Greetings, travelers. So, you’re planning a trip? What’s wrong with you?
OK, the blogette (my wife) has just reminded me that I am guest writing for a travel blog that, in general, is looking to encourage travel. So, allow me to rephrase my initial question: You aren’t already on a trip? What’s wrong with you?
OK, the blogette has just informed me that she would like me to avoid risking sounding snarky with her potential client base. My apologies. Allow me to re-rephrase my initial question: So, you’ve decided to take a trip? Congratulations! You could not have made a wiser decision. And you’d like to visit Washington, D.C., you say? Brilliant choice! Are you by any chance interested in visiting the National Mall? You are? Wonderful! My, you just cannot seem to take a wrong step!
Ok, the blogette, who at this point is starting to seem kind of picky, has just informed me I’m laying it on a little strong. Let’s just move along, shall we?
This is part two of our ?-part series on the National Mall, wherein we’re going to talk about the National Gallery of Art. The Mall, you may remember, is a large section of land in downtown Washington, D.C., given over to several memorials and to the many buildings and organizations that collectively make up the Smithsonian Institute. As far as getting to the Mall, I covered parking, ground and underground transportation in the city in a previous post. For today’s purposes, suffice it to say your best option is to arrive by helicopter, provided the pilot can avoid incoming anti-aircraft fire from the White House.
Despite what the map below seems to indicate, the National Gallery is actually housed in two separate buildings which are situated next to each other, in the Northeast portion of the Mall, on the East and West side of 4th Street NW.
The two buildings are called, respectively and descriptively, the East Building and the West Building. This naming convention is itself a noteworthy achievement in that it is both perfectly accurate and completely unhelpful. Designating them by cardinal direction certainly makes it easy to locate them on a map, but it could also lead one to assume the two buildings are more or less equal. They are not.
The West Building is where the actual art is housed. By “art” I mean works of artistic, aesthetic, and historical value that required talent and skill to produce, such as paintings, sculptures, artifacts from distance cultures, etc., which by their mere existence enrich the world and make it a more vibrant and colorful place. The East Building houses what is known as “modern art.” It might be more appropriately titled “Gallery of Oddities Aimed at People with More Money than Sense,” or perhaps simply “What?” for short.
To illustrate, this piece is currently on display in the East Building:
This is called The Block Head by Edward Kienholz. It is a cement block which has been made to resemble an old television set by gluing four knobs and a few bits of wood to it. Though I’m not sure why, the faux control panel also appears to have been smeared with tomatillo salsa. Take a moment to appreciate whatever it is the artist is trying to communicate here.
(tick, tick, tick)
Well, I’m moved, how about you?
By contrast here is an example of what you’ll find in the West Building:
This is by Claude Monet. Take just a few moments and look at it, really immerse yourself in the crisp air that’s blowing her skirts and moving the clouds behind her. You almost want to shield your eyes from the sun her parasol is blocking. Notice how her facial features are evident yet vague enough to force you to imagine your own specificity. Why is her face more distinct than her son’s?
(tick, tick, tick)
See? You’re welcome.
In fairness to modern art, I should acknowledge it can have a certain entertaining quality. I once spent a very amusing 15 minutes in the modern wing of the Baltimore Museum of Art. There was a high school class trip that day and most of the students were looking at a special Impressionist exhibit. There was, however, one amorous couple that took advantage of their classmates’ distraction and made their way to the modern art wing for a little privacy. This was a viable option as there was no one in the modern art wing.
Almost no one, anyway. I’d already worked through most of the museum at this point and so wandered over to see whether the modern wing could offer a chuckle or two. And yes – yes, it could. As I turned a corner, I caught a glimpse of the two lovebirds as they leapt apart from one another in that trying-to-act-casual-but-totally-failing style often seen on sitcoms. I pretended not to notice them and they soon walked off into a different room. By the purest coincidence, this happened to be the same room I walked into precisely three minutes later. They jumped apart from each other all over again, looking even less suave this time. I, of course, still gave no hint of having noticed them. I didn’t want to be rude, after all. They eventually moved into yet another room of the wing, which again (what are the odds?) happened to be the same room I wandered into in another three minutes. Yet again they jumped awkwardly apart. Apparently, they’d had their fill of modern art at this point since they promptly left the wing all together.
But I digress.
We’re going to focus on the West Building today, for reasons that should be abundantly clear by now. There are two floors which share mostly the same layout – roughly this:
The ground floor houses galleries of prints, drawings, paintings, sculptures, a café and gift shop, along with a lecture hall. The second floor, which the museum calls the Main Floor, has European paintings and sculptures, American art and rotating temporary exhibits. All well and good but the bottom line is the second floor has the really good stuff. Here’s a small sampling:
This is The Shipwreck by Claude Joseph Vernet.
This is The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries by Jacques-Louis David.
And here is one of the true gems of their collection: Givevra de’ Benci by Leonardo da Vinci. This is the only da Vinci on permanent display anywhere in North America.
I am not sure who Ginevra was or why she appears to have been in such a bad mood the day da Vinci painted her, but the portrait is truly amazing to see. Not for its size – it’s actually pretty small, less than two feet high. No, it’s amazing because 1) in person it is absolutely beautiful (photos do not do it justice), 2) it’s painted not on canvas, but on wood, and 3) there’s an image on both sides of the plank, so it’s mounted in a floating half wall the middle of the gallery room, allowing patrons to view both images.
Anyway, there are thousands of pieces on display at any given time. If Ginevra doesn’t float your boat, you’re not into naked sculptures, and impressionist work just looks out of focus to you, there will still be something there to appreciate. You could possibly spend an entire day, open to close, in the West Building and not see every exhibit.
A quick word to those for whom wandering through a sterile, perpetually quiet museum isn’t your cup of tea, fear not! There is yet another marvelous use for the National Gallery, which I can attest to from first-hand experience: it is a killer location for scavenger hunts!
With the aid of the blogette, I’ve planned two large, multi-museum, puzzle-driven scavenger hunts on the Mall, both of which were pretty big hits. We incorporated the Gallery into the second Hunt, which was a popular addition with the hunters. A friendly word of advice, though, if you decide this is something you might want to try: DO NOT assume your hunters are familiar with museum etiquette! A few of ours were not and one unfortunate young lady found out precisely what happens when you look like you are about two seconds from physically touching a priceless work of art.
I will only say the memory is likely to be with her a while.
Next time: The National Museum of Natural History, a.k.a. The American Taxidermy Hall of Fame!
With the exception of the map of the Mall, which I blatantly ripped of Google Images, all pictures are either my own or are publicly available through the National Gallery of Art. If you believe otherwise, please notify the blogette immediately. She will pass the information along to me so we can enjoy a hearty laugh because you are wrong.