- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 30, 2000

What happened to museum blockbusters in 2000? The question is crucial to understanding how art will be displayed in the new century.

The Phillips Collection's landmark "Honore Daumier," the National Gallery of Art's first comprehensive survey of art nouveau and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden's unveiling of Wolfgang Laib's conceptual sculpture were important and worthy shows. So was the Hirshhorn's "Dali's Optical Illusions."

But more exciting exhibits were displayed this decade. At the National Gallery, they included "The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology: Celebrated Discoveries From the People's Republic of China" last year and "Van Gogh's Van Goghs, Masterpieces From the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam," shown mostly in 1998. Others at the National Gallery were "Picasso: The Early Years," which began in 1997, and "Johannes Vermeer" and "Winslow Homer," shown from 1995 to 1996.

The Phillips refurbished its quarters for the dazzling "Renoir to Rothko: The Eye of Duncan Phillips" last year, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art showed the landmark "To Conserve a Legacy: American Art From Historic Black Colleges and Universities," a collection of 200 artworks from six historically black educational institutions.

Perhaps Washington museum blockbusters are beginning to bottom out, just as the real estate market could here.

Focused exhibits such as the first U.S. Daumier retrospective can be terrific. Daumier's political cartoons made him the greatest satirist of his day, yet he wanted to be a serious painter and sculptor.

He lived in France in the 19th century, a time of despotic rulers who stopped at nothing. Daumier distilled their cruelty in the unforgettable "Rue Transnonain," where innocents were murdered in their beds. He also parodied the brutality of Louis Philippe as a pearlike glutton in "Gargantua."

He exercised his savage irony in prints and sculptures of self-important officials. One, "Podenas (Mr. Pot-de-Naz)," rose from obscurity in Toulouse to become a garrulous official in the Chamber of Deputies in Paris. Daumier made him into a buffoon with a conical head topped by a bizarre tuft of hair.

The artist's paintings got only mixed reviews. He studied the color of Peter Paul Rubens and Titian and evoked the females' trembling flesh and ripe sensuousness.

Daumier had a special love of the Don Quixote tale. The artist portrayed the crazed old man with some 30 oils and drew him many times.

Daumier's satirist art predicts Salvador Dali, the ultimate buffoon of the surrealist movement. Mr. Dali's handlebar mustache, bulging eyes and outrageous posturing hid a painter of daring creativity and bold surrealist imagery.

The Hirshhorn's display concentrated on Mr. Dali's early work, usually recognized as his best. The high point of the exhibit was 1936's "Soft Construction With Boiled Beans — Premonition of Civil War," which shows a ghastly body tearing itself apart. Mr. Dali meant the body as a metaphor for the Spanish Civil War.

Another concentrated exhibition, also at the Hirshhorn, is the survey of the work of German sculptor Wolfgang Laib. Hirshhorn visitors still can catch this provocative show through Jan. 22.

Mr. Laib is unlike most sculptors today. He works with natural materials — pollens gathered near his house in southern Germany, milk, rice, stone, wood and beeswax. He makes starkly formed houses and boats from them. Geometric shapes such as squares, rectangles, circles and cones form the structure of his art.

He respects nature, much like the Asian philosophers and artists he admires. His "milk stones" and "rice houses" are inspired by Indian practices. He makes temporary floor pieces, which resemble Indian "painted prayers," from the pollens he gathers so painstakingly.

He began using beeswax in 1967 to create large rooms and ziggurats of amber-colored wax slabs. He also creates haunting ships moving toward mysterious places.

The showcasing of the art nouveau style ("Art Nouveau, 1890-1914," at the National Gallery through Jan. 28) and the reopening of Marjorie Merriweather Post's Hillwood Museum and Gardens reveal a new respect for the decorative arts. Hillwood is the center for decorative arts in Washington.

This is the first comprehensive survey of art nouveau (or "new art"), which was followed by silversmiths, jewelers, furniture artisans, glassmakers, potters, graphic designers and architects.

Art nouveau began about 1890, on the heels of the Industrial Revolution, and spread quickly — through magazines — to cities as far afield as Vienna; Turin, Italy; Chicago; and Glasgow, Scotland. Inspirations included viking ships, Islamic glass, Celtic designs, Japanese art and rectilinear geometry.

Agostino Lauro worked in Turin, Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow, Aubrey Beardsley in London, Victor Horta in Brussels, Gustav Klimt in Vienna, Louis Comfort Tiffany in New York, and Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago.

The differences in the art produced could be confusing to visitors. The common thread was use of industrial materials and production for urban clients. Art nouveau also predicted much of 20th-century art.

Hillwood reopened to the public Sept. 26 after a three-year, $9 million renovation.

Mrs. Post (1887-1975) was heiress to the Postum Cereal Co. She began with French decorative arts in the 1920s and collected Russian art while in Moscow as the wife of Ambassador Joseph E. Davies. The museum has displayed her delicate Russian porcelains, dramatic religious icons and gold-threaded ecclesiastical robes.

Much has happened in the field of American art this year. The show of Norman Rockwell's homespun art at the Corcoran was a smash hit. The Corcoran also mounted a retrospective of local artist Jack Boul's very fine art. The current "46th Biennial Exhibition: Media/Metaphor" at the museum exhibits many of America's cutting-edge artists.

The show of viking art earlier this year at the National Museum of Natural History was extraordinarily interesting. The two "cabinet" shows at the National Gallery — one of Dutch and Flemish portraits from the Walters Art Museum and the other of Italian art — demonstrated that "small" often is better.

"Book Arts in the Age of Durer" at the Baltimore Museum of Art wins hands down in the graphics category. It shows how the genius of Albrecht Durer married that of Johann Gutenberg, who revolutionized bookmaking with the use of movable type. Three of Durer's greatest "large book" series — "The Apocalyse," "The Large Passion" and "The Life of the Virgin" — are on view. It continues until Jan. 21

The Asian and African museums of the Smithsonian Institution mounted their usual stellar exhibits this past year. The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery showed "The Heroic Past: The Persian 'Book of Kings,'" a remarkable exhibit of Persian miniatures, and "India Through the Lens," a survey of photography of India at the turn of the century.

The National Museum of African Art showed creations of the remarkable and little-known Oshogbo artists of the 1960s.

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A different kind of major event happened in January. Lawrence M. Small, former president of Fannie Mae, was named to run the Smithsonian.

A collector and flamenco guitar player, Mr. Small has taken a hands-on approach to the Smithsonian. He checks all new Smithsonian exhibits and has ordered exhibit labels changed that he had trouble seeing through his bifocals.

His activities range from renting two panda cubs from China for the National Zoo to talking up the planned Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington Dulles International Airport, which is an exhibition facility for the National Air and Space Museum, and the National Museum of the American Indian, which will be located near the Capitol.

He's closely supervising the renovations of the two Old Patent Building museums, the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. He found that the Smithsonian lacked an exhibit on America's presidents and instituted the recently opened "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden" at the National Museum of American History.

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