“A Bird’s-Eye View of Amsterdam” (circa 1652), by Jan Micker, based on a 1538 work, courtesy Amsterdam Historical Museum
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! Continue reading
"Marine mosaic detail, from a house in Pompeii (2nd century BC)," by chrisjohnbeckett, on Flickr
One of the most incredible sights in my life was watching angry red streaks of lava etch the side of Mount Etna. I was on my way to the Catania airport during a vicious rainstorm. As the lightning crackled through the dark sky and the burning streams pulsated, the laconic driver assured me in typical Sicilian fashion – “c’è normale” – that’s nothing, it’s normal, it isn’t even a “real” eruption. My heart was racing even though I was safely miles away from the volcano, so awesome was the power of nature.
So I can only imagine how more horrifying the power of Mount Vesuvius was when it erupted in AD 79. But the people of the Bay of Naples still live under its threat, no doubt echoing their Sicilian counterparts in thinking, “c’è normale,” even with the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum close by to remind them. Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture Around the Bay of Naples, at the National Gallery of Art, cleverly lulls you into a similar state of complacency. The exhibit first highlights the decorative art of Pompeii and the surrounding area, taking you through the various rooms and courtyards of a typical villa of the Roman Empire. Only at the end are you hit with a dark room and depictions of volcanic explosions, a haunting evocation of “La Civita” – the lost ancient city.