By Jeffrey Adelson
Photos by: Mollie Coyle
Located on the National Mall between the Smithsonian Castle and the National Air and Space Museum, the small, rotund building that houses the exhibitions of the Hirshhorn Museum appears unassuming from an outside perspective. The structure itself is circular, with the center left open to the sky and covered in inward facing windows. The interior is similarly modern and not heavily adorned, sporting the stark white walls and floors that are especially common in modern art galleries.
Until February, the museum is featuring two main exhibitions – the first, a collection of objects, sculptures, photographs, and recreations of surrealist exhibitions, and the second, an art history project of sorts that attempts to depict the famous fights that occurred between surrealist artists through collections of representative surrealist objects.
The first of the current exhibitions, “Marvelous Objects: Surrealist Sculpture from Paris to New York,” consists of sculptures and photographs of various sculptures created by the giants of the surrealist movement: Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali, Jean Arp, Henry Moore, and others. For the uninitiated, surrealism was an artistic movement of the interwar and post-World War II eras in Europe and the United States. The movement focused on depicting ‘surreal’ scenes and items that combated the incomprehensible historical realities of the time with similarly incomprehensible and seemingly random artistic works. Many surrealist artists sought to bring their dreams and subconscious out into reality through their work and thus the movement features the frequent juxtaposition of unrelated items in an attempt to depict human thought. This exhibition focuses on two expressions of this movement: created forms that mimic natural ones and sculptures made from found items.
The pieces in this exhibition range from small to large and represent various mediums and approaches to sculpture and creating the surreal. Some artists used the smooth lines and rounded forms that we associate with natural objects while others utilize a collage of found objects to create a single unified sculpture. The tone of this collection can vary quite a bit, including items that are quite playful and whimsical, such as Dali’s Aphrodisiac Jacket, a jacket covered in glasses of liqueur and with a brassiere attached to the inside, to pieces that can be deeply disturbing and terrifying like Alberto Giacometti’s Woman with her Throat Cut, an abstract, bronze statue of a woman whose throat has been cut and lies gasping on the ground. My favorite sculptures in this exhibit were in a sub-section labeled “Industrial-Strength Surrealism” which consisted of various animals and people rendered in pieces of scrap metal collected from factories and junkyards. The great variety of this exhibit is difficult to describe as it includes the range of metal monstrosities of scrap metal to Dali’s whimsical work and the abstract, smooth forms of Jean Arp.
It also happened to be family weekend at the museum when Mollie Coyle, our photographer for this article, and I visited the museum, and we thought the museum did an admirable job of creating real, family friendly activities around the difficult exhibitions of surrealist and modern art. There were a number of children drawing with their parents but even more interesting was a whole wall, covered in magnets shaped to be different objects from the surrealist exhibitions. The magnets were free to be placed and rearranged by the visitors and it was quite fun to create my own combinations and to see what others before me had made on the wall.
The second of the exhibitions is a somewhat pretentious attempt at art in art history as Shana Lutker, a Los Angeles artist who specializes in sculpture and theoretical research, attempts to recreate famous events in surrealist history by making life-size collages of surrealist objects. The project is paired with a book that Lutker is writing and a few smaller collages of objects and photos that she used for research. After reading the descriptions that accompany the larger collages I was able to see what each piece corresponded to but I found the entire project a bit excessive on the part of Lutker. I think the idea of recording the drama that occurred between the historical surrealist artists is both interesting and actually very entertaining, but converting this historical project into a contemporary, artistic one struck me as too much. I would rather see Lutker’s own work or her historical project, rather than see the two combined.
Beyond the two current exhibitions, the Hirshhorn also holds a permanent collection of interesting but more typical modern art. In the permanent collection you will find a number of paintings, sculptures, and multi-media pieces that touch on many of the most common themes of modern art. These themes include but are not limited to: human interaction with the environment, the dehumanizing effect of modern life, our relationship with the traumatic events of human history, our understanding of the human animal, and the absurdity of modern life. Much of what is presented to the visitor conveys its message both through the content of the piece as well as through the form – one of the great strengths of modern art. For example, one piece, meant to represent the loss of knowledge through Nazi book burning, was constructed almost entirely from the ashes of burnt books. This type of display is not uncommon in modern art and I personally enjoy it, but I understand how it can easily be off-putting or simply lacking in content for others. The emphasis on statement in modern art can create pieces that feel more gimmicky than anything else and the power of the statement is often lost in these cases.
Overall, I really enjoyed the Hirshhorn Museum and would highly recommend it to any fans of art or anyone merely interested in seeing some contemporary and modern or post-modern art. If surrealism isn’t something you are familiar with or interested in I might suggest waiting for next semester to visit the museum but the permanent collection is of course always on display. The museum, along with the rest of the Smithsonian Museums in D.C., is completely free, so it would never hurt to check it out. Along with featuring a nice collection of modern art, the museum is fairly conveniently located and is not overwhelmingly large, so you can really see all of it in a few hours or even just stop in to see one exhibit and be on your way within an hour.