Two current exhibits at the National Gallery of Art are at first glance dissimilar. “Pride of Place: Dutch Cityscapes of the Golden Age,” is a tightly restrained showcase of the grand Dutch Republic’s view of its cities and public spaces, using cartographic metaphor to show a mighty macrocosm at its seventeenth century height. “Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans“ takes on our own republic from a microcosmic perspective, capturing in lush yet depressing detail the consumerist chill of 1950’s America.
But seeing both exhibits in the same afternoon gives you the sense of how art can mirror culture – either cleaning up reality, or showing the truth beneath.
“Pride of Place” could be marched through very quickly, your eye breezily taking in maps and cityscapes in soothing sepia tones. It’s all power and glory and civic cleanliness. But I urge you to resist this temptation to rush, and look closer. Details on these paintings are intensely human, the small smudged faces of the Dutch citizens at work. No attempt is made to sex them up – they are potato-faced plain, staunch and proud in their sensibility and commerce. Their quiet industry is matched with the republic’s burgeoning pride. But every once and a while there’s some guy goofing off in the corner! My personal favorite was Abraham de Verwer’s View of Hoorn, an almost modern seascape of haunting serenity.
There’s no serenity in “Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans” – I’d heard of the famous collection of photographs lauded by Jack Kerouac but I don’t think I’d ever seen them until this exhibit. Robert Frank spent nine months traveling in the US , taking 767 rolls of film from which he made over 1,000 work prints – editing down to 83 for the book. At times he directly experienced the xenophobia of the American 50’s, even getting arrested for being “foreign.” He captured in disconcerting detail the contradictions of a world only seeming to offer plenty for all.
If you want an in-depth introduction to a masterwork of photography, definitely check out this exhibit. The beauty of composition, exposure, and underlying meaning of the moment – this is what we aspire to as artists. It’s also a personal essay on America at a time of great upheaval, and there are some shots ugly in their meaning while beautiful in their composure. It’s a fascinating dichotomy. I loved the middle section that details his work prints, a vast swath of them arranged by theme, bringing you up close to his process.
So look closer at those Dutch cityscapes, then look in to the world Robert Frank caught, and see what you think.
Pride of Place: Dutch Cityscapes of the Golden Age
now through May 3, West Building
Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans
now through April 26, West Building
Both at the National Gallery of Art
4th and Constitution Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20565