.  I just loved this piece.

This dark one also moved me. At first, from a distance, I though the male figure was wearing a fedora at an downward angle as if to hide his face.  The squareness and angular lines made me think masculine.  It was only when I got close and looked that I realized that there was no head and that there were ropes around the neck.

It’s called Zanzibar and is by Barbara Chase-Riboud. She is also a best selling novelist and an award winning poet. She wrote a novel about Sally Hemmings.  She also created a 5 work series of sculptors on MacolmX which were exhibited at the Philadelphia Musuem of Art in 2013-2014. She writes about slavery, and to me, her sculptures speak to slavery as well.

As for the piece that made me dizzy – it was a special installation called For SAAM (Smithsonian American Art Musuem). Jenny Holzer designed her work for the specific space of the Lincoln Gallery which has high ceiling and is a very open space.  It’s a cylinder that has words and phrases spinning around using flashing LED lights. I learned later that the text are pulled from the artist’s previous series– Truisms, Living (Selections), survival (Selections), and Arno.  The messages are bold and stated with authority. It felt like the statements were being spat at me, spinning. The topics included relationships, women’s rights and morals.  To learn more, click here.  To see it in action, here’s a video.

Finally, the work that made me sick and impressed upon me the effect of technology. It’s called Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii.  Nam June Paik created this work using fifty-one channel video installation (including one closed-circuit television feed), custom electronics, neon lighting, steel and wood in 1995.  Paik was the first to use the phrase “electronic superhighway,” and this installation “proposes that electronic media provide us with what we used to leave home to discover.”  You can learn more here.

The noises and the lights were too much stimulation for me. My stomach started to churl and I thought, I really shouldn’t keep the television on all day at home.  Here’s a video if you want to get a sense of the electronic onslaught.

This earthy, symmetrical work soothed me and was nearby.  I felt immediately drawn to it – a sort of “earthing” antidote! LOL.  Called Granite Weaving, Jesús Moroles created this work in 1988.  I loved the minimalism of the work too.  The idea of weaving stone like one would fabric felt innovative and old at the same time.  It’s just a stunning piece of work and was probably my favorite of the entire museum visit.





Well, those are the highlights! I hope you enjoyed wandering with me through the halls of these really wonderful museums. If you are ever in DC, be sure not to miss them. It’s easy to do because the building is not on the National Mall with most of the other Smithsonian offerings.  I hope this taste whets your appetite to see the museum and its treasures in person. And that this post alleviated some boredom for you, too.

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- Marlene Dietrich