Wednesday, April 13, 2005

A visit to the National Gallery

Until yesterday's visit to the exhibition of Stuart portraits in the NGA's west building, the last time I spent as much time with a Gilbert Stuart portrait was in an elementary school classroom watched over by the stern visage of George Washington. In a pre-modernist time—the presidential portraits are largely from the early nineteenth century—the paintings do not reveal as much of the artist as we have come to expect: the works are about the man or woman sitting for the portraitist, resulting in a heightened verisimilitude for the painting's subject. This visual verisimilitude dovetails with the intimacy we feel for these historical figures, having grown up with their stories, learning and reading about them in history class, in our touristic endeavors, and in private scholarship; the effect of these visual and psychological echoes are reinforced further by the realization that these are recognizable American physiognomies (one can easily imagine James and Dolley Madison as a couple, and can ascribe a sort of effeteness to the man). They're cool and fun to sit with.

In addition, the paintings are far more vivid than I remembered (poor reproductions? colors faded from fluorescent lights?), and extremely well-done. The excellent portrait of Thomas Jefferson [inset] is posted to mark the 262nd anniversary of Thomas Jefferson's birth, today.

Andy Goldsworthy's Roof (2005) is terrific: installed on the terrace (and a little of the building's interior) on the left as one enters the NGA's east wing, I was transported back to the study of analytic geometry, where a plane intersects one of the conic sections (an hyperboloid? a paraboloid?): the plane of the window to the terrace cuts some of the domes in two; they are virtually continued on the other side. "Orderly and witty," notes the Post.

Rushed, I didn't have as much time as I'd have liked to visit with the Kertész photographs—the earliest ones (sample, but not one of the best) are but a few square inches in area—and recent acquistions from the print collection; they're worth a return visit.

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