Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Washington DC: Criss-Crossing The National Mall

The original Smithsonian Institution building known as "the Castle" as viewed from the National Mall.
Note: This is the second of three planned posts on our recent vacation to Washington DC.

We marked the east-west extremes of the National Mall in my last travelogue post. Between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial lies a magnificent public space roughly divided by the Washington Monument. (Actually the monument is about a half-mile closer to the memorial than to the Capitol.) Beyond the monument the Mall is dominated by the giant reflecting pool. Between the monument and the Capitol stands several major galleries and museums of the Smithsonian Institution. It was there that Jennifer and I spent much of our time on our recent venture to DC.

The magnificent Interior of the National Gallery of Art Rotunda featuring a fountain adorned by the Roman god Mercury. Jennifer took these interior pics which I greatly reduced to appropriate blog size.   
A hallway in the National Gallery leading to one wing of the many rooms containing paintings, sculptures, and other art exhibitions.
These green spaces and water features within the National Gallery allow the visitor to refresh their senses in order to maintain a proper appreciation of the artworks to admire within this large and famous collection. 
Jacques-Louis David's Napoleon in His Study painted in 1812.
Leonardo da Vinci's Ginevrra de' Benci painted on wood (not canvas) in 1474.
A licensed copyist at the National Gallery continues her study of a Vincent van Gogh self-portrait.
One of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's many splendid portrait works with me in photo to give it some scale.
Another Renoir, Woman of Algiers, 1870.
A delicately detailed Auguste Rodin hand study from 1917.
The National Gallery of Art was our first stop. (Technically, the “West Building”.) Most museums open at 10:30 in DC. This makes for casual mornings where Jennifer and I could sleep late and have a relaxed breakfast. These were the most laid back moments of the trip. We arrived, by walking, when the gallery first opened and we were both enraptured by the wonderful art works. Multiple and exceptional Renoirs, Monets, and van Goghs impressed me. Seeing David's stunning portrait of Napoleon in His Study was exhilarating. But it was surpassed by Da Vinci's simple yet grand Ginevra de'Benci. That was brilliantly rendered in 1474. You just can't reach back into the depth of art through time in most places like this gallery. It was a spacious experience. Generous with large marbled stillness and hushed echoes, the gallery offer a multitude of classical sculptures by towering artists like Edgar Degas and Auguste Rodin, a couple of nice interior gardens which are important (they refresh the mind for more art), and truly great paintings, many that were surprising and fresh to me; wonderful to behold in that ample spaciousness; a luxurious artistic experience.
Jennifer in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden standing at Graft (2008), a work by Roxy Paine.
We entered the sculpture garden next. It featured a magnificent water fountain surrounded by a Roy Lichtenstein work along with the other often odd-ball looking works. This was on our way to the East Building where most of the contemporary artwork is displayed. It was a building of more wonderful architectural design than any work inside of it. There was little happening there as the building awaits closure for renovation.
Jennifer and I spent more time admiring the marquee-like nature of a lighted passageway on the building's interior rather than any of the art it contained. It was a bit of let-down after the main gallery. We didn't stay long but opted to walk out into the grassy, open space of the Mall for the first time in plain view of the Capitol building and cross over to the popular National Air and Space Museum.
A replica of the Hubble Space Telescope alongside a complete Apollo space capsule in the National Air and Space Museum.
Left to right: A V-2 rocket, a replica of Skylab that visitor's could enter, and a V-1 rocket.  Weapons of mass destruction bookending a peaceful space research vehicle.
This is by far the most popular museum on the Mall. All the school aged kids and the adult aged kids like to see the space stuff. I took some photos of early airplanes with particular interest on those by the Wright Brothers. The rest of the robust aircraft collection was sort of appreciated in a general sense as we made our way to the spaceflight half of the museum. There I saw the Apollo 11 space capsule, a Gemini capsule, a Mercury capsule, Nazi V1 and V2 rockets, and an Apollo capsule connected with a Soyuz capsule. There were full-scale models of the lunar landing module and Skylab. The full-scale replica of the Hubble Space Telescope impressed me. I had never considered its enormous size before, which was obvious next to some of the other exhibits. Jennifer thought the place was too crowded and noisy; it was a great contrast to the quiet tones of the art galleries. So, we didn't hang around long, but I enjoyed what I saw and it refreshed my brain for more art.
Jennifer taking a photo of me taking a photo inside the Hirshhorn Museum.  This ain't exactly da Vinci class material here.  The absurdity of it made me laugh.  This "Venus before a pile of clothes" was accompanied behind me by an old snow sled affixed to a canvas of brownish and greenish paint. It is hard for me to take a lot of contemporary art seriously.  Wonder why?
Jennifer went on and on about how this clothes hanger installation impressed her.  The work is entitled Untitled.  It is by Dan Steinhilber (2002).  Eh.
This room installation impressed both of us, however.  Jennifer took her shoes off and wondered around inside.  There was a surreal quietude about it to me.
The Hirshhorn Museum offered another look at contemporary endeavors. This was a more enriching experience compared with the nebulous East Building. Highlights included the magnificent fountain in the middle of the circular building design, an installation of clothes hangers that Jennifer just raved over, a pile of dirty clothes thrust high against a wall with a Venus-like marble statue eyeballing it, and several other sculptures were of interest.

For me the best moment was a rare instance of installation art that impressed me. It was a boxed-in room filled with hundreds of square post-it notes each written in pencil and in different hand writing. The effect was to give the space a brownish-yellow hue. The floor was covered in bee's wax encasing more post-it notes. A guard was stationed at the doorway to make sure no one entered unless they wore booties or went barefoot. An oscillating fan over the doorway caused a few notes to flutter in a gentle breeze periodically. Near the far wall was a simple glassed-in exhibit of two fresh cabbages being slowly devoured by snails. I know this all sounds weird but that is the nature of contemporary art and installations. The effect was impressive and Jennifer and I lingered longer there than we did at most other art pieces up to that point.
Part of Julia Child's kitchen in the National Museum of American History.
As the interpretive signage reads, this is the world's largest flawless quartz sphere.  I am in the background and partially reflected in the gigantic crystal ball.
Lots of visitors to the National Museum of Natural History crowded around to take photos of the truly priceless Hope Diamond.
It was time for a late lunch which we had at the Constitution Cafe after recrossing the Mall and entering the National Museum of America History. Science and history dominated our remaining stops that day. Worthy of note among the American History displays was Julia Child's kitchen which we hung around for awhile. Jennifer enjoyed inspecting all the cooking utensils and other tools of the chef's trade. Next door was the slightly larger National Museum of Natural History, the most popular exhibition after the Air and Space collection. Here we saw dinosaurs, marine life, marvelous minerals, and the Hope Diamond. Upon leaving the museum we were caught-up in a thunderstorm on our walk back to our hotel. This provided brief, wet excitement. It also brought windy conditions that blew all the humidity away and left us with cooler weather and brighter skies for the rest of the trip. We bought beer at a nearby liquor store and enjoyed them in our room. Afterwards we hit the hotel bar for drinks. Very nice.

The next day we visited the National Postal Museum which was conveniently located next to Union Station. Jennifer has always been an avid stamp collector and has maintained a large collection since before we were married. After a trip on the metro into deeper DC (see future post), we returned to the Mall. The metro stop in the middle of the Mall put us right in front of the Freer Gallery of Art where enjoyed more wonderful paintings, especially seeing John Singer Sargent's work Breakfast in the Loggia.  The placement of this piece made it so special.  The architecture in the painting was similar to that of the Freer at the point where it was displayed.
Another instance of Jennifer taking a photo of me taking a photo along with the photo that I took.  Here we are in the inspiring stairwell of the National Museum of African Art.
The United States Botanic Garden is located next to the Capitol Building.  It offers several outdoor walking paths as well as a large conservatory collection.
This was followed by a visit to the National Museum of African Art. Jennifer is very much in tune with the similarities between certain tribal pieces and contemporary art. The building, like most of the buildings we explored in DC, featured a magnificent sky light stairwell that we admired for awhile. On our way down to the Botanical Gardens we stopped outside the Air and Space Museum again. They had set up a couple of telescopes, pointed them toward the sun, and you could check out some sun spot activity which was pretty cool. The United States Botanic Garden was a bit overwhelming to me in terms of the variety of plants. After walking a few paths, I sat in a cool spot on a bench while Jennifer explored a bit more without me. Her cold was getting somewhat worse and it was on this evening after dinner that I made my trek to the Jefferson Memorial (see previous post).

The Smithsonian galleries and museums along the National Mall offer a collection of art, science, and history unique to the world. Few public spaces compare with this vast collection of knowledge in the shadow of the nation's Capitol building. It is worth noting that there is only one building along the National Mall area that is a private headquarters rather than a public hall. That is the American Pharmacists Association. We did not visit there. Hello? Obamacare, hello?

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