Wednesday, July 5, 2017

After the Deluge

Not in this century have I experienced such a lucky day in the city of my nativity.

The art lover and I got there in an hour and 40 minutes, notable because she did not speed more than a perfectly respectable 4 or 5 miles an hour, even as she regaled me with stories of her youthful exploits hitchhiking in a purple gauze dress.

How was she supposed to know that those weren't dancers on the trim of her dress, they were people copulating? A girl's got to keep her eye on the bigger picture.

Then like a boss, we pulled up in front of the Freer Gallery on Independence Avenue, the equivalent of parking in the curved White House driveway.

We had only to walk across the sandy expanse of the Mall - albeit through an encampment of tents for the ongoing Folk Life Fest - and down a few blocks past the Museum of Natural History and through the delights of the National Sculpture Garden to climb the wide steps of the National Gallery of Art.

That's rock star parking for sure, but even more unexpected than that was that we were in the nation's capital during one of the biggest vacation weeks of the year and the foot traffic was oddly light. The clusters of people on corners waiting for a light change numbered a dozen rather than 40. Sidewalks weren't clotted with tour and school groups.

My friend and I - both born at GWU Hospital barely 2 miles away - looked at each other agog. Why was the city so underpopulated today?  Had we driven into some "Twilight Zone"-like recreation of the Washington, D.C. we'd known growing up?

Hot damn, we concluded, heading into the (endangered) Enid Haupt Gardens - not for the first time, yet only today learning that the garden sits on the roof of an underground building, so it's actually a rooftop garden with its own distinctly different micro-climate.

Today's outing had been planned around seeing "Frederic Bazille and the Birth of Impressionism" before it leaves the country on Sunday, with hopes of catching whatever else we could. We like to think we're flexible, if a bit focused.

That we were fortunate enough to spend time with the 19th century Frederic with so few 21st century people around can only be attributed to some unseen fairy godmother, whom I can only assume has a smart mouth and a quick wit.

Everything about the work in the show fed our nerdy souls, from Bazille's still-clumsy work as a student (jackpot: his sketchbooks!) to his mastery of still life and figure painting, only to be cut down in his prime due to an acute case of young man-itis: he enlisted in the army and was shot and killed at age 28.

Because nooo, he couldn't just stay home and paint, he had to put on a flashy red Zouave uniform and go to battle like young men with things to prove do. Such a waste of a talent who would have been a major force in shaping Impressionism.

And while we were particularly impressed with Bazille's paintings of his young friends Renoir (sitting with his feet up on a chair) and Monet (long, dark hair giving him a rakish air), it was hard not to admire the firm backside of the male nude in "Fisherman with a Net" most. I mean, a lot.

As it happens, I can now do so indefinitely, having made a magnet purchase sure to catch my eye every morning when I go to the refrigerator for blueberries. Some men just know how to hold a net, if you know what I mean. Also, as I protested to to my friend, it's art. 

And while Bazille was the most important thing we saw today, it was far from the only one.

There was the tiny jewel of a show, "Urban Landscapes 1920-1950," full of exquisite lithographs, aquatints, cyanotypes, stereographs and woodcuts depicting a newly modern world with detail so fine it defied comprehension.

It was a complete contrast to the enormous (well, 175 pieces) photography exhibit, "East of the Mississippi: 19th Century American Landscape Photography," which managed to romanticize the East in that way we more often think of the West. Photography elders Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen both showed up in this exhibit, along with a couple of photos so old and rare they had velvet cloths hanging in front of them to protect them from the light.

Fascinating for its cultural history lesson, "America Collects 18th-century French Painting," provided a window into the well-heeled colonists' desire to own and display French art.

Seems that our forefathers found 18th century France fascinating not just because of the opulence and courtliness of the era, but because it was a place that blended Enlightenment philosophy with revolutionary ideas.

In other words, just the kind of pastel and idyllic artwork that would speak to America's nouveau riche (Whitneys, Vanderbilts, Astors) as they were furnishing their Gilded Age McMansions and needed a little something for over the fainting couch.

If I had to pick a favorite, it would likely be Fragonard's "Study for Pursuit Panel" from the "Progress of Love" (is there really such a thing?) series. As loose as the brushwork is, the story is all there, as in everything has been sketched out for the final piece, but just barely and brilliantly.

The object of desire runs away after being startled by an admirer, her arms extended out from her shoulders, her pale, white bosom heaving as she runs prettily. To my eye, the careless-looking brushstrokes and casual immediacy of the scene have far more soul than the final version of the painting.

We had lunch in the National Gallery's subterranean restaurant, our table facing a glass wall behind which water cascaded down a tiered wall. The last time we'd eaten here, the waterfall had been turned off. Again, today had good fortune written all over it.

Although I'm not usually a gift shop person, today's capitalistic foray had a purpose. Having recently finished my desktop memo book of the past 8 years, I was in the market for a new one and where better to find just the right journal than the National Gallery of Art?

Because today had fairy dust on it, I found a lined journal just the right size with a Fragonard painting of a woman in a yellow dress called "Young Girl Reading" on the front and back.

Voila, a souvenir (along with my male nude magnet) and the new written vehicle for managing my life.

After one last stroll through a nearly empty pocket garden, Lady Luck followed us across the mall back to the car, where we spotted a traffic cop uncomfortably near it and, knowing we'd overstayed our meter time, I took off running down the block to plead our case.

In flowered thong sandals, I might add, not the best running footwear for speed or distance.

When he spotted me sprinting toward him, he smiled and told me to relax, he wouldn't ticket us. "Nice show of athleticism, though" he said, wishing us a good day and walking away. We heaped thank-yous on his retreating back.

We motored back through a driving rain that turned other vehicles into shadowy silver gray forms and had us hydro-planing a time or two on I-95. Tricky as the driving was, we both had high hopes for our gardens that it would still be raining at home.

Because it was a day to get what we wanted, rain met us in Richmond and I wasted no time in putting on rain boots and heading out for an evening walk to stretch the legs that had stood for hours in galleries and unknot the bones after the rainy car ride home.

Sometimes the stay-cation hits the road with the savviest art geek I know, but today it also wound back home before moonrise.

Besides art memories, I now have a new journal for the next phase of life. See: "Middle Aged Woman Reading...When She's Not Talking."

Yellow dress optional, although I do have one. It's gauze.


  1. "It's art." Hahahahahahahahahahaha

    it was a wonderfully memorable adventure - that could of only have happened with you!

    Much love, and a toast to the adventures that await.

  2. Some male backsides are ART, smartypants!

  3. K.... your interest in buns...(males) seems healthy!