Shameless ankle displays, squids, and skulls

This spring, I have the joy of taking a class in the Adams Building of the Library of Congress. It was canceled tonight, but I was practically on the National Mall. There was just enough time left before things closed that I decided to visit some old friends.

Though I prefer Rodin, I always stop in to say hi to Degas’s little plaster danseuses. I’m not sure why, but some part of me likes to see the effect of time’s passage on them. It is, however, a little unsettling for me now that I know life was particularly hard on dancers in Bohemian Paris, even – nay especially – ones this young. (Also, I love how the National Gallery of Art’s page dances all around the fact that the poor “working class” girl was probably also a prostitute and likely died of tuberculosis before adulthood.)

Degas's Danseuse 1

Although this is Fragonard’s “The Swing,” it isn’t THE Swing. It’s the corner of a much, much larger painting, and the detail is fuzzy, but I like to think the woman and one of the men below are the same, and the lady’s still trying to show off that foot. It took me a long time to appreciate Fragonard, but now that I can, I really love the layers upon layers of detail in his works, even in a painting this big. This is only a fraction of the total space, and so much is going on here. Someday, when I have the time, it would be so much fun to try to thread a story from painting to painting.

Fragonard's Swing 1

Another Fragonard, and one of his most simple (or, possibly, boring) subjects but one of my favorites: Young Girl Reading. Two things about this girl catch my eye: her figure, which is hardly thin, and the size of that book, which must have blinded her over time with what was surely minuscule print. All in all, she looks truly uncomfortable, but like any eighteenth century heroine, she’d never let it show.

Fragonard's Young Girl Reading 1

Since I only arrived a few minutes before closing at the National Gallery of Art, I crossed over to the National Museum of Natural History. I’m currently lumbering through the audiobook of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol (whose cracktastic glory so richly deserves a post of its own, liveblogging even, if only I had the time). Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that my dear friend the giant squid makes an appearance, so some congratulations on its star turn were in order.

Giant Squid 2

“C’mere baby, lemme give ya a hug.

Giant Squid 3

Finally, one of the things I remember most from my first Smithsonian visit in the mid 80’s was a magnificent wall of skulls tracing humanity’s origins across millennia. When I came back to D.C. in 2006, I was sad to see that most of the museum had changed, and this wall was gone. I went a little crazy trying to find it or even prove to friends it had ever existed. With the opening of their new, revamped “Human Origins” exhibit, though, it’s back! A little snazzier this time, though, but still! Vindicated! I didn’t just dream it up!

Human Origins Skull Wall

Then I went home via the Metro Center station which, mere minutes later, played a role in the audiobook I was listening to. It is a very strange thing to ride along with fiction set in the town where you live. D.C. and Baltimore have been as good as home for almost four years. Between listening to The Lost Symbol and mainlining the first four seasons of The Wire over the past few weeks, these are surreal times for me indeed.


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