November 27, 2012
Shanghai, London, Louisville, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh all have one thing in common: water. Specifically, the cities share the community-defining feature of an urban waterway. In the nation’s capital, the Anacostia River helped drive settlement in the region but after decades of degradation, it became known as the “Forgotten River.”
Now the Anacostia Community Museum has taken on the ambitious task of organizing two years of comparative research to create its exhibit, “Reclaiming the Edge: Urban Waterways and Civic Engagement,” examining the challenges and successes of rivers running through city spaces.
At 8.5 miles long, the Anacostia River has an expansive watershed of 176 square miles that reaches into Maryland and parts of Virginia. Paired with the Potomac, the river helped attract early development. Gail Lowe, an historian at the Anacostia Community Museum, says the river has been a major commercial and industrial conduit. “As more of the city developed toward the west and toward the Potomac River,” she says, “the Potomac sort of became the poster piece for this region.” Meanwhile, it’s sister, the Anacostia continued to suffer neglect.
Writing for the Washington Post, Neely Tucker says, “To most Washingtonians, the Anacostia is a very remote presence — that dirty glop of water under the 11th Street Bridge, the Potomac’s ugly cousin, the barrier that sets off the city’s poorer sections from Capitol Hill.”
But the river was not alone in its scorned status. The Los Angeles River, for example, has been so neglected many residents don’t even know it was there. “The Los Angeles what?” they reportedly responded, according to a 2011 Time magazine piece in which an intrepid reporter kayaked down the forsaken waterway.
Over the course of two years, Lowe helped lead a research effort to explore other such urban rivers. “We identified through our preliminary research, cities that had similar challenges that the Anacostia River here was facing and then explored some of the ideas and solutions that they had taken,” says Lowe. “So, with Los Angeles, we were looking at a forgotten river, forgotten because you really couldn’t see it at all–it’s been enclosed in a pipe–and also a river that flowed through a locality that has a very diverse population.”
Strengthened by the support of both the environmental and historic preservation movements, waterfront redevelopment became a popular way for cities to experiment with so-called spot development. Serving as both public gathering points and tourist attractions, a thriving waterfront can be an engine of commercial and social life in a city.
The exhibit features the museum research team’s findings as well as artwork inspired by each river, including murals, kinetic sculptures and fine arts photographs that recast the urban rivers as works of art.
One particularly successful project that the exhibit looks at is the redevelopment of the Louisville waterfront. Part of a growing trend of public-private partnerships, the project helped attract commercial and residential uses as well as enhance public spaces. Michael Kimmelman writes in the New York Times, “Getting there requires crossing several busy roadways, and the park is practically inaccessible without a car. But it’s popular. A former railroad bridge over the Ohio River will soon be opened to pedestrians and bikers.”
Overall, the project, managed by the Waterfront Development Corporation, has been an improvement. Lowe says, “They’ve been very successful in creating a place where people walk and bike and gather, children play, concerts are held. The development has been able to put in some housing, some business properties that don’t take up the waterfront but really add to it.”
In agreement that the development has been a step forward, Kimmelman writes that it needs the infrastructural support of an improved public transit system to reach more people.
The problems that face urban waterways are many, says Lowe, but the potential is equally great. The Anacostia River faces all of these challenges. Recent efforts to clean up the decades of pollution have certainly helped, but Lowe hopes the exhibit can help catalyze further action. “The exhibition is not an end in itself, it is part of a longer commitment on the Anacostia Community Museum’s part to study, explore and explain environmental issues and ecology,” says Lowe.
In addition to the artwork, which calls on viewers to appreciate the beauty of the studied waterways, the exhibit includes sections to assess your impact on the Anacostia River’s watershed. Through the examination of individual impact, community involvement and private-public partnerships, the exhibit underscores one of Lowe’s takeaways: “It’s going to take all of us to restore the waterways.”
“Reclaiming the Edge: Urban Waterways and Civic Engagement” runs through September 15, 2013.
September 10, 2012
The summer of 1858 was a bad time for London. Known as the Great Stink, the season’s warm temperatures worked a foul magic on the overflowing sewage situation. Thanks to the untenable stench, a bill rushed through Parliament in just 18 days funded a massive public works project known as the Thames Embankment.
The waterways improvement system forever reshaped the neighborhoods along the river, including Chelsea. The poor neighborhood subject to constant flooding was also a magnet for artists, including Oscar Wilde, John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler. Whistler’s moody Nocturne paintings of the waterfront are well-known, but the Freer Gallery is offering fans of the ex-pat artist a chance to see the artist’s intimate neighborhood etchings of his daily wanderings and observations in the new exhibition, “Whistler’s Neighborhood: Impressions of a Changing London.”
The continuing effects of the Industrial Revolution and of the Embankment project meant Whistler worked at the edge of modernity and watched not just a neighborhood transform, but an entire society. Gone are the days of the Great Stink and the rag shops in Chelsea. But through thoughtful curation, viewers can once again walk the streets of Whistler’s neighborhood.
“He would walk around his neighborhood and carry these small copper plates in his pocket,” explains the show’s curator Maya Foo. “These are really just quick impressions of street scenes. Many of the streets in this neighborhood were some of the poorest in all of London.”
The show includes 14 etchings, two water colors which will be shown separately for six months at a time and two oil paintings, all drawn from the streets of Chelsea around the 1880s. Completed in 1874, the embankment increased the value of property along the Thames and began a wave of transformation that Londoners were acutely aware of, fearing the loss of the city’s unique character. Without intending to, says Foo, Whistler captured transient moments in a changing landscape.
Fish shops, rag stores and fruit vendors populate his images, along with handfuls of untended young children. “He became a sort of unintentional recorder of a lot of these social issues that were going on at the time, such as overcrowding,” Foo says.
Through the addition of a detailed historical map and modern photographs of the streets, Foo hopes to show viewers that these storefronts were simply snippets of Whistler’s daily life. “I have loved figuring out where these places actually were on the map,” Foo says, citing foundational research done by Margaret MacDonald for the catalogue, James McNeill Whistler: The Etchings, a Catalogue Raisonné. Viewers are invited to do the same on a large map at the center of the exhibit space or online with a fascinating interactive feature.
The etchings were likely never intended to be displayed. Many were only reproduced three or four times. They are instead, says Foo, studies in geometry and form. “You’ll notice a lot of repetitions of dark doorways, glass windowpanes that kind of create a grid and, in a lot of these, he leaves the foreground empty so you get a sense of recession.”
The brisk, staccato lines of the etchings contrast with the almost abstracted paintings of the Thames, some of which are on view upstairs in the Freer. Foo says, within the etchings, “There’s so much energy, it kind of relates to the modern city life that he was capturing as well.”
“I think fans of Whistler will find these to be a breath of fresh air because most of these etchings have never before been exhibited,” says Foo. “Usually when you think of Whistler, you think of the scenes down by the wharfs in Chelsea, the ships with their masts. But with these, this shows how he turned his back to the Thames and looked more at his neighborhood.”
“Whistler’s Neighborhood: Impressions of a Changing London” runs September 8, 2012 to September 8, 2013.
August 20, 2010
“It’s getting harder and harder every day to live up to my blue and white china,” lamented 19th-century Irish playwright and novelist Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest, The Picture of Dorian Gray). Renowned as an elite aesthete in Victorian society, Wilde was famous for collecting the Chinese blue and white porcelain that was rapidly becoming phenomenally popular.
The china craze, satirically labeled “Chinamania” by media of the time, was powered in large part by Wilde’s friend, the London-based American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), who became infatuated with blue and white Chinese porcelain in the early 1860s. Whistler’s work from this period is the subject of the Freer Gallery’s new exhibit “Chinamania,” which opened on August 7, and will be on display through 2011. The exhibit features Whistler’s ink drawings and paintings inspired by Chinese porcelain, and cases of porcelain from the museum’s collections.
Ironically, the porcelain wave that swept Western Europe in the 1870s was a bit more calculated than anyone at the time may have wanted to admit. Produced in the late 17th and early 18th centuries in the Jingdezhen region of southern China, the shiny cobalt blue-decorated porcelain pieces were manufactured specifically for European export.
Still, “At first, Chinese porcelain was a serious source of aesthetic inspiration [for artists] because it seemed very exotic and strangely beautiful,” says Lee Glazer, curator of American art at the Freer. According to Glazer, the wistfully imaginative look of the china contrasted with Victorian art, which tended to be highly realistic, almost literal, narratives about its subjects.
Whistler, who was looking to break away from his background in French realism, began to infuse his art with Asian elements and techniques, cultivating an image as a painter inspired by the art of the world. In his catalogue drawings, he mimicked the brushwork on the porcelain in front of him. In other paintings on display in the exhibit, he used a primarily blue palate in homage to the cobalt blue of the china he loved. Later in the 1870s, he produced a series of four paintings—three are on view elsewhere in the Freer—which portrayed Western women clothed in Japanese silks and sitting with Chinese porcelain. (Glazer says Whistler, like many other European artists of the time, was not one to distinguish between Asian cultures.)
Whistler’s interest in blue and white china spread to his circle of friends, and soon the porcelain became a symbol of high culture and refined taste. By the 1870s, china had moved “from palace to parlor” (as one historian put it), becoming a commodity highly sought after by the Victorian middle classes. By imbuing Chinese porcelain with a desirable elitism, Whistler was, perhaps more than anyone, the impetus for “Chinamania.”
“It was something the regular middle class could aspire to, the idea of decorating your home with as many of these pieces as possible,” says Glazer. As Oscar Wilde once wrote in his play, A Woman of No Importance, nothing succeeds like excess.