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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

How I found Canaletto, visited 5 museums in 2 ½ days, and learned to stop worrying about using every minute to see as many things as I possibly could.

Washington DC Memorial Day Weekend
Eureka! I found him!

How I found Canaletto, visited 5 museums in 2 ½ days, and learned to stop worrying about using every minute productively to see as many things as I possibly could.

We are here in Washington DC, first time in at least 10 years.The last times we were here, as far as I can remember, were on my bday when C was about 3 yrs old, when Loring planned to shave his beard off for a bday present, sent me off to a museum, and when I came back no shaved beard, C hysterical saying you wont be my daddy any more, hence no surprise present. The other time I was with the kids, L must have gone home after, I think, Sidra’s wedding in Balltimore. I remember staying at a hotel in Dupont Circle, and going to a restaurant where they served samores as a dessert, on a platter with all the ingredients, and a little sterno stove on which to toast the marshmallows with skewers. The place is still there, it’s called Cosi, in fact Loring and I had breakfast there yesterday.I didn't find it nearly as appealing as I remembered it, though.

So here we are, once again at Dupont Circle, waiting in the lobby of the Churchill Hotel, which I picked because it’s on the historical register, was originally an elegant apartment building, and because it was one of the cheapest hotels I found online. It was $109 plus tax per night, granted that was with $10 for AARP, which they didn’t check anyway. I suppose if my hair wasn’t gray they might have!

It’s my kind of place, has a certain amount of character and ‘charming ambience.” I would probably like it more if it was a little more rundown,, but certainly prefer it to the Marriot or Hilton , which are next door and across the street. Ok, no hair dryer in the room, not that I have ever really needed a hotel hair dryer. Except this am, because I somehow didn’t bring enough underwear, washed some last night, which wasn’t dry this morning. But there was an iron, which actually probably made better sense than the hairdryer method anyway, and gave me a chance to use the desk for something, so I didn’t have to haul out the ironing board.

Okay that’s probably more than you wanted to hear about my underwear, onto other things…(didn't I write about my underwear in Venice, too?)

It was Canaletto that brought us here. In case you didn’t see the last post, I could not find any of the famed panoramic Canalettos in Venice, because there arent’ any there. Then discovered there had been a major exhibit at the Natitional Gallery in London, until January, then discovered said exhibit was now at the National Gallery here in Washington, but only through this weekend. Therefore the rather impulsive visit here, only a week after our return from Italy.

The exhibit, actually of Canaletto and his “rivals” was wonderful, panorama after panorama, some of places quite recognizable to us, where we’d been so recently, until I was quite satiated. Some of the so called rivals’ paintings were equally as wonderful, and I don’t think I could have discerned, in many cases, which were his and which weren’t. But, no worry, some of them had been attributed to Canaletto, even until fairly recently, so I shouldn’t and didn’t feel bad. Some were by his nephew/ student and were quite obviously done after Canaletto. Interestingly, the nephew had signed them with his famous uncle’s name (with his knowledge? It didn’t say) and so many contemporary collectors, and maybe some modern ones, were duped.
Here’s the funny thing, though. In the end, I think the Venetian painters I discovered at the Accademia in Venice while seeking Canaletto, Mansueti, Carpaccio, and, I think Guardi (also featured as one of the rivals I the exhibit here) actually appeal to me and intrique me more.

The National Art Gallery, where we saw the Canaletto, is impressive, architecturally and in terms of its collection. We saw very little of the permanent collection, but what we did see included two Vermeers and many other masters. There was a Gaugin exhibit there too, but we skipped it. I was trying to pace myself a bit, and keep Loring from a total museum overdose. So much more to see here, anyway, than one possibly could in one trip, even a longer one. I was beginning to get a bit museum fatigued myself.

Next on the international museum tour, the sculpture garden of the National, lovely and also appreciated especially for the shallow pool/ fountain where many folks, myself included, soaked our feet after long hours (at least in my case) of walking the streets of Washington and length of the mall.

Sunday morning we started out,with breakfast at Cosi. This is the same place where the kids and I had indoor samores many years ago, which seems to be the only thing I can recollect about that trip. Cosi, by the way, does not mean cosy in Italian. It means "like that" or something like that.

After breakfast we went to the Rennick Museum of American Crafts. I didn’t have a clue what was on exhibit there. But, crazily coincidental, the poster outside the museum, advertising its permanent collection, was a vase by, guess who! – Lino Tagliapietra, the Venetian glass maestro whose wonderful exhibit had been the first thing we went to in Venice.( This is where I make soft Twilight Zone theme song sounds.)

How, you might wonder, is he even included, much less featured, in a museum of American Crafts? Answer: his residence is listed as Venice and Seattle. (Where Dale Chihuly’s glass works is located.) Does he really live there part of the year? I know he has taught there in the past. But who am I to question or complain?! Oh, one of Chihuly’s pieces is there, as well. We'd just seen the impressive Chihuly exhibit in Boston, before we left for Venice. I loved it, even if the Globe critic, Sebastian Smee, didn't. Even if he just won the Pulitzer Prize! I like his writing, and usually his opinions. But not this time. I think he said it lacked meaning. Meaning, schmeaning. Who says art has to have meaning? Anything that gets my son to enjoy going to an art museum has enough meaning for me. As does anything that gets a lot of adult MFA goers to lie on the floor looking up at one of his works!

One non museum, and unexpected event we stumbled upon was the Rolling Thunder Motorcycle parade, a Memorial Day event since sometime in the 80’s, although we’d never heard of it. As we exited the metro the first day at Judiary Square, we noticed tons of motorcycles parked on the street. Turning around, we saw an equal number, and then some, of motorcyclists, mostly around our age, some with long grey or white hair, almost all with tattoos, your typical motorcycle bunch, several hundred strong. They were participating in a wreath laying ceremony, as we later heard on the news, the beginning of a weekend of activities highlighted by an hours long motorcycle parade around the city, starting at the Pentagon, ending at Arlington National Cemetery, where Obama was scheduled to appear.

The Rolling Thunder Motorcyclists number about 7500, began in the 1980’s to highlight and protest the fact that the government was not paying enough attention to the many MIAs and POWs. I don’t know if they are still focusing on bringing home all of those people or not. But the event has gotten huge, is participated in by many other bikers from all over the country as well as the many who’d come to watch the parade. Nearly all the people on bikes were about our vintage, the crowds of course were very mixed, but I didn’t notice anyone that seemed to be currently military, unless they were with family and didn’t stand out as such.
Our timing was perfect. We hadn’t even known the route or planned to attend, but again, came out of the metro on the mall just before it began. The procession began was a guard of police on bikes, and then thousands of bikers, mostly it did seem of Vietnam vintage. Many of them waved at the observers, I did wave back, repeatedly. Although I am not a big fan of biker types, I do respect that they were Vietnam vets, and I must say that I feel we did them wrong in our protests of the war. So I guess I was waving to assuage my guilt for having denigrated, even denounced, Vietnam fighters at the time.. And whoever these vets are, whatever their politics, (at least a few had shirts saying Vietnam vets against the war) this kind of tribute is far preferable to me to a show of arms, military uniforms, etc. I think we’ve gotten it better this time around in being able to separate the fighters from the war.

The Rolling Thunder name, by the way, comes from the name of one of the bombing campaings during the Vietnam War, which was called Operation Rolling Thunder, for the sound of the jet engines doing the bombing, I guess. So, where I wonder, did the name of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review come from?

Guess who was there, but whom we only heard about later on the news?. Sarah Palin, husband Todd, and at least one daughter. On bikes! Jeez, maybe I waved at her. No, don’t think so, we would have known, right, if she had ridden by us? We seem to have had a knack, lately, for running into celebrities on our travels. Not the Brad and Angie type, but Benedetto, and now Sarah. From the news, it sounded like Palin was kicking off a presidential campaign. I have mixed feelings, on one hand, it would be great entertainment, and divert some of the Republican vote. On the other hand, could she possibly win? It couldn’t be, could it? If it does, I am moving out of the country. (When I talked to my mother, just after writing this, she said the same thing, virtually verbatim, about leaving the country.)

After the parade (it was still going on when we left, you, or I anyway, can only watch so many thousand people on motorcycles) next on the list was the National Museum of the American Indian. I had followed the establishment of this museum, which I was pleased to see was going to feature native Americans from Central and South America as well as North, and made a contribution when they were building,g it in honor of Max and Carolina. The architecture and gardens of the museum were impressive, plantings indicative of the various terrains of different groups and areas, building aligned so the sunlight aligned with something or other at the summer solstice, etc.

But, both of us were sadly disappointed with the exhibits themselves. In an effort to group native peoples by certain themes, like religious beliefs, etc. it seems that they neglected to identify information about individual groups and parts of their cultures. We were both confused by the displays, sometimes not having any clue which groups were being represented. There was a short film introduction in a high tech round theatre with projections all around, on the ceiling too, and on some magic glowing rock in the center (pardon my cynicism).

There were some neat displays, especially one of beadwork from many cultures, all kinds of wonderful items, which you could identify and learn more about on touchscreens. There was a similar one of animals depicted in pottery. And there were stations in several places where museum staff did demonstrations . A woman was doing beadwork, although from a culture other than her own Cherokee heritage, and a man who looked clearly South American (he was Aymara, from Bolivia on Lake Titicaca) was demonstrating native boatmaking, but northern birchbark canoes, not the reed boats from where he’s from.)

I think perhaps what left me uneasy about the museum approach was that they seemed to lump all native people together, although that can’t have been their intention. Isnt that what non native people have always done, from Columbus onward? I would like to have seen more exhibits that compared and contrasted, things like religious beliefs, boatmaking, or beadwork, and focussed on the differences as well as similarities, my usual spiel when introducing kids to different cultures. I would have thought this was just my own impression, but Loring felt just the same as I did about the museum.

The best part of the museum, seriously, was the café. It had different stations representing different geographical areas, and foods native to the area. There were lots of wonderful possibilities, Loring had ceviche, I had a sampler plate(any four side dishes) including quinoa pudding and wild rice salad with watercress and pine nuts. I am on somewhat of a quinoa binge, although must say I wasn’t too wild about the pudding. For those who aren’t familiar with it, it’s a grain native to Peru, supposedly very high in protein, pretty, delicious, with a kind of crunchy texture. It comes in different colors, red, black, white. I have been putting it in lots of things, soups, pilafs, etc. If you haven’t tried it, you should!

The museum shop was also appealing, although not as nice as the one at the Building Museum, (see below.) Best thing about the shop at the Indian Museum is that it had Peruvian gourds, of which I have at least a dozen, ranging from intricately crafted to the more primitive but also very wonderful ones done by kids. The sophisticated, highly detailed ones at the museum shop ranged in price from $100 to over $800. I have several that were in the several hundred dollar range at the shop. Guess I’d better document them for insurance purposes! I had long wanted to bring some of those to a U.S. audience, especially the ones made by my Peruvian friends, the Garcia family. I just hope whoever they are getting them from in Peru is getting adequately compensated.

Best of all, though, was that they had arpilleras, the embroidered, appliqued and crocheted three dimensional wall hangings that I have collected and also had a number of special designed ones made for relatives, friends, and others who ordered them from me in the 90s. The dimensions of the ones I have is the traditional 18x18 inches, and many of them have political and social themes, although the market and harvest ones I bought in the crafts market are also quite nice, though more naïve in style.

The ones in the shop were all much smaller. Tiny ones, perhaps 6 inches square, were $45. Larger ones, still perhaps half the size of mine, were $110. Guess I’d better upgrade that insurance policy! Seriously, it makes me want to find places to exhibit them again! If I could bear to sell a few I could finance my next trip to wherever it might be.

To digress slightly for a minute:

Loring is reading a book about a Chinese American man’s travels through China in the 90s and beyond. He is reading to me, an excerpt about a visit the author makes to an artist’s colony, an area the government has set aside for artists to live, rent free. The woman he visits is an entrepreneur who went to, but hated art school, and seems to hate painting as well. She makes a good living, however, painting scenes of places like Venice(!) over and over again, to be sold as original art abroad. She also makes paintings from photos as special requests (one was of Park City Utah, to be sold to Sundance attendees?) , but apparently misinterprets things like signage on a street scene because she can’t read the English letters.

This somehow reminds me of the arpillera made for Ken and Jill’s wedding, which came out beautifully, except for the church with the cross which it never dawned on me would be an essential part of a Peruvian wedding scene. Monica, my Peruvian artisan friend, ripped out the stitches of the cross with a safety pin ( I probably offended her religion terribly, not sure she understood my explanation of being Jewish) and in any case, the cross was still there in ball point pen underneath. Makes a great story though!

Well, back to Washington, although I am already enroute to Boston.

IN addition to the Renwick and the Indian Museums yesterday, we also went back to the National Gallery for a second visit. A nice thing about Washington is that so many of the museums are free. (In my ideal world, museums, also public transportation, would be free.) It makes for a different attitude. You can pop into one for just a brief visit if you like. Not that we did. But we saw entirely different things in another part of the museum second time around. Including an entire room of Calder mobiles. A couple were different from what one usually thinks of as Calder. One was a large metal frame in the shape of a fish, with many pieces of glass and pottery wrapped with wire and suspended within the frame. And there was a wire sculpture, also a mobile, of Josephine Baker, which was wonderful. I later read that there was another exhibit, elsewhere, all of figural mobiles by Calder. Oh well, for another time. Did you know, by the way, that Calder invented the mobile? I thought he’d created the word, but he apparently created the idea itself. And it was Marcel Duchamp who came up with the word. Think of a world without mobiles above cribs. Without Calder, where would we be?

We also saw a portrait of a woman by Da Vinci, apparently the only Da Vinci in the U.S. And I remember reading, a while back, that he only painted three portraits of women. Two, Mona Lisa, and the other one whose name I forget but which I much prefer to ML, are at the Louvre, and now I guess I’ve seen the third. (Update, just checked, Wikipedia, my source for all authoritative information, says the second one in the Louvre is disputed, the third female portrait is in Krakov, which I remember now, wanted to see it but the museum was closed, the DC one is generally attributed to him, the Krakov one also generally accepted. In all, I just read, there are only 15 definitely or generallly attributed to da Vinci, and another half dozen in dispute. Who knew!?)

Last museum, the Building Museum, on Monday morning. I had not known anything about this museum, except that my brother had mentioned it recently, not in conversation but on facebook. And wouldn’t have thought of visiting, except that we emerged from metro at Judiaciary Square the first day, and there it was right in front of us, away from the mall. It is an impressive building, although the outside gives little idea of the beauty within. Built in the 1880’s and used by the Pension agency until the 1920s. There was a lego building exhibit there, although we didn’t see it , other than peering in through the window (Boy does lego seem to have a good pr agency!) But in the lobby was a replica of the actual building we were in. Very cool! Although I have to say I preferred the Windsor Legoland Royal Wedding scene, complete with Queen, Elton John(both wearing the same hat!), and all the rest. Don’t think they had Pippa, though. I should go back and look. And also the Escher pictures reproduced in lego that my brother posted on fb today.

We saw two small exhibits. One focussed on World's Fairs of the 1930's, their architecture but also the message they tried to convey of a rosy future in the midst of the Depression. The other was the work of American artist Hildreth Meire, early 20th century muralist and mosaicist who did spectacular works in the domes and walls of many buildings in this country, including figures on the outside of Radio City Music Hall, which were familiar but which I had never really focussed on. She was inspired, she said, by her early trips to Italy. The exhibit was mostly of photos and sketches of her works, and was enjoyable, but now I want to see some of her actual work.

We ate out more meals here, and as many dinners, in three days as in nine days in Venice. First dinner was at a place called Zorba’s, Greek obviously, and yes they did play music from the movie. It was self service, the typical stuff, moussaka (although with beef, I didn’t think that was authentic) grape leaves, souflaki, etc I ordered one of the few things I was not familiar with, just for that reason. It was ground beef in a flat bread, with yogurt. But I forget what it was called.. The food was good, the outdoor seating wonderful on a very warm night. Next to me ordering was a man who said he needed some good food for three Armenian men, that the man at the counter, who could have been the owner, should decide for them what they should eat. He gave the restaurant guy a credit card and said he should hold it until he decided what to make for them. I guess it’s not uncommon to ask the cook to just make whatever he recommends, but it seemed a bit odd in this type of place. Then again, he was from Armenia. I was curious to know what they got, but even though they were sitting next to us I didn’t ask. They were also heavy smokers, and I wasn’t sure if smoking was allowed outdoors. I considered asking the staff, but just then their food came, luckily, and they stopped smoking.

Our second dinner was at a French bistro called Bistro au Coin, although it wasn’t on a corner. It felt very authentic, and reasonably priced for Dupont Circle. I had duckling, Loring a white bean cassoulet. Both were good, although the pepper sauce on my duck was too heavy and salty. I can’t eat heavy sauces anymore, which basically is a good thing, except when you get served something way too heavy.
Lunches we didn’t really do, more snacks like a pastry or ice cream, not so different from in Italy! One place had some of the most unusual flavors I have ever come across. I sampled the halvah ice cream, but decided to go with some intense chocolate flavor. Much as I love halvah, it didn’t work for me as an ice cream flavor.

Second breakfast: Loring would have been happy with Cosi again, but I wasn’t. There was not one greasy spoon type place we could find. So we wound up going to Starbucks. Is there an anti Starbucks group? I should be in it. I don’t think I’ve been in one more than a half dozen times. I will confess they have excellent chocolate, I have stopped in before a show a couple of times for a bar to bring to an event. Movie chocolate, we call it. But I resent the contrived cosy atmosphere and that so many people seem to go for it. And damned if I’m going to order a vente or a molte or whatever. But there wasn’t much choice. So I got a mocha coffee and a pastry, which was excellent. The coffee was way too intense, too much coffee, too much chocolate, I like the ones I make myself better.

Sitting next to us was an obviously homeless man. He had a bottle with a bit of soda in it, an empty plastic bag, and terrible blisters on his feet. We began to talk. He didn’t ask me for anything. I offered him a band aid, but he declined. It wouldnt have helped much, anyway. I wss just searchng for something to say. He seemed sober and was pleasant, although I had trouble understanding some of what he said. He had no top teeth, so that was probably part of it.

He got up and came back with a glass of ice water. I was interested that the Starbucks staff seemed to tolerate his presence. After a while, I asked him if he would like something to eat. He said yes, of course. But he didn’t want anything at Starbucks, saying he wanted some real food, not sweets. There was a place across the street , he said, that served burgers and fries, and that he thought it was open at 10am. When we got there, though, it was closed.

So we wound up at Cosi, where I hadn’t wanted to go for breakfast. Of course, if we’d gone there, I wouldn’t have met him. At Cosi, he wanted meat. They had the breakfast menu, so the choices were bacon and ham. He wanted veggies, like lettuce,which he could see, but weren’t available until lunch. He was quiet in manner, but he knew what he wanted. The staff was patient, but I wondered if they would have been if I hadn’t been there. He wound up with a basil cheese bagel, I think because of the flecks of green in it, although he was worried he might not be able to chew it. I told him my mother had lost most of her teeth, but could, to her surprise, still chew bagels! I guess I convinced him, I hope I was right. He also wanted a smoothie (so much for the no sweets, but that was okay.) A banana smoothie. They had bananas there, for sale, but didn’t make banana smoothies. So we ordered a strawberry smoothie from the woman. And then, without saying a thing, she threw in a banana.

While they were making the food, he went up to the counter where the condiments and utensils were. He came back with about six slices of lemon and some sugar packets. In just a few seconds, he had opened the packets and licked the sugar out, and eaten the lemons. Even with a meal coming, he needed to do that, whether out of habit or hunger or both, I don’t know.


That was about it. We left him there, at a table outside, to enjoy his meal. I do hope he was able to chew the bagel.

I know I didn’t make any major changes in this man’s life. He will still be hungry and homeless tomorrow. On the other hand, he was certainly appreciative of the gesture, and I think, the half hour of company, and shook my hand in gratitude. I know the encounter affected me at least as much as it affected him.

Well, home to Massachusetts, and maybe a week or two of relaxing, sans travelling or museums. Oh well, , no I just remembered that I am going to New York next week! Museum row, here I come...!

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