A Portrait of The Capital

August 13, 2010 · Print This Article

I flew to Washington, DC this week for many reasons but while here made a point to see as much Art as I could and after a few galleries, museums and private collections some of which were sprinted through, some I could spend more time in I found much of the art venues to be a tad sparse  and fragile. Lacking the solidity and permanence you would think would come naturally in the nation’s capital. The one gem that stood out surprisingly was The National Portrait Gallery.

I mentioned it last week in posting the video that Spielberg/Lucas produced to showcase their collection of Norman Rockwell works and planned to take time to see the show but had low expectations even though I did like the attempt to contextualize Rockwell as a directors painter.  The Rockwell series was enjoyable and pleasant to see his paintings side by side with his preparatory drawings (which in many ways do overshadow the finished works) and the Spielberg/Lucas collection is a well curated and thought out collection with only a few stranglers (works based on the four seasons) which could easily have been early purchases and they were smartly set aside in a small corner by themselves apart from the main body of work. I wish I could have photos to share but they were militant on retaining their photo copyrights and even chased me away from photographing the entrance to the exhibition from over 15 feet away (which is a all time high for me after 8+ years of trying to document things like this).

What made the National Portrait Gallery stand out for me above the various Smithsonian collections including the National Gallery (which is staffed by some of the most pleasant customer service & guards I have ever dealt with, makes you wonder if the fact that the recession hasn’t even scratched this town having anything to do with that disposition?) was that it was both a dense collection of works that were smartly pooled into thematic bite size chucks but also very romantic and intimate as a venue. A throwback to the turn of the century parlors of old where you felt you had a more intimate one on one with a artist or series of works.

The term portrait gallery is apt for portions of the collection but it’s just meaningless for a large part and gives a misconception of what lies under the roof of that building. Many of the works being smart or rarely seen examples of pastoral or figurative 19th century works that feel fresher and challenging then their age would hint in this day of clinical detachment.

One of the interesting temporary exhibits in the museum was the annual portrait competition by various young artists, grad students and such. The work was surprisingly strong and continued to show the diversity that still exists in this 21st century bouillabaisse of style. About 20% of it wasn’t worth comment but much was fresh and well executed and even the parts that were derivative from more established but lesser known artists were still interesting.

For once as well the top award given by the public to Margaret Bowland’s girls in wedding gowns and white face was more deserving in some ways then the top juried choice. You can see a gallery list below. Have a great weekend!