Arcimboldo and the NGA

At the beginning of November, I went with a friend to National Gallery of Art (NGA). There on display was the shocking and alluring centerpiece done by Philip Haas, featured in the video above. (Apologizes for the filmography, though I am proud of the music) I will return that work and the genius of Arcimboldo, but first we must discuss it’s housing.

The NGA was created in 1937, primarily because of a gift from former Secretary of Treasury Andrew W. Mellon. Former is a generous word, as ousted is slightly more correct. He glad accepted an ambassadorship in the UK. But never mind his politics, his nose for opportunity, or his attempt to liquidate America during the great depression…he got us started.

It seems quite appropriate that National Gallery has its beginnings from the generosity of American wealth. Being a young country, we can always count on the wisdom or forced generosity of the established. UVA’s library, began on the heels of Thomas Jefferson’s, in the valley below Monticello: the NGA began with the thrifty acquisitions of an accountant. Now I don’t want to be to hard on Mr. Mellon, his generosity is well received, but I just find it curious the fourth wealthiest man in America is know for his contributions to the art world, and for hiding in Europe during the great depression.

Moving far forward to the National houses of art. The NGA features classical and modern artworks which are housed in two buildings, the west and east wings respectively. The west is a spartan, but typical dc building. A very plain neoclassical building from the outside, but the details inside are worth their weight. For instance, the stair cases on either side of the main hallway are magnificent, especially the subtle curves to the end caps. The most redeeming feature is the dome center, with a proper oculus. That feature sets the mood and diction for the rest of the west wing.

from the east looking to the west

The west wing, is striking and seemingly out of place, resting at the feet of the capitol. It is however, remarkable. Designed by I.M. Pei, who gave the Louvre its pyramid, it is wonder of space and light. Here is where I stumbled upon this elementary theory about the relationship between classical and modern art on the national stage. In the west wing of the NGA, the formula is tried and true. The format encourages the flow and discovery. I can go in for the hundredth time and still be drawn through seeking the details that are pushed out by the walls and wood floors.

In the east I enter hungry, desperate, encouraged by the prospect that such beautiful walls can hold something equally if not more beautiful. But every time I find my self greatly disappointed. The space is abundant, the work is stagnant and few. Calder’s mobiles struggle in futility to keep you entranced. Is modern art, is the open invitation that no one can fill? Is it the understanding that our modern format is chaotic, scattered, and largely with out consensus? The large statement seems to be, we built this big house to feed the souls of man, however all we can afford is light and air. To any artist that is enough, but this house isn’t for just for we who call ourselves artists. Any good gallery haunts the day dreams of all who enter it, convincing anyone that you feel too. The east wing, for the most part, continues to leaves me unaware of anything new and with little hope.

then you walk up on this…

Winter (after Arcimboldo)-Philip Haas

This sculpture is one of those you have to see. It takes all the noise out of your head, tunnel vision sets and your just there observing something completely different. The feeling is much more profound if you approach from the basement level as the photo illustrates. The illusion of this fauna-humanoid growing from the cold polished stone is a beautiful sight. Mr. Haas chose right.

When you learn about Arcimboldo, its never quite the credence you would expect for some who defied convention as much as he did. This is 4 centuries before dada, before dali or Magritte. Some say he was just responding to the times, and to daVinci’s grotesque heads. While this is partly true,  his works dwell within a state of imagination that goes beyond the general renaissance inquisitive spirit. Our modern artists thrive with character’s swimming in distortion, begging for a pulpy story. The characters of Arcimboldo, are satirical, and on their own a incomprehensible examination of the human form. This work is great encouragement to anyone seeking some art-food. Arcimboldo’s drastic innovations more than 400 years ago spur new thought, and once more awaking the possibility that new ground is out there, new feelings lie cold waiting to be shook.

This exhibit is on through 1.9.11 and it features the sculpture by Philip Haas, as well as more than a dozen paintings by Arcimboldo. Go see it if you can.

Keep warm.

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About lucaszuniga

Aspiring artist and seeker of all relevant truth.
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