Monday, August 29, 2011

The National Gallery of Art

The old copy editor within me is always looking for mistakes in news stories. CNN published an article this morning called "Luxury, horror lurk in Gadhafi family compound," the gist of which is the shocking (shocking, I say) revelation that families of tyrants tend to live in gaudy palaces and abuse whomever is handy whenever the urge strikes, which is often. Anyway, the vanguard of the current Libyan regime change reached one of these palaces, and CNN was there to film it. "We filmed them quixotically studying the labels of Cristal champagne and fine St. Emilion Bordeaux, apparently not realizing each bottle is worth hundreds of dollars," the author wrote, referring to rebels ransacking the palace.

Quixotically studying? In the manner of Don Quixote? Waving the bottles at windmills, maybe? I think "quizzically" is what the writer needed here. I won't be too hard on the writer, because I do this kind of thing often enough -- think of one word and then write a similar one that's completely at odds with the meaning I wanted. But I will be hard on CNN because it's supposed to have someone to catch that kind of mistake. Then again, I checked the same story a few minutes ago, and an editor had removed "quixotically" all together, so someone caught it.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, isn't part of the Smithsonian. Yet it's housed in two large buildings on the National Mall and doesn't charge admission, so for tourist purposes, it might as well be. The museum also has a feature that many other large institutions of its kind should have more of: places to sit in the galleries with backs. Maybe it's a mark of my increasing age, or just that we walked a lot in DC and appreciated the National Gallery's seating more than backless benches, which seem more common in museums. Of course, the benches can be too comfortable. In one room I noticed a well-dressed middle-aged woman sitting on a bench, fast asleep. A few minutes later, a guard wandered in and gently woke her up.

Comfy benches or not, we didn't spend quite as much time at the National Gallery as we wanted (a persistent theme on this trip), but managed to take note of some noteworthy works, including items I remember seeing before, such as David's "The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries," and others I must missed before, such as "Ginevra de' Benci," which has the distinction of being the only Leonardo da Vinci painting in the Americas. No albino dwarfs in the service of Opus Dei attacked me while I was looking at the painting.

"Gallery of the Louvre" by Samuel F.B. Morse is also currently on loan to the National Gallery, and I spent a while looking that. Morse's backstory is just as interesting as the canvas. Not long ago I read "Henry, Morse and the Telegraph," a chapter in The Heroic Age of American Invention by L. Sprague de Camp (1961), which mentioned Morse's career as an artist, which was notable but not tremendously successful. So he made a career change. As an inventor, de Camp wrote, "Morse was not so much an outstanding inventor as a promoter of an invention and a manager of inventions." There's something to be said for that. It's Morse code, after all.

Done in the 1830s and newly restored, " 'Gallery of the Louvre' depicts masterpieces from the Louvre's collection that Morse 'reinstalled' in one of that museum's grandest galleries, the Salon Carré," says the museum web site. That is, he painted the salon like he wanted it to be, not like it was, and stacked it with paintings he admired.

It's an odd subject to modern eyes. Why paint a painting of paintings? But we're awash in instantly copied and transmitted images. They were not. Paintings of galleries weren't so unusual then, a time of greater scarcity of manmade images, and neither was the hanging of paintings floor-to-ceiling in a gallery, or for that matter, in private homes that could afford them. That was a detail that made me smile, the cluttered museum wall. We imagine that our way of doing things -- such as the spare, uncluttered formality of an art museum -- are timeless practices, but it isn't so.

Also temporarily on display at the museum, in its spacious West Building rotunda, is "The Capitoline Venus," on loan to the United States for the first time. I was glad to see her. She had her own guard, looking a little bored there in the rotunda because mostly people were wandering past the statue and not showing any interest, much less an urge to deface it.

For a statue 1,800-plus years old, the Venus in fine shape. Usually on display at the Capitoline Museums (Musei Capitalolini) in Rome, the work made me ponder certain questions, such as why the hell didn't I visit the Capitoline Museums? Just look at the "Gallery" section at the Wiki page. I've seen most of those works used to illustrate histories or other works about Antiquity, but not with my own eyes. I was right there in the Piazza del Campidoglio, surrounded by the Capitoline Museums, although that was during the evening and I guess they were closed. I did notice that the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius wasn't in piazza; air pollution had been eating at him, I think, and he had been taken inside the museums.

Just another reason to go back to Rome, though I suspect the clock might run out on me before I can make it. But if I do go back to the shores of the Mediterranean, maybe Leptis Magna will be easier to visit too, provided things have settled down in Libya. Mrs. Quarles, my Latin teacher in high school, told us of visiting the site in the days before Gadhafi came to power, and somewhere in my head ever since has been a synaptic-based index card reading LEPTIS MAGNA: GO THERE IF YOU CAN.

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