Thursday, November 29, 2018

Black and White

For the third time this week, I was up by 8 a.m.

I'm not thrilled about that, but Lady G was picking me up at 9:12 (her suggestion), which actually turned out to be 9:38, but who's keeping track? A last minute plan hatched to put us in Washington in time for two exhibits and lunch meant we needed to be on the road early-ish.

The things I do for art.

An hour and 45 minutes later (it's best if I don't look at the speedometer when G's driving), we were pulling into a prime parking space in a sunny spot on Constitution Avenue, feeling pretty smug about our luck.

I'd barely uttered the words "I'm so happy to be here" to the world at large before discovering that the parking payment station was malfunctioning, an inconvenience that sapped the next 20 minutes between downloading the parking app and speaking to a customer service representative who asked G everything from her gender to her mother's maiden name.

More than once, she muttered, "I'm not comfortable giving these people all this information."

Had I been there alone, I'd have been out of luck since a phone is apparently a requirement now to park. Don't get me started.

Walking the half block to the museum, we were soon stopped by two lost-looking women who sized us up and asked, "Excuse me, you're from here, aren't you? Where's the Museum of Natural History?" You never saw two natives beam like G and I did from being identified correctly and sent them on their way.

Once inside the National Gallery of Art, our heavy coats left behind at the coat check, we made the requisite first stop, causing G to observe, "Wow, of all the bathrooms I've been to here, I've never been in this one."

Some women never forget their loos.

The primary reason for the trip was to see "Corot: Women," a show neither of us could resist since the artist is known for landscapes, not figure painting. Seems he'd take occasional breaks from lucrative landscape painting gigs to paint models dressed up in prop clothes in his studio, notable because he didn't idealize them.

And why would he? He didn't idealize landscapes.

What was extraordinary about his paintings of women was how he set out to capture the mood of his models more than their garb or as a way of telling a story. Whether introspective, brooding, aloof or sad, the models' full-on gaze back at the artist flouted contemporary expectations of what femininity was.

These women had opinions and feelings and weren't afraid to show them even when they were being captured for posterity. Our kind of women.

"Melancholy," a figure of a woman with her cheek resting in her hand, her left sleeve having fallen off her shoulder, set the tone for the rest of the show. Corot had meticulously captured the woman's face in great detail - everyone in town had to have known who she was - but her body and voluminous white gown were depicted in such loose brushwork that the painting almost looked unfinished.

And here's where I had a teachable moment by reading the signage. Apparently  Albrecht Durer had done an engraving of a woman in the same pose back in the 16th century and ever since, pensive cheek in hand poses were shorthand for melancholy.

This was news to me.

Just as fascinating was how Corot made a point to keep various props and furnishings in his studio, including an easel with a Corot landscape on it. Most of the paintings had interiors showing Corot paintings hanging on the walls behind the figures. Three of the paintings depicted the same woman in his studio, one hand on a Corot landscape, the other holding a mandolin.

It was Corot paints Corot paints Corot, a hall of mirrors effect that undoubtedly fed the artist's ego.

Then there was "Woman in a Yellow Sleeve," notable because the signage explained the painting's provenance: "Accepted in lieu of inheritance tax by HM Government from the estate of Lucian Freud and allocated to the National Gallery of London." All I could think was, wow, that must have been a helluva lot of money Sigmund's grandson owed the Queen.

"Lady in Blue" was distinctively different than the exhibition's other paintings because rather than a model in prop costumes, it showed a lovely young woman in an expensive and deeply ruffled blue dress, one plump arm crooked to draw the eye to her face. Because the painting showed her bare-armed without her dress jacket (shocking!), it had an intimate and erotic charge to it.

It also showed the clear influence of Manet in the black-tinged blue gown. Nobody has as much black undertones in their colors as Manet.

Just as good were his nudes, which he'd taken up solely to demonstrate his abilities beyond landscapes, because he depicted real women, the kind who weren't idealized like marble statues with smooth, flawless skin. Who has that kind of skin anyway?

What scandalized 19th century viewers was that these were real, recognizable women who were actually nude while a male artist had observed and painted her.

Why, it was a downright affront to decency and social decorum.

Turning to look at another wall of Corot's figures, G gasped and asked rhetorically, "What is this man doing in here?" She was referring to "St. Sebastian," essentially a male nude with a swaddle of cloth over his twigs and berries. A stranger walked up and exclaimed, "It's a man! What's that about? This is the third time I've seen this show and I never noticed him before!"

Hold the phone. How in the world do you see a compact exhibition - there were only 45 paintings, for crying out loud - of women three times and miss the sole male nude?

Granted, I may have silently judged, but I voiced not a word.

Naturally a confident, successful painter such as Corot wanted to show off his mastery of the male nude, although G and I could make a case for the canvas not belonging at this particular show.

And just in case I ever get asked to pose nude, I've decided I will mimic the reclining nude pose of Corot's "Marietta" for best effect.

By the time we finished soaking in the beauty, our heads were full of images of women captured by the artist in whatever their mood of the day had been. Corot, it seems, gave no instructions to his models, but allowed them to move around and settle in whatever way they chose, even if it was with a dismissive or condescending gaze.

Because sometimes, that's how a girl feels and she can't mask it.

From there, we made our way to see "Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Works," a large (150 strong) show of the first decade of Parks' photography career. Some of the works were familiar to me from seeing the VMFA's "Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott" show back in 2016. The photograph of gang leader Red Jackson doing the "slow drag" with his girlfriend - some people might call it grinding - I recognized immediately.

But there was so much more to learn about Parks at this exhibition.

Like how he'd moved his young family to Chicago to start a career in portrait photography and how he'd worked at the Southside Community Art Center. How his close friendship with Langston Hughes produced images of Hughes smiling, something I'd never seen before.

Easily one of my favorites was "Self Portrait 1941," a stunning image of his face and shoulders next to his large-format camera, the light and shadow on both producing exquisite tones of black and gray. Many of the photographs had been taken in SW Washington, mere blocks from where we stood.  "Negro Woman in Her Bedroom" showed her looking into the kind of round dresser mirror my own grandmother had had, with a large picture of FDR on the wall next to it.

Who didn't believe in FDR back in those days?

Even in his first decade of capturing American life, you could already see Parks' commitment to documenting the inequities of black and white life. "Young Boy Standing in the Doorway" showed a boy on crutches from behind, one of his legs amputated after a streetcar cut the leg off while he was playing in the street. It was Park's commentary about white children having playgrounds to go to while black children had nothing beyond the streets for recreation.

"Drugstore Cowboys, Alberta" showed five young men in dungarees, caps and jackets, staring back at him with looks of cockiness, uncertainty and disdain, in front of a "Drink Coca Cola" sign. All of them look street-wise and ready for their close-ups.

Meanwhile, "Panhandler on 7th Street, NW" was a reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Also that we needed to head up Seventh Street ourselves or risk passing out from starvation.

Jaleo was covered in scaffolding, but the signs said they were open during construction and that's all we cared about. Given that owner Jose Andres was just the other day nominated for the Nobel Peace prize, G and I thought it only fitting to pay our respects by eating his food.

That, and the food's always fabulous.

By arriving so late in the afternoon, the lunch rush had quieted down and many tables were unoccupied, making it nice for a change not to have to raise our voices to converse. After so much art, all we wanted to do was sink back into the banquette and give in to the four course lunch menu.

G and I are so easy sometimes.

For me, diving in meant gazpacho with cherry tomatoes that inexplicably tasted like August. How does Jose do it? Next came endive with goat cheese, orange sections and almonds, a collection of bright and light flavors, then garlic slices and shrimp in chile oil, all of which I washed down with Cava Sangria.

G, meanwhile, began with roasted onions with bleu cheese, a practically perfect sweet and salty balance, before moving on to chicken fritters, which essentially tasted like chicken pot pie inside the lightest crunchy shell imaginable. She was drinking red Sangria to accompany her Daniel Patrick Moynihan pork sausage over white beans, a dish she freely admitted choosing because of its nod to the long time Democratic senator.

Although we'd intentionally ordered different dishes for each course so as to have as many things as possible to taste, when it came time for dessert, neither of us was ordering ice cream on a chilly day. Instead, we each devoured a flan with vanilla-flecked whipped cream and oranges, a heavenly finish to a stellar lunch.

All I can say is, it's a good thing Jaleo isn't in Richmond or I'd be having four course lunches every chance I got.

We'd taken so long lingering over lunch that I-395 was already starting to back up by the time we got on it, but since G and I never lack for conversational topics - old loves, new loves, crazy exes and hard-of-hearing friends - we didn't care. Still high on art, we tried to look like three people while in the HOV lanes and marveled at the beauty of the late November sky through her filthy windshield.

We tried cleaning it with Windex on I-95, but that turned out to be a bad idea in moving traffic.

Barely crawling along in the left lane near Stafford, I happened to glance over and saw two young deer standing just barely on the other side of the guard rail in the median, inches from us and thousands of moving cars.

One looked right at me, like one of Corot's models, as if to say, yea, I'm here, so what?

"Well, that was magical," G observed of our wildlife moment as the sun began to set. Parking issues aside, she could have been referring to the entire day.

My plan is to celebrate by sleeping way past 8 a.m. tomorrow. And if not, you can expect to see my cheek resting in my hand, melancholy style.

And, let's face it, no one wants to see me melancholy again. Once was plenty.


  1. How I enjoyed this poetic recap of a perfect winter day with you! May there be many more!!