A few weeks ago, I had the chance to spend a week in the instantly-recognisable United States capital city, Washington D.C, and explore its nationally-important and internationally-renowned art galleries and museums. A LOT of my time in D.C was spent navigating the National Mall and deep-diving into America’s foremost art collections. They luckily did not disappoint. Here are a few of the things I saw from my week state-side.
The Freer | Sackler Gallery – Asia meets America and Whistler gets into Peacocks
First up: a visit to the co-located Freer and Arthur M. Sackler Galleries which together hold the Smithsonian’s collection of Asian Art, sharing the tagline, “where Asia meets America”. In true American style, the two galleries are the result of their founder’s specific creative visions and their lifelong effort to achieve it.
The Freer Gallery for instance houses the personal collection of Detroit industrialist Charles Lang Freer who began acquiring art from across Asia in the late 19th century, amassing a considerable number of works by the time he gifted them to the US government in 1906. This gift did not come without a strict set of conditions however.
Freer stipulated that his American art collection could not be expanded, no work could be loaned to another gallery, and no works from other collections could be displayed alongside his own. The gallery therefore remains true to Freer’s unique artistic vision and taste, which is best demonstrated by the collection’s flagship piece, The Peacock Room (1877), an extravagantly decorated interior merging English and Japanese aesthetics that, prior to the construction of the gallery, had been installed in Freer’s Detroit home.
The Peacock Room itself came into being as the result of one man’s compulsion to achieve his vision without compromise. The room was originally designed by architect Thomas Jeckyll as the dining room in the London home of wealthy Liverpudlian shipowner (would have been a great twitter bio) Frederick Richards Leyland (1831–1892). When Jeckyll fell sick, the task of finishing The Peacock Room then fell on American painter James McNeil Whistler, the man who would later become close friends with Charles Lang Freer and introduce the industrialist to the arts of Asia.
At the time of Jeckyll’s illness, Whistler had been decorating the entrance of Leyland’s home and, after Leyland decamped back to Liverpool, was left to make some “minor” alterations to the Peacock Room. Whistler of course went decidedly apeshit, covering the room in gold leaf paintings and lavish peacock murals evoking Japanese art. Upon returning to London Leyland was shocked by Whistler’s adjustments to the room, sparking a bitter feud between the shipowner and painter that only fuelled Whistler’s artistic vision.
On one of the dining room’s walls he painted a giant mural of two fighting peacocks in gold (I suspect Whistler was really into peacocks) said to represent himself and his embittered client. The Peacock room ultimately remained in Leyland’s London home until his death in 1892 and was then acquired by Charles Lang Freer twelve years later and brought to Freer’s home in America.
To save time, I’ve skimmed through the story of The Peacock Room. But if you have a spare moment and like me are obsessed with the lives and quirks of famous artists, I emplore you to look up the full story behind the room and the feud between Leyland and Whistler. It’s an extraordinary tale about just how bitchy artists can be. In one notable episode, after Whistler had declared bankruptcy, Leyland who was the artist’s chief creditor at the time, dispatched a group of creditors to conduct inventory on Whistler’s home for liquidation. When the creditors arrived they were greeted by a large painting of Leyland as an anthropomorphic demonic peacock playing a piano whilst sitting upon Whistler’s house. Yes, you read that correctly.
An underground passage takes us from the house that Freer built to the Arthur M. Sackler gallery, another museum housing one man’s celebration of Asian art – this time physician and medical publisher, Dr Arthur M. Sackler. Unlike Freer however, Dr Sackler did not place any restrictions on his collection when he bequeathed it to the Smithsonian Institution, and so the gallery has a much more contemporary feel.
My visit to the gallery coincided with two new exhibitions, one showcasing the detailed ironwork of China’s ancient metal bells while the other displayed a collection of ikats, intricate dyed fabrics originating from Central Asia. It turns out you can spend a surprising amount of time staring at wall-size dyed cloth patterns and listening to an audio track consisting entirely of metallic hand bell chimes. To give time to the other artistic attractions along the National Mall though, let’s move on.
The Hirshhorn Museum – Pumpkins, Time and Space
Next up – The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. What better way to beat the summer heat in D.C than with a sculpture garden? And a giant spotted pumpkin.
Of all the sculpture pieces I found in the garden circling the donut-shaped Hirshhorn Museum, Yayoi Kusama’s yellow polka-dot pumpkin was by far the most distinctive. The pumpkin has long been a key motif in the avant-garde artist’s work, stretching back to her childhood experiences in rural Japan, while her extensive, repeated dotted-pattern designs, often covering entire rooms, gallery installations, and even Kusama’s own clothes, link to her own experiences battling depersonalisation and hallucinations.
After spending much of the 1960s as a key figure of the New York art scene and establishment movements, Kusama returned to her native Japan and in 1977 voluntarily moved into a psychiatric hospital where she continues to reside today, producing new works from her adjacent art studio. She has expressed no desire to hang up her paintbrush any time soon though, stating that “I am determined to live to be 100 years old and continue to struggle with my art”.
Given the recent return to prominence her work has experienced, and the power of her all-encompassing polka-dot environments, I wouldn’t be surprised if I start seeing yellow pumpkins all over the place from here on out.
A quick trip around the circular gallery floors of the Hirshhorn brings us to Seascapes by Hiroshi Sugimoto. Through a series of abstract photos of the horizon above different water bodies around the world, Sugimoto squares in on the connection between water and air, two elements that in his words “vouchsafe our very existence”.
It’s a subtle yet effective photo series. The five photos in the Hirshhorn, taken decades apart at different points around the planet, form one continuous horizon line stretching across time and space. Sugimoto calls photography “a fossilization of time” but I also think his photos exemplify the art of simplifying that so many photographers, grappling with muddled compositions, changing light conditions and large apertures, try so hard to master. Also, his description of Seascapes contains what is probably the best phrase to use to try and hype a trip to a museum or art gallery – to “embark on a voyage of seeing“.
No Spectators – A Trip Inside The Temple
Our voyage of seeing has one final stop – The Renwick Gallery, a branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum on D.C’s Lafayette Square to help satisfy anyone who has toured the eleven museums and galleries dotted around the National Mall and yet still demands more (if this is you that is genuinely impressive). First things first though. It’s time to pose like a moron by the monument to the Marquis de Lafayette and hug a 13 ft bear statue made out of coins.
Context – the Marquis de Lafayette (1757 – 1834) was a French aristocrat who fought with the Continental Army in the American revolution and has now been immortalised as the one who raps fast in the musical Hamilton. I’m a moron. The resulting Polaroid was inevitable. As for the giant copper-coin bear? Well that’s just part of the Renwick’s latest exhibition, ‘No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man‘.
If you haven’t heard of Burning Man, it’s an annual festival dedicated to self expression, reliance and individual creativity. Each year since 1990, tens of thousands of attendees (known as “Burners”) come together in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert and create a temporary city filled with colossal wooden buildings and sculptures (including the eponymous ‘Burning Man’ statue). As you may have guessed, at the end of the festival following several days of revelry, creative endeavour, and self-organised desert living, the installations of ‘Black Rock City’ are set alight and all MOOP (‘Matter Out Of Place’) brought by the burner community is removed.
The Renwick exhibition holds several sculptures, installations and personal items from burners that have thankfully been spared from this incendiary fate (or have at least been recreated by some of the most prominent artists in the festival’s global community). Anamatromic, pulsating mushrooms, giant copper-coin bears, and cuboid light installations all attest to how diverse and ingenious this community is, but it’s David Best’s giant wooden ‘Temple’ interior that gives the best insight into the core values underpinning the world of ‘Burner art’.
‘The Temple’, the giant wooden structure constructed in the middle of each iteration of Black Rock City, is an instantly recognisable feature of the event, even though its overall design changes from year to year. Best has designed over half of the Burning Man temples since 2000, having built his first structure at the event as a memorial to his friend who died in a motorcycle crash on the way to the desert.
Just like a real-life place of worship, Best’s intricate installations provide the residents of Black Rock City a place for remembrance, grief, and renewal, and in keeping with the event’s “No Spectators” principle, participation by all visitors. The same can be said for Best’s Temple Room in the Renwick, where visitors can pick up a small wooden square, write a message on it, and slot it into the pre-fabricated temple walls. I’ll have to leave you guessing what I added to The Renwick Temple.
From the many photos covering the exhibition’s walls from throughout the event’s 32 year history, the festival looks like a mega-sweaty way to spend a weekend. But I’d missing the point here if that’s all I focused on. From the photos of Mad-Max style cage fights in the desert, to the steam-punk inspired everything, it’s not hard to be inspired by all the creativity and individual artistic labours that go into each year’s celebration of radical inclusion’, self-reliance and expression. The exhibition is a good reminder of how art works best – when someone brings their own vision or unique take on their surrounding to life and decides to share it with the wider world.
Come and see the work of the man who insisted that gold-leaf peacocks are the only aesthetic worth caring about, the woman who covers rooms in polka dots-to process her own experiences with mental health, or the guy who took to the high seas to embark on a voyage of seeing, and see what it makes you think about your own surroundings (and do it for free if you’re at a Smithsonian Museum.) It’s ok if you ‘don’t get it’, because that in itself can be a worthy opinion to have. Modern art is what you make of it, but there’s plenty to explore when you delve into why it was made.
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