The Power of the Very, Very Small

Reading a delightful book by Simon Garfield (of Just My Type fame), In Miniature: How Small Things Illuminate the World. As in his other books, he’s droll, magically readable, and a companionable guide to the odd world of the tiny, which, as a Giacometti quote in the beginning points, out is more likely to give you a sense of the universe.

“The creation of small universes in which we may bury ourselves to the exclusion of all else will be at the core of this book.”

Simon Garfield

As a fan of the miniature, I offer three examples (which may or may not have caught his eye, I’m only a third of the way through).

The Thorn Rooms at the Phoenix Art Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago & other museums. Pictures don’t do these justice, of course, as they look like real rooms in reproduction, but when you are in front of them and their 1:12 model proportions, their domestic interiors come alive. They were created by Narcissa Niblack Thorne (1882-1966).

Then there is MVSEVM, at the National Museum of American Art,

which was commissioned for the renovation of that museum, and both honors and questions the idea of a museum.

Finally, there is Miniature Calendar, the meticulous obsession of artist Tatsuya Tanaka.

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

A weekend trip to Richmond allowed me to spend a pleasurable afternoon at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, an eclectic collection, with everything other than the special exhibits free to the public, 365 days a year.

George Inness, Sunset

It is particularly strong in American Art, a favorite of mine. And as is my wont, I went in search of George Inness, finding three canvases. An idiosyncratic painter, and these expanded my sense of him. Many threads come together in his work–painterly values as an American Barbizon painter (rural, often pastoral subjects, rendered with glowing colors, tending towards realism not impressionism), also there’s a hard to fathom spiritual subtext, apparently tied to Swedenborg, a mystical theologian who exerted a fascination on Kant, and also the senior Henry James. And although mostly a landscape painter, Innes apparently made up many of these locations, or at least radically adjusted the details, frequently finishing the work in the studio.

Mostly the paintings seem mysteriously beautiful to me. This started with a pull towards October Noon at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge, where everything, including the title of the painting slowly dissolves into something else the longer you look at it.

George Inness, Evening

The three at VMFA didn’t quite evoke that mystery, except perhaps for the ominous trees of Stone Pines; instead they  seem quietly epic, like a nineteenth century novel on themes of daily life, where everything hinges on a word or two at sunset.

George Inness, Stone Pines

I will report from my further efforts to see every Inness canvas on view; having a pet artistic quest like this can add a bit to museum going. (See under “all the Vermeers in New York.)

Another thing I am always on the look out for is Raku ware, ceramic tea vessels of sometimes rustic character. The combination of an earthy, almost primitive feel with use in the extreme refinement of the tea ceremony is endless fascinating.

The VMFA’s 300 year old example is a stunner, not the least because it could have been created yesterday.


Raku Sonyu, Japanese, 1664 – 1716 (Artist) “…for if there were such a thing as a nirvana for objects, this raku tea bowl had reached it ages ago.” –Cees Nooteboom’s Rituals







Tech Friday: 2001 At the Smithsonian

D.C. has a run of great exhibits up, outsider art and Sally Mann at the NGA. A new show celebrating Burning Man at the Renwick, and opening this weekend, a tribute to the 50th Anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the National Air and Space Museum.

It’s always been a great museum city, if a bit staid. Not any more: both range of content and curatorial voice at museums public and private have been thought provoking, even confrontational, and led to packed shows and city-wide buzz.

Art and Work

In a swing by the National Museum of American Art and National Portrait Gallery to see the wonderful new paintings of the Obamas, I caught a show on work, The Sweat of their Face. Lots of arresting images, perhaps none more than a riff on a David Hockney painiting from 1964, Man Taking a Shower in Beverly Hills, First the original,

Next, Ramiro Gomez’s response a few decades on, “Woman Cleaning Shower in Beverly Hills”

Yes, an obvious point, but still, something overlooked. Put me in mind of the Brecht poem,  “A worker reads history,”

A Worker Reads History

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.

Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Greek triumphed in the Seven Years War.
Who triumphed with him?

Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?

So many particulars.
So many questions.


And the original,  accessible if you have a little German


Wer baute das siebentorige Theben?
In den Büchern stehen die Namen von Königen.
Haben die Könige die Felsbrocken herbeigeschleppt?
Und das mehrmals zerstörte Babylon,
Wer baute es so viele Male auf ? In welchen Häusern
Des goldstrahlenden Lima wohnten die Bauleute?
Wohin gingen an dem Abend, wo die chinesische Mauer fertig war,
Die Maurer? Das große Rom
Ist voll von Triumphbögen. Über wen
Triumphierten die Cäsaren? Hatte das vielbesungene Byzanz
Nur Paläste für seine Bewohner? Selbst in dem sagenhaften Atlantis
Brüllten doch in der Nacht, wo das Meer es verschlang,
Die Ersaufenden nach ihren Sklaven.

Der junge Alexander eroberte Indien.
Er allein?
Cäsar schlug die Gallier.
Hatte er nicht wenigstens einen Koch bei sich?
Philipp von Spanien weinte, als seine Flotte
Untergegangen war. Weinte sonst niemand?
Friedrich der Zweite siegte im Siebenjährigen Krieg. Wer
Siegte außer ihm?

Jede Seite ein Sieg.
Wer kochte den Siegesschmaus?
Alle zehn Jahre ein großer Mann.
Wer bezahlte die Spesen?

So viele Berichte,
So viele Fragen.

Image makers: Todd Hido

Discovered the photography of San Francisco-based Todd Hido recently, through one of his “homes at night” series. Striking images, and perfect for a Shirley Jackson or Stephen Milhauser book jacket.

“This is the night of revelation. This is the night the dolls wake. This is the night of the dreamer in the attic. This is the night of the piper in the woods.–Steven Millhauser, Enchanted Night

Index of American Design

One of the interesting byproducts of my visit to the Outliers show at the National Gallery was learning about the “Index of American Design.” This was a Works Progress Administration project to document objects. It was accomplished by sending watercolorists all over the country to find design examples and create images. (Photography might seem a better medium for this kind of work, but in fact, the watercolors, with their detail and color, probably did more than photography could have offered in the 30s and 40s. And there is the practical possibility that more painters, rather than photographers, were the ones out of work. Certainly the results are beautiful.)

Here are a handful of images from the Index. More at this link.

And here’s a bite from a documentary on the Index.

Would be wonderful to have them all digitized sometime, although there are 20,000 so would be a formidable undertaking.


Outliers and American Vanguard Art

Took in the first day of a new show at the National Gallery of Art, Outliers and American Vanguard Art–outliers being a term broader than outsider art, and bridging a vast range of styles and people, Horace Pippin to Martín Ramírez, and Sister Gertrude Morgan to Zoe Leonard (who was there, and answered questions from curator Lynne Cooke in a fascinating Q&A).

It is fascinating, intriguingly curated show. Fosters lots of pondering of what an outlier is–which boundaries are being crossed, and the relationship of this show to the museum overall. You don’t always get a sense of adventure (sometimes a confounding adventure) in NGA shows, but you certainly do with this one.

A few shots from my visit.

And that wonderful tunnel under the East Wing…


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