Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Aesthetic Serendipity

                           Cezanne's Boy in a Red Waistcoat, 1888-90

        Recently in Napa, I was asked not what I thought was the best wine in the valley, but what was Washington's best institution for visiting.
        Without hesitation I said the National Gallery of Art. Often thought by visitors to be part of the vast Smithsonian complex of museums, it is instead the mostly independent creation of former millionaire Andrew Mellon that, like the Smithsonian, is open to the public free of charge.
        Thus natives and visitors alike can breeze most any day and immerse themselves in the gallery's vast art collection, along with borrowed works, that has wielded considerable cultural influence for a century.
         Sometimes the never-ending cycle of opening and departing shows achieves what feels like supreme aesthetic serendipity (though probably long envisioned by curators). Take two of the concurrent exhibitions - the first full exhibition of the portraits of Paul Cezanne from the late19th century, and the works of the living photographer, Sally Mann.
        Two artists could scarcely be more different in both medium and outlook, yet both reflect the importance of place in artists’ work, and both seek to reveal the inner life of subjects caught in the light of their time.
Cezanne painted more than 200 portraits, 26 of himself. These examples follow the course of his artistic development from youthful painter to the launching of Modernism. Many are from his time spent in Provence, and though some are clear precursors of Cubism, all reflect the complicated world of the individual in any age.

             Self-Portrait, 1880-81                  
              Madame Cezanne in a Red Armchair, 1877

        The latter paintings have what might be called a solidity of soul, regardless of the sitter’s place in society, for Cezanne made some sit for more than 100 hours “like an apple.” These included his devoted wife. 

                    The Ditch, 1987, gelatin silver print 
Some of Mann’s photographs are haunting portraits of rural Virginia manipulated during printing to evoke an overall sense of apartness and decline. The portraits of her own children manage to be both beguiling and vaguely disturbing, present-day sentinels from a tragic past susceptible to all the conflicting cultural impulses of today.
     The same soulfulness reigns in free and seemingly happy kids before the internet bloom and the scourge of video games, yet some are perhaps too privy to the allure of the lens.

                            Deep South, Untitled (Stick) 1998

 Last Light, 1990

        Seeing both shows in one visit requires sitting quietly in one of the National Gallery’s covered courtyards between viewings. The overall effect is reaffirmation of human complexity and the necessity of the artistic vision in a free, sometimes chaotic world.

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