Quick Thoughts About Four Current Exhibits at the National Gallery (Degas, Cassatt, Wyeth, Winogrand and German Printmaking)

The East Building of the National Gallery is being renovated, and the galleries are all closed (a lot of renovation going on – the Renwick is closed, the Museum of Natural History is partially closed, and so forth), but that does not mean that the National Gallery is quiet.  No fewer than four special exhibits are on display in the West Building – and although they vary in quality, in my opinion, they are all worth seeing.  Here is a quick rundown:

1.  Edgar Degas, the French impressionist, and Mary Cassatt, the American, were not only very close friends over a long number of years (who knew?), but were collaborators, whose works reflect not only the influence of each other, but sometimes reflect actual collaborations, with one making suggestions to the other, and perhaps even helping with the actual production of the painting.  Degas was about ten years older than Cassatt, and there is no suggestion of a physical relationship or romance, but their connections are clear.  The current exhibit demonstrates this by displaying about 65 paintings, pretty evenly divided between the two.  Sometimes you can say “that’s a Degas” or “that’s a Cassatt”, but often you can’t.  Their similarities are surprising but clear.

The exhibit is filled with beautiful examples of their work.  I was also intrigued by the dedication with which it was put together. I looked to see where the paintings came from, and was interested in the breath of sources.  Twenty two belong to the gallery’s collection itself, seven from the Met, 5 from the Art Institute in Chicago, and 4 from Boston.  Only 5 came from private collections, and the remainder from scattered museums, virtually all in this country (2 came from the Musee d’orsay in Paris).  Definitely worth seeing.

2.  Next to the Degas/Cassatt exhibit, you will find a specialized exhibit of watercolors, tempera and oils (but often in browns and brown-greens) by Andrew Wyeth.  The exhibit concentrates on Wyeth’s portrayal of doors and windows, looking at them and looking through them, and sometimes includes sketches and other preliminary pieces, along with the finished work.  Having recently been at the Brandywine Museum in Chadds Ford PA and seeing its large collection of wonderful Wyeth’s, this was, probably because of the similarity of so much of the work, rather tedious. That does not mean that the concept of this specialized exhibit was bad, but the execution didn’t match the concept.  As opposed to the Degas/Cassatt pieces, these came largely from private collections and from a privately owned Japanese museum (of all things).

3.  Artist Jacob Kainen (someone whose work I really like) and his wife gave (bequested?) a large collection of German prints to theNational Gallery and a large number of them are now on display.  A few reach back several hundred years, but most are twentieth century pieces, including many by Leon Kirchner and Emile Nolde.  It’s a genre I especially like, and I recommend the exhibit.

4. The final exhibit is a very large exhibit of photographs by the late American photographer Gary Winogrand.  Largely “street photography” shot in New York and Los Angeles, with some pieces from a trip across the country, and many not printed until after the death of the artist, you will get a good idea of the photographer’s work.  Truth is, I don’t think that a lot of it is very good – none of the pieces are particularly inspiring, and many of them appear to have been shot not only without the permission of the subjects, but with the subjects being upset at having their privacy invaded.  There is also a film of a class that Winogrand taught as a guest at Rice University – he came across there, I thought, a little supercilious and arrogant.  So, I wouldn’t advise you stay away, but I think you will walk through rather quickly.  Whether you’ll stay for the full 15 minute film will depend on whether you see this exhibit first (you’ll be anxious to get to the next) or last (you’ll be tired enough to sit for a while).

And when you go to the gallery, don’t forget that there is an entire gallery of works of art on permanent exhibit.  Too often overlooked

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