Monday, December 3, 2007


Andrew and I had a fun weekend in Washington.

We stayed with Andrew’s friend, Paul, one of Andrew’s law school roommates. Paul was an excellent host.

Paul lives in Bethesda. He met us at the airport, which was totally unnecessary, and we all took the subway to Bethesda. We had dinner out Friday night and returned to Paul’s apartment, where we sat up talking until 1:00 a.m.

Saturday was a museum day. We started at The National Gallery Of Art and we viewed the Edward Hopper exhibition first thing. Although practically every major Hopper canvas was part of the exhibition, we all found the exhibition to be very disappointing. Hopper had a very narrow range. After viewing about eight Hopper paintings, I found the paintings to be positively irritating. He was a “niche” painter, and worked very well within his chosen niche, but he was not a universal artist capable of painting anything.

Most of the best-known paintings were at the end of the exhibition, and it was a mistake to place the more interesting paintings at the end. Exhibition-goers were tired by then, and devoted less time to examining the late paintings than examining the early, lesser works. This is always a problem when exhibitions are organized around a chronological theme.

Andrew pointed out that comprehensive exhibitions work best when organized around a non-chronological theme, especially for artists who get better and better with age. The comprehensive Caspar David Friedrich exhibition we attended in Hamburg last year was a good example of an exhibition that rigorously avoided chronology. With 140 Friedrich paintings in the exhibition, the displays were organized around various themes, resulting in great masterpieces being present in each room from first to last. Viewer attention never waned.

The Hopper paintings I liked best were the Cape Cod painting with the collie, the filling station painting, and the painting of a sailing party. All three paintings were from 1939 and 1940. “Night Hawks”, from 1942, was nowhere near as fascinating in person as I had expected. In person, that painting was overshadowed by several other paintings in the same room, which surprised me. Although “Night Hawks” may be the quintessential Hopper painting, it is not the best.

Midway through the exhibition, we sat through an inane 15-minute film about Hopper, narrated by Steve Martin, who sounded as if he had marbles in his mouth. We could not keep ourselves from giggling, and we laughed uncontrollably throughout the film.

All in all, the Hopper exhibition was very disappointing.

From The National Gallery we walked across the Mall to the Air And Space Museum. The Air and Space Museum is a great museum, and we had a great time ambling through the displays. It is easy to understand why this museum is so popular. The displays are wonderful, the use of space is wonderful, the organization of the museum is wonderful, and the items on display are wonderful. The museum was full of families, and they clearly were having a ball, parents and kids alike. It lent the museum a joyous, festive atmosphere. We had a ball, too.

We ate lunch in the Air And Space Museum, and we stayed until 3:00 p.m., when we returned to The National Gallery Of Art to view the J.M.W. Turner exhibition.

I was diffident about seeing more Turner paintings, since I had had my fill of Turner in London. However, four rooms into the exhibition, we began seeing some of the giant and historic marine paintings, and from that point forward I began to get hooked, at least on the marine paintings. We had not seen any Turner naval paintings from The Napoleonic Wars while we were in London, and several of these paintings were stupendous (a couple of them were actually loaned from Tate Britain, but they had not been on display at Tate Britain during our visit there).

One of the naval paintings from The Napoleonic Wars was the largest work Turner ever painted. It was a magnificent and beautiful painting, but even better were two other paintings that were slightly smaller: a painting of Copenhagen Harbor, representing the aftermath of the British Navy’s capture of the Danish Fleet so that it would not fall into the hands of the French Navy; and a painting of The Battle Of Trafalgar, representing the moment immediately after Admiral Lord Nelson had been mortally wounded. These were stirring canvases, and I am very glad that we went to see this exhibition.

We all liked the marine paintings so much that, when we had completed our tour of the exhibition, we went back to the entrance and went through the exhibition a second time.

I am still diffident about most Turner paintings. His landscapes do not do much for me, and I think his history paintings are unsuccessful, and the Venice paintings do not appeal to me at all. However, I liked a few of his watercolors on display in Washington, especially a watercolor of The Tower Of London painted from The Thames.

I was surprised that one Turner painting I had seen in September looked completely different ten weeks later. “Norwich Castle, Sunrise” had fascinated me in London. It did not fascinate me at all in Washington. Andrew said the difference was in how the painting was lighted. In London, the painting had been lighted indirectly, and the colors emerged vividly from across the room and from a direct, close-up view of the painting. In Washington, the painting was lighted with a spotlight, and the spotlight somehow drained the painting of its color and richness.

When we were finished with the Turner paintings, we went back to Paul’s apartment. On the way, we stopped at a food store, because Andrew planned to do some cooking Saturday night for Paul. Andrew had been the house cook during the three years he and Paul and two other roommates had shared an apartment on Capitol Hill, and Paul had grown accustomed to Andrew’s cooking and he has missed it since law school ended.

While Andrew cooked, we all watched the Big Twelve Championship Game. All three of us wanted to watch the game, but Andrew and Paul would have insisted upon watching the game anyway, even if they truly had not wanted to, because they knew how much the game meant to me.

The Sooners whipped Missouri, 38-17, in what truly was not much of a challenge. The Sooners jumped out to an early lead, but Missouri tied things up late in the first half, 14-14. The second half was all Oklahoma. Missouri, entering the game ranked number one in the nation, did not even look like it belonged on the same field as the Sooners.

Andrew cooked up a storm while we watched the game. Paul only has one oven in his kitchen, and Andrew used the oven to roast two stuffed chickens. On the stove, Andrew cooked a pot roast on one back burner, boiled chicken on another back burner, and he used the two front burners to make Wiener Schnitzel and hot Viennese potato salad, which we ate for dinner. Paul loves all of these foods, and for the rest of the week he will be able to choose pot roast, roasted chicken or boiled chicken for his dinner.

On Sunday, we went to the Holocaust Museum. None of us had ever visited the Holocaust Museum, despite years of living in Washington.

The Holocaust Museum is not so much a museum as a history center. It takes viewers on a photographic and video journey from the late 1920’s to the end of World War II, telling the story of the destruction of Europe’s Jewish population. The displays involved photographs and short film clips, but very little else.

All three of us have read so many histories about the events portrayed in the museum that we did not come across anything we had not already encountered countless times before. We were disappointed that we did not discover something new.

It took us almost three hours to go through the four levels of permanent displays. We examined every single exhibit and we stopped and watched every single film.

When we were done, all three of us decided that the museum should be torn down and rebuilt from scratch. It is a lousy, lousy museum. It may be the worst museum I have ever visited.

The building is a very bad building, poorly designed and constructed of cheap materials inside and out. The exhibition spaces are poorly designed, the exhibitions do not flow coherently and logically from one to another, and the passageways for visitors are far too narrow. The cramped presentation areas are positively irritating because there is so much wasted space in the building, space that should have been devoted to the exhibition areas.

Further, traffic flow into the building is fatally deficient. Visitors approaching the building are corralled into a waiting line along the side of the building. Once inside the building, visitors must submit themselves to an airport-style security screening and are then corralled to a bank of elevators, where they must take a slow elevator to the top of the building and proceed downward through the building from there.

This means that, before visitors even gain entrance to a meaningful part of the building, they have already surmounted three exhausting visitor lines: outside the front door, inside the front door, and at the elevator bank inside the entrance. I have never seen such a ridiculous scheme to enter a public building in my life. As Andrew said to Paul and me while we were waiting in line, “It’s easier to break into a Federal Court House than to get into this building”.

None of this would be important if the exhibits had been better. However, the exhibits were amateur, which made the whole experience very unpleasant. Before visiting the museum, I had anticipated that visitors would be extremely moved throughout the whole museum experience. Instead, people appeared to be bored out of their minds and were simply strolling through the exhibits as if they could not get out of the building quickly enough. I understood exactly how they felt.

This was the second totally inept American history museum Andrew and I had visited in not much more than a month (we, along with Andrew’s brothers, had visited the Ellis Island immigration museum over Columbus Day). The Ellis Island immigration museum is an embarrassment for all Americans, and so is the Holocaust Museum. As a nation, we should be ashamed, collectively, that we cannot present history better than this.

Why cannot Americans do history museums at an acceptable standard? Is it some national character flaw? Is something missing in the American psyche? Or are we simply not producing competent curators?

When Andrew and I were in London in September, we had visited The Imperial War Museum. We only spent one afternoon at the IWM, but it was clear, entering the main rotunda, that this was a museum that totally had its act together.

We spent that afternoon viewing a handful of paintings in the art galleries and visiting a special exhibition, “The Children’s War”, which examined the events of World War II from the perspectives of children. We did not visit any other portion of the IWM during our visit, including the IWM Holocaust exhibit.

However, “The Children’s War” was a case study in how a history exhibition should be organized and presented. It was informative, scholarly, entertaining and attractive. It was organized coherently and designed beautifully. The “presentation” was at the highest possible level of artistry and taste. It was everything the Holocaust Museum in Washington was not.

Apparently it IS possible to organize an excellent Holocaust exhibition. In 2005, Andrew and his middle brother had spent ten full days exploring the entire Imperial War Museum, from soup to nuts, and during this time they had visited the Holocaust exhibition at the IWM. The Holocaust exhibition at the IWM occupies two floors of the giant IWM building, and it took Andrew and his brother four hours alone simply to get through the first floor of the Holocaust exhibition. They were so moved (and disturbed) by what they had seen on the first floor that they had to leave the museum and return on another day in order to view the second floor of the Holocaust exhibition (which took them another four hours to get through).

According to Andrew, the Holocaust exhibition at the IWM is the best Holocaust exhibition he has ever seen, even better than similar exhibitions at the Invalides in Paris or at Vienna’s Imperial War Museum. In addition to photographs and films, which it has aplenty, London’s IWM has countless artifacts and mementoes that survived the destruction of the war. These items enrich and supplement the photographs and films on display at the IWM, all of which were vastly superior to those on display in Washington.

Perhaps at some point in time the Holocaust Museum in Washington will get its act together, and completely redesign its interior spaces and install exhibits worthy of its subject. As it is now, the museum is irredeemably cheap and inartful. Andrew says it is a bargain-basement version of the IWM Holocaust exhibit, and a dumbed-down bargain-basement version to boot, clearly devised for an audience of morons.

After we finished the Holocaust Museum, we walked around the Mall for a couple of hours, even though it was quite cold by Washington standards. We walked around The Washington Monument and we walked over to The World War II Memorial, which looks uncomfortably close to an Albert Speer creation. The whole thing gave us the creeps. Even the ridiculously-oversized eagles looked as if they had been borrowed from Hitler’s reviewing stand at Nuremberg! All three of us were appalled.

After wandering around the World War II abomination for a while, we walked over to The Lincoln Memorial, which is genuinely a beautiful, dignified and noble place. The Lincoln Memorial is my favorite Washington monument, and it was good to see it again. It cleansed us of our discomfort over the World War II monstrosity.

From The Lincoln Memorial, we walked to the Smithsonian Museum Of American Art. It was a very, very long walk and we were freezing by the time we arrived.

At the museum, we viewed only one exhibition, the exhibition about Spain and its ties to the U.S. during the Revolutionary Period. The exhibition was mostly paintings, all of which were portraits. There were a few historic documents on display, too, but it was primarily an exhibition of portraits. Before visiting the exhibition, we somehow had the notion that the exhibition would include historic and military artifacts, too, but it was almost solely a portrait exhibition. We were not disappointed, however, to see such a fine assortment of historic portraits.

The most famous paintings on display were Duplessis’s legendary portrait of Benjamin Franklin and Goya’s full-length portrait of Ferdinand VII, who was unmistakably portrayed as the madman he unmistakably was. It is an eerie and chilling portrait.

The exhibition was not particularly large, and it took us little more than an hour to view the portraits to our satisfaction. It was a nice exhibition, all in all, and I am glad we had an opportunity to view it.

From the Smithsonian Museum Of American Art, we went to get a bite to eat, after which it was time for us to head to the airport.

It was good seeing Paul again, and it was fun spending 48 hours in Washington. However, returning to Washington for the first time in 18 months simply reminded me why I never liked Washington in the first place. It is an odd, almost artificial city. It is the most transient city in the U.S., and there is something oddly impersonal and even uncomfortable about the place. Shorn of its museums and monuments, there would be nothing worth seeing there except the two giant cathedrals and the Dulles Airport terminal.

Given the weather in Minneapolis, Andrew and I had anticipated a delayed flight for our trip home. We need not have worried, because our flight departed Washington six minutes earlier than scheduled and landed in Minneapolis eight minutes earlier than scheduled.

Andrew had kept an eye on the Minneapolis weather while we were in Washington. Andrew had been concerned about the snow, knowing that he would not be in town to remove his parents’ snowfall. It snowed about six inches in all over the weekend, but Andrew’s father had no trouble removing the snow because Andrew’s brothers had affixed the snow shovel to his tractor over Thanksgiving week. Andrew’s father was able to clear the driveway with no trouble, but he did have to shovel the front walkway and sidewalk.

Tonight Andrew’s mother is having us over for dinner. She wants to hear about the art exhibitions we visited in Washington. Moreover, she and Andrew’s father want to see Andrew and me, because they have not seen us since the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

It sounds like we will be having pot roast. I can go for that.


  1. Hi there, Josh.

    Glad you had a brief but rewarding weekend in D.C.


  2. Thanks, J.R. We did have a good time.

    The Hopper exhibition travels to Chicago early next year. It will be at the Art Institute Of Chicago beginning in February.

    You might want to consider catching it.

    It's FREEZING here!


  3. Joshua, I am happy to hear that you enjoyed the Turners after all. It must have been quite a surprise to you. I love Turner, by the way.

    Hopper really does not export well beyond U.S. borders. There are only a handful of Hoppers in European collections, and the only good one is in Madrid at the Baron What's-His-Name Museum. I don't see what you Americans see in Hopper. He was more of an illustrator than a painter, like Norman Rockwell and Guy Pene du Bois were primarily illustrators. Hopper's work strikes me as silly.

    It's nice to know you had a good visit out of town.


  4. I made two flubs in this post.

    It is easier for me to post a corrective comment than to edit my post.

    First, Andrew and his brother were in London for 18 days in 2005. They visited the Imperial War Museum ten times during their stay, spending the equivalent of seven complete days there. They still have not seen everything in the Imperial War Museum--it is that large.

    Second, Andrew and I had his parents over for dinner Monday night last, so we HAD seen them subsequent to Thanksgiving weekend.

  5. Thank you for clearing that up, and please make sure it does not happen again!

    Glad you guys got home safely, and we shall have to do this again soon!

  6. I think the key thing to remember about the US Holocaust Memorial Museum is that it has the word "memorial" in its title. With the exception of the security screening lines you had to stand in, the museum was designed to make the visitor feel cramped. The elevators going up to the top of the museum that vistors are herded into, and the narrow passages are supposed to feel confining and oppressive. I'm sure that for many Americans there is much at the museum that would be new information, but I am not sure that the point of it is to tell us anything "new" about the Holocaust. More than anything it seems like it was designed and programmed to evoke emotion. And in that, this memorial museum is very successful. Facts and history are too easy for most people to ignore. But seeing three stories of family photos of Jews all from a shtetl in Lithuania that was almost completely wiped out by the Nazis is a lot harder to ignore.

    As for Hopper, illustrator or not, important or not, much of his work, including many of the pieces in the NGA show, conveys rather impressively themes of isolation and alienation that are central to "modern" America. Like some of the works of Monet, Matisse, and others, some of Hopper's works have been so overused in mass media that they trick one into thinking they are banal or suitable only for a dorm room poster. It is hard sometimes to set aside the feelings of "oh this again" and really see what is on the canvas.

  7. As a substantial contributor to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, I was only one of many contributors sorely disappointed at the end result. The museum may be called many things, but "successful" is surely not one of them. There was enormous disappointment among major contributors when the museum opened. I happen to like the exterior, although I admit it is no great shakes. The interior, on the other hand, is a complete disaster and needs to be redone from scratch. A total mess. You guys need to come to Cleveland when the Cleveland Museum of Art reopens. It is America's greatest comprehensive museum after the Met. Robert