It’s rare when I leave a museum — despite the many my travels have whisked me into — that what I find inside makes an impression any more lasting than a fingerprint in a ball of clay.
Though I’m sure I annoy my fellow travelers by taking the time to read the placards and look at the paintings first from close up, then from a distance, as soon as I step back outside between the customary stone animals guarding the entrance, the admiration that I experienced at the artists’ technique or talent almost instantly wicks away.
Yesterday was not one of those days.
Two things led me to the Corcoran Gallery of Art: the first, that it was on my bucket list of things to see and do before I leave DC; the second, that their free summer Saturdays ends next week.
Other than my own internal debate about whether or not to ride my bike (I opted not, which turned out to be fortuitous in light of the 50 Year Anniversary of the March on Washington crowds), I didn’t make any real preparations for the visit. I had made up my mind that it was the day I would go, and so I was going.
The gallery’s brochure didn’t announce anything that struck an immediate chord with my established artistic interests – of which I have few in the first place – but I thought I’d get a healthy dose of Historic American Art and amuse myself with the presumably wacky contemporary exhibit, Ellen Harvey’s “The Alien’s Guide to the Ruins of Washington, D.C.”¹
So, I meandered through the parquet-floored rooms, admiring a French portrait of a Moore in red, a prairie-scape with weary pioneers, a touching (pun-intended) statuette by Rodin. I headed upstairs, where I tried to muster a single drop of curiosity about the abstract contemporary paintings, but came up with my usual lackluster reaction.²
My interest was finally piqued when I walked into a room of photography, a medium I generally enjoy. The photographs were striking, sure: startlingly realistic depictions using toy soldiers to recreate scenes of the Mexican-American war, World War II, and the War in Iraq.
Nevertheless, it clearly fit into the world of art: something created, but not real. Just make-believe with kids’ toys. I thought to myself (self), I bet David Levinthal liked “The Indian in the Cupboard.”
But this was where the chuckling stopped. The walls in the next six galleries were hung with hundreds of photos of war. The spaces were divided into sub-galleries that grouped 165 years’ worth of images of recruitment, training, deployment, recreation, battle, injury, loss and sorrow, prisoners, executions, rescues, media, civilians, children, homecomings, memorials.
I came to the end of the display and followed the herd of visitors back outside, stepped into the sunshine on 17th St, and quite literally could not keep walking; I had to sit down. It wasn’t that I was crying, or in disbelief of something I had been unaware of, or disgusted with humanity. It was more as though I couldn’t quite feel where I was, like I’d walked across a tesseract in A Wrinkle in Time and come out somewhere much further away than I was expecting.
As I sat on the steps watching the Marchers file by and letting myself resettle back into the now, I couldn’t help thinking of the soldiers who come back from a tour of duty where they’ve been absent from such “normal” sights for months, where sights like those I had just seen are not frozen in time by an artist, but tangible experiences, creating hypersensitivity to every sound, every movement in the corner of their eye.
I had spent only two hours with my senses being inundated with photo after photo of destruction, hatred, courage, strength, fear, violence, compassion. To then step back outside into the general safety and comfort of an American city — it was nothing if not surreal.
By the time I got up to walk away, I no longer felt shell-shocked and today I’ve already started to forget some of the photographs I saw, but I’m pretty certain this is one museum visit that will stick with me.
¹Alien’s Guide was, indeed, amusing, but certainly not as wacky as anticipated. I quite enjoyed the humor in looking back at DC and classical architecture from the lens of aliens who have discovered Earth long after human civilization has died out.
²Excepting one, which made me angry. I found this painting spirited and cheerful like a Dr. Seuss story, only to read (darn placard) that it was meant to evoke bodily functions! There are two things that skeeve me out the way feet and the word “moist” affect other people: bumpy, nubbly things and potty humor. I’m wishing I had noted the artist’s name so I could call him out!
Unfortunately, I didn’t note all of the photographers, but the ones I can tell you are (if you know who the rest belong to, please leave me a note!)
Chris Hondros (Getty Images): Liberian militia commander, 2003.
Vo Anh Khanh (National Geographic Society): Cambodian guerilla carried to improvised operating room in a mangrove swamp, 1970.
Horace Bristol: Rescue at Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, 1944.
David Silverman: Palestine, 2000