The artfulness of sledge hammers

Walking around the city today a very mundane sight caught my attention:  a building site on the 1700 block of M Street, NW… One building is in the process of being demolished between two others (see photo).

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Do you notice what I noticed?  The adjacent building has hardly been scratched by the destruction!  It may not seem like much, but if you’ve ever worked with a sledge hammer you know it’s not exactly an instrument of finesse.

I marveled at the work crew’s achievement for a moment then walked on.  I’m sure the destruction will be matched eventually by equal feats of construction.  It’s all very impressive… but it pails in comparison to God’s achievements in nature.  Whether it’s me strolling the city or any of us being self-impressed, a dose of humility never hurts the avid humanist.  I was reminded as much when I sat down later with this verse from Bl. John Henry Newman:

Man goeth forth with reckless trust upon his wealth of mind, as if in self a thing of dust creative skill might find; he schemes and toils; stone wood and ore subject or weapon of his power.

By arch and spire, by tower-girt heights, he would his boast fulfill; by marble births, and mimic lights – yet lacks one secret still; where is the master hand shall give to breathe to move to speak to live?

 

Eyes of Faith Goes to the Hirshorn!

When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd -Mk. 6:34

It’s been there for years… staring at me, taunting me, a self-confident concrete donut complacent on the Mall: the Hirshorn Museum.  I give in… I confess, since my arrival in the city (1999) I’ve never thought any good could come from a place that flies so obviously in the face of classical culture.  Recently, however, my conscience got the better of me, “If you really believe in looking for Christ in all things, you have to seek him at the Hirshorn too!”  So I did.  Admittedly, my first thought was, “That’s not a museum it’s a space station!” but I have to say the contemporary art collections at the Hirshorn led to some fruitful meditations.

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The Hirshorn Museum seen from the Mall

The most striking part of the Hirshorn immediately formed a key for my understanding of it.  The museum is a concrete circle.  Other than its third-floor balcony, which offers stunning panoramic views of the entire Mall, there are no windows on the outer ring.  Inside, however, all eyes look to the circular courtyard and its centerpiece fountain.

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Calm pervades the inner court.  Taking in the geometry of the place, there’s a sense of earth being lifted heavenward as the squares (earthly symbols) are elevated into the perfect [heavenly] circle of the structure.  It’s a dynamic similar to the National Gallery’s rotunda: a perfect cube base containing a perfect sphere (i.e. the dome).

Circles and squares, heaven and earth, inward-facing windows… add to this the subjectivity of modern art: It exists to (a) reveal the inner thoughts of the artist and (b) invite a subjective analysis by the viewer.  The Hirshorn is a place of deep introspection.

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Ron Mueck, “Big Man”

Entering the museum itself, my initial sense was “infinite.”  Looking down each corridor, I could never see the “end” of the circle.  It was comforting at first, the concept of having all the time in the world to explore art, both on the walls and in the human heart.

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Further examination of the art brought changing thoughts, sadder thoughts.

Works by artists like Lucian Freud, Willem de Koonig, and Alberto Giacometti were among the most expressive to me because they directly represented and expressed the human form.

Lucian Freud, "Nude with Leg Up" (1992)
Lucian Freud, “Nude with Leg Up” (1992)

The humanity explored by these artists is broken, deeply wounded.  A form without nobility, confused, frustrated, sorrowful.  Consider Freud’s “Nude with Leg Up.”  The stripped subject reclines next to a stripped bed, collapsed, as it were, on his crumpled linens.  The subject’s upraised leg gives sense of having fallen out of bed.  All representations of humanity necessarily show humanity’s fragility… we are, after all, fragile fallen creatures, but this art shows no indications of redemption or even the hope of it.  The Hirshorn’s circle was changing from an orbit of infinite possibilities into a self-enclosed loop of futility.

Giacometti, "Diego" (bust) de Koonig, "Woman" (Painting)
Giacometti, “Diego” (bust)
de Koonig, “Woman” (Painting)

Giacometti’s sculptures and de Koonig’s paintings are indicative.  Both artists made their careers in post-war Europe.  The destruction and broken hopes endemic of the time is obvious in their works.  Giacometti’s busts of his brother Diego are described by curators as rough and naturalistic.  I suppose there’s something to be said for roughness as a style, but as to the message conveyed I see only sad incomplete man, frozen in abstraction perpetually incomplete.  Likewise, de Koonig’s studies of the female form which, we are told, were a search for the true identity of “woman.”

Giacometti, "Diego" (bust) de Koonig, "Woman" (painting)
Giacometti, “Diego” (bust)
de Koonig, “Woman” (painting)

Two other works summed up and, really, confirmed my sense of loss, of mourning for the human condition portrayed by contemporary art.  The first is “Untitled,” by Jannis Kounellis (1980), in which a series of classical sculptures are unceremoniously piled into a closet-like space.  The broken shelves of the space intensify the sense that not only has form been passed by, but that it has been actively shunted onto the ash heap of history.

Jannis Kounellis, "Untitled" (1980)
Jannis Kounellis, “Untitled” (1980)

Finally, Hector Zamora’s video work, O Abuso da Historia shows a traditional courtyard in Brazil, into which dozens of potted palms are thrown crashing from the upper stories of the structure.  A throwing out of history?  It felt to me as if the whole structure was being prepared for demolition, destruction, fall.

O Abuso da História from Hector Zamora on Vimeo.

Leaving the Hirshorn, sad as my impressions were, I was so glad I had encountered the art and the building.  I offer no judgment against contemporary art.  It is only a record of what people are feeling.  It is data.  Reflecting on my experience, I felt as if I’d just finished listening to the stories of a grieving family preparing for a funeral, but the family is my society, my neighbors, the men and women who’s culture has given rise to the art.

If we want the Church to be a place of encounter, if we want to go out “ad extra” as Pope Francis encourages us, modern art can give us a prescient snapshot of just how much work, how much love and hope we need to bring to bear upon our world.  I’m glad I went to the Hirshorn, and I highly encourage the faithful to do likewise.  It won’t be easy, but it’s important.

When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd Mk. 6:34

 

Hubert Robert and Inspiring Imagination

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H. Robert, “Discovery of Antiquities”

It’s been a while since I last paid vows in that awe-filled agora of the aesthetic, the National Gallery of Art.  So I was thrilled to find on exhibit the works of Hubert Robert (1733-1808).  This French luminary was known in his time not only for his mastery of architectural painting and classical history, but also for his identity as something of a bon vivant in Parisian and Roman society… quite an achievement given the French Revolution consumed many of his working years.

Detail: H. Robert, "Maderno's Portico of S. Pietro"
Detail: H. Robert, “Maderno’s Portico of S. Pietro”

Robert’s particular genius was to evoke the grandeur of ancient Rome.  His nick name, “Robert of the Ruins” comes from his love for depicting the remains of the imperial city.  Often, he would combine various monuments into what is known as a capriccio, “trick,” depicting scenes that never actually existed.  Looking at Hubert Robert’s work through eyes of faith, what can we see?

Like most who’ve tried to capture “ROME” in stone or on canvas, Robert conveys three sensations: warmth, la vita, and greatness.

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H. Robert, “Hermit Praying”

Located as it is in central Italy, Rome has always been a warm city.  Snow is so rare that when it fell on the Esquiline Hill, Pope Liberius dedicated the Basilica of Mary Major on the spot!  This gave rise to the Roman saying, “when it snows, we build churches…” but I digress.  Looking out over Rome on any given afternoon there is a sense of haze… sometimes that of modern smog, but more often a glow of sorts; perhaps the result of the city’s stones radiating the day’s heat back into the atmosphere.  It slows down life.  Roman’s walk slower, take their time at meals and are rarely in a rush to work.  Romantics suggest this is a nod to the city’s eternity… a state in which rushing is pointless… I like that idea well enough, but practical experience taught me, things are slow because it’s just plane hot.  Robert captures this warmth in his paintings, and perhaps especially in the hazy strokes of his favorite medium, red chalk.

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H. Robert, “Archaeologists”

La Vita is a concept characteristic of Italians.  It’s their sense that life will be what it will be and we have very little control over it.  Consequently life should be enjoyed.  Historians and commentators suggest that La vita rises from centuries of conquest as foreign powers literally marched all over the peninsula.

Detail: H. Robert, "Maderno's Portico of S. Pietro"
Detail: H. Robert, “Maderno’s Portico of S. Pietro”

This sense of la vita is typified most eloquently by the Italians’ use of a joyfully sardonic or ironic humor throughout their literature.  Robert captures la vita by juxtaposing monumental architecture with the realities of peasant living; it’s subjects pulsing with triumph, tragedy and a healthy does of groundling laughter throughout.

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H. Robert, “Architectural Capriccio” of the Pantheon and Porta della Ripetta

Finally – and most important for us – Hubert Robert’s Rome is a GRAND vision.  Think for a moment, have you ever seen a “humble” vision of Rome?  No.  Everything from Ben-Hur to Gladiator to the works at the Gallery show Rome as mighty.  To be sure, when one walks the via Sacra in the Roman forum, it is impressive.  The fact that at it’s height the city was home to well over one million people… two thousand years ago… is astounding.  And yet… our images of Rome are often even greater than her reality.  One sees this on display in Rome today.  The Victor Emmanuel II Monument (the famed “Birthday Cake”) was built to show Rome’s resurrection under the Kingdom of Italy (1870), but – with the exception of the Colosseum – it dwarfs all of the monuments that once stood in the forum… which is one reason that modern Italians generally consider the monument to be garish in its disproportion.  Nonetheless, behold the power of imagination.

H. Robert, "Architectural Fantasy"
H. Robert, “Architectural Fantasy”

Imagination has a vital role to play in our lives and should be exercised often.  St. Thomas Aquinas spoke frequently about the role of imagination in prayer, in dialogue with the Lord, and generally in transcending this world.  St. Ignatius Loyola gave great practical advice in this regard, by tracing out the concept of “Imaginative Prayer” as part of his Spiritual Exercises.  In a hyper-empirical age, Robert’s outsized image of Rome could be criticized as “inaccurate,” but it was ideas fit to those mythic proportions that inspired people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson; ideas like “Republic,” “Equal Justice Under the Law,” “Freedom from tyranny”… all of which found their origins in Roman government.  That same dream of Rome is at the core of our city: the Capitol is spelled with an “o” as a reference to Capitoline Hill in the Forum… which, by the way, is reflected in the National Mall… Even Constitution Avenue, used to be a canal running through the capitol… a canal called, “Tiber.”  Maybe, even in a scientific post-modern age, a little imagination has a useful role to play in building up our own city on a hill and bringing us all to the heavenly city one day.

H. Robert, "Stair and Fountain"
H. Robert, “Stair and Fountain”

On Memory and Continuity

Continuing on the them of memory from my last post… Some thoughts about the National Mall.

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I was riding my bike earlier this week and snapped a few quick shots of buildings along our very own Forum Americanum,  The National Mall.  At first I was playing a game of “Which of these ones is not like the other one.  Taking in the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) was a little startling to say the least.

(Disclaimer: I have no problem with dedicating a museum on the Mall to the history of any particular culture .  Admittedly I wish we Italian-Americans had gotten a prime spot, but that’s neither here nor
there.)

The museum’s jagged motif and bronze coloring  are startling in the midst of the classical splendor that characterizes the Mall.  The shock value of the building inspired me to do some research.  The NMAAHC’s design is drawn from a traditional three-part column characteristic of the Yoruban culture of Africa, as well as the motif of a crown.  For more details on the building philosophy, see this LINK for the Architect’s vision.  Unto itself, I’m actually somewhat impressed with the museum’s design concept.  So why do I still recoil?

Natural History Museum
Natural History Museum

Relative to it’s neighbors the NMAAHC doesn’t seem to match… but riding along further I was reminded that other structures on the Mall also don’t seem to fit.  The Air and Space Museum, East Wing of the National Gallery, the Hirshorn, American Indian Museum and even the Smithsonian Castle.  Under closer examination I realized that MUCH of the National Mall doesn’t match DC’s general Greco-Roman theme.  So what does pull the Mall together?

I.M. Pei’s  East Wing of the NGA is built along the angles characteristic of DC’s squares and traffic circles.  An unorthodox structure perhaps, but thoroughly Washingtonian even if only subconsciously.  Also it’s facing stones match the white-gray color scheme of classical architecture.   The building is part of who we have been.

The Air And Space Museum
The Air And Space Museum

Color and general shape links the air and Space Museum to the rest of the Mall as well.  It’s proportions and building materials help it blend in.  As to it’s actual design, simplistic and brutalist architecture represent a major movement in post-WWII western art, which fled from the ornament of previous ages for a highly utilitarian (if not exactly exciting) design.  Similar principles inspired the Hirshorn Gallery’s geometric purism.  Both buildings are thus part of who we have been.

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American Indian Museum

The American Indian Museum is clearly drawn from the native cliff dwellings of the pre-colonial southwest.  It is a part of what America was long before it was America.

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The Smithsonian Castle looks NOTHING like the Mall today… but the Mall once looked much more like the Smithsonian Castle.  It’s a leftover from the Victorian-age of red brick neo-gothic architecture (still with us in the turrets and brick faces of our townhouses).  Like Augustus in Rome, FDR found Washington a city of brick and left it a city of Marble. The Castle is certainly part of who we have been.

In the end, the unifying principle behind today’s National Mall seems to be a memory of who we have been.  My anxiety, I think, springs from the past tense of that sentiment: who we HAVE been… because putting it in the past tense leave open the question: Who are we today?  and  Who will we be?

As Catholics we believe in a hermeneutic of continuity guiding us as a Church.  There’s no rule binding DC or even the US to a hermeneutic of neo-classical continuity… but the questions remain, “Do we know who we are anymore?” “Are we running toward a positive new identity, or just fleeing from an old one?” I don’t have answers but I think these are  all questions worthy of examination through eyes of faith.

Reflections on an Urban Trek

Last week, with spring’s return, I put on my walking shoes and took my first urban trek of the season.  As regular readers know, the purpose of this blog is to look on life in Washington through eyes of faith.  What better way to do that than to just get out there and start walking.  This trek took me from the heights of Brightwood in far upper NW, to the carefully manicured gardens of Georgetown.  I’ll present my reflections in two parts.  The first follows:

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I began at Nativity Parish (13th and Peabody, NW).  Nativity one of the best examples of local church architecture that we have.  Built in a gothic revival style, it’s pointed arches and stained glass windows provide a feast for the soul, a lavish space where the Lord can easily enter our day-to-day experience.  And isn’t that precisely what the mystery of the Nativity is all about?  The parish population has shrunken significantly over the last several decades, but exciting work is going on there under the new Administrator, Fr. Evans, who is so dedicated to his people and their neighborhood of Brightwood.  If you live nearby, consider popping in for a prayer and a visit.  You may find yourself prompted to ask, “How can I be a part of bringing Christ to this part of Washington?”  You’ll find a warm welcome from Father and the angelic staff at the Rectory!

From Nativity, I strolled through Brightwood on my way to the bus corridor of 16th St., NW.  It was mid-morning and everywhere parents and children were walking to school and work.  Neighbors used to taking the same bus each morning found ready smiles and greetings at their various bus stops.  There was a wonderful sense of new life for a new day.  Along those lines, I was inspired by a local community garden.  What a perfect metaphor for new neighborly life!

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To cut just a little walking out of the trek, I took the S9 Metrobus down 16th Street to Mount Pleasant.  If you’re a resident of Silver Spring or another nearby suburb, the “S” bus lines from Silver Spring Metro are a great gateway into the city.  They’re generally prompt and there’s just something nice about commuting above ground.  I find that when I’m not behind the wheel myself, driving in DC is actually a pleasure… especially on 16th street where stately homes, and expansive recreation zones mingle in bright sunshine to cheer up anyone willing to look.  Those who have eyes should see!

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The S9 dropped me at Mt. Pleasant, a district always teeming with life.  Mount Pleasant is an interesting intersection of urban cultures and histories.  Rich in civil war history as a major medical camp for the Army of the Potomac, it has been considered alternately as: a site for the Lincoln Memorial, a palatial gateway to the city, a hub of DC’s African American Jazz and literary scene, a civil rights launching point and now a hub of urban renewal.  Here, The Salvadoran immigrant community mixes with the bohemian crowd from Adams Morgan, the well-heeled residents of expensive condos and the longtime African American population of the area.  Some iconic points preserve the the imprint of these distinctive cultures.

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Sacred Heart Parish has been the hub of Spanish speaking Catholic ministry in DC for decades.  It’s grand architecture was a double statement of (a) God’s glory and (b) that the Catholic community of DC had ‘arrived.’  Today it remains a palace for any soul looking to be ennobled and comforted by the vision of God.

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A colorful mural adorns a 15th Street row house just south of the merge into 16th Street.  It presents an intermingling of cultures and communities that is the reality and not fully realized goal of Mt. Pleasant.

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Following 15th Street South, I eventually came to Meridian Hill Park (a.k.a. Malcolm X Park).  The Park was one of the sights originally considered for the Lincoln Memorial.  This plan was eventually abandoned in favor of the National Mall.  Standing on Meridian Hill Today, it’s easy to understand why.  Locating the Memorial there, Lincoln would’ve dominated the city like an Olympian god; not at all in keeping with his devotion to our democratic republic.  The park became an ornamental Italian garden to rival anything you’ll find in Florence.  Cascading waterfalls, walking paths, shade trees and the occasional statue make Meridian Hill Park the perfect place to find some peace in the middle a busy day.  Here, you’ll find monuments to President Buchanan, Dante Alighieri and even St. Joan of Arc.  Situated at the head of the park’s upper mall, St. Joan charges into the bright sun shine, her horse rearing up over DC’s skyline… a powerful witness to her faith, hope, love … and patriotism… virtues available to each of us every day.

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As I mentioned in an earlier post, Cardinal Newman advised that we should always look at life poetically… seeking mysteries wherever we can find them.  If you’ve enjoyed this first set of reflections, looking “poetically” at last week’s urban trek… stay tuned.  Part II will be posted soon!

“Let there be light”…Illumination in DC’s Streets

“The spiritual man who has been thus illumined does not limp or leave the path, but bears all things.  Glimpsing our true country from afar, he puts up with advertises; he is not saddened by the things of time, but finds his strength in God.  He lowers his pride and endures possessing patience through humility.  That true light which enlightens every man who comes into the world bestows itself on those who reverence it, shining where it wills, on whom it wills and revealing itself according to the will of God the Son.” -John the Serene, Bishop

There’s been significant chatter lately about “pop-ups” in DC; townhouses that have been expanded upward to increase square footage available for rent/sale.  Opinions about these outgrowths of contemporary architecture are divided.  Of course they raise an ever present question in our fair metropolis: what to do about the height restrictions?

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Compared to most major American cities, Washington is relatively low-rise.  This limits the number of people who can live, work …and pay taxes… in the city.  Popular legend tells us that no building may be higher than the statue of Freedom over the Capitol Dome.  That’s not entirely true.  Most buildings in Washington are actually limited by a ratio between their height and the width of the street on which they’re built.  Consequently, broad avenues have taller structures than more narrow side streets.  The goal of the restrictions: “Let there be light!”

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I love DC’s short stature.  Structures exist on a human scale.  Residents can enjoy the clear light of day shining in blue skies.  …and if the humility of our local buildings exalts the dignity of our national Capitol, well that’s not such a bad thing either.

As someone who’s lived in both New York and Washington, I can tell you that having access to natural light and the blue sky in DC has a significant effect on my day.  It does more than lift my spirits.  It contextualizes my city experience.  In New York, sky scraper canyons dominate and contain citizens.  In Washington, the presence of light and greenery integrally woven into our street-experience connects the city to a wider world that serves man rather than oppressing him.

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Light forms a huge part of Catholic spirituality.  Jesus is himself described as the light of the human race (Jn. 1:4-ff).  Likewise, Catholics are called on to be the light of the world (Mt 5:14).  Cities should be places of light; the light of art, music, learning and bright smiles exchanged between citizens.  It’s a complex thing to increase that light, but a good place to begin might be the presence of the sun gracing SHORT buildings, filling our streets and daily experiences.

Picturing Mary on her Feast Day

Caccia, "St. Luike the Evangelist in the Studio" (ca. 1625)
Caccia, “St. Luike the Evangelist in the Studio” (ca. 1625)

Today, January 1, 2015, Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God… what a perfect day to consider the National Museum of Women in the Arts’  (NMWA) big hit exhibit, “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea”.

I visited the museum for the first time a few days ago, and while my only goal was to take in the Mary exhibit, I was impressed by the museum as a whole.  The facilities are beautiful, the location ideal and (and this is always important) the gift shop was up to snuff.  The NMWA’s raison d’être is to educate people about the role played by women in the arts.  As the founder of the museum, Wilhelmina Cole Holladay acknowledges in her Forward to the gallery book on the exhibit, Mary is of such importance to the western artistic understanding that “Picturing Mary” was conceived at the same time as the museum itself.  How beautiful then to see both come to fruition this holiday season!

Three reflections… First on the exhibit itself, second what I personally gleaned from the exhibit, third a brief response to the one critique I’ve read about the exhibit:

Vast libraries have been created to house people’s reflections on Mary, and the art inspired by her.  There’s just too many good things to say about Mary and this wonderful exhibit dedicated to her.  Briefly then… The quality of the pieces displayed was superb. I found myself beaming throughout… my only sadness being that eventually most of these exquisite works will have to return to their European homes.  I was also happily surprised to find that the explanations for each piece of art were generally accurate in presenting Mary as she has always been loved by the Church.  Everyone, and I do mean EVERYONE should take an opportunity to see this exhibit.

For myself, just having celebrated Christmas and preparing for today’s feast, this exhibit really hit home.  I have an intense relationship with Mary. I’ve studied her in the Gospels, prayed with her in our chapels, visited her great shrines… Despite all this I’m always discovering new deep realities about her and consequently about my own relationship with God.  What did I take away from the NMWA exhibit?  Mary loved Jesus.  It might seem obvious… but look to each work and see the Blessed Mother holding a mystery in her hands.  She loved him, contemplated him, protected him… She drew her very being, her reason for life from him, and then something happened.  At a wedding in Cana they ran out of wine.  Mary directed the stewards to her son, the as yet little-known Jesus.  She pushed him out of the nest… she gave him to the world knowing full well that one day “a sword would pierce her heart,”… and so it did.  Two or three years after that wedding miracle, Mary held in her arms the dead body of the son she once nursed at Bethlehem.  “Picturing Mary” taught me in a new and deeper way than before that the only way to show you treasure someone beyond all price is to share that person with the world, for the sake of others, even if it means you will suffer.  Mary embraced such suffering because it allowed Christ to come to the fullness of his glory, and that joy was worth it for her and for us.  As a human being it’ll be good for me to consider what treasures I have that I need to be more generous about… or question whether I really treasure them.  As a Christian and a priest, I know my greatest treasure is my relationship with Christ (just like Mary)… How am I doing at sharing him with the world?  What would I be willing to sacrifice in order to share him that much more effectively?  How can I more effectively “Picture Mary” and so imitate her.  Visiting this exhibit was a great start.

Finally… Philip Kenicott of the Washington Post and Kriston Capps of City Lab are both fine writers and commentators on art, architecture and all things urban.  I often enjoy reading their articles and tweets.  Both have [separately] reviewed “Picturing Mary,” and I concur with much of what they’ve written.  Their one critique raised by Mr. Kenicott is that exhibit doesn’t consider a modern (19th-21st century) secular feminist critique of traditional depictions of Mary.  Perhaps it wasn’t so much a critique as a reasonable question, “Why doesn’t the exhibit address the secular feminist critique?”  It’s a reasonable question, partially answered: the curators simply weren’t concerned with it.  I suppose if someone else wants to mount an exhibit on secular feminist critiques of Mary they’re welcome to do so… “It’s a free country.”  Given the proliferation of ably supported women’s studies programs in schools, universities, think tanks and other institutions, It’s hard for me to question let alone fault the NMWA for leaving that worthy discussion to others at this time.

Separately from these two reviews, questions about Mary and feminism often lead back to a deeper root question, “What’s with Catholicism and women?”  It’s a question that the Church has addressed with exhaustive energy over the last several decades.  St. John Paul II wrote beautifully about the dignity of women in his letter Mulieres Dignitatem (and many other places)The reflections of two of our greatest intellectuals,   Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar are expressed beautifully in “Mary the Church at the Source,” (Ignatius, 1997).  More broadly speaking, the Church’s universal teaching about her equal esteem for men and women can be found in the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church” (Chapter 3) assembled by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and published by the Libreria Editrice Vaticana in 2005.  Certainly Pope Francis has spoken beautifully on the subject.  All are great reads, easily available, that might help those left with questions after visiting “Picturing Mary.”  My only personal contribution to the conversation would be point out that among human beings there are only two before whom I would happily prostrate myself… one is the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ… the other his his totally human, totally woman, totally awesome mother, Mary.

Visions of the City: Part I “The Architectural Image”

National Building Museum Atrium
National Building Museum Atrium

 

Optics are so important… those lenses through which we see objective realities.  Do I see life through rose-colored glasses?  Do I see principally through eyes of revolution and discontinuity (i.e. Marx)?  Do I see through a lens of deconstruction, as might a physicist? or through a transcendent holistic lenses as might an impressionist painter?  Two exhibits currently on view at the National Building Museum (NBM) offer starkly contrasting lenses for viewing city life.  Both are powerful, and very much worth a visit.  Today we’ll cover The Architectural Image 1920-1950.  Tomorrow I’ll offer reflections on the second exhibit Investigating Where We Live: DC Now and Next.

Howard Cook - "Harbor Skyline"
Howard Cook – “Harbor Skyline”

The Architectural Image 1920-1950 – gives us an impressive array of cityscapes that show the King Kong-like mark made by the rise of the International Style in architecture.  The prints, mostly black and white, represent several twentieth century evolutions:  The artistic medium of etching (see an earlier post on J.M. Whistler’s 19th century contributions to this same art form), the growth new architectural and engineering techniques which birthed the skyscrapers that characterize most of these works, and finally (perhaps most intriguing of all) an evolving urban vocabulary.

Turner - "The Fighting Temeraire" an old sail warship is dragged to scrap by a steamboat
Turner – “The Fighting Temeraire” an old sail warship is dragged to scrap by a steamboat

The NBM’s prints represent a cap on an exhibit I saw in London ten years ago. In the summer of 2005, the Tate Britain mounted a beautiful historical retrospective.  Paintings of the UK from the 17th through the 20th century were presented, showing the evolution of the island.  Predominantly pastoral scenes from the agricultural era gave way to the development of 18th and 19th century technology.  At first, the shift was benign, almost romantic: a blacksmith teaching his son the trade amid bucolic splendor.  Benign gave way to intriguing ingenuity as railroads and lone steamboat cut across later landscapes.  Eventually the full flowering of industry replaced the lilies of the field  and smoke stacks from Dickensian workhouses rose where forests once stood.

Turzak - "Palm Olive Building"
Turzak – “Palm Olive Building”

At the NBM, characteristic human words like “pastoral,” “romantic,” or even, “inventive,” are wholly blotted out in the displays of Howard Cook, Louis Lozowick, Leon Gilmour and Carles Turzak.  They’ve been replaced by  more modern descriptors: “Hard,” “Indomitable,” “Mechanical,” characteristic of Gotham.  Sky scrapers dwarf citizens, trees, even earlier technological innovations (automobiles, elevated trains etc.)… The buildings have become the new citizens, the new focus of the city.  Also interesting, the role of light in these prints.  So many of them are set at night when spot lights struggle to illumine the mammoth proportions of the sky scrapers.  Consider that for a moment… when even light itself struggles to encompass something you know that thing is BIG.  Note also that both sun and moon have been replaced by man-made spotlights.  Note most of all… that man is nowhere represented among these man-made things.

Gilmour - "The Cement Finishers" Are they more men or machines?
Gilmour – “The Cement Finishers” Are they more men or machines?

The Architectural Image reveals a disturbing reality of the twentieth century: that in our engineering genius, our creations have perhaps overcome us.  Mensch and ubermensch have been dominated by “uberskyscraper.”   In some ways it makes sense.  These prints were being developed at exactly the same time as the atomic bomb… No other technology has so threatened to overcome its creators.  St. John Paul II addresses such concerns in his Encyclical “Laborem Exercens,” on the dignity of human labor.  There, he reminds us that ultimately, man is the subject of labor… he is its originator, and his good is its ultimate goal.

I know next to nothing about the artists who made these powerful architectural images.  Today’s reflections should in no way suggest that Cook, Lozowick et al. were intentionally promoting man’s subjugation to his creations.  But as the holiday season comes to a close and we return to the daily routines that we sometimes describe as the “rat race” “daily grind” or even “hamster wheel” the images at the NBM might be a timely reminder to reflect on our priorities and ask, “Is my labor working for me… or am I working for it?”  See this exhibit.  It’ll make you think.

El Greco? El Great-o!

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Ask anyone if they know who Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614) was, you’ll get a blank stare.  Ask anyone who El Greco was, you might get a few less blank stares.  Ask anyone who’s been to the El Greco exhibit at the National Gallery of Art and you’ll get a stare, but it won’t be blank, it’ll be filled with awe.  El Greco was a Greek painter (from Crete) whose talent with the brush led him to begin an artistic career in Renaissance Rome before leaving the Eternal City for an artistic career in Spain.  Combining oriental piety, with stylistic trends from the Venetian and Roman schools, El Greco’s achievements in Spain are a credit to his name Theotokopoulos (“God Bearer”).

Libraries have been written about El Greco’s work.  What most interested me about the NGA’s exhibit was his synthesis of Greek Italian and Spanish influences into style all his own.  Looking at the eternal truths of Christ’s life through this artist’s singular lens made me think about them in new ways… And isn’t that what sacred art does at its best?  In the words of St. John Paul II,

“Art renders visible the perception of the mystery which makes of the Church a universally hospitable community, mother and traveling companion to all men and women in their search for God.” (JPII, Letter to Artists)

When it comes to El Greco’s style, it was all his own, but was it perhaps something more: a gift… could something that is both so unique and so true be a gift from God?

“When men have a longing so great that it surpasses human nature and eagerly desires and is able to accomplish things beyond human thought, it is the bridegroom [Christ] who has smitten them with this longing.” (Nicolas Cabasilas, Life of Christ, II.15 )

So there are two forces in play: eternal truth and seeing eternal truth in a new way that nevertheless preserves that truth.  From a Catholic point of view, this is the essence of what Vatican II tried to do… and what new evangelization is trying so desperately to do.  Whether you’re Catholic or not, the concept of presenting transcendent truths for the respectful consideration of ones neighbor is never a bad idea.  In this regard, maybe all of us could take a lesson from Domenikos Theotokopoulos.

PS: Also of note in El Greco’s work: the influence of Toledo, Spain – his adopted home.  A number his works include the architecture of Toledo in the background… a testament to the enduring power of good public architecture.

Note: I found the exhibit much more rewarding after seeing the 30min video in the conference room on the lower level of the Gallery.