Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Visiting the Library of Congress

I spent just a few hours in the Library of Congress yesterday. Avoiding the official tour -- just like I avoided all the 101 classes in college -- I have come away without a great idea of what its role is, but realizing that a heck of a lot of people work there. For some reason, I hadn't remembered that it comprises several block-sized buildings, not just the 1890s-era Thomas Jefferson building that is its symbol and most public-facing structure.

The Great Hall of the Jefferson building is a giant hodgepodge of late 19th-century European architecture. Eye-catching to almost an overwhelming degree, but in an impress-the-yokels kind of way.

The thing that probably set off my kitsch alarm were the two pairs of baby figures located half way up the flanking stairways. Yes, the baby on the left is supposed to be a Native American child wearing a feather headdress (as actual native children would never do, but sheesh, how else would you know it was supposed to be an Indian?). The one on the right is supposed to be an African child, looking pretty miserable.

On the other staircase, we have a very unattractive "Asian" baby and a European child (this one is a girl, based on the hair style).

These figures are meant to personify the continents (with North and South America as one continent, and Europe as separate from its shared landmass, Asia, of course.... tough luck to Australia and Antarctica in the depictions).

The building includes a lot of beautiful tile work, both up and down. Here are a couple of the floors:

And a lot of decorative painting:

I did enjoy the graphic arts exhibit, which contained recent and not-so-recent works. The gallery is named for Herblock, and there was a nice representation of his work, including this one from the 1960s, well after the Brown v. Board of Education decision:

The neat thing about seeing Herblock's original work is to appreciate his technique, which is to use a somewhat dry ink brush on a textured surface. This results in an almost halftone-like texture, great for reproduction on newsprint.

This cartoon, by Bill Mauldin, accompanied another temporary exhibit, about the 1963 March on Washington. What a perfect critique of the "not so fast" argument that's too-often made when oppression is challenged.

This Mayan jaguar sculpture, made in ceramics between 600 and 900 CE, was one of the most compelling art pieces I've seen in a while. To the Maya, jaguars "are not only the special patrons and protectors of kings but are also the deities representing the sun in its nocturnal aspect."

From the sublime to the ridiculous, check out the treats in the Library of Congress gift shop.

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