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I spent the week of March 12th up in the D.C.-metropolitan area and it’s taken me awhile, but I finally had a chance to sit down, sift through my memories and put them in some sort of order to share here.

On my first full day I made a late start.  Knowing a bookstore’s offerings vary by market I stopped in and was most pleased to score a copy of Prokofiev’s ballet “Romeo and Juliet” as performed by The Cleveland Orchestra, directed by Lorin Maazel.

With that success under my belt I decided to get a head start on one of my missions for the trip: seeing the Vermeers and Turners in the National Gallery’s collection.  In January, after viewing the exhibit “Rembrandt in America” at the North Carolina Museum of Art my friend and I chatted about the artists we liked, calling them up online.  I noted the pieces held in D.C. so I could get a close personal experience of them.  J. M. W. Turner’s “Approach to Venice” (1844) is, well, what I imagine the approach to heaven to be.

The next day I visited the Folger Shakespeare Library, in the neighborhood of the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress.  The current exhibit is “Shakespeare’s Sisters: Voices of English and European Women Writers, 1500 – 1700” and is scheduled to remain through May 19, 2012.  This exhibition offers a continuing thread through a program of activities sponsored by the Library, “Celebrating Women Writers,” part of its mission to advance knowledge and the arts.

To quote from the exhibition’s companion volume, “Shakespeare’s Sisters: Women Writers Bridge Five Centuries,”  “In 1929, Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own, famously imagined a gifted sister of Shakespeare’s whose voice was never heard because women in her era were expected to be silent and obedient.  The pen was a male prerogative.  Woolf went on to describe a complex of conditions which she thought made it nearly impossible for women to write in the age of Shakespeare. …… Thanks to research in the later twentieth century, a wealth of writing by sixteenth and seventeenth century Continental and English women has been recovered: plays, poems, prose romances, and other imaginative literature, as well as biographies, translations, prayers, and letters.”

Centuries separate our lives and, while many women of this Digital Age have advanced beyond hidebound cultural restrictions, there are yet more women than some would care to admit whose lives and minds are restrained in a manner much like the historical women featured in this exhibit.

I, for one, appreciate this candid portrait of a portion of the history of women’s writing as I stand in the here and now looking toward the future.

Refreshed by that bit of exposure to Will Shakespeare I spent my remaining leisure time back at the West Wing … of the National Gallery of Art.

Oh my.  I saw delight upon delight as I wandered.  The sculptures by Rodin (among them a ‘portrait’ of Vita Sackville-West, close companion of Virginia Woolf) – I am still trying to find a word for them.  William Shakespeare described man once as ‘this quintessence of dust’ and I imagine August Rodin sent dust flying as he chiseled these images of women from the materials he used.  The dust settled long ago, but the energy, the power, the life continue to hum.  Degas’ “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” (the model for which some scholars believe died very young, a severely marginalized girl, perhaps having fallen into prostitution) provides a pivot for that sculpture gallery.

Both men had to endure scathing criticism of their work during their lifetime, but I found myself drawn to the heart and soul their work evinced.

Elsewhere I was enchanted by the works of El Greco, a contemporary of William Shakespeare, albeit in Spain, whose work, to my eye, appears to have influenced Picasso and the Cubists of the early 20th century.

I also enjoyed the glimpses into an artist’s process afforded by Picasso’s drawings and pieces like a “cartoon,” used to transfer a drawing onto canvas for painting, from the 16th or 17th century.  These glimpses give budding artists a bit of a boost in confidence, I think.  If Rembrandt used a “cartoon” I don’t feel bad using graphite paper to transfer my drawings to the canvas.

I saw a mere soupçon of the National Gallery’s collection.  As a modest guess I would say a person could spend a week in each wing, West and East.  Wherever a person may find themselves I would encourage them to visit an art museum.  The National Gallery is free and many museums in the country have at least one day a month with free admission.  You can check museum policies regarding photography online.

Go.  See some art for yourself.

Barbara Butler McCoy, 2012

[[Bibliography:  Bradford, Gigi and Newlin, Louisa, editors. “Shakespeare’s Sisters: Women Writers Bridge Five Centuries.” Washington, D.C.: Folger Shakespeare Library, c.  2012]]

[[Photos:  Rodin’s hand holding a female figure, near another female figure, Barbara Butler McCoy, 2012; “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” with a Rodin in background, Barbara Butler McCoy, 2012; Rodin’s “Vita Sackville-West”, Barbara Butler McCoy, 2012.]]