Object Lessons: Rantings of a Lone Pamphleteer
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Lessons on Objet d'Art

Remembering the purpose of this blog, I turn to one of Jon and my favorite activities, assigning ourselves self-improvement outings. We are both interested in self improvement, not in a snobby way, rather in that we believe in basic good things that constitute "the good life." Art, for example, and fine music, architecture, or, more recently, wine. [Wine is very good.] All the various arts that so nobly and adeptly capture our life experience on this planet. You know. So, we add a bi-weekly trip to the wine store for tastings, or agree to at least one Culturally Enriching activity per month.


Of course.

So we try. Usually, we do a bunch of activities in a few days, while traveling. But, for the first month this year, we have no plans to travel to interesting sights. This happens every so often, especially in the summer; just before we slack off our "Cultural Enrichment Program," we turn our heads west a bit, and remember what a fabulous city we live next to. Largest museum complex in the world, world-class music, dining, and all other superlatives that can be applied to the District of Columbia, Capital of the Free World.

Besides, weeks (maybe even months) ago, Jon pointed out a Diego Rivera exhibit (his Cubist period), and a Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya exhibit. So we took a gulp, and got back on the Metro.

It was grand.

First, we Metroed over to DC, a quick ride to the Archives stop, and we wandered through the Navy Memorial, where a bunch of young sailors were having their picture made. Later, as I was crossing the World Map, which forms the base of the memorial, I felt compelled to break into song: "I am on... TOP of the WO-orld looking... DOWN on creation..." It was funny. Trust me.

Next, we ate at TEAism, one of our favorite spots near the National Gallery, quite convenient (and usually open weekends) for a quick and tasty lunch ($8-12 per person). Jon had the Thai Chicken Curry, while I indulged my taste for Salmon Ochuzuke, a dish of broiled salmon and a dash of wasabi paste over brown rice; however, I prefer the dish presented Ochazuke, with green tea as the broth for a hearty soup. It's fantastic.

The exhibits themselves were, well, varied. To stay out of the heat, mild as it was, we crossed through the Natioinal Gallery's West building, down into the tunnel that connects it, under 4th Street by Constitution, past the really overpriced but stylish Cascade Cafe, through two, count 'em, TWO museum shops where I barely paused to look at a thing, and up a couple flights of stairs. Whew! By then it was an easy choice to start on the main floor and work our way through the Mayan Art exhibit, rather than walk up to the Diego Rivera.

We decided to rent an audio tour, but at $5, well, we decided to share one. We were on a date, and turned up the volume, leaning close to cuddle in front of the art described by three experts and the Gallery's Director. I was perturbed that none of them were, ahem, native to the areas in which they specialize.

Mayan history, language, and culture are murky, partly because they stretch back so far, to 2500 BC. This exhibit focuses on the lifestyle of the Mayan rich and famous, specifically from the late classic period, from 600AD to 850AD. Within 100 years, all the Mayan pyramids, palaces, ballcourts, marketplaces, seaside forts, and huge cities were deserted. It's a disappearance as mystifying as the Dinosaur's, but most archaeologists agree that war and disease are the prime suspects.

All features of life are addressed, insofar as they are known. From currency to female roles, from Maize god to Chocolate god (finally, someone I can pray to),

from loom weaving to ceremonial bloodletting of wives (eeew).
The pieces are stunning. Many are well preserved, clear examples of Mayan art as it depicts courtly life. Mostly created 1500 years ago, some are still painted bright blue or blood red. The scrimshaw, jade maskes, stucco "death" masks, and throne backs, were all amazing, informative, and striking.

Here, however, is art that instructs. Chocolate, it is clear, was an important commodity, used not only for frothy drinks (basic recipe was water, honey, chili, and crushed cacao beans) but as currency too. In fact, the tombs of the dead included bone carvings of cacao beans in a shell plate, for use as currency in the afterlife. From the Guatemalan mountains, Mayans recovered enough jade for a large mask, one of my favorite pieces.

Many of the 6-inch figurines showed royal women at the loom, or cooking, while men were portrayed at the great Mayan pastime--for which ball courts and players abound, but to which they have yet to assign any name other than "ball game."

This is my favorite figure -- it's so active.

After Mayan Art, the jump to Diego Rivera's Mexican-themed cubist art is a natural. I was disappointed by the small exhibit, enjoying only one of the paintings, a deco-style portrait of a dandy, Portrait of Adolfo Best Maugard, an intellectual painter and contemporary of Rivera's.

It was a fun date, and I feel a little... fuller, in touch with the world and my history.

The National Gallery remains a favorite.

While researching Mayan gods, I found PBS's lesson plan for teachers. I thought the handout accurately condenses the salient information on the Maya.

For more pictures of art in the exhibit, see the article at Artnet.

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