But let's give it a shot anyway:
Inside the two huge buildings that sprawl along the Constitution Avenue side of the Mall between Third and Seventh streets Northwest is a permanent collection of more than 100,000 art objects from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. Throughout its maze-like warren of over 150 individual gallery rooms, you'll find art that looks as disparate as the museum's two distinctive wings themselves: To the west lies architect John Russell Pope's original 1941 building, housing paintings, sculpture and graphic arts from as far back as the Middle Ages. Twentieth-century art is exhibited at I.M. Pei's jarringly angular 1978 East Building that sits across Fourth Street, the artistic dividing line between past and present.
How to make sense of these two extremes? (Not to mention, how to avoid getting lost?) Some words of advice: First, pick up a map at the information desk (there's one in each building), and don't be afraid to ask a guard for help. After all, they're looking at the stuff day in and day out.
Most importantly, bring a friend if you can. Whether it's your first or your hundredth visit, a second pair of eyes will inevitably notice things you miss, often directing you away from the obvious to the unobserved.
Our guide on this tour is Manon Cleary, the longtime Washington art teacher and nationally renowned painter, whose works are frequently acknowledged as the best figurative canvases in Washington.
We start in the wide-open atrium of the East Gallery, designed by I.M. Pei, having decided to begin in the present and work our way backward. After all, Cleary points out, quoting art historian Ernst Gombrich, "We cannot but look at the art of the past through the wrong end of the telescope."
Here, in what amounts to the building's lobby, much of the sculpture was specially commissioned: for example, the mammoth orange and black mobile by Alexander Calder that slowly swings overhead. Often recognized as the East Wing's signature piece, it is not, however, Cleary's favorite. That honor belongs to Anthony Caro's "National Gallery Ledge Piece," a jumble of steel spilling over a high stone shelf near the main staircase. "I love it because it doesn't politely sit on a pedestal," says Cleary. Calling it "rude," "messy" and "funny," she says its appeal is that "it fits but doesn't quite."
In a nearby gallery are paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe and sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, whom Cleary calls "this century's two most important female artists." Savor O'Keeffe's meticulously observed floral close-ups and Bourgeois's melancholy stack of what look like broken teeth. You will not soon encounter another woman artist's name at the National Gallery. Say what you will, the history of art as told through this collection is still largely a man's game.
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