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Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Bell of a Night with the Smithsonian Associates

by the Queen of Free (for members)

It was a dull and listless night at the Smithsonian Associates’ “free” lecture presented by artist, art critic, poet and nephew of Virginia Woolf, Julian Bell, at the S. Dillon Ripley Center Tuesday night.

Maybe it was his British accent. Maybe it was the rapid rush of his words, or the almost slurring of them which made comprehension difficult. Maybe it was too much art presented all at once. Maybe it was Mr. Bell's facing the screen rather than the audience. Maybe it was all of these things which combined to make it a lacklustre showing, unusual for the Smithsonian.

The acoustics did not seem to impair the presentation on 17th century art, but after 10 or 15 minutes the first audience members departed, followed stealthily by others, like mice scurrying in a hole (the exit), to hurry home and catch President Obama’s first major address.

About 150 mostly senior citizens* attended and 100 percent were Caucasian (or the ones I could see). (*Overheard conversation subjects: swimming lessons, pills, aching feet, late breakfast.)

Julian Bell said the period 1600 – 1670 was a “uniquely exciting phase in the history of art," and he finds a connection between early modern and present day art. Some of the artists and the works he mentioned included Rubens, Rembrandt, El Greco, Velasquez, Vermeer. One of the most fascinating pieces he described was the sculpture, "The Head of the Damned," terrible and horrifying, which he said (if I understood correctly) that the artist made from studying himself in the mirror.

Mr. Bell is the author of Mirror of the World: A New History of Art which he planned to sign after his lecture.

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