Thursday, November 24, 2005

Space Capsules, Pictures and Field Marshals

El Jefe is back from a trip with SWMBO and the Heir to Washington, D.C. SWMBO played tourist for awhile, but she needed to attend an accounting seminar part of the time, so Heir and El Jefe were left to their own devices for some of the time. Was so cool to go play tourist ! So as not to disappoint the locals, and undercut their feelings of superiority on their own turf, I made sure to go the whole turista monty: wearing loud clothing, including a hat with a Texas flag on it, spending lots of money on knick-knacks and gew-gaws I really don’t need, as well as burying my nose in my handy Frommer’s guidebook as necessary.

I have some experience in Washington, and thought that the city was both cleaner than I remembered it in the late 1980’s, and a whole lot more locked-down, no doubt due to 9/11. If you want to do the White House tour, or meet your Congressman, call and get reservations way in advance. No more FBI or Pentagon tours, at least for the present. Probably, on balance, a good thing, I have always thought it a trifle odd that the general public could go tramping through the FBI and Pentagon: places where serious people actually do real work, as distinguished from most of the politicos inhabiting that city.

The Heir and I did walk past the White House (very large, very white, lots of guards). Pennsylvania Avenue is still closed off right in front of the Executive Mansion, with semi-permanent barricades at each end. Big metal round things – which, as Heir and I discovered, are retractable if a vehicle needs to pass through. Pretty slick ! Several fruitcakes in the area, protesting one thing or another, but they looked pretty harmless.

The Heir was much impressed with the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, a place guaranteed to be of interest to boys of all ages, including El Jefe. Three real Apollo spacecraft in the place (Apollo 11, Skylab 4, and an un-flown capsule used as a test article), a real Lunar Module, Gemini and Mercury capsules, a Russian Soyuz, plus an SS-20 IRBM posed next to its counterpart, the US Pershing II. There were lots of planes: a DC-7 airliner, Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, a Dauntless dive-bomber, a F4F Wildcat Navy fighter -- miles and miles of fabulous stuff. The place was full of tourists, including brigades of earnest-looking Chinese with military haircuts and notebooks, who all seemed very interested in the space artifacts.

Spent some time in the National Gallery of Art (on the Mall, between 4th and 7th Streets, by the National Archives). It would be quite possible to spend days in any of these museums, so one needs to decide what to see. Fortunately, we visited the National Gallery the first day, when SWMBO could accompany us: and SWMBO and I have different tastes in art. SWMBO and Heir went elsewhere and left me alone with the objects of my interest: 18th and early 19th Century French and Spanish paintings. I spent most of my limited time in those galleries. The National Museum has a beautiful collection of paintings by the Spanish artist Francisco de Goya.

I spent a lot of time in front of Don Antonio Noriega (1801). Goya’s subject, King Charles IV’s Lord Treasurer, is a central-casting image of a wealthy, proud, arrogant Spanish Don of the 18th-19th Centuries: splendidly elaborate uniform, paunchy, expression somewhere between dignified, humourless and petulant, with a dash of irritation thrown in. Rouged cheeks, court wig just so, chestful of medals and orders of one type or another. Don Antonio looks terribly pleased with himself, and utterly unconvinced of anybody’s importance save his own.

Another interesting Goya is Victor Guye (1810), a six or seven year old page to King Joseph I, the Bonaparte king of Spain during the Napoleonic Wars. Victor Guye was the nephew of one of King Joseph, and Napoleon’s, generals, Baron Nicolas Phillipe Guye – evidently there is a companion portrait of Baron Guye someplace -- both pictures were commissioned from Goya by Baron Guye for his brother, Victor’s father. Apparently Goya got on well with everybody, because a few spots down from Victor Guye is a painting of the Duke of Wellington, great British adversary of the House of Bonaparte. The most arresting feature of Goya’s view of the Iron Duke was his portrayal of the Duke's eyes: Wellington has the thousand-yard stare. Unfortunately, the image I have linked to doesn’t do Goya's portrayal of the coldness of his eyes justice. Not a man I’d want to cross. A hard, hard man. A great general.

Just adjacent to the Goyas are my favorite works, French neo-classical/romantic paintings of the late 18th/early 19th centuries. Naturally, I spent a long, long time in front of Jacques-Louis David’s picture The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries. Attentive readers and persons who know El Jefe have probably figured out by now that I am just a bit of a Bonapartist, and this particular painting is one of the holy of holies in the Napoleonic art firmament. Virtually no illustrated biography of the Emperor is without this picture.
The artist described the portrait thus: "He [Napoleon] is in his study. . . . The candles flickering and the clock striking four remind him that the day is about to break. . . . He rises. . . to pass his troops in review." Napoleon is attired in his favorite uniform of a colonel of the Foot Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard (his own regiment), next to him is a chair with the symbol of his dynasty: the bees that replaced the fleur-de-lys of the Bourbon kings. A copy of Plutarch conveys the Emperor’s resemblance, both as soldier and lawgiver, to Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar and the other great figures of Roman history; scrolls of his great legal and legislative achievement, the Code Napoleon are in the chair.

The Emperor is not, however, a snappy dresser: note the unbuttoned cuff (pointed out to El Jefe by the Smithsonian's guard); as well as the somewhat mussed hair.

Could spend all day on these paintings (and in a letter I’m preparing for a friend, and in my personal journal, I probably will dwell on all of them at length), but I will comment here on only two others. In the same room with Napoleon is another work, identified as being painted by somebody “in the circle of Jacques-Louis David” called “Portrait of a Young Woman in White” (1798). Quelle-belle demoiselle ! A gorgeous woman, in a rather low-cut, almost sheer white dress, probably a somewhat risqué subject for a painting in 1798 (but the period between the fall of the kings, in 1792, and the rise of Napoleon in 1799 was pretty risqué). The facial expression is interesting, a beautiful mouth, and expressive eyes, (if an overlarge nose) but an exceedingly bored expression.

Look at Portrait of a Young Woman and then walk right across the room and have a look at David’s portrait of Madame David (his wife) (1813). Fifteen years and a social revolution separate these two paintings. If Young Woman was a bit avant-garde for its day, Madame David illustrates a representative of well-off, proper, establishment French society. The Napoleonic regime looked down on the loosening of public morals produced by the revolution, and to some degree successfully imposed or re-imposed bourgeois social values. One big secret of the French Revolution was that the revolutionaries, and beneficiaries of the revolution like Napoleon didn’t want to overthrow the kings and royalty so much as replace them. The liberals became conservatives once they had power.

I was dragged out of the National Gallery of Art after a time, and we moved on to the Museum of American History. A beautiful collection there, but I have never liked the Museum of American History’s building much. I like the 19th and early 20th Century Gilded Age government buildings in Washington, all columns and domes and granite. The Museum of American History, like most new government buildings in Washington, like our Federal Courthouse here in Houston, is post World War II and thus boring.

If the American History museum is housed in a boring looking building, the same cannot be said of its contents. Again, you have to choose what you want to see, and the Heir and I focused on the sections devoted to the American presidents and to American wars. Highlights of the American History museum included a piece of armour plate off the C.S.S. Virginia, and the Field-Marshal’s baton of the German World War II era Generalfeldmarshall Werner von Blomberg (1878-1946), who was Hitler’s Minister of War from 1933-38. Field-Marshal von Blomberg had, in retrospect, the great good fortune to be forced out of his official positions in a juicy little scandal prior to the war. Generalfeldmarshall vonBlomberg's baton is a garish thing, grey leather, with brass ends; with lots of Iron Crosses, Eagles and Swastikas all over it. von Blomberg's name, and the date the baton was conferred, are on a white band at the bottom (von Blomberg was the first of Hitler's Field-Marshals).

I have more to say, saw lots more cool stuff, but El Jefe is running out of gas. The sandman is calling…hopefully with a bottle of brandy, a cigar and one of El Jefe’s Marilyn Monroe look-a-like mistresses from the Dream Palace. Perhaps more tomorrow.


bigmac said...

I'm pretty new to blogging. How do I post a new discussion, it seems I can only post replies to other discussions called "comments" but how do I start a new discussion ?

El Jefe Maximo said...

Hi Bigmac.

You can say what you want in comments, so I guess you could start up a discussion that way, but the best way to start a different discussion is to set up your own blog.

On very popular blogs, such as Belmont Club, which have lots of commenters, the commenters start different discussions which go off on all sorts of tangents.

bigmac said...

how do other people on this blog start up New discussions? How is it done ?

El Jefe Maximo said...

Hmmm...since I'm the only poster, outside of comments, you might say I am the El Jefe Maximo of new discussion starting. The Big Enchilada, Grand Poobah, etc.

If you want to start new discussions, make your mark on the blogosphere, cast a giant shadow, carve a path, paint the skies blue...etc., seems like your best course would be to go to and start yr. own blog.

Candidly Caroline said...

Gotta represent Texas! My originally-from-Texas friend got a “F--- Y’all, I’m from Texas” hat last time she was down - probably not child-appropriate, though.
Speaking of which, I can't believe you call your child the "heir!" Ha! I don't get SWMBO, though?