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Erotic Tentacles, Cyrus Cylinder Star in D.C.: Review

"Ophelia" (1851-52) by John Everett Millais. "Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848-1900" runs at the National Gallery of Art through May 19. Photographer: Marcus J. Leith/Tate/The National Gallery of Art via Bloomberg

     Apr. 11 (Bloomberg) -- Pale Ophelia floats in a tangle of flowers, yet her open-mouthed expression suggests not the coming of death but an artist’s model immersed too long in a cold bath.

Hyperrealist melodrama and a more-is-more philosophy pervade John Everett Millais’s portrait, an archetypal Pre-Raphaelite picture in which bad acting and bad painting reach their zenith.

It’s among the many classics in “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design 1848-1900” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Most of the characters look as though they’ve just stepped out of a Renaissance Faire: Seeing this big, sentimental show is like sitting through a sanctimonious sermon or a long evening of sincere and insufferable poetry.

Moralized pageantry, heightened color and revved-up emotions drive the movement, in which lovers swoon, doe-eyed maidens implore us and Christ, far from meek, is pretty self-righteous. Even the animals, flowers and rainbows are guilty of overacting.

Pre-Raphaelite males are domineering yet pious. Females are, of course, doting and submissive, like the cowering adolescent Virgin Mary in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting “The Annunciation.”

Perfect Storm

“Pre-Raphaelites” is a saccharine tempest, a perfect storm of bad taste. But it represents the birth of kitsch -- and right now kitsch is king.

Dress up Kehinde Wiley’s African-American men and John Currin’s big-breasted bimbos in medieval garb and they would fit right in.

Not all is lost, however. The beautiful graphic and textile designs of William Morris -- the pragmatic Pre-Raphaelite who founded the Arts and Crafts Movement -- keep this exhibition from drowning in its own syrup.

“Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design 1848-1900” runs through May 19 at the National Gallery of Art, 4th And Constitution Avenues, Washington, D.C. Information: +1-202-737-4215; http://.www.nga.gov.

Hand-Held

The connected Freer/Sackler Galleries, the Smithsonian’s Asian Art Museums, are among the most satisfying aesthetic spaces in Washington, D.C.

James McNeill Whistler’s iridescent Peacock Room is installed in the Freer Gallery. Its tooled turquoise leather, vibrant gold feather patterns and Asian ceramics combine in a stately, East-meets-West setting where ornamentation becomes transcendent.

Currently on view at the Sackler Gallery are two new lively exhibitions.

“Hand-Held: Gerhard Pulverer’s Japanese Illustrated Books” chronicles the flowering of Edo-period ehon, or bound volumes of woodblock prints.

Popular subjects include gardens, home life, Westerners and how-to manuals for dancing and painting. A titillating section features Hokusai’s work of tentacle erotica, “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” -- in which a woman enjoys carnal relations with an octopus.

Cyrus Cylinder

“The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning” is theatrical, topical and thought-provoking.

Discovered in 1879, the ancient Mesopotamian baked clay relic and time capsule was traced back to King Cyrus the Great’s conquest of Babylon in the 6th century B.C.

The Akkadian cuneiform inscriptions go beyond typical royal propaganda by supporting religious freedom, and encouraging Jews to return to Jerusalem. The iconic object is known as “the first declaration of human rights.”

On loan from the British Museum, the cylinder makes its U.S. debut here -- it will be shown in Houston, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, where the tour ends in December.

We are familiar with the inflammatory, controversial nature of works of art -- from Manet’s “Olympia” to Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” -- but we rarely encounter a political artifact as diplomatic as this one.

“The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning” runs through April 28, and “Hand-Held: Gerhard Pulverer’s Japanese Illustrated Books” runs through Aug. 11 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave., Washington, D.C. Information: +1-202-633-4880; http://www.asia.si.edu.

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Jason Harper on cars and Greg Evans on TV.

To contact the writer on the story: Lance Esplund, in New York, at lesplund@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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