'Season's Greetings,' 'Holidays on Display' exhibits at Smithsonian museums
Friday, December 18, 2009
Think of them as stocking stuffers. Two tiny, holiday-themed shows amid the jumble of Smithsonian exhibitions.
The first, "Season's Greetings: Holiday Cards From the Archives of American Art," is a little gift from the Archives of American Art, which collects documentation of this country's artistic history, showcased in a dedicated gallery at the Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture (better known as the home of the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum). The message of the show isn't terribly weighty: Handmade cards are better than store-bought. Especially when they're made by the likes of Alexander Calder, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and Robert Indiana. Indiana's 1964 card features an early version of the artist's iconic "LOVE" design, later to become a famous pop-art sculpture and then a postage stamp.
Who knew it was first a Christmas card?
While most of the cards are by less well-known artists, you'll find other big names here, including Charles Burchfield, Helen Frankenthaler, Philip Guston, Stuart Davis, Robert Motherwell, Richard Tuttle and William T. Wiley. A retrospect of Wiley's often goofball work, called "What's It All Mean," is on view upstairs, through Jan. 24.
"Season's Greetings" isn't about meaning, though. Rather, it's about sentiment. Not the canned kind, but the kind that comes -- via pen, paintbrush, scissors and glue -- from the heart.
A second show at the National Museum of American History, "Holidays on Display," isn't, technically speaking, a Christmas show. Its theme is the history of holiday pageantry in general, from the 1920s to 1960s. Meaning that it also looks at such things as the history of parade floats, even those for such oddities as the Minneapolis Aquatennial, a summertime celebration of civic pride begun in 1939.
But its main focus is Christmas windows, department-store Santas and Christmas parades. (Macy's, unsurprisingly, is a sponsor of the show.) What other holiday brings out so much over-the-top madness -- and merchandising?
At the heart of this little show is a big message, and it may not be the one you think or even want to hear. It isn't the story of how Christmas has become commercialized, though the show makes it clear that it has, with archival photos of how Chicago's Marshall Field's, Philadelphia's Wanamaker's, New York's Macy's and other department stores have celebrated -- and sold -- Christmas.
Rather, its refreshingly pixie-dust-free message is this: Despite what many of us may want to believe about the simpler, less-crass Christmases of yore, the holiday has been just another excuse to sell stuff for a long, long time.