Kerry James Marshall

The National Gallery East Building has towers. One of these towers houses a show by Kerry James Marshall at present. I was not familiar with this artist, but I'm a very curious person, so of course I had to check it out.

My first impression was visual. His work is large and colorful, which I enjoy. On closer inspection, I realized that the paintings are on canvas, but hung by grommets like a tarp; (you can see this clearly in the third photo). I wonder if this was a choice was supposed give "meaning," was an aesthetic choice (?) or if the artist merely chooses to buy actual tarps to paint upon.....
(Since I had just viewed the Ballet Russes exhibit which featured stage back drops, the similarity was perhaps more striking.)

My favorite piece in the room was "Great America."

It was visually stunning. I love the way Marshall paints his figures. They are black, and I mean BLACK with no shading, but with facial features and body parts in outline. It may sound simplistic, but he gets all of the shape and proportion perfect and it is a powerful effect. The displayed information noted that the waves at the front of the boat are painted in the style of Japanese prints. He has also included some veves; these are symbols of Haitian voodoo, but they are quite whimsical in appearance.

Born in 1955, in Birmingham, Alabama, but raised in a Chicago suburb, Marshall uses his work to document what he feels is the African-American experience. Many of his pieces have water in them, and almost always he has bodies, heads, or skulls in the water referencing the many Africans who died in the passage to America on slave ships. I found this element powerful and it made pause to consider and reflect on the truth of that. Below, are two more works from the exhibit, "Plunge" and "Our Town." Both are full of narrative, but leave some ambiguity for the viewer to discern what is happening, so I will leave that to you.


Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes

Since I was already at the East Building of the National Gallery, I decided to tour the current, much publicized exhibit, Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, organized by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. I've seen the images on the Metro buses and had not really thought I would take it in. Obviously, I had not done my homework.

The Russian Ballet was closely tied to artwork of the early 20th century. Diaghilev persuaded amazing artists of the day, including Picasso and Matisse, to design the sets and costumes. I was not previously aware of Leon Bakst, but for me, at least, he was the star of the show. His sketches for costumes were gorgeous, saturated with color. It was interesting to see the actual costume displayed alongside for comparison.

I loved the use of gold on the sketches. It was three-dimensional and gave the drawings a solidity that I don't think would have been implied without that addition. My favorite was "Temple Dancer."

It didn't hurt that one of my favorite artists, Modigliani painted a portrait of Leon Bakst that was also on display. Funnily, until I happened upon it, I had given no thought to what Bakst might look like. Here he is, at least as Modigliani saw him. 

Each of the many rooms of the Ballet Russes exhibit contains a screen with scenes from the ballet playing, featuring the backdrops and costumes displayed in that room.  I barely watched; I was much more entranced with the artwork used to plan the shows. What little I did see, brought to mind a movie about Joan Miro that we watched in college. It was a bit chaotic and loud, but not in a bad way.

Not only were the costume designers amazing artists, but the backdrops and sets were fantastic too. Henri Gervex did some amazing "sketches" of what the stage should look like in different scenes. I'm sure they were considered incomplete  by him, but I loved them. I think this is one of his.....pardon me if it is not, there were quite a few who designed the sets and all were incredible.

In one of the final rooms, I was transfixed by the sketch for the front cloth for "The Firebird" by Natalia GoncharovaI stood for a long time staring at it. When I finally turned away, the ACTUAL front cloth was in front of me. Thirty feet high and probably fifty feet long! (I think I uttered a "Woah.")

You can probably tell that I did not consider my time in the exhibit a waste. I encourage you to see it. Although I was most interested in the art, anyone with an interest in fashion design, theater, or ballet will find things to love and contemplate. I'll end with a quote from Serge Diaghilev, "There is no interest in achieving the possible." It shows.