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A capital collection of art Washington's many museums offer something for everyone this holiday season - from Japanese masterpieces to photos of New York in the '30s.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In 1949 New York, a young woman dressed in an immaculate white graduation gown makes her way along a trash-strewn street. Under an 18th-century Japanese banana tree, a lavishly plumed rooster eyes a grasshopper. In a little town outside 19th-century Paris, a solitary figure navigates a snow-covered lane. In 16th-century Persia, the warrior Feridun strikes down the evil tyrant Zahak. In 1950s Hollywood, a camera embraces the sultry Marilyn Monroe for the umpteenth but far from the last time.

And they're all doing those things right now, in art exhibits in our nation's capital. Washington might be called an enormous circus of art, except that no circus ever had as many rings as Washington has art museums. A dozen or more, and at any one time most will have at least one and often several temporary exhibits running.

There's no better time for an excursion than this stressful season. Get away from the tree trimming, get away from the cooking, get away from the present buying, get away from the cocktail parties, get away to Washington and wander in fields of art. Here's a current selection:

National Gallery of Art

"Edo: Art in Japan 1615-1868" - From the early-17th to the mid-19th century, Japan was unified, peaceful and prosperous. The nation's life and arts were centered on the capital of Edo (now Tokyo), in the 18th century the largest city in the world. In the Edo period, Japan produced some of its greatest arts: sumptuous costumes, magnificent multipaneled screens, beautiful paintings, many-colored prints, superb small objects.

Almost 300 of them have been gathered, from 75 public and private collections, for this first comprehensive survey of Edo arts in the United States.

They have been given the National Gallery's usual instructive organization and sensitive installation, and an even-more-enormous-than-usual catalog accompanies the show. If you're going to lug one away, park close to the gallery.

The opportunity to see this many treasures of Japanese art and this much sheer beauty in one place will not happen often in a lifetime.

The National Gallery of Art, Constitution Avenue at Fourth Street Northwest. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. Admission free but passes required on weekends and certain other days. Advance and same-day passes available at the gallery, advance passes available through TicketMaster with service charge. Call TicketMaster in Baltimore at 410-481-SEAT. Call gallery at 202-737-4215. The show runs through Feb. 15.

The Phillips Collection

"Impressionists in Winter: Effets de Neige" - Imagined, but not unlikely, conversation between two museum-goers:

A: "Not another impressionist exhibition! What could they possibly think up that hasn't been done?"

B: "Believe it or not, there has never been an exhibit of impressionist winter landscapes. Inspired by a painting in its own collection, Alfred Sisley's 'Snow at Louveciennes' (1874), the Phillips has assembled 63 paintings by six artists: Sisley, Monet, Camille Pissarro, Renoir, Gauguin and Gustave Caillebotte. Actually, that's a little misleading - most of them are by Sisley, Monet and Pissarro. In fact, nearly half are by Monet."

A: "Not another Monet exhibit! Now I have two reasons not to go."

B: "I know what you mean. But you won't be bored. Monet is always surprising because he was such a great painter. This show would be worth the price of admission if only for the light on the snow in his early "The Magpie" (1869) and the way he captures the coldness of winter through his whites and grays in the later "Morning Haze" (1894). And Sisley is surprising, too. He's a less-well-known impressionist, but a formidable artist. Check out the Phillips picture and another painting of the same street, also called 'Snow at Louveciennes.' "

A: "Well all right, I'll go. But if I don't like it, lunch is on you."

B: "I'll take that chance."

The Phillips Collection, 1600 21st Street N.W. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon to 7 p.m. Sundays. Admission by timed ticket, $10 adults, $7 seniors and students, age 11 and under free. Tickets available at the gallery in advance, and same-day when not sold out. Tickets available through TicketMaster with service charge. Call TicketMaster in Baltimore at 410-481-SEAT. Call gallery at 202-387-2151. The show runs through Jan. 3.

Corcoran Gallery of Art

"Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective" - Born in 1919 and a photographer since the 1940s, Roy DeCarava has spent a half century quietly recording the life of his native New York, and primarily its African-American life. Whether he's photographing stars (and there are a lot of them here - Mahalia Jackson, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Romare Bearden) or nonstars, he records the pursuit of daily life with great empathy. His art is sad but hopeful - life isn't easy, it shows us, but the struggle to live it gives people a necessary dignity.

At about 200 works, this largest exhibit ever devoted to DeCarava's work could have used better editing; it gets wearying. The Corcoran's large galleries aren't ideal for this photographer's modest-sized works, either. But DeCarava's testament to life overcomes those flaws.

The Corcoran Gallery of Art, New York Avenue at 17th Street Northwest. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Mondays (to 9 p.m. Thursdays). Suggested donation $3 adults, $5 family group, $1 seniors and students, age 12 and under free. For information, call 202-639-1700. The show runs through Jan. 4.

National Portrait Gallery

"Philippe Halsman: A Retrospective" - Everybody in Halsman's photographs looks like a star, because they all were. Halsman (1906-1979), born in Latvia, began his career in Paris in the 1930s, fled the Nazis in 1940, began over in America and from the 1940s to the 1970s photographed the celebrated for Life, Look and other major magazines.

Halsman deliberately goes after the public persona: winsome Audrey Hepburn, alluring Lauren Bacall, mugging Lucille Ball, preposterous Salvador Dali, sexy Monroe, cerebral Andre Gide, ebullient Mary Martin. Not the most subtle or penetrating art, but beautifully produced and fun to look at.

The National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F Streets Northwest. 10 to 5:30 p.m. daily. Admission free. For information, call 202-357-2700. The show runs through Feb. 7.

Freer Gallery of Art

"Beyond the Legacy: Anniversary Acquisitions for the Freer Gallery of Art" - Founded by Detroit businessman and philanthropist Charles Lang Freer, the gallery opened its doors in 1923 as the Smithsonian Institution's first museum dedicated to the fine arts. Its collection consists mainly of Asian art and some 19th- and early 20th-century American art, by Whistler and others.

This 75th-anniversary show is all Asian art acquired in the last four years. It's not a show with a scholarly theme, but it contains many great works including a Persian manuscript, a fifth-century standing sandstone Buddha from India, an 18th-century Japanese painting of cranes that gives them more personality than most people have, and a 17th-century Chinese painting with two ducks that look as if they've just had their first quarrel. Asian art lovers will want to see this one.

Also in conjunction with the anniversary, the Freer this year published "The Peacock Room," a lavishly produced and carefully researched history of the London dining room that Whistler famously decorated in the 1870s and that now resides at the Freer.

The Freer Gallery of Art, Jefferson Drive at 12th Street Southwest. 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Admission free. For information, call 202-357-2700. The show runs through April 11.

National Museum of Women in the Arts

"Berenice Abbott's Changing New York, 1935-1939." - American VTC photographer Berenice Abbott had a distinguished career from the 1920s in Paris until her death in Maine in 1991 at age 93. But she is probably best known for her 1930s photographs of New York, taken under the patronage of the Museum of the City of New York and with funds from the Federal Arts Project.

Organized by the New York City museum, this show contains 126 of the 305 images Abbott produced. From dizzying views of New York's tall buildings to humble storefronts, from north to south and river to river, Abbott documented the city as perhaps never before or since. Abbott was straightforward, not sentimental, and as a result the show isn't nostalgic. It's just good pictures of New York.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. N.W. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Suggested donation $3 adults, $2 seniors and students. For information, call 202-783-5000. The show runs through Jan. 19.

Pub Date: 12/06/98

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