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August Recess an Ideal Time for Art History Class at the Capitol

(Douglas Graham/ CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The oppressively ugly tangle of plastic sheeting and two-by-fours that’s dominated the Hart Building atrium for several months is, paradoxically, a reminder of just how much inspirational beauty infuses the Capitol complex.  

The art that fills the place is astonishing in its stylistic variety and civic symbolic range. The millions of tourists who flock to the Hill are spoon-fed a taste by their guides. But the aesthetic richness and historical insight that’s quite literally built into the place is widely overlooked by many, if not most, of the people who actually work there.  

Day in and day out, one of the best ways to distinguish an outsider from an insider is this: Visitors, newcomers and interns slow traffic in the halls by gawking at their surroundings. Regular aides, lawmakers and advocates hustle down the corridors with their eyes on their smartphones, oblivious to the aesthetic enlightenment surrounding them.  

Staffers should seize an opportunity to play against type this summer, now that their bosses have gone, the lobbyists have scattered and the tourist crush has started to slacken. For those aides stuck in their cubes for even part of the next four weeks, connecting with the art that fills their work environment ought to be part of their August recess bucket list — right up there with taking in DC Beer Week or one of the 14 Nationals home games before Congress returns. Because Hart is home to fully half the senators’ personal offices, its nine-story interior courtyard is a convenient place to start. It’s an important one, too, because what’s happening there is instructive about the balky congressional approach to its own collection, particularly in this tight budgetary time.  

“Mountains and Clouds” is the most notable modern art on the Hill —­ and the piece that’s undergoing some of the most intensive conservation scrutiny at the moment.  

It’s the very last work of Alexander Calder, one of the greatest American sculptors of the past century. (He delivered his final model to congressional officials the day before he died in 1976.) It’s also the only Calder combining a fixed sculpture (36 tons of black sheet steel “mountains” soaring 51 feet off the floor) and a mobile (four black aluminum “clouds” spanning 75 feet over the pinnacle, suspended from a single rod and weighing in at 4,300 pounds.)  

Using equipment already in place for skylight and roof repairs, the clouds were lowered last December into the makeshift plastic-and-wood workshop, where engineers are on course to decide by the end of this year if the 2011 earthquake damaged the sculpture’s structural integrity. If the clouds pass their stress tests, Congress will have to decide whether to spend a bit to put them back the way Calder intended — attached to the ceiling with a bearing allowing them to gently rotate. (The initial hardware froze more than a decade ago.)  

A push to get that done has been promised by Democratic Sen. Christopher S. Murphy of Hart 303 as well as Connecticut, where Calder did much of his work. It’s going to be a tough sell, for two reasons.  

With legislative branch spending on course to be frozen a third straight year, money for artistic restoration on the Hill is at such a premium that appropriators have denied the Architect of the Capitol’s $8 million request to continue the meticulous preservation of the vaulted corridors and reception rooms surrounding the Senate chamber.  

Beyond that, Calder’s mammoth work remains aesthetically polarizing three decades after its installation, a reminder that the 20th century's version of modernity still remains generally unwelcome in American public art.  

It’s no surprise then, that neither photorealist Chuck Close, pop art icon Andy Warhol nor other important American contemporary portraitists has ever been commissioned to paint a former Senate leader, House speaker or committee chairman. And not even such widely hailed 20th century American realists as Thomas Hart Benton, Edward Hopper or Andrew Wyeth was ever called on to paint relatively recent historic scenes for the Capitol.  

For better or worse, staffers taking a leisurely stroll in search of some education through art will find themselves with plenty of material illustrating American history — right up through the second half of the 19th century, when the building we know today was essentially complete, but hardly at all after that.  

Constantino Brumidi, who’s often dubbed the Michelangelo of the Capitol, spent the quarter century before his death in 1880 filling much of the interior with allegorically rich frescoes and murals, but only a few of the spaces he left blank to accommodate future developments have been utilized — most recently 28 years ago, with an homage in the Senate wing to the crew of the doomed space shuttle Challenger. The most recent scene in the companion collection of murals on the first floor of the House wing, commissioned from Allyn Cox in the 1970s to illustrate the theme of national expansion, is a parade for women’s suffrage in 1917.  

That frozen-in-time limitation aside, a tremendous amount can be gleaned from those Brumidi and Cox corridors about the nation’s civic aspirations and democratic underpinnings.  

Looking up the biography of any chosen-at-random person represented in the Statuary Hall collection will inevitably lead to a new appreciation of some obscure vein in the national narrative.  

And if all else fails, there are worse ways to brush up on U.S. history than to see how many founders you can identify in Howard Chandler Christy’s grandiose “Scene at the Signing of the Constitution,” which dominates the east stairway on the House side. Or to play the same game with the members of Lincoln’s “team of rivals” Cabinet in Francis Bicknell Carpenter’s “First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation,” on the Senate wing’s west staircase.  

But the Rotunda is closed through Labor Day to facilitate a burst of progress on the Dome restoration. Sadly, that means the Capitol’s most ambitious work, Brumidi’s 4,700 square-foot “Apotheosis of Washington” fresco, will be out of view during these days when staffers have a moment to gaze up at the ceiling instead of down at their screens.  

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