Museums Get Trolled With Proposed Signs

Recently the grand, Second Empire-style Renwick Gallery here in Washington reopened its doors, following a lengthy renovation, with a rather hideous addition of signage to its stately façade.

In light of this development, Washington City Paper rather cleverly decided to photoshop some signs, symbols, and banners onto a number of museums and galleries around the Capital. (WARNING: Readers particularly sensitive to blue language may not wish to follow this link.) For those who do not live locally or who do not follow news from the art world, a bit of explanation on these submissions will be necessary:

National Museum of Women in the Arts – The addition to the façade of a pair of feminist symbols, originally the symbol for the goddess Venus, is somewhat obvious. There is certainly a particular philosophical slant to this institution. The historical irony lost on some visitors is that the building was originally a rather massive temple of Freemasonry. Make of that connection what you will.

Natural History Museum – With apologies for the language, the proposed signage pretty much sums up why a significant portion of its visitors walk through the doors of the museum. It also simultaneously reflects the current level of frustration that renovations to expand and re-display the rather significant collection of dinosaur and other fossils are taking so long. At least the mummies are still there.

Textile Museum – The banner may be somewhat tongue-in-cheek, since over the years I’ve heard people remark, “There’s a museum…of textiles?” However the collection is quite interesting, from an historical and a manufacturing perspective, even if you’re not particularly interested in cloth. The only anachronism here is that the building pictured is no longer the home of the museum, which moved to the campus of George Washington University earlier this year. 

Air and Space Museum – Chances are if you love this museum, you’re also a Star Wars fan. And if you’re a Star Wars fan, you’re probably on pins and needles waiting for the next installment of the franchise to premiere next month. The Smithsonian feels your pain.

Corcoran Gallery of Art – Once one of the grandest museums in the city, The Corcoran is no more, thanks to a number of factors, including having lost its focus as an art institution. Its collection is currently being chewed over by the leonine National Gallery, which gets first bite at the Corcoran’s massive holdings, before allowing regional museums to fight like vultures over what’s left on the bones. The building itself and the associated school of art are now part of George Washington University. 

Hirshhorn Museum – As much as I loathe the place, the banner hanging from the side of The Hirshhorn in this image is a masterwork of trolling, second perhaps only to that proposed by City Paper for the National Building Museum. The new director of The Hirshhorn has been the subject of controversy in the art press, preferring to spend more time in New York than in Washington, and – bizarrely – holding the 40thanniversary gala of the museum in Manhattan, rather than at the museum itself or in DC. As WaPo art critic Philip Kennicott put it, this was quite the “snub” to our fair city, making this proposed signage all the more perfect.

American Indian Museum – Apart from praising the building itself, the most common remark you hear visitors to this, one of the newest of the Smithsonian museums, say is that the collection is underwhelming – but the cafeteria is terrific. It has become an eating destination rather than an educational institution for many of the busloads of tourists being dropped off along the Mall. Truth be told, most of the museum cafeterias on The Mall are fairly bland and awful, so the innovative dishes on offer here offer something far better than frozen hamburger patties and microwaved pizzas.

National Building Museum – I love the National Building Museum space, and I love the concept of a museum dedicated to architecture. Unfortunately, this place tends to lose its focus a bit too often, which is why this outstanding example of trolling deserves a little explanation. This summer the NBA hosted an art installation in its grand, main hall, which was essentially a giant ball crawl for adults entitled “The Beach”. Although the balls were supposedly cleaned regularly, there was at least one reported case of pink eye, and claims of various respiratory illnesses, which visitors blamed on having plunged into the installation, described by some as smelling suspiciously like a dirty diaper. When the “art” was removed at the end of summer, large quantities of hair, skin, and other goodies were found at the bottom of the pit.    

National Gallery East Building – The National Gallery is my favorite museum in DC, and I have spent countless happy hours there looking at art, seeing films, hearing concerts, and dining with friends. It is a great treasure of which we all ought to be very proud. Sadly, the East Wing of it, by starchitect I.M. Pei, is one of my least favorite places in DC. Seemingly in a constant state of disrepair, despite having only been built in 1978, it is a shining example of why so much of Post-War architecture constitutes little more than a massive debt burden passed on to future generations.


New Signage on Renwick Gallery (via CityPaper)

The Florence You’ve Never Seen

Along with the restoration of its famous Baptistery, recently mentioned in these pages, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore – or “Duomo” – in Florence is also celebrating the reopening of its museum, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, following a two-and-a-half year renovation. One of the highlights of the newly-expanded Opera is a recreation of the original façade of the Cathedral, which was never completed, and ended up being demolished in the 1500’s. Based on careful analysis of old drawings of what the Duomo’s original façade looked like before demolition, researchers created an installation which copies the lower half of the structure in full scale, in what is now one of the single largest exhibition rooms in Italy. They have also included the original sculptures from the façade, or copies of them, placed in their approximate original location.        

This reconstruction may come as a surprise to many, of course, since visitors to Florence may be unaware that the present façade of the Duomo is not what the entrance originally looked like. Built between 1876-1887, the “face” of the Cathedral is lavishly decorated in colorful marble, with geometric shapes and statues that coordinate well with the neighboring Campanile and Baptistery. With Italian unification and independence, not to mention the scores of foreign tourists passing through Florence on the Grand Tour, no doubt it became obvious to the 19th century Florentines that they should really get round to finishing their most famous building.  

Because of the expense involved in building and decorating the entryway to a vast church like the Duomo, it is not at all unusual in European architecture to find a significant lag between the start of construction on one of these historic houses of worship and their completion. Two other famous churches in Florence, for example, never received their final facades. The Basilica of Santo Spirito and the Basilica of San Lorenzo, both of which house works of art by some of the major artists of the Florentine Renaissance, were principally designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, the same architect who built the famous dome of Florence’s cathedral. At present, both have plain, unfinished facades, even though Brunelleschi’s designs for the former, and Michelangelo’s model for the latter, still exist. In fact, there is currently an ongoing debate in Florence as to whether Michelangelo’s design for San Lorenzo ought to be built.

In other cities, with the arrival of the industrial revolution, newly wealthy elites were able to fund the completion of such projects. In Barcelona, Holy Cross Cathedral was finished by about 1420, after around 150 years of construction. However the main façade, with its soaring, pierced towers crowned by angels and saints, was only completed in 1913, when the money became available to dust off the original 15th century plans. Similarly in Cologne, the current Cathedral of St. Peter was built in stages, but major work effectively ceased in 1473. The project only resumed in earnest in the middle of the 19th century, with the main façade finally being finished in 1911.

While experts at the Opera admit that their reconstruction of the Duomo’s original façade is, in places, an educated guess, the end result is enormously interesting to those of us who appreciate history, art, and architecture. What is also particularly instructive with this installation is the greater appreciation it gives us for the virtue of patience when it comes to completing a great task. With our contemporary society being used to having a fully-cooked meal in hand within 90 seconds or less, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that sometimes great things can take a great deal of time to complete.


Reconstruction of the Duomo Façade, Florence

Satan Snacks: Florence’s Delicious “Last Judgement” Mosaic

If you’ve ever had to scramble to tidy up your place before your parents come to visit, then you’ll appreciate the superhuman effort involved when Papa Francesco is the one coming to visit.

On November 10th, Pope Francis will be traveling to the city of Florence for the first time, on the occasion of the 5th National Ecclesial Convention of the Italian Church. The event, which takes place every few years, brings together bishops, priests, deacons, religious, and laity to discuss the state of the Church in Italy. Just in time, Florence has completed the restoration of its famous Romanesque Baptistery, the first major renovation to the structure in many decades. Restoration of the famous two sets of bronze doors which Lorenzo Ghiberti created for the structure in the 15th century has also been completed. The Pope will tour the Baptistery before making his way into the Duomo, i.e. the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, to address the participants at the Convention.

While most historians focus on the Baptistery’s remarkable architectural symmetry, including the influence it had on the study of perspective, or on the hugely influential doors by Pisano and later Ghiberti, for me perhaps the most interesting aspect of this building is its magnificent mosaic ceiling on the interior. This lavish, imaginative work shows us the beginning of the transition away from the Byzantine style around the 13th century, as interpreted by Venice in particular, and the emergence of a native, Tuscan form of art. While still very much in the artistic orbit of Byzantium, here we begin to see details which, later, will come to indicate the early Florentine Renaissance.

Of particular note is the wild vision of Hell in the Last Judgment section of the ceiling, in which an enormous Satan is simultaneously munching on the souls of three of the damned, along with the assistance of his minions. This representation made a profound impression on the great Florentine poet Dante, who particularly loved this building, and in his “Inferno” he describes the Devil exactly thus. Also note the presence of crowned rulers and hooded clerics who led their people astray on Satan’s right, who are about to become the next items on the infernal banquet: a sobering image, indeed.

While many Medieval artists portrayed the Last Judgement with greater horror, or deeper introspection, there is something about the almost comic book rendering of this image that draws and holds the eye. The searing red rocks and flames, juxtaposed against the putrid gray-green of the Devil and his demons, gives quite an impact. It transforms the golden background from the standard Byzantine convention for representation of religious scenes, into an evocation of sulfuric clouds and an oppressive atmosphere.

As the artists who worked on this piece understood, while the Devil will no doubt enjoy the never-ending sushi conveyor belt, it is certainly not going to be pleasant for those of us who own up here.


Detail of "The Last Judgement", Baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence