Friday, March 31, 2017

Zootopia, an Impressionist Masterpiece and a Turkish Repast

Sunday, Mar 12, 2017: Washington
Zootopia, an Impressionist Masterpiece and a Turkish Repast

            We awoke on our second day in Washington to eat breakfast while listening to the telly that predicted the coming of a massive blizzard on Tuesday. Temperatures were supposed to get successively lower as the days progressed—so much for our desire to get away from the cold! Notwithstanding the predictions, we hurried through breakfast of muesli with yoghurt and hot buttered toast with coffee before we showered and got ready for a day outdoors.

            By 9.00 am, Corinne was driving us downtown—a very generous gesture on her part, although we were more than happy to take the metro (underground) from the nearest stop. As we drove through the main streets of the capital, I realized how much I was relishing the architecture of every building for each façade was completely different from the other. As we passed through churches, private residences, apartment buildings and the like, I felt silly that we had stayed away from the capital for so many years and made only cursory stops through it.

Exploring Washington’s Zoo:

            It is a little hard to imagine that we, who are devoted to museums and art galleries, would make a bee-line for the Zoo in a city that boasts the treasures of the Smithsonian .  But since our aim was to explore places we had never seen before and because the capital’s zoo is reputedly one of the country’s finest, it made perfect sense that we should head there first. Corinne dropped us right outside the main gate which is flanked by gigantic sculptured lions and, within minutes, we found ourselves at the Visitor’s Center. Sadly, they were unable to offer us maps, but our guidebooks did the trick in leading us to the most important parts of the zoo.

            The zoo is located in a sprawling mass of well-landscaped property. Laid out in the middle of the 19th century, it is surprisingly natural in outlook and design. The highlights are the giant pandas that are always present in the zoo on loan from the Chinese. As one only rarely sees these animals, in the wild or in captivity, they are a huge attraction and most visitors head to their section first.

            Imagine our delight when we found the pandas (in the Asian section) bright, alert and hungry when we arrived at their pits. Bamboo grows in luxurious wildness all around their enclosures and for very good reason—pandas spend 18 out of 24 hours of each day eating—and all they eat is bamboo!!! Fortunately, bamboo grows very quickly. There has, therefore, been no dearth of food for their munching pleasure. To our good luck, one of the pandas decided to ham it just for our cameras and deliberately ambled towards a straw hammock where he parked himself with a huge stalk of bamboo that he slowly proceeded to consume. Our video cameras whirred and our still cameras and phone cameras had a field day as we tried to record the delightful sight. It was difficult to tear ourselves away from the sight but there were other pandas in the enclosure that also demanded our attention.

            Other creatures that left an impression on us were flying orangutans, massive black gorillas, lion-faced tamarins and a scary-looking anaconda (the world’s largest snake). There were loads of poisonous snakes such as adders, vipers and cobras in glass tanks but it was the boa constrictor, all curled up, together with the anaconda that was more memorable to me. In addition, we saw seals, sea lions, Asian elephants and—get this, a white Sumatran tiger (all seemingly within a few feet from us). There were birds galore, alligators, crocodiles, giant tortoises that were as big as small cars, and a host of other interesting animals that had us swooning. It truly was a wonderful morning and by pacing ourselves carefully, resting wherever we could, stretching our calves to avoid discomfort or foot soreness, we managed to see everything worthwhile in about four hours.

            Would we recommend a day at the Washington Zoo? Most certainly…and especially for children. Best of all it is free of charge!

On a Date with Renoir at the Phillips Collection:

            It is astonishing when you come to think of it, that one of the world’s most renowned Impressionist paintings is not to be found in the Louvre or the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, not in the National Gallery in London or even in the National Gallery in Washington---but in a small, nondescript private collection in Washington DC called The Phillips Collection. What is also astonishing is that we have never seen it ourselves—despite making several trips to Washington DC over the years. Hence, it was a priority on our To-Do List and since it was open until 7.00 pm on Sundays, it made sense to head to the Phillips.

            Located on a quiet side street not far from the famous Dupont Circle, The Phillips Collection has a hefty entry fee—fortunately, my Metropolitan Museum of Art ID card gets me (and a companion) into most of the world’s finest art collections for free--and the same perquisite prevailed here. Armed with our entry tags, we entered the lovely private mansion of a very wealthy couple called Duncan and Marjorie Acker Phillips whose love of contemporary art, led to their amassing of some of the most significant works in the 1920s. Although the canvasses hung initially in their home—a genteel mansion--they acquired the property next door to theirs and converted it into an art gallery for the browsing pleasure of the public.

Over the next few decades, they collected works by all the leading lights of the era. However, their most famous acquisition and the one that all art lovers head directly to see is the gorgeous painting entitled Luncheon of the Boating Party that occupies a room almost entirely by itself. Its vast proportions and pleasing composition leave the viewer stunned. Featuring as its central character, the model who would become Renoir’s wife, Aline Charigot, it was exhibited in 1882 and caused an immediate sensation. Duncan Phillips bought it in 1923 from its owner, the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel for $125,000—probably the costliest painting he had ever owned.

Posed at the Maison Fournaise, a restaurant on the Seine at Chatou, are a host of friends and acquaintances that Renoir knew well, including the woman who would become his wife. They are casually dressed and seen making conversation over glasses of wine. The color in the composition is stunning but it is the soft images created through the famous blurred lens of the Impressionist painter that renders it delightfully charming. Needless to say, we spent a long while in front of the painting and whipped out our phones to get some Wikipedia notes on it—in order to appreciate its nuances more deeply. I am delighted to note that with the viewing of this painting, I have, in fact, seen all 100 Masterpieces of Art that the art critic Marina Vaizey provides in her book of the same name. I had bought the book several years ago in Bombay and it has taken me about 33 years to see them all as I have made my way through cities like Paris and Florence and small towns such as Cambridge and Oxford to see each of them in the flesh. 

            In addition to this masterpiece, the collection boasts works by Picasso (The Blue Room which features a canvas by Toulouse-Lautrec in the background was especially interesting), Degas, Van Gogh, Pissarro and Sisley which make the collection quite remarkable. What was even more interesting was a special retrospective on the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec which occupied almost an entire floor of the museum. Filled with the publicity posters that he designed for such night clubs as the Chat Noir, the Moulin de la Galette and the Moulin Rouge, viewers were able to see his works in progress.  A large number of the printed lithographs of the originals had been acquired by Phillips and they form a substantial part of his collection. From Aristide Bruant to the famous La Goulue, from Jane Avril to May Milton (whose figure hangs in a poster in Picasso’s Blue Room), the big names of the period are to be seen in glorious color as they reproduce the gaiety of a bygone era. It was simply delightful and we loved every second of the exhibition. We then walked across via a bridge to the mansion of the Phillips where a specially fitted Music Room with a splendid grand piano had been the venue of a concert that we could hear from the outside (tickets were required to enter). Inside we saw some of the most interesting paintings from Constable’s View of the River Stour to works by Bonnard and Degas.

            It was 7.00 pm when we finished our perusal of the museum (at which point, it was being shut). We spent a short while in the gift shop and then called Corinne who was supposed to pick us up for our next appointment: dinner with herself and her friends in a restaurant nearby.

Dinner at Ottoman Taverna:

            It was not long before Corinne and her friend Bill picked us up from the famed book shop at Dupont Circle called Kramerbooks which is also known for its Afterwords Café. We browsed about for a little bit while awaiting our pick-up and then coasted along to a Turkish Restaurant called Ottoman Taverna where our friends have eaten before and felt compelled to share their finds with us. Over the next couple of hours, we got to know another couple that joined Corinne and Bill—Debasis and his wife, Jyotsna Basu, who were originally from Calcutta. We ordered a number of delicious dishes—the lamb chops were a hot favorite. I ordered the Shrimp Stew as a starter and the Turkish lamb sausage over a white bean stew for my main course. Dessert was a sampler of kanafi (which Llew and I have relished all over the Middle East) and baklava—the layered dessert made with phyllo pastry and thyme honey. Not long after, we got back into Corinne’s car and made our way to her home for another restful night.      

            One thing was sure: we’d had a superb day and had crowned in with a memorable meal in the company of people who were tons of fun.     

Until tomorrow, see ya... 

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