A capital collection of art Washington's many museums offer something for everyone this holiday season - from Japanese masterpieces to photos of New York in the '30s.

December 06, 1998|By JOHN DORSEY | JOHN DORSEY,SUN ART CRITIC

In 1949 New York, a young woman dressed in an immaculate white graduation gown makes her way along a trash-strewn street. Under an 18th-century Japanese banana tree, a lavishly plumed rooster eyes a grasshopper. In a little town outside 19th-century Paris, a solitary figure navigates a snow-covered lane. In 16th-century Persia, the warrior Feridun strikes down the evil tyrant Zahak. In 1950s Hollywood, a camera embraces the sultry Marilyn Monroe for the umpteenth but far from the last time.

And they're all doing those things right now, in art exhibits in our nation's capital. Washington might be called an enormous circus of art, except that no circus ever had as many rings as Washington has art museums. A dozen or more, and at any one time most will have at least one and often several temporary exhibits running.

There's no better time for an excursion than this stressful season. Get away from the tree trimming, get away from the cooking, get away from the present buying, get away from the cocktail parties, get away to Washington and wander in fields of art. Here's a current selection:

National Gallery of Art

"Edo: Art in Japan 1615-1868" - From the early-17th to the mid-19th century, Japan was unified, peaceful and prosperous. The nation's life and arts were centered on the capital of Edo (now Tokyo), in the 18th century the largest city in the world. In the Edo period, Japan produced some of its greatest arts: sumptuous costumes, magnificent multipaneled screens, beautiful paintings, many-colored prints, superb small objects.

Almost 300 of them have been gathered, from 75 public and private collections, for this first comprehensive survey of Edo arts in the United States.

They have been given the National Gallery's usual instructive organization and sensitive installation, and an even-more-enormous-than-usual catalog accompanies the show. If you're going to lug one away, park close to the gallery.

The opportunity to see this many treasures of Japanese art and this much sheer beauty in one place will not happen often in a lifetime.

The National Gallery of Art, Constitution Avenue at Fourth Street Northwest. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. Admission free but passes required on weekends and certain other days. Advance and same-day passes available at the gallery, advance passes available through TicketMaster with service charge. Call TicketMaster in Baltimore at 410-481-SEAT. Call gallery at 202-737-4215. The show runs through Feb. 15.

The Phillips Collection

"Impressionists in Winter: Effets de Neige" - Imagined, but not unlikely, conversation between two museum-goers:

A: "Not another impressionist exhibition! What could they possibly think up that hasn't been done?"

B: "Believe it or not, there has never been an exhibit of impressionist winter landscapes. Inspired by a painting in its own collection, Alfred Sisley's 'Snow at Louveciennes' (1874), the Phillips has assembled 63 paintings by six artists: Sisley, Monet, Camille Pissarro, Renoir, Gauguin and Gustave Caillebotte. Actually, that's a little misleading - most of them are by Sisley, Monet and Pissarro. In fact, nearly half are by Monet."

A: "Not another Monet exhibit! Now I have two reasons not to go."

B: "I know what you mean. But you won't be bored. Monet is always surprising because he was such a great painter. This show would be worth the price of admission if only for the light on the snow in his early "The Magpie" (1869) and the way he captures the coldness of winter through his whites and grays in the later "Morning Haze" (1894). And Sisley is surprising, too. He's a less-well-known impressionist, but a formidable artist. Check out the Phillips picture and another painting of the same street, also called 'Snow at Louveciennes.' "

A: "Well all right, I'll go. But if I don't like it, lunch is on you."

B: "I'll take that chance."

The Phillips Collection, 1600 21st Street N.W. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon to 7 p.m. Sundays. Admission by timed ticket, $10 adults, $7 seniors and students, age 11 and under free. Tickets available at the gallery in advance, and same-day when not sold out. Tickets available through TicketMaster with service charge. Call TicketMaster in Baltimore at 410-481-SEAT. Call gallery at 202-387-2151. The show runs through Jan. 3.

Corcoran Gallery of Art

"Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective" - Born in 1919 and a photographer since the 1940s, Roy DeCarava has spent a half century quietly recording the life of his native New York, and primarily its African-American life. Whether he's photographing stars (and there are a lot of them here - Mahalia Jackson, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Romare Bearden) or nonstars, he records the pursuit of daily life with great empathy. His art is sad but hopeful - life isn't easy, it shows us, but the struggle to live it gives people a necessary dignity.

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