Monday, May 19, 2008

Mixing It Up

“The best portraits are those in which there is a slight mixture of caricature.”-Thomas B. Macaulay

We have probably all seen the cartoonists at amusement parks or on beach boardwalks. They draw ridiculous pictures of people with huge heads and tiny bodies that provide lots of laughs. Typically cartoons and caricatures are intended for simple entertainment purposes. However, the message of a cartoon can sometimes be much more serious than its amusing appearance suggests. The latest exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, which intersects caricatures and politics, is an example. Although the portraits in Herblock’s Presidents: “Puncturing Pomposity” are very humorous and make light of important issues, they can also serve as a historical account of some of the major controversies and concerns of every presidential term from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton.

Herbert Block was a cartoonist and a major supporter of the so called “underdog.” He adamantly supported policies aimed at assisting the underprivileged, such as the New Deal. He also advocated for United States intervention in World War II. Therefore, all of his caricatures are negative portrayals of presidents who enacted policies which hurt, or merely failed to help, the “underdog.” For example, he makes fun of Eisenhower’s “Administration Program”, Johnson’s “Great Society,” Ford’s economic policies, Reagan’s policy freezes, and Bush’s “no new taxes” promise. According to Block, “in some cases, a forceful, negative reaction can do the most good.” Although some of these caricatures may seem harsh, they are presented in a way that can amuse almost anybody, no matter their political position.

At present it is of the utmost importance for people to understand current political issues, as we are in the midst of a monumental election. As a history major, I must say that one of the best ways to understand the present is to understand the past, even if the past is presented in a humorous way. Therefore, the current National Portrait Gallery exhibit succeeds in multiple purposes by both informing and entertaining.

A Moment in Time

"I assure you no art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament ... I know nothing."-Edgar Degas

The Philips Gallery is in many ways one of DC’s most unique museums. In fact, the Philips, which opened in 1921, was actually the first museum of modern art to open in America. Unlike the National Gallery, the National Museum of African Art, and many of the city's other museums, it is not a massive building designed specifically for its current use. Rather, it is a small museum which was formerly the home of owner, Duncan Philips. I remember the first time I visited this museum; I was so enchanted that I longed to move in and make the museum my home. I still harbor this unrealistic dream of living in a similar city home surrounded by beautiful art.

Recently, a new exhibit called Degas to Deibenkorn: The Philips Collects, has come to the museum. As its title indicates, a wide variety of artists are incorporated into this one exhibit: Hans Hofman, Ansel Adams, Elizabeth Murray, and Sean Scully to name a few. Needless to say, the works are not limited to just paintings. Photography, paper works, and sculpture are also included. However, among all these artists, it is Degas that attracts me most to this exhibit. It is not that I dislike the works of the others, but Degas and the related impressionist style have special appeal to me.

Although Degas painted in the nineteenth century, I believe the concepts on which he based his works are still very applicable to today’s society. Degas adamantly rejected the label impressionist; however, he, like other impressionist artists, painted pictures which captured one single moment in time. Essentially, his paintings are like snapshots which forever preserve the actions, movements, and emotions of on fleeting instant. In some works, such as Dancers in Pink, figures are actually cut off to emphasize Degas’s ability to portray a split second in the scope of all time. Degas used this technique to comment on the ephemeral qualities of life. Many people rush through life without ever stopping to appreciate the small things occurring around them. Thus, Degas focused on the transitory moments of life.

In modern times, society pushes people to move faster and faster. Many children are raised to live by the phrase, “time is money.” New technology and tools such as cell phones, Blackberries, and iPhones further increase the speed of the average person’s life. Therefore, it is often rare for people to take the time to appreciate individual moments whether they be extremely important or seemingly inconsequential. It is entirely possible that such people will find their lives flying past them without truly realizing it. Recently, I myself have been victim to this reality so much so that I have not even found the time to visit the exhibit at the Philips Gallery. Soon, however, I hope to slow down my own pace enough so that I can enjoy the works of Degas and his fellow artists before the exhibit is deconstructed. Thus, it can be seen Degas’s themes are relevant in today’s world and will probably be so for generations to come.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Straight from the Soul

“Photography records the gamut of feeling written to the human face, the beauty of the earth and skies that man has inherited, and the wealth and confusion man has created. It is a major force in explaining man to man.”-Edward Steichen

Photography is one of the few major art forms that I have not yet discussed. Yet, when I think about it, it must be one of the most popular. Digital cameras are becoming more and more popular, and disposable cameras are very easily accessible. These days, you can even take and send pictures on a cell phone. Therefore, almost anyone can take pictures, regardless of their skill level and whether or not they consider themselves artists. After all, everyone wants to capture their favorite memories. And I am not just talking about tourists walking around with huge camera bags and fanny packs. In fact, I have some friends who like to take pictures everywhere they go, whether it be a sporting event or just a dinner.

Despite the popularity of photography, in some cultures, people believe that the camera is a tool used to steal the soul. To be quite honest, I also don’t like to be in photos. I can’t exactly explain why, and maybe it’s just a bit of self-consciousness. But don’t get me wrong, I don’t think a picture will capture my soul. I do, however, believe a photograph can be a visual representation of one’s soul. As I see it, a picture can reveal a great deal about an individual’s personality and emotions. To be in no pictures at all would actually be very sad, almost like being completely forgotten. I cannot imagine losing my collection of photos, which hold priceless memories of the places I have been and the people I have known.

The photography collection of Norman and Caroline Kinder Carr, which is now on display at the Corcoran fully embodies this idea that a photograph can display one’s soul and personality. The Carrs are Washington, DC, residents who have built a remarkable collection including photographs by Diane Arbus, Walker Evans, Lewis Hine, and Paul Strand. This comprehensive collection is both a history of and a tribute to the genre known as street photography. The pictures successfully capture the essence of city streets and the people who walk them. A sense of vitality and impulsiveness emerges from each piece. Every photograph on display depicts a captivating scene which compels the viewer to look longer and closer in order to avoid missing a crucial element. Even the individuals in the pictures are intriguing characters that the viewer longs to know more about.

For the most part, the pictures in the Corcoran are successful in depicting city life. They encapsulate the dynamism, passion, and irregularity that essentially are the soul of the city street. In this way, the exhibit achieves its goal by summarizing the history of street photography and emphasizing the remarkable ability of this art to evoke emotion, hold memories, and portray spirit and character.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Center Stage

"The problem with our art form: it's so ephemeral, and catching performances can be so difficult... the important thing is what happens at the moment of performance, for the people who made the effort to be there: it lives with them."-Judith Weir

When I was a child, my parents used to take my sister and me on trips to New York City where we would often see a show on Broadway. On my first ever visit to New York, we went to see The Phantom of the Opera. I wish I could say I enjoyed it, but I was three, and I just fell asleep. Nevertheless, being introduced to the theater at such a young age instilled in me a life long love of the performing arts. Yet for years, I, probably like many other people, thought that New York was really the only place to see a great performance. In more recent times, the past six or seven years, I have begun to realize what wonderful theater is available in Washington, DC, a city so much closer to my home and my heart.

I first began to appreciate DC’s theater when I was about eleven and my parents took me to see The Man of La Mancha at the National Theater Since then I have seen several other shows, mainly at the Folger and the Shakespeare Theater. Currently, School for Scandal is showing at the Folger, and Antony and Cleopatra is playing at the Shakespeare Theater. Soon, Ballet Across America will be coming to the Kennedy Center. I would love to attend all these shows, and I encourage everyone to go enjoy another aspect of DC’s arts.

In Plain Air

“I am following Nature without being able to grasp her, I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers.”-Claude Monet

The National Gallery definitely ranks high on my list of the best museums in Washington, DC. In fact, it may be my absolute favorite. I love the huge, winding, stone staircases, the high ceilings of each gallery room, and the arrangement of fountains and gardens. Something about the atmosphere and the feeling of grandeur keeps me coming back time and time again. In a way, it is my own personal escape from the busy world and my own hectic schedule. Therefore, when I heard about the arrival of the exhibit, In the Forest of the Fontainebleau, I was extremely eager to see it. The exhibit displays works by some of my favorite artists, Millet, Monet, and Rousseau.

Although I knew a fair amount about these artists from art history classes and by seeing their works in other museums, the Fontainebleau Forest, located outside of Paris, France, was a relatively knew topic for me. However, at this point in my life especially, anything remotely related to Paris is of great interest to me, as I will be there in less than a week’s time. Here is what the exhibit taught me about the Fontainebleau. Since the Middle Ages, and probably before, the forest has been used as grounds for hunting and hiking. From that time on, it has been a popular spot for tourists and Parisians to escape from the hustle and hubbub of the city. The natural landscape is quite remarkable with majestic trees and grandiose rock formations: hence its appeal to nineteenth century artists who began the style known as “plein-air” or “open air,” a forerunner of impressionism.

The artists reflect the desire to escape by using elements from nature to create a tranquil, idyllic environment which directly contrasts with the atmosphere of Paris, or any other city for that matter. Almost any one who looked at these paintings would see the appeal and want to be part of it themselves. One work in particular had this effect on me, a painting titled Forest of Fontainebleau, by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. Upon seeing this piece, I had a strong urge to grab a book and join the girl reading quietly by a forest brook.

I love cities, so I don’t often feel this need to escape from the cities, but rather the desire to escape to one. However, this exhibit brought to mind an issue which is slowly coming to the forefront of world politics. That is the problem of pollution which is shared by countries around the globe. Cities, due to high concentrations of people and large amounts of automobile and factory exhaust, are hit especially hard. In Beijing, the problem is so amplified that officials are scrambling to clean up the environment before the summer 2008 Olympic Games. In London, huge taxes are being instituted to discourage commuters from entering the city and bringing with them additional traffic and pollution. Therefore, it is understandable that people would want to flee to a place of “open air” where they would not be suffocated by masses of people and the toxic fumes made by man. It was actually the phrase “open air” which drew my attention to this issue and made me realize how acute the present need to escape really is. While Corot, Millet, Monet, and the others had no way of knowing it, their works and the history and ideas they embody are actually very relevant to modern times.

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

“The mother art is architecture. Without an architecture of our own we have no soul of our own.”-Frank Lloyd Wright

I remember my very first weekend at the University of Maryland, during freshmen orientation, the school organized a bus trip to DC. A group of students went to many of the major memorials: the Washington Monument, the FDR Memorial, the Jefferson memorial, and the Vietnam memorial. Although I felt a little touristy, it was a good experience for everyone to see some of DC’s greatest architecture.

This year a new site has been added to the list of noteworthy places. As an architectural structure, it may not be as significant as the above mentioned monuments, but its presence adds to the heart and soul of the city. The recently opened baseball stadium, Nationals Park, is a great place for Washingtonians to come together for a summer evening to celebrate their city and America’s national pastime. I haven’t had a chance to see a game in Nationals Park yet, but I can hardly wait, and I hope to see a stadium full of people.

Worth A Thousand Words

“I like America, just as everybody else does. I love America, I gotta say that. But America will be judged.”-Bob Dylan

Everybody has heard the old cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words. But are those words worth more if the picture is on a poster? A poster is much more likely to be seen by the general public than other types of art. A person does not have to go into a museum or gallery to see a poster. Rather, they can be found almost anywhere, including store windows, telephone booths, and school hallways. Most of the time, posters make their messages quite clear. You don’t have to think too hard to understand the meaning of a poster which says “Buy extra war bonds” in large, bold letters. However, do people really consider what poster’s say about our culture and society as a whole? Questions like this are explored in the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibit, Ballyhoo: Posters as Portraiture.

In answer to the above question, my answer would be a simple no. I live in a dorm room, and of course, the white walls would look absolutely horrific if we did not decorate them. So covering our walls are posters of our favorite artistic masterpieces, athletes, musicians, and actors. Yet as far as I know, not many college students take time out of their day to contemplate the significance of what they put on their walls. Nevertheless, in my opinion, a poster tells not only about an individual’s likes and values, but also about the society of which they are part. Posters can tell about society’s standards and ideals, and because posters are so easily produced and distributed, this message is quickly transported around the world. A poster of a celebrity, Johnny Depp, for example, gives the world an insight into the American concept of success and attractiveness. A political poster on the other hand can reveal a state of unrest or a general satisfaction on the part of the people.

The National Portrait Gallery’s exhibit makes this point by displaying a variety of posters from America’s past and present. The oldest images are those of broadsides and theater handbills, the most primitive developments in the evolution of posters. Other posters reveal national pride as Americans rallied behind World War II. In quite the opposite fashion, posters from the 1960s display frustration with the government and world affairs. A well known image of Bob Dylan, for example, has come to be seen as the icon of the era and a representation of the growing counterculture. Still more modern works reflect on current trends and popular figures in American culture. While all these posters tell their own story and have an individual meaning, the entire collection together makes a stronger point. It shows how a type of art which most people take for granted can tell so much about a culture and spread its message to the entire world.