``Showing the flag,'' which is considered so important in Washington politics, is literally what the National Gallery of Art here is doing this Memorial Day weekend. The gallery's current exhibition, ``The Flag Paintings of Childe Hassam,'' unfurls 21 of the great American Impressionist's series of paintings focusing on World War I American flags and US allies' banners in Manhattan parades.
National Gallery director J.Carter Brown, in opening the May show, said, ``Everybody is passionately interested in the American flag. It is something that really has a grip on our inner psyche in a way that's very difficult to explain.''
The show, which fills one slate-blue room, is a study in patriotic fervor. Massed dozens of American flags on Fifth Avenue ripple in the wind of a fleecy blue-and-white day in ``The Fourth of July, 1916 (The Greatest Display of the American Flag Ever Seen in New York, Climax of the Preparedness Parade in May).''
It was after Preparedness Day that Hassam, one of several American artists who supported the Allied cause with their art, began the approximately 30 flag paintings that exist.
They ``became his most significant late work,'' according to Ilene Susan Fort, associate curator of American art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She is curator of the show and author of its catalog.
During this period, did flags became as important a motif to Hassam as waterlilies were to Claude Monet?
``Yes, they are his last great statement, just as the waterlilies were with Monet,'' she says. The flag paintings include Liberty Bond and Red Cross banners, French, Greek, Italian, British, Japanese, and Revolutionary Russian flags in weather ranging from sun-baked days to snowy ones.
One of the most unforgettable is the highly impressionistic ``The Avenue in the Rain, 1917,'' from the White House; two dozen American flags fluttering overhead are reflected below in the red, white, and blue of the Stars and Stripes melting into each other on lavender streets.
The show, organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, will be on view there Aug. 21-Oct. 30 after its closes here July 17.
Thereafter it will be at the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas (Jan. 7-March 12, 1989), and the New York Historical Society (April 20-June 25, 1989). It is the second in a three-part series on ``Masters and Masterpieces of American Impressionism'' supported at the National Gallery by Bell Atlantic.