"In the Conservatory," with costume nearby

“In the Conservatory,” with costume nearby

I read about the show, Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, which just closed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (it will open at the Chicago Art Institute on June 25), months ago when it was still on at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and, being a sucker for costume, knew I had to see it once all those bustles sashayed into New York.

It was great fun, seeing those dresses on manikins standing near paintings by Manet, Monet, Renoir, and my beloved James McNeill Whistler, to name a few. Such close picks, the costumes looked as if they’d come to life in the paintings. “In the Conservatory,” 1881, shows a charming Mme. Bartolome, painted by her husband, her face in shadow, standing in the cool of a conservatory doorway, lilacs in bloom in the garden behind her, wearing a complicated purple and white dress. And there the actual dress is, beautifully preserved and impossibly small-waisted.

"Young Lady," by Edouard Manet, 1866

“Young Lady,” by Edouard Manet, 1866

It’s huge show, full of delights, but seeing the clothes worn in some of my favorite paintings was the biggest treat. To begin with, Manet’s “Young Lady,” 1866: Here she stands, daintily sniffing violets, wearing the palest pink duster, a cameo at her throat. Improbably, a parrot roosts on a pedestal before her. That shell pink wrapper, her demure gaze glazed with a hint of seduction, is an exotic drawing room moment.

A new painting, but one with quite a wallop, was James Tissot’s 1864 “Portrait of Mlle. L. L,” an Anne Hathaway look-alike. Mille. LL wears a lipstick-red, ball-fringe-trimmed bolero jacket, popularized by the Empress Eugenie of Spain, a fashionista in her own right. With her frank gaze at the viewer, having ditched the crinolines, her look is strikingly modern.

"Women in the Garden," by Claude Monet, 1866

“Women in the Garden,” by Claude Monet, 1866

Monet’s “Women in the Garden,” 1866, is so full of life you feel you could join these lovely ladies dashing about or merely sitting, enjoying the summer day. Monet achieved a radical angle for the painting by digging a ditch and climbing into it with his canvas and paints. The effects of light and shadow reveal the love Monet felt for three of the sitters, all images of his soon-to-be wife, Camille.

"Luncheon on the Grass," fragments, by Claude Monet, 1865-66, with costumes

“Luncheon on the Grass,” fragments, by Claude Monet, 1865-66, with costumes

Only fragments remain of Monet’s “Luncheon on the Grass,” 1865. This was to have been a 20-foot painting showing the most stylishly garbed Parisians imaginable. What is left is a charming portrait of seven life-sized figures, sitting, standing walking, in dappled sunlight. Once again you’re struck by the utter modernity of these figures and how familiar they look. Sadly, the better part of the work succumbed to a landlord’s damp basement when the artist failed to pay the rent.

“The latest fashion . . . is absolutely necessary for a painting. It’s what matters most,” Edouard Manet declared at around the time that fashion was popularized in department stores and their racks of  “pret a porter” numbers. Paris became not only the incubator of modern impressionist painting, but also the fashion capital of the world. Memorabilia included here attest to that fact: fashion photographs, catalogues, hand colored engravings of swanky folks, the women’s enormous skirts like upside down mushrooms. Accessories include: fans, gloves, parasols, shoes, teeny kid gloves, and wince-inducing corsets.

"The Parisienne," by Edouard Manet, 1875

“The Parisienne,” by Edouard Manet, 1875

“Black is the queen of colors,” so said Auguste Renoir, and when we come to the black room, we believe him. Berthe Morisot’s 1875 “Figure of a Woman (Before the Theater)” and Manet’s “The Parisienne,” 1875, draw you in, but a large portrait of Ellen Andree (she was Degas’ model for “The Absinthe Drinkers”) in black knocks your socks off. She, a former department sales girl, wears, as the accompanying wall placard says, “the riding habit of an amazone,” and she’s fully up to the name. Nearby, a nearly identical and equally splendid costume is displayed.

"Portrait of Manet," by Fantin-Latour, 1867

“Portrait of Manet,” by Fantin-Latour, 1867

Lest you think men have gotten short shrift here, one large room is devoted to the metro-sexual fellow of the day—top hats, a wool Derby, and a straw boater are as crisp as can be. Canes fill another case. Caillebotte’s 1880 “At the Café,” shows a fellow of dubious character, while Fantin-Latour’s 1867 portrait of Manet, shows us an elegant bon vivant, no bohemian artist, he. Degas’ wonderful “Portraits at the Stock Exchange,” is a glimpse of everyday life at the Bourse, the angled top hats animating the picture. Whistler’s “Arrangement in Flesh Color and Black,” a portrait of Theodore Duret made in 1883, show a weary-looking gentleman, holding a women’s cape, as if waiting, not happily, for his wife to complete her toilette, or emerge from the ladies room. A 26-year-old Renoir painted with his feet up on the rungs of a chair by Bazille in 1867, looks disarmingly callow.


"At the Milliners," by Edouard Manet, 1881

“At the Milliners,” by Edouard Manet, 1881

A room of hats and pictures capturing various milliner’s visits is especially delicious, particularly Manet’s “At the Milliners,” made in 1881, with its brilliant colors. We really should wear hats again!

"The Shop Girl," by James Tissot, 1883

“The Shop Girl,” by James Tissot, 1883

In a stand-out Tissot (1883-5), “The Shop Girl,” one of a series of fifteen paintings of “the women of Paris,” the shop girl smiles and holds the door for you, while a window-shopping man outside appears to flirt with another clerk.

A plum day dress by the House of Worth (1886) announces the return of the bustle, not the soft pear-shaped ones we’re more used to, but a jutting flying buttress of a bustle, to be worn on Hausmann’s broad boulevards, to see and be seen. The last room of the show is devoted to all the places one could be on display – the circus, the theater, the loge. Most importantly, one could be seen on the streets, as in Caillebotte’s famous 1877 “Paris Street, Rainy Day.”


"Paris Street, Rainy Day," by Gustave Caillebotte, 1877

“Paris Street, Rainy Day,” by Gustave Caillebotte, 1877

Anticipating today’s fashion when “street” often becomes couture, this show is a new vision of Paris at a time when fashion and art merged.




Serge Diaghilev

Serge Diaghilev

If you’re anything like me, seeing this fabulous show will take you at least two visits. It’s huge, covering two floors of the East Building of the National Gallery in Washington, DC. Devoted to the merging of art, choreography, dance, and original music that became the first modern ballet company: Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, this exhibition showcases more than 130 costumes, set designs, films, paintings, costume designs, posters, and other charming ephemera, including the earrings worn by Nijinsky in Scheherazade.

Diaghilev, with his peculiar brand of entrepreneurialism and artistic vision, comes fully alive here. We learn from the beautiful exhibition companion book, that in 1905, at 33, Diaghilev organized an exhibition of Russian historical portraits in the capital, St Petersburg. The tsar himself, Nicolas II, personally opened the display and enjoyed seeing his Romanov ancestors among the paintings Diaghilev secured by visiting great houses and cajoling the owners to lend them for the show. Diaghilev expected to be named minister of culture, at the very least, but events conspired against him, and after 1906 his entire career took place outside of Russia.


Costume from Coronation Scene, Boris Godunov, 1908

Costume from Coronation Scene, Boris Godunov, 1908

Yet Russia, its exoticism, spirit, and folktales are present everywhere here – if Diaghilev couldn’t celebrate his homeland in his homeland, he made it glitteringly accessible to Europe and beyond. At the opening of this show, we see a spectacular robe from the coronation scene of Boris Godunov (1908), a bell-shaped garment embroidered with silk and metal thread, glass beads, in what appears to be a pomegranate pattern, its orientalism setting the tone for what’s to come.

The exhibition is organized by ballet–Prince Igor, Les Sylphides, Petrushka, and Scherazade among them–each having its own section. The only known footage of a 1928 Diaghilev rehearsal of Les Sylphides plays next to the costumes and miniature set designed by Alexandre Benois. One of the innovations that Diaghilev and his collaborators brought to dance was liberating the torso from stiff stays to allow a more fluid line. Brilliant silks, flowing trousers, and Turkish-inspired tunics abound. You’d be stunning at any black tie affair decked out in one of Prince Igor’s Ikat coats. Charming pencil sketches by Valentine Hugo (1911) show Nijinsky in the title role of Petrushka while screening on a wall we see a performance of the same ballet by the Joffrey Company (1981).


Costume, Prince Igor

Costume, Prince Igor

Be warned: The costume sketches by Leon Bakst will cause lightheadedness, lust, and the desire to rip them from the walls. In fact, to call them “sketches” hardly does them justice. Dramatically posed, beautifully drawn and accented with vivid color and metallic paint, they’re works of art in themselves. We see the 1910 costume for the chief eunuch from Scherazade – he wears raspberry silk with paisley applique, a plumed turban and wonderfully striped trousers. An official-looking bunch of keys hangs from his belt. Bad news: you’re a eunuch. Good news: the clothes are great.

How can you not fall in love with Bakst’s Odalisque (1911)? She flips an orange scarf with abandon, wearing a see-through top, one shoe off, in transparent “harem” pants. Bakst traveled widely—to Greece, North Africa—and brought back ideas for costumes.


The Little God costume from "The Blue God"

The Little God costume from “The Blue God”

Some little-known ballets are showcased here as well: The Blue God, a Fokine mash-up of Hindu and Buddhist images, was performed only six times. The “little god” costume with headdress of stacked heads, is particularly charming. Another gorgeous Bakst sketch for a Temple Dancer, Young Raja, and Pilgrim from The Blue God left me craving the shoes, pale green with turned up toes. A mannequin leaps, wearing a costume covered with rose petals from the The Rose. Nearby, we see a beguiling photograph of Nijinsky wearing the costume, as the Spirit of the Rose.

One of the many joys of this show are the paintings—Modigliani’s portrait of Leon Bakst (1917), with a blond moustache and twinkly blue eyes to match his scarf; a 1910 Jacques Emile Blanche painting of a costumed Nijinsky for The Oriental; and “Exit the Ballets Russes,” a 1914 cubist work by Fernand Leger.

A guaranteed swoon is the sloe-eyed Faun, Rudolph Nureyev, from the 1967 Joffrey Ballet performance of Afternoon of the Faun. Just under the screen are arrayed three of the nymph costumes you see the dancers wearing as they approach the pied

Costume, by Leon Bakst for Afternoon of the Faun

Costume, by Leon Bakst for Afternoon of the Faun

Faun. If you find yourself wishing you could watch the whole ballet enfold, you can content yourself with Bakst’s seductive sketch, featured as the signature image of the show.

The strident, insistent notes of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, along with the film of the Joffrey Ballet’s 1987 performance, strikes you: how extraordinarily avant-garde this work of art was in 1913. Chilling and brutally beautiful, one can see how much this work must have influenced modern dancers to come—Martha Graham and Erick Hawkins particularly. The costumes (by Nicolas

Costumes, Rite of Spring

Costumes, Rite of Spring

Roerich) are displayed in a circle in the middle of the room. Painted silk and felted wool, you have to wonder how the dancers fared under the bright stage lights.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the show’s first floor is coming upon a small crayon and pencil work, entitled “A Mask,” done by Vaslav Nijinsky after succumbing to schizophrenia. One of many similar works he did from 1918-1919 while being treated in a sanitarium, it conveys the feeling that the person behind the mask is imprisoned. Nijinsky never danced again.

Three dance performances accompany the show:

The Washington Ballet – June 9, 1:00 and 3:30

Kirov Academy of Ballet – July 13, 1:00 and 3:30

Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company – August 11, 1:00 and 3:30

The show, in the National Gallery’s East Building, will be seen until September 2, 2013




A branch of the Smithsonian museum devoted to American craft, The Renwick Gallery near Lafayette Square in Washington, DC, with its cocoa stone and brick edifice and motto over the door—“Dedicated to Art”—is a treat no matter what’s going on inside it. Now a rare treat can be seen there: “Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color.”

Thomas Day's Furniture Shop in Milton, North Carolina

Thomas Day’s Furniture Shop in Milton, North Carolina

Thomas Day owned and operated a thriving furniture and architectural elements shop in Milton, NC, selling to wealthy plantation owners and other prominent patrons before the Civil War. This show features 36 pieces of meticulously made furniture

As you enter, you’re greeted by a charming hat stand (better known in 1857 as a “hall tree”) with wavy spokes radiating from its round mirror, like a precursor to the mid-twentieth century sunburst clock.

Turn to the left and you’ll see reproduced a document with the embellished signatures of the good citizens of Milton—a “Petition to the Assembly” of the State to allow Day’s wife, Aquilla Wilson Day, to move from Virginia to North Carolina to live with him. We learn that, after the slave rebellions in Virginia (1800) and South Carolina (1822)—among other harsh restrictions—free people of color could not move into the state, nor could they leave for more than 90 days. This chilling document, while it shows the willingness of the North Carolinians to bend the rules, represents more than a little enlightened self-interest. Day’s distinctive style (graceful lines and undulating forms) made his furniture desirable for many reasons, not the least of which that it could be had for half the cost of comparable pieces made in Philadelphia or New York.


Newel, Thomas Day

Newel, Thomas Day

After reading that petition you see the furniture through an altogether different lens, its reverberations following you throughout the show. How appalling the situation he was in, yet, how diplomatic, how much a master salesman, as well as the master craftsman, he must have been. We read further that he and his wife were welcomed into the Presbyterian Church for which he designed simple pine pews, a template for which is seen here. He sat, not with the slaves or free blacks, but with the white parishioners. More reverberations. What must he have felt? What a story!

Day’s style, influenced by the “Grecian” revival in design and architecture in the South during the 1800s, is characterized by classical pillars and scrolls. While he used John Hall’s Cabinet Makers’ Assistant, a bible of American style, he adapted Hall’s templates to make them his own.

Blanket Chest, Thomas Day, 1845-50

Blanket Chest, Thomas Day, 1845-50

As is so often the case, I’m most drawn to the simpler designs, among them an oval dining table (traditional style, 1855) in walnut and yellow pine. The table has four leaves with a fifth ingeniously stashed in a sort of sling under the table top.

An elegant sleigh bed (French style, 1855), made in 1840 of maple and yellow pine, is covered by a pieced and appliqued quilt by Molly Parsons Pratt. You can’t help but think about all the goings on in this bed—births, deaths, the gamut—as you look at the gently curved footboard and imagine all the generations who woke to this enfolding shape.

The outstanding piece of this show is a walnut and yellow pine blanket chest in the “neat and plain” style, 1845-50. Mixing German-American construction techniques, dovetail joints are reinforced at the top corners with a pin. Curvy cutouts and spurs frame the negative space at the feet.

A graceful lounge in the Grecian style, 1844-45 (walnut and yellow pine)—inspired by the designs of Englishmen, the two Georges Sheraton and Smith—has a straight back and “ogee curves,” a wonderful new name for an “S” curve.


Open Pillar Bureau, Thomas Day, 1855

Open Pillar Bureau, Thomas Day, 1855

Among the dressers, my favorite is an open-pillar bureau, Grecian style, made in 1855 of mahogany, yellow pine and poplar. It’s very simple but for the mirror attachments which, when framing your reflected face, look for all the world like the split tails of the Starbuck’s logo mermaid.

A charming crib (walnut and yellow pine, 1848) in the Windsor style is topped by a pinwheel quilt cut and pieced in 1840 and completed in 1849 by Caroline Miller. After nine years in the making, I’m glad Caroline got the credit. Next to the crib is an adorable child’s commode.

Crib, Windsor Style, Thomas Day, 1848

Crib, Windsor Style, Thomas Day, 1848

Rockers, a pair of sweet French style side chairs, an imposing and dignified sideboard, lovely side tables, more dressers and lounges—all are in superb condition and glow as if shining a light into the dark past.

Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color will be on view until July 28, 2013.





"Jessica Wickham, A Portrait, by Bo Gehring

“Jessica Wickham, A Portrait, by Bo Gehring

Each year I look forward to the National Portrait Gallery’s Annual exhibition of the winners of the Outwin Boochever Award. Named for the dedicated docent who endowed this competition, the award encourages contemporary American portraiture. Entries include self-portraits, likenesses of relatives, friends or strangers— the only caveat is that the artist must have had direct contact with the person shown in the work. This year, out of 3,000 entries, 48 works in a wide variety of media were selected by the expert jury.

The portentous strains of Arvo Part’s “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten,” sets a somber, but tender tone for the entire exhibition. The music accompanies Bo Gehring’s first prize winner. Projected on a large wall, this HD video (2010) was made by mounting an industrial camera just inches above the subject. Timed to coincide with the length of the piece of music, the camera slowly travels up the length of her body to reveal the subject (Jessica Wickham, a woodworker from Beacon, NY), in a mesmerizing sweep. The intimate glimpse we have of this woman, so ordinary in her well-worn clothes, with her banged-up fingernail, her tousled hair, is a monumental revelation. http://vimeo.com/62003620


"General's Daughter,"  by Carole Feuerman

“General’s Daughter,”
by Carole Feuerman

The rapt face and lush torso of “General’s Daughter” (2011) looks edible, a gorgeous chocolate confection in her green swimming cap and pink bathing suit top. Made of oil on resin, she has just emerged, like Venus, from the pool, the water glistening on her skin, her eyes closed in rapture. The artist, Carole Feuerman, says she sought to capture that “special moment when [her friend’s daughter] . . . changed from a young girl” to a young woman.

"Life Raft,"  by Katie O'Hagan

“Life Raft,”
by Katie O’Hagan

In “Life Raft,” (2011) a self-portrait, we see Katie O’Hagan painting the raft under her as she looks over her shoulder at some looming threat. Her emerging raft (some of the structure is still not finished) floats precariously on steely waters that merge at the horizon with a roiling sky. In the accompanying notes, O’Hagan says this piece represents “a period of great upheaval in her life,” but one that resulted into a positive plunge into creating more “personal” paintings.

A commended photograph, “For Delia,” made in 2010 by Heidi Fancher, is a powerful reimagining of a

"For Delia," by  Heidi Fancher

“For Delia,” by
Heidi Fancher

likeness of a slave photographed by Joseph Zealy in 1850 in South Carolina, attempting to show, in some pseudo-scientific manner, that Africans were inferior to Europeans. Here, the artist reestablishes Delia’s “beauty and humanity.” Her head and torso appear to emerge out of darkness, a swamp, perhaps. With her haunted eyes, and beautifully shaped head, her body appears to be coated in wax, like a ceremonial object to be worshipped.

"100 Pounds of Rice," by Saeri Kiritani

“100 Pounds of Rice,”
by Saeri Kiritani

Standing in the middle of the gallery is “100 Pounds of Rice,” by Saeri Kiritani. Made in 2010 of rice, Elmer’s glue, and wood and metal sticks, this charming sculptural self-portrait was made when the artist thought, “I am mostly made of rice!” She stands, rising modestly out of a mound of rice, holding out her cupped hands as if to receive more, or offer us some, her eyes wonderfully alive, as if appealing to us to look and understand.



"Buffalo Milk Yogurt," by Jennifer Livonian

“Buffalo Milk Yogurt,”
by Jennifer Livonian

Perhaps my favorite entry is “Buffalo Milk Yogurt,” Jennifer Livonian’s 2010 digital video animation. Watercolor cutouts come alive to portray Corey Fogel, an artist and musician living in Los Angeles. Both hilarious and moving, the piece follows Corey as he, depressed, moves through his day to wind up suffering a breakdown in the Bread and Circus organic supermarket after witnessing a nude woman practicing yoga in front of a display of “Lunch Lady Gourds.” Corey’s amiable  music accompanies this beguiling piece.

Take a look: http://newsdesk.si.edu/mobile/photos?id=5647

The show will be up until February 23, 2014. If you go, I know you’ll come away touched by each of the 48 extraordinary people you’ll meet here.


Before there was Photoshop . . . yes, you could manipulate photography in many fascinating ways, as the show, “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, so brilliantly shows.

"'Woman with Umbrella in the Rain," by Kusakabe Kimbei

“‘Woman with Umbrella in the Rain,” by Kusakabe Kimbei

You begin your mystery tour with charming tinted daguerreotypes, photomontages of Civil War generals which include the ones who showed up late for the photo shoot, and a series of landscapes in which a sky roiling with clouds is superimposed over the blank whiteness that a camera’s exposure created back in the day. A charming chromolithograph from the 1870s shows a Japanese woman, bent against the wind, her parasol shielding her from the slanting rain, like the Japanese woodcuts that inspired Van Gogh’s “Bridge in Rain after Hiroshige.” Kusakabe Kimbei scratched the “rain” on the negative, the greenery in the foreground is a studio prop, and the flaps of the kimono are held up by wires so they appear to be flying in the wind. Edward Steichen’s “The Pond at Moonrise,” 1904, may not even have been shot in real moonlight, but rather “mock moonlight” created by underexposure or blue tinting. Still – it’s lovely, like the glazes and motifs on Rookwood pottery.

Things really get interesting in the gallery devoted to the Surrealist Movement, started in 1924 in Paris. Herbert Bayer created “The Lonely Metropolitan,”1932, in which disembodied hands, embellished with eyes, float mysteriously before a city scape. Eyes were a big thing, literally, with these photographers; in Maurice Tabard’s “Room with Eye,” the eye covers one wall, looking serenely at the radiator across the room. A famous image, “Cat + 1, made in 1932, shows Wanda Wulz’s face superimposed on that of the family cat. In “The Masks Grow to Us,” (1947), Clarence John Laughlin, an aspiring writer, photographed a young woman with a partial mask affixed to her face. The effect, as

"Dream Number One: Electrical Appliance for the Home," by Grete Stern

“Dream Number One: Electrical Appliance for the Home,” by Grete Stern

the artist would want us to see, is that “the girl herself has grown harder and more superficial.” Bauhaus-trained Grete Stern made fabulist images to illustrate a 1948 series on “how psychoanalysis will help you” for a popular Argentinian magazine aimed at working class readers. Each photograph illustrated a dream, often sent in by readers. In “Dream #1,” a woman with upraised arms is the base of a lamp, a man’s huge hand at her feet is about to flip the switch to turn the lamp on. Hmmmmm. Well, sometimes a lamp is just a lamp. Angus McBean’s 1949 “Christmas Card” shows the artist himself, a sly bearded imp, photographing a giant nude torso, a la Giorgio di Chirico.

The “Novelties and Amusements” gallery is full of some of my favorite fakery: A dirigible moored to the Empire State Building; “Tell Tale” postcards showing enormous ears of corn on flatbed train cars, giant fish swallowing helpless men, and huge light bulbs, captioned, “Does the Camera Lie?” Ghosts walk through walls in stereoscopes mounted in the center of the room. My favorite: “The Partial Dematerialization of the Medium Marguerite Beuttinger,” 1920, by an unknown photographer.

Things turn grimmer in “Politics and Persuasion,” where the manipulation of photography is a powerful propaganda tool for Stalin and Frank Galton’s composite portraiture chillingly supports the theory of eugenics. Weegee’s (Arthur Felig), “Draft Johnson,” 1968, shows Lyndon Johnson’s nose growing to Pinocchio proportion. Barbara Morgan’s unsettling “Hearst over the People,” 1939, is a giant William Randolph Hearst-faced octopus floating over a crowd. We also see Chairman Mao’s retouched and idealized portrait from 1964, and a group portrait of Hitler and friends in which Goebbels has been edited out of the picture to quell rumors that he’d been having an affair with the film maker, Leni Riefenstahl.

"Tree," by Jerry Uelsmann

“Tree,” by Jerry Uelsmann

“Protoshop,” the last gallery, features a 1967 Richard Avedon creation – Audrey Hepburn’s lovely face atop absurdly elongated necks, five of them, make a fetching many-headed hydra. Edward Blumenthal’s “The Doe Eye,” 1950, graced the cover of Vogue Magazine and Jerry Uelsmann’s 1969 tree, roots and all, is suspended over an island, its reflection an abstract blimp worthy of the surrealists. Martha Rosler’s 1967 “Red Stripe Kitchen” strikes the viewer as a perfectly normal ‘60s-era kitchen, until you realize the figures bending before the red stripe are not painters, but American soldiers plucked from the battlefield in Vietnam.

These intriguing images—200 of them—will be on view until May 6, 2013.


"Monna Vanna," by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

“Monna Vanna,”
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

I’m not a fan of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, despite the sisterhood I feel with the Titian-haired gals he painted so lovingly. Too much languor, treacley sentiment, overwrought “classicism,” and way too much billowing hair! Thousands disagree, maybe millions, and they’re flocking to the National Gallery of Art’s “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848 – 1900.” If you’re a fan, it’s bound to please. I went for the “design” part.

First, I hit the companion exhibit, “Pre-Raphealites and the Book.” Founded in 1848, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (among them, Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and William Holman Hunt) longed to create a new style of painting inspired by art that came before Raphael, but, stuck in England, they had to imagine late medieval and early Renaissance works. To help them along, they sought engravings, such as the book exhibited here, “Pitture a Fresco del Campo Santo di Pisa, Florence,” 1812.

The connection between words and visual images fascinated the Brotherhood. Dante Gabriel himself wrote poetry, as did William Morris, who founded Kelmscott Press. Morris and Eirikur Magnusson translated and published “Volsunga Saga,” 1870. As he was finishing up his “The Earthly Paradise,” (a copy of which is shown here), Morris became enamored with Icelandic lore, perhaps to take his mind off his disintegrating marriage to Jane Burden, who had become entangled with Rossetti. Also seen are Morris’ Celtic-inspired initial letters for “The Tale of Beowulf,” 1895.

“Goblin Market and other Poems,” by Christina Rossetti, has a frontispiece and title page by Dante Gabriel, who pulled strings to get his sister’s work published by Macmillan & Co in 1862 when it was hard for a woman to see her work in print.

William Morris joined the British Socialist movement in the 1880s and several of his tracts are here: “Art and Socialism,” 1884, “Monopoly, or, How Labour is Robbed,” 1890. Morris’s distaste for mass production opened his eyes to the harsh realities of the working classes of the day.

"Ophelia," by John Everett Millais

by John Everett Millais

John Everett Millais’ “Ophelia,” 1851, drew me to the main exhibit. Like sea grass in the water, Ophelia’s hair fans out around her transported face as her body floats, covered in flowers, down a lush-banked stream. The riot of growth frames her stillness, her hands in a Buddha benediction.

Once there, I enjoyed breezing through the jewel-colored rooms, each with a theme (“Origins,” “History,” “Literature”) My favorite room was “Beauty,” where another Millais painting of “Sophie Gray,” 1857, struck me as fresh and contemporary. This room is also juicy with gossip. We see a photograph of Rossetti’s housekeeper, muse, and lover, Fanny Cornforth (whatever happened to Jane Burden?) near his painting, “Bocca Baciata, which the notes helpfully translate as “Kissed Mouth.” Indeed. Fanny, natch, possesses a mass of untamed red tresses. Nearby is Frederick Sandys’ chalk drawing, “Proud Maisie,” (1870), a young woman fiercely biting a lock of her hair, possibly a visual echo of Rosetti’s Delia, (“Return of Tibullus to Delia”) who also chews on her hair. Three Julia Cameron photographs add to the room’s charm.

Finally! I’m in the room of stuff that I’d come to see in the first place. It’s a bit disappointing—I’d hoped for more, but what’s here is fine. Arthurian legend adorns a tooled nail-studded leather chair (1856-7) by Rossetti and Morris. A screen covered in “Heroines,” was designed my William Morris and embroidered by Elizabeth Burden in 1860. “The Strawberry Thief,” a printed textile is pure Morris: birds in a profusion of strawberry plants (1883). A pine cabinet, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum, shows stylized “Backgammon Players.” Ceramic tiles depicting the story of “Cinder Maid,” (1862), designed by Morris and painted by Lucy Falkner, are from the Huntingon Library and Gardens. “Peacock and Dragon, “ a wool tapestry

"Cray," textile design by William Morris

“Cray,” textile design by
William Morris

that Morris used in his own home is hung by “Cray,” an undulating floral textile meant to mimic the tributary of the Thames. Morris insisted on traditional, natural dyes and required 34 hand-painted wood blocks to create this vivid cranberry, pink, and green cotton piece.

In the last room, we’re brought to earth by Edward Burne-Jones’ spooky “The Rock of Doom” and “The Doom Fulfilled,” perhaps to prepare us for emerging directly into the Pre-Raphealite gift shop. What would our dear old Socialist William Morris have made of that?



P1000051Visit this jewel box of a museum to clear your mind and spirit while feasting on one of the world’s most stunning collections of 19th and 20th century paintings, sculpture and African and Asian art. The private collection of Carmen and David Kreeger is housed in a 1967 Phillip Johnson home, a work of art in itself, with its Byzantine domes, travertine limestone clad walls, and interior courtyard filled with towering tropical plants.

The Kreegers had a rule for collecting: each of them had to love the piece or they wouldn’t buy it . . . charming, no? Their desire, as expressed to Johnson, was to be surrounded by their art so as to be “refreshed” at the end of the day. And, oh yes, the place should have perfect acoustics so that when Itzhak Perlman stopped by, they could play together for friends. David Kreeger was an amateur violinist whose legacy includes a vibrant chamber music program.

The dining room, now the Monet Gallery, is filled with luminous seascapes and the atmospheric river at Giverny. In the intimately scaled salon, the watercolor, “Dying Sunflower” (1907-1908) to the left of the fireplace is a surprise. You’d never guess that it’s by Piet Mondrian – at least I didn’t. No hint of abstract geometric grids in this highly representational arabesque of a flower. Hidden behind the sunflower is a secret door leading to the Kreegers’ bedroom.

P1000050After passing through the grand salon (Picassos to the right of you, Braques to the left of you!),  you’ll come to a magnificent stairway, its railing clad in molten bronze grill work. Each of the rectangles and parallelograms is a work of art, no two alike, like links in an enormous necklace. Please touch! Descend the staircase, passing a Calder mobile, to the lower gallery. Here you’ll enjoy Yves Tanguy, Man Ray, Jean Dubuffet, Frank Stella, among others. Knockouts include Sam Gilliam’s vibrant “Cape” (1969), and Gene Davis’ candy striped canvas, untitled, so you can make up your own (1953).

On the terrace, the sculptures, including works by Henry Moore and Isamu Noguchi, are placed as they were when the Kreegers lived here. The swimming pool on the lower level has been converted to a reflecting pool and will be accessible to the public in warmer weather. Take a walk around Jean Arp’s “Twisted Torso” (1958). Yes, she does have two P1000053backsides. Both are lovely.


Enjoy a virtual visit: http://www.kreegermuseum.org

P1000044Seeking total immersion in the early to mid-’eighties, the time in which my novel, Still Life with Aftershocks, is set, I dove into the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s show, Pump Me Up, which explores the DC go-go, punk, and hardcore subcultures through memorabilia, photos, videos, and iconic Globe posters in knock-your-eye-out Day-Glo orange, red, yellow, and hot pink.

The exhibit’s chronologically arranged “funk-punk spectacular” wraps around the open first floor atrium. Times were tough then. Neighborhoods were crumbling, lethal drugs like PCP were rampant, AIDS had begun its horrifying rout of the gay population, and gangs ruled. A corrupt, but, in some quarters beloved, Marion (“Mayor for Life”) Barry had been busted for cocaine possession. Ronald Reagan, cloistered in the White House, likely had no idea what was going on in the “other Washington.”

The other Washington’s raw creative energy was bifurcated: punk was a white art form, go-go, an African American one. The twain, as far as I could see, rarely met. The joy of this show was being able to experience both halves of the underground scene: the Cramps, The Slickee Boys, Trouble Funk, and Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers all coexist here in a way that they would likely never have done back in the day.

One exception was the captivating video of the boys in the Junk Yard Band playing their paint tub, hub cap, cans and pans drums on M street in front of the long-gone Gusti’s restaurant. White folks are loving it! Everyone is moving to their syncopated, utterly infectious beat. Suddenly a guy is spinning on his head on a sheet of linoleum laid out on the sidewalk for spontaneous break-dancing demonstrations, and the kids, in their powder blue matching sleeveless T-shirts and shorts, slide into choreographed dance moves worthy of the doo-wop era.

P1000046Other stand-out items include: Chuck Brown’s red leather jacket, a lurid poster for the movie “DC Cab,” skate boarders’ graffiti art notebooks, posters for a boxing match pitting Darryl “Too Sweet” Coley against Che “The Destroyer” Lars, and a “Gotta Go-Go” record jacket with a “Reagan Wants You” illustration.

I came away with a newly gritty and authentic perspective of the era and some juicy details to insert into the novel. Instead of seeing anonymous graffiti on the side of a bodega in Adams-Morgan, Mariah now sees “Cool Disco Dan’s” omnipresent tag next to a poster for “Tony Perkins and the Cramps.” When Mariah’s cab driver turns on the radio, they both hear a very specific summer hit, Chuck Brown’s “Block Party,” announced by WOL’s DJ, Moon Man. Want more? You can read an excerpt under “The Book” tab on my website.

If you live in DC, enjoy the show. It’s up until April 7. If not, check it out here: http://www.corcoran.org/exhibitions/pump-me-dc-subculture-1980s

And, for a real treat, pop into NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert featuring Chuck Brown, the Godfather of Go-Go: http://m.npr.org/story/130083430