Sunday, June 29, 2014

Washington DC

Wash. D.C. in sum is gorgeous beyond words compared to say New York but then its a heck of a lot smaller with a lot more per capita dollars.  So its no surprise it can have a wealthier average demographic.   The best part is that all the attractions here are free, compliments of Uncle.  Not that the local grinches notice, who have seen it all and sport license plate messages 'taxation without representation' meaning to say they feel cheated because as a non-state they don't have crooked congressman and senators to plead their regional cause.  Actually they don't pay any more than anybody else, which is less in terms of D.C.s well- kept infrastructure, unlike what everyone else has to wear by which I mean the visitors that are all you see this time of year, meandering by the thousands up and down the mall.  Groups of school kids in blazers and grandparents wander aimlessly, in awe of the grandeur of their nation and its glorious history as reflected in dotted monuments to the glorious dead who have died  for freedom and democracy.  For which everyone alive here pays at least a token price on a day to day basis of precisely prescribed thought, word, and deed on signage everywhere in the the silent thunder of the monuments while daily motorcades of darkened black limousines preceded by a procession of cops on flashing, warbling and  thundering Harleys who commandeer each intersection on the route. This is the only sign that there really is an executive branch  and an underlying point to everything. 

 Tony Abbott was here a few days ago, darling of Canada's Stephen Harper and the local Tea Party.  Maybe he was given one of these, maybe he even had a couple of the empty decoy limos that all important personages require in the wild west where everyman has the right to bear arms and a lot of them are fruitcakes.  Not your harmless up-front garden variety ones with signage, but crazed and vicious loners who live with their  mothers and polish their automatic weapons, dreaming of the apocalypse.

Even in the capitol building there isn't a single mover or shaker to be seen hurrying  to his tasks, only a circle of dead heroes immortalized in bronze beneath the rotunda.  Recent arrivals are Gerald Ford and Ron Reagan who our guide tells us won the cold war and stands on actual rubble from same. 
"Tear down that wall, Mr. Gorbachev, " he said and it happened and so  we may say "this was his finest hour."  Of course the Germans were left to actually pick up the pieces after the fall nor did I see so much as a recognizable crumb of concrete. 

But it is here, in front of the building that I found my own patron saint.  A self- taught artist, Henry Schrady entered a contest and  won the commission to build the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial.  All the stonework of and surrounding including the huge reflecting pool is in sawn and polished blinding white marble.  Atop the central plinth stands a grand equestrian statue in bronze of General Grant (4th largest of such things in the world) above with a bronze bas relief plaque on each side of the plinth commemorating the infantry.  These are similar and almost comparable to St. Gauden's  masterpiece about the black 53rd Regiment that took him 15 years to complete.   Surrounding Grant are four smaller plinths, with identical, sadly laconic resting lions.  But the best parts are the wings.  On Grant's left the artillery; a team of horses struggles to drag a gun crew with cannon across a battlefield.  All the details are perfect; Schrady studied and researched for years to get it right.  On the  right is a dramatic cavalry charge.   One of the upraised sabres has been souvenired along with the barrel of a Spencer carbine which has been replaced by a length of rusting rolled steel round.  Well, this has been here for a long time, and the artist himself is still present, almost obscured by his cloak and struggling to extricate himself from beneath his fallen steed which is exactly how he felt because this endeavour consumed his entire life. He died of overwork barely 50 years old two weeks before the work was dedicated and the infantry panels had to be built from his sketches by someone else.

All over this city is the handiwork of countless thousands of mostly nameless journeymen who worked their entire lives to build something grand that millions still can believe in  and struggle for right or wrong and they come from all over in their matching T-shirts lest someone get attached to the wrong tour and never be seen again.  They visit the JFK grave at Arlington, and at the simple black retaining wall of the Vietnam memorial you can locate names of dead friends and family via provided lists.  This would otherwise be a Herculean haystack- needle search; for they are listed as they fell.  This was 'Peace with Honour' and somehow California never got around to providing a Nixon statue for the capitol rotunda.  He was the main reason my father left the States after the election in 1952 or I might have been listed there myself.  I was pretty slow


at that age and will never forget the look of rage and contempt on my father's face in '66 after  graduation when I had mentioned the war as a possibility in a throw-away line.  Well, that's how it is with kids - searching desperately for a respectable persona.  He had come back all shot-up and bemedalled so why shouldn't I?  But dumb didn't cut it with my dad.

And you can go to the Herschorn and Freer -all free- and the National Gallery where there is the biggest collection of impressionists outside the Louvre and you can weep in front of a Gaugin or on the lower floor in a roomful of the most beautiful bronzes ever -the art deco/nouveau work of Paul Manship;  like you are supposed to do in front of Mark Rothko.  Who can be seen there too, but along with the attendant Calders and Pollocks and Serras and Stellas and Warhols would be relatively less than NOTHING if they weren't fabled, most of all American and imbued with inarguable respectability; figuring as they do in the stinkfinger games of the idle rich where the utterly worthless and banal is the ultimate display of net worth.   Sycophantic curators and city fathers grease the wheels of this juggernaut but nation states still revere their actual treasures.

The Capitol Building tries to please too many as well as having undergone war and renovation.  But the Library of Congress is splendid.  It holds a marble staircase, carved by French immigrant Philip Martiny, who was very well known at the time and whose workshop also produced a lot of the details on New York's finest buildings. How much of his life was thereby consumed, or even his name doesn't matter, he's long dead and can never appear on Oprah.  Better yet he has left something extraordinary and still only a mote amongst a cityfull  of  wonders that will never be some forgotten anachronism or de-accessioned or contemptuously thrown on a barricade.




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