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)


Where The Streets Have New Names

There will be a lot of terrible news to read about here on the East Coast of the United States for the next couple of days as Hurricane Irene approaches, so I thought it would be a good idea to lighten the mood by reporting on an amusing development in the Spanish town of Villamayor de Calatrava.  The city council of the small town, about 3 hours’ drive south of Madrid, has voted to rename seven of its streets, which admittedly does not seem like much of a big deal.  However, these streets are currently named after famous socialists, and are being changed to reflect more locally popular, politically-neutral names.

Part of the controversy stems from complaints on the left about why this name change is taking place at all. The conservatives claim that a group of locals approached them and asked if some of the names of the streets could be changed, to honor neutral, non-polemic figures. For example, one street is named for Pablo Iglesias, a militant leftist considered the father of Spanish socialism, who in the late 19th century was one of the founders of the Socialist and Workers’ Party of Spain or “PSOE”, of which the present Prime Minister of Spain, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, is the head. Another street is named for Professor Enrique Tierno Galván, a Marxist intellectual and former mayor of Madrid, who founded the People’s Socialist Party in the 1950’s. The leftists claim that there is no proof of any popular movement in the town to have these names removed, while the conservatives say they can produce evidence to the contrary.

It was a tough call to make, because the 6-member town council is divided between 3 socialists and 3 conservatives, but in the end the conservatives won, because the town mayor broke the tie in favor of the renaming project – probably because he, himself, is a member of the conservative Popular Party or “PP”.  Naturally, the local lefties are furious at the result. However, as one of the conservative town counselors pointed out, naming a street after someone like Chilean left-wing poet Pablo Neruda – who did not come from the town, or from Spain, in addition to the fact that he never did anything for the town – seems rather ridiculous.

Some of the streets will now be renamed for local notables and popular local festivals, like the annual pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Isidore, or the traditional May Day song competitions held in the town and surrounding areas.  However probably the strangest of the renamings is that changing the name of a town square, currently named after a former governor of the province, to “Plaza of the Spanish National Football Team”.  Presumably this was done in commemoration of said team winning the World Cup this year in South Africa, but it does seem a bit naff.

In any case, it is nice to see at least some degree of common sense prevailing among small-town Spaniards, or at least half of them, when it comes to honoring people who are, truth be told, even more of an embarrassment to Spain than those naming a square after a sports team.

The town of Villamayor de Calatrava, in central Spain

Sprezzatura Wednesday: Lest We Forget The Ladies

You only have until this Sunday to enter my blog’s annual birthday contest, gentle reader, and already I have received a number of entries that show some of you “get” Count Castiglione’s concept of sprezzatura very well.  Yet let us continue our exploration of that concept today, taking the opportunity to consider the ladies among us.  For although a gentleman always upholds the honor of the ladies in his party, the truth is that sometimes the ladies make us laugh, as well.

In a classic episode of the well-known BBC comedy “As Time Goes By”, the character of Lionel (Geoffrey Palmer) is contacted by his ex-wife, who wants to see him and catch up, during her brief visit to London.  Lionel naturally asks his new wife Jean (Dame Judi Dench) to accompany him to the reunion, and Jean becomes very flustered when she realizes she will only have a couple of hours to get ready.  As they are awaiting his ex-wife’s arrival, Lionel and Jean discuss the fact that the latter changed outfits five times before they left the house.  And this gives Lionel cause to ask one of those eternal questions which men always find themselves asking the fairer sex: “Why is it that women always feel the need to impress other women?”

Of course, Jean is not the only female figure in British comedy to become flustered around another woman whom she feels may upstage her.  One thinks of Sue Brockman (Claire Skinner) in the more recent BBC sitcom “Outnumbered”, for example, who is always being shown up by the woman next door and her seemingly perfect life.  Penelope Keith made a career out of playing the type of woman who always tried to get one up on other women, on programs like “The Good Life” and “To The Manor Born”.  And of course British literature is full of women engaging in one-upmanship with each other, from Jane Austen to Mrs. Gaskell.

One author with whom my readers may not be familiar in this regard is E.M. Delafield, the pen name of Mrs. Edmee Dashwood.  Delafield was the eldest daughter of the Comte de la Pasture, whose family had emigrated to England after the French Revolution, and Elizabeth Bonham, from a British family long involved in colonial affairs and diplomacy.  Raised a Catholic, at one time she discerned a vocation to a very strict religious order in Belgium, where she was accepted as a postulant.  However she later left,  decided to marry Col. Arthur Dashwood, and settled down to country life in Devonshire, where her husband was the manager for the Bradfield Estate; she became a mother to two children.

Beginning in 1930, Delafield began to write a semi-autobiographical account of her experiences as a bourgeois housewife in the country, resulting in her first and probably best novel,” The Diary of a Provincial Lady”.  There would be several more novels before Delafield’s premature death in 1943.  While all are amusing, the spark and wit of the first provides a classic example of the sometimes very unsubtle battle between women to see who can do things more effortlessly and perfectly.

Delafield’s narrator, the “Provincial Lady” of the title, is almost always on the losing end to her neighbor and “frenemy”, the glamorous Lady Bowe, whom the narrator often refers to as “Lady B.” An excerpt from her diary provides a good example of how Lady B. seemingly excels at sprezzatura, while the Provincial Lady does not:

February 11th
Hear that Lady Boxe has returned from South of France and is entertaining house-party. She sends telephone message by the butler, asking me to tea to-morrow. I accept. (Why?)

February 12th
Insufferable behaviour of Lady B. Find large party…Lady B. wears an emerald-green leather coat with fur collar and cuffs. I, having walked down, have on ordinary coat and skirt…Lady B. asks me at tea how the children are, and adds, to the table at large, that I am “A Perfect Mother”. Am naturally avoided, conversationally, after this, by everybody at the tea-table. Later on, Lady B. tells us about South of France. She quotes repartees made by herself in French, and then translates them.

This is just one example of the endless, running battle between the Provincial Lady and her nemesis-neighbor.

Of course, Castiglione’s concept of sprezzatura means not only doing something well, but also doing it so well that it seems effortless. The irony that goes unperceived by Delafield’s Provincial Lady is that Lady B. is, in fact, utterly lacking in sprezzatura. She tries to put on airs and snobbery, but she makes colossal mistakes in manners, planning events, and giving back-handed compliments. She is a combination of bad faith and underachievement, rather than a paragon of accomplishment and grace, but appearances blind the Provincial Lady and others to Lady B’s shortcomings as a courtier.

In fact, Castiglione goes through a long list of women in his “Book of the Courtier” whom he expects his female readers to try to emulate as they search for that goal of sprezzatura in their way of living. Some of these ladies are powerful and famous, yes, but some are ordinary women of ordinary or reduced circumstances. Toward the end of his list, Castiglione mentions the recently-exiled Queen of Naples,

who, after the loss of her kingdom, the exile and death of her husband King Federico, and of two children, and the captivity of her first-born, the Duke of Calabria, still shows herself to be a queen, and so endures the grievous burdens of bitter poverty as to give all men proof that although her fortunes are changed, her rank is not.

I refrain from mentioning countless other ladies, and also women of low degree; like many Pisan women, who in the defense of their city against the Florentines displayed that generous daring, without any fear of death, which might have been displayed by the most unconquerable souls that have ever been on earth; wherefore some of them have been celebrated by many noble poets.

Thus, Castiglione holds feminine virtue, of showing courage in the face of difficult circumstances, and acting out of love at all times, as embodying the ideals of womanhood. These qualities give him, as a mere man, encouragement to try to do the same, but also to protect women, who very often are in need of protection. In the present, topsy-turvy world in which we live such a notion will no doubt be rejected by many.

Yet throughout the centuries it is the ladies who have shown us how to act with that sprezzatura, that effortless grace, which is a hallmark of someone making the most of their circumstances, great or reduced as they may be. Should they decide to occasionally compete with one another, it is only because all human beings are flawed, regardless of their sex. Castiglione would hold that it is their favor, and their example, which makes not only sprezzatura, but civilization itself, possible.

Illustration of Lady B. from
E.M. Delafield’s “The Diary of a Provincial Lady”