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National Gallery:
8 Great Stops Continued...



   


    Photo
    "Whitechapel Slate Circle," 1981, by Richard Long. (Courtesy of NGA)
Downstairs on the concourse level, we head for the moving walkway that connects to the West Wing via an underground passage. On the ground lies what looks like construction debris, or a miniature Stonehenge, toppled. Don't give in to temptation and pick up one of the gray bricks, though. The meticulous Druidic arrangement is Richard Long's 1981 sculpture "Whitechapel Slate Circle."

"We've had to fly the artist in from England to rearrange the pieces," laughs a passing museum guard. "Too many people can't resist moving the stones around."

Having now arrived in the Gallery's old building, we are in what Cleary metaphorically calls the "window wing," whose Old Master paintings are more often appreciated as windows framing representations of reality, unlike more contemporary works, which attempt to interpret reality. "That's what the East Wing is for," says Cleary, reverently. "It's the art appreciation wing."

Photo    
"Fernando II De'Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany," by Giovanni Battista Fogginni. (By Philip A. Charles/Courtesy of NGA)    
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After a stroll through the ground floor center galleries -- past a pantheon of art history represented by paintings of El Greco and Vermeer -- all the way down to the Seventh Street end of the museum, we arrive in a gallery that Cleary says is "the best place to enter this museum," though it's not actually an entrance. The gallery is lined with several marble portrait busts and one life-size carved bull's head. Only in this chamber, according to Cleary, may a visitor hope to exorcise himself of the sense of intimidation at being in such a Temple of Greatness. "Look around," she says. "Quite frankly, these people are goofy-looking."

She isn't kidding either. It's hard to know which is more laughable: the haughty mug of "Venetian Ecclesiastic" attributed to Giusto Le Court, a 17th-century Flemish artist, or the ridiculous smugness of Giovanni Battista Foggini's 1685 likeness of Ferdinando II de Medici.

    Photo
    "Self-Portrait," by Rembrandt van Rijn. (Courtesy of NGA)

Duly cleansed of any art insecurities, we return to the German and Flemish galleries, now ready to look at Rembrandt. "No one in this building can paint eyes like he does," sighs Cleary. "It's the one part of a portrait that most expresses the humanity, the life of the subject, and it's the hardest thing to do." Look at the eyes in the artist's famous 1659 self portrait or his painting of "Lucretia." Look at the light behind them. His secret? According to Cleary, the ability to "paint tight while staying loose at the same time."

   
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