Saturday, 24 January 2009

Art & Architecture 1 (Days 4 through 7)

This won't be by any means the last post on visiting art, or for that matter architecture, but they're the main things I saw. Wednesday was spent relaxing, making sure my extremities warmed up, making sure all my body parts worked, and that sort of thing; as well, of course, as writing a blog posting on the inauguration of President Obama.

However, Thursday I was back out and about, planning on taking a long walk. Before that, I stopped off at the place I stood opposite whilst watching the inaugural parade - the Archives of the USA. The building is nothing less, to my mind, than a temple to the Three Charters (always, always capitalised); that is, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights (they have the originals of each, as well as a 1297 Magna Carta, on display). It's been said that the religion of America is the law, and the architecture of the building would suggest that such was indeed the case; the building is in the neoclassical style, and the queues really do remind one of a pilgrimage. The architecture of the place is wholly reminiscent of nothing less than the ark of a Synagogue, crossed with a pre-Vatican II Roman-Catholic Church with rood screen, emphasising the importance and secular-holiness of the documents within, faded and nigh-unreadable in their intricate 18th century handwritten font.

After that little pseudo-religious experience, I wandered down to the World War Two memorial. Although America didn't join 'til late, we all know they like to think they won the war so the memorial reflects that, in many ways. On one side is a representation of the Pacific, and the other the Atlantic ("from sea to shining sea"); around the edge, 56 pillars, each inscribed with the name of a territory or state (plus DC, which is an oddity) each also bearing a laurel and bound together with a bronze representation of a rope. It's actually quite solemn, though by no means the most effective DC war memorial (we'll get to that one later on); a rather impressive sight, too, and apparently better at night.

I headed on from there to the tidal basin; it's just by the Mall, a 100-odd acre inlet of the Potomac, it's got some of the big monuments (and reasons to suggest that the United States has indeed got the Constitution as the religion). It's a pretty walk around the edge of that, even when the cherry trees are blossom-free; the ice and areas where it had melted were, I must say, definitely an attraction, and the pigeons or seagulls, whichever they were, seemed to find it a novelty to see some water and be able to actually drink it again. Wandering round, there are some amazing sights - the one here is just the Washington Monument, reflected in the ice and water of the basin, with the dappled surface just looking really beautiful.

So, the first memorial I got to was the Jefferson; Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, 3rd President of the United States, and the man who oversaw the Loiusiana Purchase, one of the best writers of his day (personally, I rank Tom Paine before him, but that's a preference not anything approaching a really decent argument). The first thought I had on seeing the Jefferson Memorial was that it was America's answer to the Pantheon in Rome; circular, it's got a central figure, that is, Jefferson, looking into the basin, out towards the Washington Monument. It's a really big memorial, commanding the area and only not visible from the Mall because of the trees rather than the falling ground - it's artificially raised on steps. Very impressive stuff, and I got a few very dramatic pictures of the man and the monument, of which I'll post just one.

Continuing to go round the basin, I came to a little memorial so small it wasn't even marked in my guidebook map; a memorial to George Mason, a small garden with a bench and a bronze, slightly larger than life, of the man, sitting there, comfortably. Apparently, Mason was one of the people who inspired the language in the Declaration; he seems to have been a very influential figure on the revolutionaries and on early America, and his memorial reminded me of nothing other than that to Alan Turing in Manchester, in it's style and pose.

The next memorial one comes across wandering around the basin is that to FDR; this is a very different kind of memorial, both from the others, and from the sort he wanted. It's large, but low - long, rather than tall, as it were, and much more modern; huge blocks of hewn dark stone, quotations (those are a theme in all the personal memorials, though; it's just more spread out and more pithy quotations for FDR). With the ice where water is meant to be, it's a really beautiful sight; I actually think it's better like that than it will be in spring, with water flowing over the stones rather the white ice against the dark stones, the sparkling crystals. There's also a statue of Eleanor, with the UN's logo beside her, a fitting tribute to the woman who caused the writing of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. The most interesting part, to me, of the monument was five pillars, with five plaques on the wall; the pillars showed the problems of the Depression, the plaques the effects and programmes of the FDR presidency. For welfare state buffs, those five pillars were nothing to do with the Five Giants - I did, indeed, ask. However, the various bronzes - people affected by the Depression, FDR himself in his self-designed chair, FDR and his dog, and a few others - are all really well cast, and although a few bits have been worn shiny by repeated touches by the public, they were generally very well-preserved.

Continuing round, I hit the Mall again, and looked in vain for a so-far still non-extant memorial marked in my guidebook to Martin Luther King Jr; expected to be unveiled at the end of 2008, is it any surprise that in a town where one face of the Capitol itself has been undergoing renovations for virtually the whole Bush Presidency a single monument hasn't been completed? Whilst looking for it, I did come across the rather modest DC War Memorial - a tiny, tiny circular thing, doric pillars supporting a domed roof that starts barely above human height, a marked contrast to the WW2 memorial.

Next stop was the Korean War Veteran's Memorial; a mirror-wall beside a garden, in which various bronzes of soldiers charge toward a US flag in full kit, it's quite impressive, and into the wall various unpolished sections have been cut showing things like women back home, veterans returning, and all sorts of scenes; it's the sort of memorial that works in summer or winter, because it doesn't rely on the environment for effect, creating an environment of it's own. It also listed all the countries that took part in the combat (on the UN side), and had a (military) casualty list for each country as well. A rather good thing to have in central DC, I thought; something for politicians to look upon and remember.

The Lincoln Memorial is rather more akin to the Jefferson than the FDR, I have to say. Taking it's cue from classical culture, it rises above the landscape before a pool reflecting the Washington Monument, steps leading up to it in a straight and simple line, columns marking its front limit and Lincoln sitting enclosed by three walls, looking rather like a 19th-century Zeus. On one wall is his second Inaugural Address and on the other the Emancipation Proclamation, each crucial speeches in his Presidencies and rather important to the US as a whole; they are written in full, and very clearly - every visitor could, if they wished, take the time to read them, if they looked away from Lincoln and his commanding view of the Mall for long enough. There is also a small, if oft-visited, bronze plaque on the steps up to the memorial, commemorating the "I Have A Dream" speech, placed where MLK stood to deliver it.

Moving back up the Mall, I came to a memorial everyone knows; the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial. I think little needs to be said of this one, even by way of description; a black and reflective wall of marble, it has every casualty and MIA soldier of the Vietnam conflict recorded, in chronological order, on it. That's probably the most poignant memorial in the whole of DC, to be honest.

That rounded up a rather tiring day, but even so I walked back to the Metro via the back of the White House (I only managed to see it in the far distance, because they were not letting people even remotely near it at the time - terrorist fears, apparently) and via the J. Edgar Hoover Building, a very, very ugly building that is home to the headquarters of the FBI in Washington.

Friday, I was of course back out; a rather more simple plan this time, though it didn't turn out as simple as I'd intended - I headed to the National Gallery of Art (East Building) to see an exhibition on Pompeii which turned out to be excellent and spread out over a large part of the building, with some very good exhibits and a total ban on photography. I then went through the rest of the museum, and saw some interesting pieces of art - one very strange numbers based piece included - and a lot of mobiles in various styles, on loan from a few places for form an exhibit. None of the art really grabbed me (all very modern, and mostly in styles I dislike - a few pieces I really enjoyed, though), so I left and decided to head up behind the Capitol.

Well, after that long walk I did get a nice reward; the Supreme Court (which I'm going to be heading to early Monday morning, to try and hear an oral argument). Whilst I didn't enter the building, I did get a good look at one more temple to the law that exists in DC; the iconography was a mingling of fascist and classical, which given how strongly the fascist iconography drew on the classical world is unsurprising. However, the figures flanking the stairs up to the entrance are, in their style, very harshly made, and surprisingly modern, to my mind... whilst also avoiding the typical scale-bearing justice image. The implication I got is that in the US, justice is a lot more harsh than the UK; that they have the death penalty bears that out, I guess.

Today, I went back into DC and back into the National Gallery of Art, West Building this time. The place is beautifully laid out and easy to get lost in, with some fantastic sculptures and a lot of excellent European items - some Rembrandt, a da Vinci, lots of Monet, et cetera, et cetera. Some very, very famous images which I had no idea I was going to see were there, including some excellent impressionist work, some Van Gogh... really there was something from every artistic period, from the Byzantine-influenced Gothic onwards. I was most taken by the sculpture as is the norm for me, and spent a lot of time in the extensive sculpture galleries, looking at bronzes, clay figures, and all sorts of pieces in all sorts of styles, from mock-classical to 16th-century reinterpretations of the spinario figure through to subjects like the Thinker, and charicature busts of the 19th century French Parliament. My personal favourite, however, not for any artistic reason, has to be a statue called "The Age of Bronze" by Rodin... made of plaster. I don't think I need explain why I enjoy it so much.

After that I wandered back behind the Capitol (yes, lots of walking over the same ground) and looked inside the Jefferson building of the Library of Congress. The British Library has been called a gulag for it's architectural style, and whether you agree with that, it can't be argued the building it beautiful. Looking into the Jefferson building, I almost cried at it's beauty, grace, and actual intelligence - names covered the place, and quotations, and beautiful art, and wonderful architectural styles. The reading room had figures around the walls who represented the genres (eg Homer and Shakespeare for poetry, Plato and Bacon for Philosophy) that were represented, and one could work out by the figures what each genre was; a very canny and intelligently built reading room that puts even that in the British Museum to shame, I looked down at it from a high gallery but intend to go back and get access to the books themselves and do a bit of reading.

All that's ignoring the atrium, which was just breathtaking. There's the idea of a temple to learning, and then there's the reality; this was the reality. I have to say that the 90 minutes I spent in the building were probably the best spent 90 minutes, excluding the inaugural parade, I spent all week; the beauty of the place was, is, stunningly breathtaking and the fine plasterwork and paintings around the place, the allegories, the mosaics, the allusions classical and modern, were wonderful. Of special note was a mosaic showing Minerva, in which every detail meant something, which adorned the wall on the way up to the viewing gallery over the reading room, and the placement of a personification of Erotica amongst the genres of literature alongside Poetry and Romance. All in all, I think that place will be getting a few more visits, just to sit and stare.


  1. I'm glad you explained that the FDR monument had snow on it, from here it looked like it's falling down!

    When does the teaching thing start, btw?

    Katie xx

  2. You're doing a grand job of selling washington DC! I must admit I've never really considered visiting but I can see that this might turn into a must see by the time you've finished.

    Glad you've got over the freezing cold and that everything works!

  3. I know, isn't it amazing... I recommend taking a day and going to the Holocaust museum at some point. It's hard to walk through the main exhibit, but it's amazing...