Sunday Herald: Under the same roof

Sunday Herald: Under the same roof

Here, you’ll find the display of artworks by a thousand women artists. Washington D.C. is the place of unmatched museums, writes Kalpana Sunder

Ginevra de' Benci, often referred to as Washington’s own Mona Lisa.

She’s got translucent skin, porcelain-like features, curly hair and an aristocratic mien. Standing against the backdrop of a juniper tree, she looks sombre, even a trifle sad… I am looking at Ginevra de’ Benci — often referred to as Washington’s own ‘Mona Lisa’, one of the first oil paintings done by the genius Leonardo da Vinci and the only Leonardo painting in the United States. The portrait was of a young girl of 16, from a wealthy family, probably before her betrothal. The portrait was acquired by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in 1967, for a sum of US$ 5 million.

Most people who visit Washington know it to be the city of striking buildings, large parks, national monuments and diplomacy, but for art lovers, this city is a veritable treasure chest.

Linked to past

I am at the National Gallery of Art, one of the world’s greatest art museums, where I have a list of famous art to catch up with. The National Gallery of Art, located on the National Mall, is contained in a neoclassical West Building linked to a modernistic East Building by an underground walkway. Entering the West Building in pink marble with stocky columns, I look up entranced by the striking domed rotunda, which was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, which is a work of art. The museum was started thanks to the efforts of Andrew W Mellon, a financier and philanthropist, who served as ambassador to England and was so inspired by London’s National Gallery that he decided to start one in his own country.

The works in this museum are exhibited by period and origin in appropriately decorated galleries. First on my list are two self-portraits by two of my favourite artists — Van Gogh and Rembrandt.

Rembrandt looks serious and almost melancholic in the portrait — they say he was in great financial difficulty at that time. The National Gallery has so many treasures that unless you know where to look for them, you may miss them — I opt for a quick walking tour that introduces me to many delightful paintings and the stories behind them. From Claude Monet’s Women with a parasol, which the story goes was his lover. He left her pregnant and penniless, and when he realised two years later that he could avoid the army draft by being a married man, he proposed to her! Don’t miss the most underrated painting here —Jerusalem artichoke flowers painted by Claude Monet!

I also feast on the sculptures in the light-filled, vaulted sculpture galleries which have masterpieces by Bernini, Rodin and Degas. The showstopper here is artist Degas’s wax sculpture of a ballet dancer with her tutu, bodice and ballet slippers, with a wig made of real hair!

Degas was basically a painter but carved these to improve his knowledge of the human form. My best piece of art is the ‘Veiled Nun’, a marble bust by the Italian artist Giuseppe Croff, crafted out of marble where the folds of the veil look transparent, as if they were actually made from fabric.

After the art feast inside the National Gallery, I wander into the six-acre National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, opened in 1999. Amidst the beautifully landscaped informal garden, I catch sight of sculptures and art installations on display by internationally renowned artists. There is Louise Bourgeois’s trademark spider made in iron and Alexander Calder’s red mobile installation. My favourite here is the striking stainless-steel tree called ‘Graft’, by artist Roxy Paine, which is an enormous tree that symbolises life and growth. Under a sprawling tree are headless figures that the Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz is famous for — they are inspired by her personal experience of World War II and its aftermath.

The Hirshhorn Museum is another wonderful private collection; the museum exhibits artworks by some of the contemporary art world’s greatest masters like Henri Matisse and Jackson Pollock. But what is really outstanding is their sculpture garden, where I find a bronze cast of Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais. This is one of the dozen copies allowed of the original. This sculpture of leaders with a noose around their necks, harks back to history when King Edward III laid a long siege on Calais, and he offered to spare the people of the city if six of its top leaders would surrender themselves to him, presumably to be executed. He asked them to walk out wearing nooses around their necks, and carrying the keys to the city and castle.

Eve expresses

When in Washington, don’t miss the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the only museum in the world exclusively dedicated to showcase the work of over 1,000 female artists of different nationalities. Throughout the gallery, you’ll find works by painters like Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe.

And there’s something special which I consider art and a must-see in this city. The Yamaki pine that was given to the US in 1976 by a bonsai master — it’s not just any pine, it survived the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, and it lives on today at the US National Arboretum, a beautiful object that is a testament to the capacity of life to thrive and survive.