Sunday, August 14, 2011

What's painting, Uncle Sam?


"America is a poem in our eyes"
-Ralph Waldo Emerson


Working backwards, as I am finding Sundays prove good for such things.  I spent some wonderful trips in the past weeks at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery.  They are two museums housed in the same elaborate building, down near the Chinatown metro stop.

I visited the Smithsonian American Art Museum first, a few week back in July.  The hall opened with some wonderful paintings of that depicted various American scenes including a stunning pic called Chef's Canoe by Belmore Brown.  The image below does no justice to the beauty of the painting, with the reflection of the canoe in the glass water, and the rugged glaciers behind.

There were some other lovely paintings of prairies and other bits of Americana.  The second hall was a bit lackluster, of pictures of monuments that was just fair.  The exhibit opened up into an immaculate alter made from tin foil and gold foil
                                                           Yes, that is all aluminium foil.

Anyway the major point of the exhibit is the To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America.  The show included contemporaries of Ault including Andrew Wyeth and and Edward Hooper.  The exhibit had a lot of the Americana aesthetic that we associate with so much of the landscape of American art from the mid-20th century.

There was a stunning piece by Andrew Wyeth called "Night Hauling" with crates of lobsters pouring starlight phosphorescence back into the seas.  Le petit lobsterman is looking away in anonymity as the haunting light seeps out.  I was reminded of the night squid trawlers whose white star lights punctuated the velvet seas and skies of the Tsuguru Straits in Hakodate, Japan.

There was another eerie painting by Raphael Gleitsmann called "Bridge and Town" that is an empty polluted landscape with morbid light posts that hang like withered branches in an industrial sky of yellowed smog.


A favorite picture from the exhibit was by Ault himself called "January Fall Moon".  The painting had a 3D-like quality, with the white ridges of snow under the barn ledge giving depth.  They sky had a deep purple that even I could see.  The clouds shone down in the moonlight and cast shadows on the barn and ground that enhanced the dimensional effects.

Yet somehow I missed the stairs to the second floor of exhibition, and wandered off to work in the lovely courtyard in between the Smithsonian and Portrait Gallery.  I got sufficiently distracted enough and left.

I returned a few weeks later to the same building, but different museum and went to the Portrait Gallery.  I have always liked this museum and had a great time wandering through it.

I found a great portrait of the actor Ira Aldridge, known as the "American Othello".  Due to discrimination, the talented Aldridge was forced to ply the thespian trade in Europe.


"Go West young man, and grow up with the country."
-Horace Greely (1850)

One of my favorite periods of American history is the Antebellum era , and I loved the room that dealt with some of that period's famous figures.  There was a great description of the era:
"Americans in the Antebellum period (1840s-1860s) constantly tested their limits, both as individuals and as a society confronting the challenges of settling and conquering the vast country that lay to the new west of the original coastal states.  This ongoing confrontation between the ambitions of man and the awesome power of nature contributed to an even more romantic and radical conception of American individualism.  Yet these unfettered individuals had to deal with the practical realities of creating states and territories from western lands.  To justify western expansion, Americans evolved the idea of "Manifest Destiny" to become a continental nation.  Manifest Destiny made it easier to justify Indian removal and the annexation of southwest lands from Mexico.  But dissenting voices began to be heard, as some Americans questions whether or not the nation was losing its moral compass."
In this particular gallery, there were portraits of luminaries like John C. Fremont, Zack Taylor, Stephen F. Austin and a bust of good ol' Sam Houston.  Also a fascinating bit on Thomas Hart Benton, the US Senator from Missouri who was equally vocal in Manifest Destiny and yet keeping slavery out of the new territories.

I was especially taken with a small note on Mathew Brady and his role with the image and icon of Lincoln.  The pic on the right came at the critical Cooper Union speech, and helped convey an image of a dignified Lincoln that shone over the caricature depictions that Lincoln's enemies had been pushing.

"Insurrection of though always precedes insurrection of arms."
-Wendel Phillips

I also loved the various portraits of the suffragettes like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, alongside the abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and WP.  I felt like I was swimming back through ages and pages from Yohuru's class.

I wandered my way back upstairs and found myself this time back over in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  There, I found a wonderful painting by Albert Bierstadt
I had a chuckle of the notion of Bierstadt doing American propaganda/ nationbranding.  Apparently Bierstadt was equally talented as a self-promoter as he was a painter.  His imagery of an American Eden in the west helped sell America as the promised land to immigrants in Europe, and helped push his unveilings amid serious pomp.  The picture above is believed to be more conjured imagery by Bierstadt than factual place.  

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