A range of art awaits at capital museums

December 14, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Company coming for the holidays? Wondering where to take them?

Consider as one destination a day-trip to Washington, where art awaits you by the museum-load. More than a dozen shows currently fill the capital's Christmas stocking, from Renaissance

masterpieces to 20th-century photographs, from portraits to pottery.

The following museums are either on the Mall or a few blocks from it.

National Gallery of Art

* Lorenzo Lotto: This remarkable artist from Venice was overshadowed by Titian and spent most of his time in smaller cities such as Bergamo and Treviso. "Lorenzo Lotto: Rediscovered Master of the Renaissance," his first American show, brings together 51 paintings by an artist adept at dramatic poses, symbolism, visual puns and occasional psychological insights.

Lotto (about 1480-1556/1557) created big, multi-figure altarpieces, but his best works are smaller, more focused religious scenes, and portraits. His "Christ Carrying the Cross" (1526) achieves immediacy and intensity by using a close-up image that seems far more modern than its date. It shows only Christ's head and the upper part of his body, but he's obviously stumbling under the weight of the cross as one soldier leans in to taunt him and another grabs and pulls his hair.

The "Portrait of a Married Couple" (1523-1524) exemplifies Lotto's use of symbolism. The husband points with one hand to a sleeping squirrel and holds in the other hand a paper with the Latin inscription "Man never." A storm rages outside. The squirrel has been interpreted as symbolizing marital neglect or lust, which the husband condemns. But Mauro Lucco, one of the authors of the show's catalog, proposes another interpretation: that it's a mourning portrait, that the pictured wife has died, and that the squirrel is literally sleeping, since squirrels are known to sleep through storms. The meaning of the inscription is that man cannot sleep through the storm of grief. Whatever the interpretation, it's an intriguing picture.

In Lotto's "Annunciation" (about 1534-1535) the virgin does not, as is more usual, quietly accept her destiny, but turns from the arriving angel in fright. She also turns toward the viewer, as if this were a staged scene in which she faced the audience to register her emotion. In addition to its other oddities, the picture centers on a cat, on the floor between angel and virgin, jumping in fear of the intruder.

A fascinating painter, Lotto.

* Thomas Moran (1837-1926) is probably the least known of the triumvirate of 19th-century American landscape painters that includes Albert Bierstadt and Frederick Edwin Church. The current National Gallery retrospective, called "Thomas Moran," is his first, comprising 97 paintings and watercolors.

Moran's big paintings are his best-known works, but a group of small watercolors led to his rise. In 1871 he made his first trip to the American West, joining an expedition to Yellowstone that also included photographer William Henry Jackson. There Moran made many watercolor sketches, and afterward they and Jackson's photographs were shown to members of Congress, who subsequently voted to make Yellowstone the first national park. Shortly thereafter, Congress appropriated $10,000 to buy Moran's 7-by-12-foot painting "Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone" to hang in the Capitol, and his career was assured.

These and Moran's other big paintings, notably "Chasm of the Colorado" (1873-1874) and "Mountain of the Holy Cross" (1875), are less spiritually fervent than Church's work and less artificially stagy than Bierstadt's. So they may be more agreeable to modern viewers. But Moran wanted to capture the grandeur of the Western scene and didn't hesitate to improve on the facts for effect. The river in "Mountain of the Holy Cross," for instance, wasn't really there -- Moran made it up. He once said, "My general scope is not realistic; all my tendencies are toward idealization."

The show contains a wide range of work, including smaller landscapes done near his summer home at East Hampton, New York. Some of these are sappy. But Moran's watercolors bring a freshness and intimacy to the Western landscape.

* Also on view at the National Gallery: "M. C. Escher; A Centennial Tribute" contains 85 works including many of the drawings of impossible architecture and other visual puzzles for which the artist is famous. And "Building a Collection," a show of 138 recently acquired works on paper, includes ones by Rembrandt, Piranesi, Manet, Degas, Picasso, Kathe Kollwitz, George Bellows, Edward Hopper, Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler.

National Museum of American Art

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.