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Take in the Old and New at Washington's Classical and Modern Gallery


Washington is filled with many venerable architectural institutions: the Library of Congress, the Lincoln Memorial, and the White House to name a few.

Among the many aspects these places share is that they were all built in a similar neoclassical style, with soaring Romanesque columns. It’s a look that many of the most powerful buildings have.

With the city in the midst of a construction boon, D.C. has seen itself moving away from the designs of the past with new modern glass structures. Many people may not know though, that this look came to the city decades ago, when it was paired with an iconoclastic building, creating one of the most unique contrasts in the metro area.


The National Gallery of Art was founded in 1937. The building originally commissioned, is now known as the West building, and it was designed in the same style the dominates this town. The West Building may indeed be one of Washington’s most Romanesque structures, modeled after the famous Pantheon in Rome. The architect who designed the space would go on to design another one of Washington’s most famous columned structures, the Jefferson Memorial.

The West Building of the National Gallery of Art houses works to match its style. On its walls are paintings from some of the most famous European masters, including da Vinci, van Gogh, Rembrandt and Monet.

In 1978, the gallery decided to expand on undeveloped land that still remained from the original construction. The Mellon family, who owned much of the gallery’s original collection, funded the new wing. Famed modern architect, I.M. Pei, was tasked with the design.

When it was completed, the East Building became one of the most unique in Washington. It is radically different from the West Building, with straight lines and geometric shapes its guiding principles. The front of the building is all straight lines, in the shape of a giant letter “H.” On the ground, glass triangles soar out of the pavement.

The East Building, similar to the West, houses works that match its design. The gallery is filled with modern art, with pieces by Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollack.

While the two buildings are always a contrast, at the Gallery of Art right now are two different exhibits that show the stark difference between art of the old world and where the medium is today.

In the West Building, on loan is David-Apollo, a marble statue by the Renaissance master, Michelangelo. This weekend is the last chance to see it, as it is touring the U.S. as part of an effort by the Italian embassy to highlight Italian culture. The sculpture was carved around 1530, almost 500 years ago today.

There is some debate over who exactly it is a work of, hence the name. Some say it David, about to slay Goliath, others the God Apollo. The identifying marks that scholars may have used were never finished. But the work still carries great significance, a way to see exactly how Michelangelo worked.

Also in the West Building is an example of art that’s gone well beyond the completed stage. Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop show that photography manipulation went on well before pictures went digital. The collection highlights over 150 years of photos, intentionally changed for various reasons, from the aesthetic to the political.

The collection just arrived to the National Gallery of Art, and is on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until the first week of May.

The two different exhibits show just how far the world has changed, contrasting pieces that exemplify old and new. Which make them the two perfect pieces to exemplify Washington’s classic and modern gallery, The National Gallery of Art.

– David



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