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Exhibitions Galore

May 25, 2013

Christina writes: As regular readers of this blog will know, Wayne and I enjoy exhibitions on a wide range of subjects. Early this year, as I checked forthcoming offerings at museums within convenient reach, I found that a round trip in April would allow us to visit several exhibitions which sounded very attractive, plus a few of lesser interest but worthwhile if we were in the area. Wayne chose to make the trip in late rather than mid-April, hoping the weather would be better. As time drew closer, projected forecasts suggested that we might experience quite a lot of rain, but in the event we had none. In the daytime it was generally sunny (though we were mainly indoors), but the early mornings and evenings were quite chilly.

We set off at about 10.00 am on Sunday 21 April for Washington, D.C., with a seven-hour drive ahead of us. This was our first trip in the new car we bought in February, a Buick Verano. Wayne is still getting used to driving a Buick, after many years of loyalty to Mazda and with Buick’s lingering reputation as a maker of old men’s cars – which the sporty Verano, and especially its Turbo variant, certainly is not. We found it very comfortable on a long drive, and enjoyed the convenience of XM Radio and a navigation computer, though Wayne still planned our route on Mapquest, avoiding difficult roads such as the New Jersey Turnpike.

Since he had to do all the driving (I don’t drive), we planned a proper break for lunch in Princeton, New Jersey. We know from past experience that central Princeton has good restaurants, but because we were pressed for time, we chose to stop on our direct route south-west (rather than detouring into town), at the Big Fish Seafood Bistro in the MarketFair mall. We also wanted to visit the nearby Pottery Barn shop, to look at a table and chairs we were considering for our kitchen/breakfast area. The Big Fish was a big disappointment. Although staff were plentiful, it was ten minutes before a waiter passing by asked if we had been served yet. Obviously not, since we had menus piled in front of us! To start we had the lobster bisque, ‘accented’ with creme fraiche and lobster meat, which is to say, a drizzle of the first and the tiniest amount of the second. We decided that one could get much the same in a supermarket’s tinned soup aisle. After that, we had the crab cake lunch, a single undistinguished crab cake (in fact, partly some seafood other than crab) on a lightly grilled slice of tomato with the merest touch of mustard sauce, accompanied by what was described as coconut ginger rice but with no detectable coconut or ginger, and a ‘vegetable medley’. We regretted not stopping at the neighbouring P.F. Chang’s instead.

We chose to stay two nights at the Residence Inn in Bethesda, Maryland, a franchise we like, and this one is almost across the road from the local Metro station, from which it’s not far by public transit into Washington. After settling in, we went out in search of a place for dinner. We wandered around for a while, then made a lucky choice in Food Wine and Co. on Wisconsin Avenue. The decor is elegant and the service excellent. The dinner menu as a whole is somewhat nouveau and inventive, so to an extent we had to take a leap of faith that the combination of ingredients would be pleasing. We both chose the bacon-wrapped pork loin on a bed of diced or pureed vegetables (carrots, spring peas, smoked onions, heirloom beets) and in a mild mustard sherry sauce: a little salty and a little underdone, but good. For dessert, we took our waiter’s advice and had the mixed berry cobbler (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries), served with an oatmeal cookie and vanilla ice cream: one of the best cobblers we’ve ever had.

PreRaphaelites and the Book coverOn Monday morning, we took the Metro to the National Gallery, arriving soon after the museum opened. Since the nearest entrance led to the lower floor, we began with the exhibitions located there. The first, Pre-Raphaelites and the Book, was quite small: it included copies of the short-lived magazine The Germ, founded to promote the ideas of the Pre-Raphaelites; editions from William Morris’s Kelmscott Press; and cartoonish drawings by Edward Burne-Jones of family and friends. Nearby was one of the exhibitions we visited ‘because we were there’: Color, Line, Light: French Drawings, Watercolors and Pastels from Delacroix to Signac. Although we were impressed by a few items, it seemed a rather incoherent selection, and we decided against buying the catalogue, which we thought had poor colour reproduction.

We then moved upstairs to the main reason we had planned this visit, the exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design (this began last year in London at the Tate, where it was called Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde). Wayne and I are both very interested in British art in the second half of the nineteenth century, and have a large collection of books on the Pre-Raphaelites, on their Aesthetic, Symbolist, and Art Nouveau successors, and on the related Arts and Crafts movement. We both had seen before many of the works exhibited here, but some were new to us, and it was a pleasure to see ‘old friends’ again. (Wayne commented that as we’ve seen so many of these very popular works in travelling shows, he wonders if they ever make it back to their home collections, or just keep circling the globe.)

We still remember fondly that on our first visit to the National Gallery, over twenty years ago, we found a very nice place to have lunch on one of the balconies. Alas, that location is long gone, or at least no longer a public eating area. Since then, we’ve always ended up having lunch in the cafeteria by the falling water display between the East and West buildings. On this occasion, we were glad to sit down after being on our feet all morning, but the ambience did not allow one to relax, nor was the food particularly good though it had looked promising: for me, a mesclun salad with goat cheese, walnuts, and balsamic dressing, followed by a mini-raspberry tart, and for Wayne, a chicken Caesar salad and a mini-apple pie.

Afterwards, we spent some time in the main bookshop, noting many interesting titles previously unknown to us, so many that when we came to ordering on our return home (the weight would have been impossible to carry around) we felt the need to trim our list. We decided that the National Gallery shop carries a more interesting selection than that at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which we had once thought an excellent art bookshop.

Durer catalogue coverIn the afternoon, we visited a major exhibition that was not even announced when we first planned our trip: Albrecht Dürer: Master Drawings, Watercolors and Prints from the Albertina. I probably saw a few of these works when I visited Vienna over forty years ago, and some are well known from reproductions. Most of the items were quite small, and provided an interesting contrast to the many quite large works of the Pre-Raphaelites. Yet there was a similarity in that Dürer and the Pre-Raphaelites both paid great attention to depicting nature realistically and in great detail. Dürer’s Large Piece of Turf (1503), for instance, has much in common with the flowers, leaves, and grasses in many Pre-Raphaelite paintings, such as John Everett Millais’ Ophelia.

Exhausted with aching feet, we made our way back to the hotel and rested for a while before going out to look for another restaurant for dinner. This time, we spent a few minutes online and marked out two possibilities nearby, Italian and Indian. We settled on the latter restaurant, called Tandoori Nights, which is located in an upscale shopping district (which also features a large Barnes & Noble). Its decor is simple but elegant, the service friendly though a little confused, with several people taking care of us at various times. We ordered the chicken korma, lamb pasanda, and Kashmiri naan, fortunately not choosing three entrees to share between us as we often do, as the servings were large and came with plenty of basmati rice. Both of the main dishes were spicier than we expected, the lamb especially so, though both were well prepared, and the naan was excellent.

On Tuesday we drove a few hours into Pennsylvania, where we stayed the night with two Tolkien collectors of our acquaintance. We enjoyed looking at their collection, admiring their lovely house, talking about shared interests, and eating good food. The next day, we set out for Greenwich, Connecticut, stopping on the way at Baldwin’s Book Barn in West Chester, Pennsylvania. This was an occasion when the Verano’s navigation system proved really useful! as the route was somewhat confusing, and the computer gave us advance warning of turns. We had already visited Baldwin’s Book Barn once before, not long after I moved to the U.S.A. It’s on four floors, each divided into small areas lined with shelves and full of books, reached up narrow, precipitous stairs. I did not find anything to tempt me – I am still being very careful, with a slowly diminishing backlog of books acquired after our visit to England last year waiting to be read. Wayne was more successful, ending up with five books: The Miracle of Dunkirk by Walter Lord, Rowland Hilder: Painter and Illustrator by John Lewis, Samuel Butler: The Incarnate Bachelor by Philip Henderson (once owned by the late ‘Erewhon’ Butler scholar Hans-Peter Breuer, whom Wayne knew), and Codebreakers: The Inside Story of Bletchley Park, edited by F.H. Hinsley and Alan Stripp.

We left the Barn later than intended, after eating a Kind fruit and nut bar each for our lunch. For a while, we were worried that we might arrive at our next stop, Greenwich, Connecticut, later than we wanted. The first part of the drive there was on country roads with traffic lights that stopped us whenever we went through a town or village. Reckoning up mileage, I found that we used two-thirds of the projected time on only one third of the distance; but the last third was on interstate highways and, allowing for a stop for gas, we arrived at the Delamar Hotel on Greenwich Harbor almost exactly at the time estimated by Mapquest.

We had no trouble settling in before leaving for our 5.45 dinner booking at the restaurant Mediterraneo. We usually have a good meal there, and like the ambience as well, when we can see our surroundings and the artfully presented food (before one has to rely on dim candlelight after dark) and before it becomes too noisy (when the bar fills up). On our last visit, we decided we would go back only when we could eat early. I chose the crispy bronzino with cauliflower and brussels sprouts, while Wayne ordered spaghetti with veal meatballs in a light tomato sauce and a side of grilled asparagus. Both dishes were excellent. Our dessert, warm bread pudding with caramel sauce and whipped cream, featuring a large, solid cube of bread rather than soft, custardy slices, wasn’t as successful.

Impressionism Fashion catalogue coverOn Thursday, following our usual practice, we took the Metro North commuter train from Greenwich to Grand Central Station in Manhattan, and then a taxi to the Metropolitan Museum. We went straight to the exhibition Impressionism, Fashion, & Modernity, described in its catalogue blurb as ‘a visually stunning presentation that brings together extraordinary works of art with contemporary costumes, accessories, fashion plates, and cartes de visites’. I had thought this might be another mere money-making exhibition of the ever-popular Impressionists, but almost immediately found myself enthralled. The topic chosen necessarily led to the selection of portraits and works with predominant figures, many of which I had never seen before, even as reproductions in books. The changing fashions displayed in the pictures were accompanied by examples of clothing, even some of the actual dresses worn by models for the pictures. The slim waists of the dresses were not exaggerated by the artists! As for the short slim shoes we saw, the feet of fashionable women of the period must have been almost as distorted as those of noble female Chinese.

Again as usual when at the Met, we had an early lunch in the Petrie Court Café. Although the menu is different every time we eat there, the café is a very civilized space near one of the sculpture courts, with a fine view of Central Park in one direction and museum displays in another. This time, we chose the three-course prix fixe lunch, inspired by the Impressionism and fashion exhibition: to start, herb and cream cheese crêpes with asparagus and lemon jam; then a pot-au-feu of braised beef short ribs and spring root vegetables; and finally a clafouti with fresh raspberries. The crêpes were nice, though they could have been warmer. The short ribs were good, though they might have been more tender and better seasoned (Wayne made good use of a dab of grain mustard included on the side of the bowl), while the vegetables were an interesting combination of onions, leeks, carrots, and fiddleheads, with cornichons added for good measure. We found the clafouti a little dry and lacking something, and only after returning home noticed in the Museum’s online menu that it was supposed to be served with a lemon sorbet, which would have made all the difference.

After lunch, we separated, Wayne to visit the exhibition Photography and the American Civil War and I to Velázquez’s Portrait of Duke Francesco I d’Este on loan from the Galleria Estense, Modena, and to a small exhibition, Making the Invisible Visible: Conservation and Islamic Art, highlighting conservation undertaken before the recent opening of the new Islamic Galleries. I had not visited those new galleries before, and made a mental note to spend longer there on our next visit, if possible. I spent very little time looking at the actual Conservation exhibition, my attention having been caught by a film showing the careful restoration of a major carpet.

Since the weather allowed, we walked back to Grand Central Station, breaking our journey with a visit to the Frick Collection. I love the Frick: everything in it is of first-class quality, nothing is crowded, and the choice and arrangement are made with such attention that each item balances and complements others in its vicinity. There isn’t much space for changing exhibitions, so these are necessarily very small. The one that drew us to the Frick this time was of seven panels by Piero della Francesca, the Madonna and Child with Four Angels from our local Clark Art Institute collection, and six panels from an altarpiece originally painted for the Church of the Friars of St Augustine in the artist’s hometown of Borgo San Sepolcro, reassembled at the Frick from several collections. My admiration for Piero della Francesca was first aroused by three important paintings in the National Gallery, London, and increased when, during my travels in Italy, I saw the great works still in Borgo San Sepolcro and his great fresco cycle in Arezzo.

After leaving the Frick, we visited a shoe shop, so that Wayne could look (unsuccessfully) for new dress shoes, and Brooks Brothers’ Madison Avenue store, again without finding anything we wanted and escaping quickly as there was a Great Gatsby promotional event being set up. We had planned to eat dinner in Manhattan, but as we were not very hungry after a big lunch, we decided to return to Greenwich and make do with the cheese, fruit, and biscuits supplied by our hotel in the evening.

Edwardian Opulence booklet coverOn Friday morning, we drove east to New Haven to see Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century at the Yale Center for British Art. It was well worth the trip, though I wondered if it was conceived to appeal to the many devotees of the TV series Downton Abbey. The exhibition began with its most stunning item, a House of Worth dress worn by the wife of the British Viceroy in India. In addition to many painted portraits, photographs, and sculptures, the exhibition included interior decorations and historic sound recordings. Although we felt that the display lost steam as it progressed, having shot most of its biggest guns at the start (large paintings such as Charles Wellington Furse’s Diana of the Uplands and two splendid oils by Laura Knight), it was an interesting assembly, with few works we had seen before.

After looking at the Yale Center shop and finding that we already (!) owned the books that interested us most, we walked around the corner to the Union League Café for lunch. This was our second visit to this restaurant, and again we were delighted by the Beaux Arts interior, impeccable service even during a busy weekday lunch hour, and excellent food. I chose the duck confit with diced apple, walnuts, and baby greens, with no sweet to follow, while Wayne had the two-course prix fixe, a walleye pike fillet with scallop mousseline, lobster bisque, and vegetables, followed by small scoops of vanilla ice cream and strawberry sorbet on a meringue, all in just the right proportions and beautifully served – a very enjoyable meal before our drive home.

With interjections by Wayne.

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