Embassy Tour of Art

Private residence on the DC Embassy Tour

Private residence on the DC Embassy Tour



On Sunday I walked around upper northwest DC along Massachusetts Avenue and around the Kalorama area which borders Dupont Circle to the west to trot through some pretty amazing ambassadorial residences and  embassies. Each year different countries are featured. This year we saw the French Ambassador’s Residence (1910, beaux-arts mansion), Residence of the Ambassador of the Netherlands (old master paintings, tapestries), Embassy of Portugal, Residence of the Ambassador of Venezuela (classicist and abstract paintings), and the home of the Ethiopian ambassador.

I ogled at a Bonard in the French Embassy (what I would do to throw a party on the sweeping back terrace overlooking a leafy forest in the heart of DC). The Venezuelan residence had an impressive collection as well of contemporary Venezuelan artists. The Ethiopian ambassador had probably the most unique conversation piece I’ve seen – a gigantic  hollowed-out jug (size of a small cow) that stored wine. The wine is served using a ladle. Very cool presentation, though there’s no way to temperature control the liquid. (But that’s just a small detail at happy hour anyway.)

But most fascinating, I’ll have to admit, were the two private, non-ambassadorial residences on the tour. One was the home of a former State Department curator; the other was the home of a graphic designer.

Perhaps the ultimate job would be state department curator – jetting all over the world to place art in the U.S. embassies. What a unique foreign collection you could amass. And that she did. Ranging from Turkish tapestries to a sarcophagus of an Egyptian king, her treasures were spread all over the first floor of the massive rowhouse.

The graphic designer’s rowhouse was equally impressive, with a Buddha wading pool that he installed on his small terrace complete with silk waterlilies the color of the rainbow, to a genuine Miro in his bedroom (yep, he allowed all of DC to traipse through his entire home), to two huge pink poodles flanking the living room fireplace.

Next year, I think I’m going to be equally excited to see the bling in the private homes of “average” Americans.


Who’s On My Coffee Table? Candida Höfer! In My Head? The Haunting Image of the ‘Afghan Girl’

Candida Höfer, Foyer vor der Aula ETH Zurich, 2005
Candida Höfer, Foyer vor der Aula ETH Zurich, 2005

Right now on my coffee table I have a photopictorial book that I picked up in Lisbon by Candida Höfer that takes the awed page-turner through the grand halls, foyers, and bedrooms of almost-but-not-quite fabled estates of the Lisbon hinterlands.

Candida Höfer’s exhibition(s) take viewers on an international tour of rooms, both public and private, in schools, palaces, operas, libraries and villas – empty of humans but full of dazzling design and decorative detail.

It’s dreamy.

Without a doubt, the coffee table book does a better job of showing me Portugal than I saw with my own eyes. At least, it does a better job NOW in appealing to my sense of wistfulness for travel than my own memory could serve me (my own pictures run second, I suppose). We had a great time splintering off from the beaten path to palaces in Sintra, Mafra, and Queluz, and I’ll remember the shimmering blues and whites of the vivid tilework. But if I have to be real, I know that in my mind’s eye that trip is not shaped by my memories, but by the coffee table book.

In short, hurrah for photography, because oh how it makes memories last! 

And they also capture timeless emotion.

Today I was re-reading the article about National Geographic’s trip back 2002 to find the woman captured in the iconic photograph of the “Afghan Girl” taken in 1985 by Steve McCurry. The image he captured really hit a chord with people all over the world because it so eloquently portrayed her struggle. It’s hard to imagine a piece of artwork that does more to evoke such feeling from the viewer.

By the way, I also have two other books on my coffee table at the moment (they rotate) —  a photojournalism book on Paris, and another one on Helsinki — that are just waiting for me to dive into again. Armchair travel — while definitely not preferred over the real thing — can substitute in a pinch, when you need that traveling “fix.” Or when you want to feel a deep emotional pull.