A range of art awaits at capital museums


Company coming for the holidays? Wondering where to take them?

Consider as one destination a day-trip to Washington, where art awaits you by the museum-load. More than a dozen shows currently fill the capital's Christmas stocking, from Renaissance

masterpieces to 20th-century photographs, from portraits to pottery.

The following museums are either on the Mall or a few blocks from it.

National Gallery of Art

* Lorenzo Lotto: This remarkable artist from Venice was overshadowed by Titian and spent most of his time in smaller cities such as Bergamo and Treviso. "Lorenzo Lotto: Rediscovered Master of the Renaissance," his first American show, brings together 51 paintings by an artist adept at dramatic poses, symbolism, visual puns and occasional psychological insights.

Lotto (about 1480-1556/1557) created big, multi-figure altarpieces, but his best works are smaller, more focused religious scenes, and portraits. His "Christ Carrying the Cross" (1526) achieves immediacy and intensity by using a close-up image that seems far more modern than its date. It shows only Christ's head and the upper part of his body, but he's obviously stumbling under the weight of the cross as one soldier leans in to taunt him and another grabs and pulls his hair.

The "Portrait of a Married Couple" (1523-1524) exemplifies Lotto's use of symbolism. The husband points with one hand to a sleeping squirrel and holds in the other hand a paper with the Latin inscription "Man never." A storm rages outside. The squirrel has been interpreted as symbolizing marital neglect or lust, which the husband condemns. But Mauro Lucco, one of the authors of the show's catalog, proposes another interpretation: that it's a mourning portrait, that the pictured wife has died, and that the squirrel is literally sleeping, since squirrels are known to sleep through storms. The meaning of the inscription is that man cannot sleep through the storm of grief. Whatever the interpretation, it's an intriguing picture.

In Lotto's "Annunciation" (about 1534-1535) the virgin does not, as is more usual, quietly accept her destiny, but turns from the arriving angel in fright. She also turns toward the viewer, as if this were a staged scene in which she faced the audience to register her emotion. In addition to its other oddities, the picture centers on a cat, on the floor between angel and virgin, jumping in fear of the intruder.

A fascinating painter, Lotto.

* Thomas Moran (1837-1926) is probably the least known of the triumvirate of 19th-century American landscape painters that includes Albert Bierstadt and Frederick Edwin Church. The current National Gallery retrospective, called "Thomas Moran," is his first, comprising 97 paintings and watercolors.

Moran's big paintings are his best-known works, but a group of small watercolors led to his rise. In 1871 he made his first trip to the American West, joining an expedition to Yellowstone that also included photographer William Henry Jackson. There Moran made many watercolor sketches, and afterward they and Jackson's photographs were shown to members of Congress, who subsequently voted to make Yellowstone the first national park. Shortly thereafter, Congress appropriated $10,000 to buy Moran's 7-by-12-foot painting "Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone" to hang in the Capitol, and his career was assured.

These and Moran's other big paintings, notably "Chasm of the Colorado" (1873-1874) and "Mountain of the Holy Cross" (1875), are less spiritually fervent than Church's work and less artificially stagy than Bierstadt's. So they may be more agreeable to modern viewers. But Moran wanted to capture the grandeur of the Western scene and didn't hesitate to improve on the facts for effect. The river in "Mountain of the Holy Cross," for instance, wasn't really there -- Moran made it up. He once said, "My general scope is not realistic; all my tendencies are toward idealization."

The show contains a wide range of work, including smaller landscapes done near his summer home at East Hampton, New York. Some of these are sappy. But Moran's watercolors bring a freshness and intimacy to the Western landscape.

* Also on view at the National Gallery: "M. C. Escher; A Centennial Tribute" contains 85 works including many of the drawings of impossible architecture and other visual puzzles for which the artist is famous. And "Building a Collection," a show of 138 recently acquired works on paper, includes ones by Rembrandt, Piranesi, Manet, Degas, Picasso, Kathe Kollwitz, George Bellows, Edward Hopper, Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler.

National Museum of American Art

* Surely no more famous and revered portrayer of the Western landscape exists than photographer Ansel Adams (1902-1984). There have been numerous shows of Adams' work, but "Ansel Adams, A Legacy: Masterworks from the Friends of Photography Collection" makes a particular claim on the viewer. Its 115 photographs cover the best-known landscapes,views of San Francisco, portraits, extreme close-ups of nature and even abstractions.

In addition, these examples were selected and printed by Adams during his last 20 years as the ultimate expression and refinement of his art. As the brochure accompanying the show describes it, "The prints seen here are more dramatic and theatrical than those Adams produced earlier in his career." In them he emphasized contrast and played down middle tones.

To me, they suffer from that. The contrasts can be melodramatic, the tones rich to the point of sumptuousness, and they end up losing subtlety and looking artificial. In these photos Adams becomes the spiritual heir of Moran, Bierstadt and Church, whose grandiosity appealed to their contemporaries more than it appeals to present-day viewers.

* Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) was a well-known regionalist painter during the 1930s and 1940s, when regionalism was at its height. He lived most of his life in Salem, Ohio, and then Buffalo, N.Y., and depicted the neighborhoods and the landscape around him. In the 1950s and after, Burchfield's star declined, as did regionalism's. But two national traveling shows bring him back to attention, the larger of which is "The Paintings of Charles Burchfield" now at the NMAA.

Its 85 works reveal a visionary as well as a regionalist. Sections devoted to memory and fantasy, nature, the cosmos and the divine show an artist who could create out of everyday surroundings a weird, often frightening world. Some of these pictures' distortions border on the cartoonish, though, and for the most part his calmer, more purely regional works have more appeal.

At his best, as in "Rainy Night" (1929-1930) and "Ice Glare" (1931-1933), Burchfield's small-town America can recall the quiet and the loneliness of Edward Hopper's paintings. He is an artist whose acquaintance museum-goers should make, or renew.

National Portrait Gallery

* Everybody thinks of Mathew Brady as primarily a Civil War photographer, but he was more an entrepreneur than a photographer, who hired others to do the actual photography while he ran the business. And during his life, his studio was known primarily for portraits.

"Mathew Brady's Portraits: Images as History, Photography as Art" contains more than 100 of them, including many of the important figures of Brady's time. Some of the most memorable works in this large show are daguerreotypes. The process produced unique images that could not be reproduced, but it captured detail to a perhaps unequaled degree. Those who sat for Brady in the 1840s and 1850s included President Zachary Taylor, Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, artist Thomas Cole, newspaperman Horace Greeley, singer Jenny Lind and actor Junius Brutus Booth.

Among later works, photographs of Robert E. Lee and Ulysses Grant offer a striking contrast. Grant, photographed in 1864, stands outside a tent, hand on hip, clothes rumpled, a man of the people. Lee, posed on his porch in Richmond in 1865 after the surrender at Appomattox, sits correctly dressed in an armchair, head turned in profile, chin slightly raised, the picture of dignity.

* Also at the National Portrait Gallery: "Edith Wharton's World," a collection of portraits and memorabilia associated with this extraordinary woman born to the Victorian upper crust who became one of the leading American novelists of her time; it includes five paintings by John Singer Sargent. And "George C. Marshall: Soldier of Peace," a small show devoted to this giant whom Churchill called "the true organizer of victory" in World War II, who subsequently developed the Marshall Plan of aid to Europe, and who in 1953 became the only professional soldier ever awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

National Museum of African Art

* When most people think of the art of Africa, they think of masks, headdresses, sculpture, furniture, clothing and other objects associated with traditional African art, whether produced the past or today. But there is also African art in a modern idiom. The National Museum of African Art has opened a gallery devoted exclusively to modern work with "The Poetics of Line: Seven Artists of the Nsukka Group". It features work by artists of Nsukka, a city in southeastern Nigeria.

These artists' images derive partly from traditions of the culture of the Igbo people but also from nature, from the artists' emotional lives and from socio-political concerns. Among the most impressive works are the semi-abstract, four-panel painting Our Journey" by Obiora Udechukwu and the 10-foot-tall wooden sculpture "Erosion" by El Anatsui.

Other Washington shows:

* The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Asian Art: "Twelve Centuries of Japanese Art from the Imperial Collections," 76 works from the collections of Japanese rulers. Opening today, through March 8. For information call 202-357-4880.

* The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden: "Stanley Spencer: An English Vision," paintings by one of Britain's leading 20th-century figurative artists. Through Jan. 11. Call 202-357-2700.

* The Corcoran Gallery of Art: "Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks," the first retrospective devoted to the great African-American photographer, filmmaker, novelist, poet and musician. Through Jan. 11. Call 202-639-1770.

DTC * The Phillips Collection: "Arthur Dove: A Retrospective Exhibition," works by the early 20th-century American modernist. Through Jan. 4. Call 202-387-2151.

* The National Museum of Women in the Arts, "The Legacy of Generations: Pottery by American Indian Women" from the late 19th century to the present. Through Jan. 11. Call 202-783-5000.

If you go

What: Lorenzo Lotto, Thomas Moran, M. C. Escher, recent acquisitions

Where: National Gallery of Art, Constitution Avenue and 4th Street N.W.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. Lotto through March 1; Moran through Jan. 11; Escher through April 26; acquisitions through April 19

Call: 202-737-4215

What: Ansel Adams, Charles Burchfield

Where: National Museum of American Art, 8th and G streets N.W.

When: 10 a.m. to 5: 30 p.m. daily. Adams through March 29; Burchfield through Jan. 25

Call: 202-357-2700

What: Mathew Brady, Edith Wharton, George C. Marshall

Where: National Portrait Gallery, 8th and F streets N.W.

When: 10 a.m. to 5: 30 p.m. daily. Brady through Jan. 4; Wharton through Jan. 4; Marshall through July 12

Call: 202-357-2700

What: Seven Nigerian modern artists

Where: National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. S.W.

When: 10 a.m. to 5: 30 p.m. daily, through April 26

Call: 202-357-2700

Here at home

In addition to the exhibits in Washington, there are some fine offerings in Baltimore. Here are some of them:

* Baltimore Museum of Art: "A Grand Design: The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum," open through Jan. 18. Related shows include "In Prayse of the Needle: English Needlework from the 17th to 19th Centuries," through Feb. 15; "Majesty in Miniature: The Kings and Queens of England from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth II," closes Jan. 18. Call 410-396-7100.

* Walters Art Gallery: "Art That Heals: The Image as Medicine in Ethiopia," closes today; "Covered in Meaning: Book Bindings from the Walters," closes Jan. 11. Call 410-547-9000.

* Maryland Historical Society: "Baltimore, Inc: From Mobtown to Charm City," closes Jan. 4. Call 410-685-3750.

* American Visionary Art Museum: "The End Is Near! Visions of Apocalypse, Millennium and Utopia," closes April 12. Call 410-244-1900.

* Contemporary Museum: "X site 97," closes Jan. 5. Call 410-333-8600.

Pub Date: 12/14/97

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