District Sights: National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden

On the hunt for a convenient, quick, and close-by lunch spot between our visits to the National Air & Space Museum and the National Museum of African American History & Culture, we wandered into the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden on our way to the Pavilion Cafe. With bad weather looming, we made our way around the fountain, lingered just a bit at a few of the statues and went inside just in time. It started raining while we were in line to order.

 

In our quick visit though I took a few photos and have since done some research on one of the artist’s whose work in the sculpture garden stood out to me. Titled Puellae (Girls), the collection of bronze, headless figurines standing amidst trees, was haunting. In search of the meaning behind these figures I quickly Googled but the first page that came up offered nothing beyond the fact that the figures were bronze, made in 1982, and were indeed at the National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden (thanks Google/Wikipedia). A friendly security guard passed by just as I declared my internet search of no use and told us that the statues were inspired by a story the artist had heard during World War II of a transport of girls from Poland to Germany who all died from exposure to the cold in the cattle cars used to move them.

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The artist is Magdalena Abakanowicz who grew up in Poland. She was 9 years old when Nazi Germany invaded and she grew up outside of Warsaw, and after the war, lived under Soviet control. She went to art school and began her career in a the climate of Soviet rigid conservatism. Artists were only allowed to create art in one style–Socialist realism. As she moved through her career as an artist those restrictions were lifted. Abakanowicz is known for working with textiles and for several humanoid sculptures like those at the National Portrait Gallery. Drawing on her experience of World War II and its aftermath, she is “best known for her “crowds” (as she calls them) of headless, rigidly posed figures whose anonymity and multiplicity have been regarded as the artist’s personal response to totalitarianism.” (National Gallery of Art website)

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I am not personally terribly interested or good at art. I often don’t “get” it. But when art is used to represent history or the past, I am better able to understand. I wish this sort of background information was included on art gallery labels, but I suppose sometimes the art is meant to speak for itself and be open to interpretation. I prefer knowing the inspiration myself. With the background of this sculpture, I see more than creepy headless figures and instead see the atrocities of war and how such large scale inhumanity creates so many anonymous victims.

Public art is often cited as one way to better highlight history of places, especially when original structures no longer stand. What do you think about using art to tell history?

It’s a Wonderful Life: 10 facts about the holiday classic

IMG_5997One of my favorite Christmas traditions is watching “It’s A Wonderful Life” with my mom and whoever else will join us. Usually it’s just the two of us since neither of my siblings have ever cared much for the black and white classic. We have watched it on the big screen together twice, once in New York City when we visited my brother for Christmas, and once in my hometown, in downtown Wilson, North IMG_6003Carolina at our local historic theater. But most years, it’s pajamas, fuzzy socks, and the fuzzy VHS tape at home. (Though this year, I have realized it’s on Amazon Prime so we won’t have to deal with the finicky VCR this year.) We’ve seen it a dozen times at least and yet the end still makes us cry.

I am so looking forward to this year’s viewing and in honor of the tradition, I’ve compiled a few fun facts about this 1946 Christmas classic.

  1. IMG_6008Both Frank Capra (the director) and James Stewart (who plays the main character George Bailey) served in World War II, with this film being the first they had worked on postwar. Frank Capra, Italian by birth, volunteered to enlist at the age of 44 after Pearl Harbor and put his film talents to patriotic use, creating documentaries about the war to boost morale among troops. Most notably he produced the “Why We Fight” series. James Stewart served as a pilot in WWII rising to the rank of Brigadier General in the United States Air Force Reserve and becoming the highest-ranking actor in military history. He was also the first Hollywood star to enlist to fight in World War II. IMG_6002
  2. Donna Reed, who played Mary Hatch Bailey, the film’s leading lady, said that the film was “the most difficult film I ever did. No director ever demanded as much of me.”
  3. The film didn’t do as well as expected at the box office because of strong competition, but it was nominated for 6 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (James Stewart), Best Film Editing, and Best Sound Recording.
  4. IMG_6009The one award that the film won was the Technical Achievement Award given to the Special Effects crew for developing a new technique for simulating falling snow on motion picture sets. Before It’s a Wonderful Life snow was made using painted cornflakes; however, these were rather noisy when stepped on, causing scenes to need redubbing. The special effects team on It’s a Wonderful Life developed a new way to create snow using water, soap flakes, foamite and sugar, which was much quieter than cornflakes.
  5. The film is based on a short story titled The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern, which was written in 1939 and published privately in 1943. Good Housekeeping magazine published the story in their January 1945 edition under the title The Man Who Was Never Born. The studio became interested in the story and Cary Grant was initially interested in playing the lead role that would ultimately go to James Stewart. IMG_6005
  6. The swimming pool under the gym floor that features in the famous dance scene of the movie still exists at Beverly Hills High School where it was in use at least until 2013.
  7. The film is listed on the American Film Institute’s 100 Best American Films Ever Made, placing number 11 on the initial 1998 list and number 20 on the revised 2007 list.
  8. The pet raven of Uncle Billy’s was in several of Capra’s films beginning with You Can’t Take it With You. His name was Jimmy. IMG_6006
  9. Like many of Capra’s films, the movie told a moral story with a positive, heartwarming and patriotic message about a downtrodden “every man.”
  10. 4.7 million people tuned in to NBC’s Christmas Eve broadcast of the movie in 2017. Will you be watching this year?

History in Song: “Enola Gay” by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

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Today is the anniversary of the first atomic bomb drop on Hiroshima. On August 6, 1945 at 8:15 in the morning, local time, the Enola Gay, a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber, released the atomic bomb code-named “Little Boy.” The bomb’s blast and firestorm killed 70,000-80,000 people, 30% of the city’s population, and another 70,000 were injured. Out of those killed, only 20,000 were soldiers. These numbers do not include those who suffered long-term health effects and early deaths from the fallout and radiation.

While the attack on Hiroshima and the later attack on Nagasaki brought an end to World War II without the invasion of Japan, the immense loss of life and almost complete destruction of the two cities has been the source of much debate and controversy. Many of the mission’s crew have maintained that they felt the attacks were warranted in that they brought a swifter end to the war and resulted in less casualties than an invasion of Japan might have. Many have also argued that the immense and terrifying power of the atomic bomb as displayed in these two attacks has prevented future use of atomic weapons. However, the loss of life was catastrophic and many have questioned whether it was really necessary or the only option to bring about the end of the war.

1980s British synth-pop band, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, explored the moral questions rising from the use of the atomic bomb in their song, Enola Gay (1980). Interpreted by many as an anti-war song, the songwriter Andy McCluskey actually stated that the song was not politically motivated and he hoped the track “conveyed an ambivalence about whether it was the right or the wrong thing to do.” However, the song was released during a time of growing anti-nuclear sentiment.

Music Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5XJ2GiR6Bo

Lyrics:

Enola Gay, you should have stayed at home yesterday
Oh, words can’t describe the feeling and the way you lied
These games you play, they’re gonna end in more than tears someday
Oh, Enola Gay, it shouldn’t ever have to end this way
It’s 8:15, that’s the time that it’s always been [the time the bomb was dropped and a reference to the fact that the blast stopped watches]
We got your message on the radio
Condition’s normal and you’re coming home
Enola Gay, is mother proud of her little boy today? [a reference both to the code name of the bomb,”Little Boy” and the fact that the plane was named after the pilot’s mother, Enola Gay Tibbets]
Oh, this kiss you give, it’s never ever gonna fade away
Enola Gay, it shouldn’t ever have to end this way
Oh, Enola Gay, it should’ve faded our dreams away
It’s 8:15, and that’s the time that it’s always been
We got your message on the radio, condition’s normal and you’re coming home
Enola Gay, is mother proud of her little boy today?
Oh, this kiss you give, it’s never ever gonna fade away.