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    West Building - Ground Floor

Start in Gallery 2, which is given over to sculptures by Auguste Rodin, a French sculptor most active in the early 20th century. At the entrance to the room is The Thinker, probably the most known of Rodin’s works. Although it’s shown here by itself, The Thinker was designed to be only one part of a huge entrance mural for Paris’ Museum of Decorative Arts, and depicting scenes from Dante’s Inferno. The mural was never completed. Several of Rodin’s designs for individual figures still survive, however, including The Kiss (Le Baiser) here.

More than fifty versions of The Thinker exist in various sizes around the world; the one displayed here was the third one made, from Rodin’s original model, and while the artist was alive.

Rodin’s reputation today is as one of the 20th century’s most important sculptors. And while he was fortunate to have heard this in his lifetime, his earliest work was criticized and controversial. The piece in question is The Age of Bronze, at the far end of Gallery 2, from 1875-1876. It’s a life-size male nude, first done in plaster (in Gallery 3), then in bronze. When it was exhibited in 1877 it scandalized Paris because of its contemporary aesthetic; at the time, nude models were generally seen in works of mythological or historical scenes.

The accuracy of the representation also brought charges that Rodin had made the sculpture by casting a model in plaster, essentially faking the skill needed to make the work. Rodin eventually had a photographer take side-by-side images of his model and the sculpture to prove the work couldn’t have been made from a cast. The plaster version on display in Gallery 3 is one of the earliest made.

Also in Gallery 2 are three Edgar Degas studies for Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, and the work itself, in the center of the room. Like The Age of Bronze, the use of a contemporary subject (and a working-class girl at that) was novel for Parisians of the time. The other interesting thing about these works is that they’re made of colored beeswax designed to look like bronze. Beeswax was cheaper and easier to work with, allowing Degas to achieve the same look as bronze, faster.

Speaking of Degas sculpture, we’re fans of his equestrian models in Gallery 4. Also done in beeswax, these show horses and riders in various stages of movement. They’re remarkable because of Degas’ ability to capture one instant’s strain of muscles and beat of hooves. If they’re not already on an Hermès scarf somewhere, they should be.

Gallery 4 also has three Monet paintings (The Seine at Giverny from 1897, Jerusalem Artichoke Flowers from 1880, and Morning Haze from 1888) and two Renoirs (Girl with a Basket of Oranges and Girl with a Basket of Fish, from 1889.

Next, make your way to Gallery 39, featuring mid-20th century American artists Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Jasper Johns, and Alexander Calder.

Pollock and Rothko were part of the abstract expressionist movement in post-World War II New York. Because we can’t hope to understand it (and think the definition as much a Rorschach test as the art itself), we won’t attempt to describe the movement other than to say it rejected most of the last couple thousand years of artistic convention and progress. There are no recognizable people, places, or things to be found here. This said, Pollock’s Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist) is undeniably art, pretty, and makes us feel good. (The artistic among you are screaming “That’s the whole point!” right now. We can tell.)

We’re also fans of Rothko’s “multiform” work, two examples of which are here: an untitled work from 1955, and No. 1, from 1961. The untitled work is characteristic of the late stage of Rothko’s career, utilizing vertical blocks of contrasting color (here red, black, and white). Also, these paintings are huge – fifty square feet or more - on purpose. Rothko pointed out that with small paintings, the viewer is acutely aware of being an outside observer to the scene. In contrast, Rothko wanted his viewers to feel like they were inside the art, often suggesting they get within a couple of feet to better experience the art. (The guards here will allow you to stand that close if you’re cool and froody.)

If you’re ever in a museum and see bits of sheet metal in primary colors all hanging together from the ceiling, chances are it’s an Alexander Calder mobile. There’s one here, and many more (including his 920-pound, 76-foot-long design created especially for the National Gallery) in the East Building atrium, when it reopens.

Head to Gallery 41 next. Yes, there are a couple of Picassos hanging here (Pedro Mañach and the collage Guitar), a Mondrian (Tableau No. IV; Lozenge Composition with Red, Gray, Blue, Yellow, and Black), and a nice portrait by Henri Matisse (La Coiffure), but the theme you want to recognize here is that most of the room is given to works that represent the human head in different styles. There’s the Matisse painting, then Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Two Nudes and Nude Figure, both from 1907. Those are examples of Expressionism, in which the artists tried to convey feeling and emotion instead of a faithful representation of reality.

There’s also Joan Miró’s somewhat less abstract Head of a Catalan Peasant painting from 1924. But the sculptures make up the best part of the theme, showcasing the same idea in different styles from the early 20th century:

Matisse’s Figure decorative from 1908, perhaps in the style of Fauvism, which (like Impressionism) valued form over strictly realistic representation Picasso’s Head of a Woman (Fernande) from 1909, a kind of 3-D cubism Modigliani’s Head of a Woman from 1910-11, in the modernist style Kirchner’s Head of a Woman from 1913, an expressionist take

What is Matisse’s Pot of Geraniums doing in this room? We’re not sure, but the French are an inscrutable people, their artists more so. Just go with it.

End your tour of the West Building with a walk through Gallery 42, showing Masterpieces of American Furniture from the Kaufman Collection, covering the years 1700 to 1830. These years cover the William and Mary; Queen Anne; Chippendale; Federal; and Empire styles. If your group includes anyone who’s done some work-working, the pieces and craftsmen represented here will be familiar to them. Don’t miss the Philadelphia high chest, the Newport block-and-case desk, or the Willard tall-case clock.

Other Lands at National Gallery of Art