Friday Fave: “The Lute” by Thomas Dewing

"The Lute" by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, 1904; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1913.34a

“The Lute” by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, 1904; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1913.34a

 

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art.

I recently had the opportunity to view Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s enigmatic painting The Lute up close. I was first drawn to the subtle tones of the painting, characteristic of the works he created at his summer studio in Cornish, New Hampshire. Then, I started wondering about the story. The Lute features four idealized female figures in an atmospheric landscape, subtly charming with its delicate surface texture.

The figures’ dreamlike quality—suspended in a verdurous gossamer backdrop—gives the interaction between the women a certain ethereality. The clear focal point of the four actors drew me closer to examine their relationship.

In my interpretation, the woman on the right plays the lute with an air of contentment, seemingly unaware of the three women watching in judgment, sinistrally. The observer closest to the performer seems to be looking on with contempt, chin raised in superiority; the next stands enviously, arms akimbo with a brick-wall resolution; and the final figure maintains lowered eyes, aloof from the scene, listening on wistfully, sadly.

I love that so many works in Freer’s collection represent points of contact and influence between cultures. The Lute is a lovely representation of that cross-cultural aesthetic interchange, clearly inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e painting and prints of “the floating world,” which were familiar to artists in both the United States and Europe at the turn of the twentieth century. The delicate craftsmanship, leisurely models, and poetic interactions are stunning.

Most interesting to me, though, is the poignant reflection on human nature that Dewing explores. Without any associated writing on the painting, the onus to decipher the narrative is placed on the viewer. Who is this lute player? How are her actions affecting the listeners? Would another person perceive their reactions differently than I do?

To me, as I view what I perceive as troubled responses to the performer, I am cautioned that human nature has a multiplicity of beautiful and vexing facets. I am reminded to listen to the lute with gratitude.

Unfortunately, The Lute is not currently on view. You can still view this American masterwork in stunning detail anytime you like on Open F|S, and you can explore related works in the Sylvan Sounds: Freer, Dewing, and Japan online exhibition feature.

Arab Jazz: An Interview with Tarek Yamani

Tarek Yamani performing at the Freer Gallery of Art.

Tarek Yamani performing at the Freer Gallery of Art.

Tarek Yamani is a New York-based composer and a self-taught jazz pianist. Born and raised in Beirut, Yamani was first exposed to jazz as a teenager. Since the release of his debut album, Ashur, in 2012, he has explored relationships between African American jazz and the rhythms and melodic modes (maqam) of Arab music. In 2013, Yamani produced Beirut Speaks Jazz, a unique initiative aimed at promoting jazz in Lebanon. With his Trio, Tarek Yamani performed last month in the Freer Gallery of Art’s Meyer Auditorium, in conjunction with the exhibition Unearthing Arabia: The Archaeological Adventures of Wendell Phillips.

Bento: What were your early experiences of playing and learning music?

Tarek Yamani: My father has an incredible sensitivity to music and he loved good music regardless of its genre. He had a black Samsonite case full of tapes of Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, ABBA, Bob Marley, Ravi Shankar, Umm Kulthum, the Beatles, and everything in between. I loved this case and I was always excited to pick something out of it and listen. My parents loved music but were not musicians. My great-grandfather, however, was a well-known singer during Ottoman rule and he was one of the first to record discs for Baidaphon and Polyphon in the early 1900s. His name was Ahmad Afandi Al Mir, and we managed to find in his grandson’s attic four severely damaged LPs with his picture on it.

I was born in the middle of the fifteen-year civil war, and during most of my childhood my family and I were running away. The Lebanese War was atrocious, and as in any militia-based wars, there were no rules or safe areas: one day our street would be safe, the next, a war zone. Cultural activity during those years was non-existent, and therefore the first time I saw a concert was when I played one in my school in 1996. I was sixteen, and I had been teaching myself guitar and got into heavy metal. I even formed a band with my friends, but it didn’t last for long.

My parents got me a piano when things cooled down and I was showing real interest in music. I think I was eleven or twelve when that happened. I started going to the Lebanese National Conservatory, but it was in such a mess that I soon dropped out and picked up the guitar instead. Around the age of 19, my interest in jazz brought me back to the piano.

Bento: What were your early musical influences? What artists, styles, or composers grabbed your attention and helped motivate you?

Tarek Yamani: I listened to everything that sounded like music and I loved it all, from classical to rock to hip-hop. I had a strange attraction to Pink Floyd that was more like an addiction until it slowly faded away when I became interested in heavy metal. After that also faded away, it was jazz that came into my life and changed it forever.

Nobody influenced me in jazz as much as Herbie Hancock and John Coltrane did. However, I was listening to countless jazz records from Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Ahmad Jamal, Dave Holland, and Wayne Shorter, to name a few, and all were a major influence on my jazz formation.

Bento: What have you been listening to recently (live or recordings)?

Tarek Yamani: I haven’t been listening to anybody in particular recently, but I’m very much into checking out what’s going on in the Arab world. There’s a big movement in independent music, especially in Egypt when it comes to Arabic rock, and all around the Arab world when it comes to hip-hop. Electronic music is pretty much picking up, too, but jazz is not really happening yet and there are no real jazz scenes. There are mostly individual attempts and a few collective attempts that, if done correctly, will eventually create the necessary platform for a real movement.

Bento: When is the next Beirut Speaks Jazz? Are there any other upcoming performances or projects you’d like to mention?

Tarek Yamani: Beirut Speaks Jazz occurs on April 30 and coincides with International Jazz Day. I’m very much looking forward to the 2015 edition. Some of my other projects include scoring the music for my wife Darine Hotait’s short film Orb, which is going to be the first Arab sci-fi film. I’m also preparing my third album, in which I continue to explore relationships between jazz and Arab music.

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If you like Arab music, check our recent podcasts of concerts recorded in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium.

Friday Fave: Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank

Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank, by Sesson (1504–1589); Japan, Momoyama period, 1568–1615; ink on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.218–19

Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank, by Sesson (1504–1589); Japan, Momoyama period, 1568–1615; ink on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.218–19

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art.

When I need a break from the monkeyshines in my office, I visit the Freer’s Japanese galleries to spend some time with Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank, a pair of six-fold screens.

Painted in the 16th century, the monochromatic screens illustrate a Zen Buddhist parable about monkeys that try to grasp the reflection of a full moon in the water, warning us about the futility of chasing illusion. But I think the monkeys also show that there can be meaning in the effort.

When I walk quietly through DC’s Sligo Creek Park near my house, animals start to appear from the woods: birds, rabbits, and if I’m lucky, deer. Similarly, at the museum, when I look at the screen at top, what first seems to be a classical Japanese landscape of bamboo and pine livens up on closer inspection: the twisting vines enveloping the tree become the sinewy arms and legs of monkeys climbing an old pine to get a better look at the moon floating below. Meanwhile, an all-white monkey on the riverbank stretches his arm across the water, his eyes fixed on the luminous prize that is so far out of reach.

A mother monkey and her baby take what they believe is a more direct approach. Hanging by a tree limb, the mother curls her leg, ready to snatch up the moon with her sharp toes. Her baby holds on tight and grabs at the moon with his other hand, excited to be a part of the adventure.

Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank, left-hand screen

Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank, left-hand screen

Another monkey in the companion screen (above) has a similar plan: he swoops at the moon from a low hanging grapevine, but it has disappeared in a splash of water! Though determined to try again, it may be time to quit, judging from the grumpy expression of the monkey nearby. She has had it with the moon and its illusions, as have her children. One baby curls up beside her, eyes closed and his head resting on crossed arms, ready for a nap.

The monkey parable has endured for centuries, evidenced by Xu Bing’s contemporary sculpture in the Sackler Gallery. And while we take the lesson to heart—desire turns into resignation through life’s experiences—the monkeys demonstrate what’s also essential along the way: curiosity, companionship, innovation, and sometimes a good nap.

Friday Fave: Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami

Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami; Kitagawa Utamaro; Japan, Edo period, late 18th–early 19th century; ink and color on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.54

Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami, by Kitagawa Utamaro
Japan, Edo period, late 18th–early 19th century
Ink and color on paper, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.54

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art in Open F|S, our newly digitized collection.

My favorite object in the collection? That’s a tough one. Truth is, I have lots of favorites.

There is one painting, however, that I grew to admire the more time I spent photographing it. Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami is an amazingly detailed panel painting by Kitagawa Utamaro (1754–1806), filled with scenes of an elite pleasure establishment that form a visually compelling narrative. For a special educational project by the Kyoto Cultural Association, I spent two full days photographing the painting’s every detail. At the Freer|Sackler, we often photograph art with an eye on the technical challenges each object presents or with a deadline in mind. In the case of Moonlight Revelry, we were asked to photograph this masterpiece in eighteen precisely overlapping sections in order for it to be recreated back in Japan as closely to the original as possible.

I love that the painting has so much to offer. In fact, the more you look, the more you discover: from the intriguing center salon to the ships sailing in the distant background and all the sundry activities near and far. Moonlight Revelry has an amazing perspective that draws you in. It invites you to imagine being in that salon and life in that period with a quality and technique that, as I came to learn later, influenced future generations of artists, including American artist James McNeill Whistler.

Friday Fave: Director’s Choice

Cameras new and old

Cameras, new and old

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art. This entry is by Julian Raby, the Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art.

When he first arrived at the Freer|Sackler nearly thirty years ago, John Tsantes, head of photography, used the “Agfa 8×10″ view camera on the right to photograph the collections. The camera on the left, “Phase One,” is the latest digital camera, and is now the museums’ standard equipment. John pioneered digital photography at the Freer|Sackler, and by the end of 2014 he and his team had completely digitized our collections of more than 40,000 objects. On January 1, 2015, in a blaze of publicity, we announced that we’ve made high-resolution images of our entire collection available on Open F|S, free for non-commercial projects and purposes. You can learn about and look deeply at works of art like never before, but also roll up your digital sleeves and have fun: search, download, and create. To that, we can also add “share,” and we look forward to seeing what you come up with.

Canteen; Syria or Northern Iraq; Ayyubid period (1171–1250);  brass, silver inlay; Purchase, F1941.10

Canteen;
Syria or Northern Iraq; Ayyubid period (1171–1250);
Brass, silver inlay; Purchase, F1941.10

With so much to choose from, picking a favorite isn’t easy. The object I find most poignant at the moment is the famous “Freer canteen.” It was produced just under nine hundred years ago in Mosul for the Syriac community. Created by craftsmen who made objects for Muslim leaders, its principal scenes are drawn from the life of Christ: the Nativity, so apt for this time of year; the Presentation at the Temple; and the Entry into Jerusalem. In addition, it features geometric motifs, lively animal scrolls, and elegant inscriptions. The back includes depictions of saints and knights. Today, the vessel reminds us of how many of this region’s ancient communities are fast disappearing, and how centuries-old objects remain vital conduits to the past.

Friday Fave: Tigers!

Chinese bronze tiger fittings from 900 BCE; F1935.21 and F1935.22

Chinese bronze tiger fittings from 900 BCE; F1935.21 and F1935.22

This post inaugurates our Friday Fave blog series, featuring museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art.

What is my favorite object in the Freer? That often depends on my mood. I have favorites within categories: favorite painting, favorite sculpture, favorite monster or god … I could go on.

So, though I have been asked to talk about my favorite object, I am going to talk about the object I most want to touch, regardless of mood. In the back of the Freer’s gallery 18, there are two tigers made of bronze that peek out of their case, ready to be loved.

Anthropomorphization? Absolutely. Every single time I see them.

These two 3,000-year-old kitties call out to me whenever they catch my eye. Their fierce teeth, held up in a friendly, reserved expression, assure me that they would enjoy a bit of a scratch behind the ear or under the chin. I love these tigers because of the emotional tug they have on me. I am in awe that, thousands of years ago, an artist created these bronzes with such attention to detail, understanding of human and animal emotions, and love, that they continue to find admirers from near and far.

Learn more about ancient Chinese bronzes in the Freer|Sackler collections.

Digitocracy!

Digitally altered detail, tomb guardian creature; China, Tang dynasty, ca. 700–740; lead-glazed earthenware; Gift of the Else Sackler Foundation, S1997.24

Digitally altered detail, tomb guardian creature; China, Tang dynasty, ca. 700–740; lead-glazed earthenware; Gift of the Else Sackler Foundation, S1997.24

With a new year, the Freer|Sackler launches a new initiative: Open F|S. We’ve digitized our entire collection and today, we’re making it available to the public. That’s thousands of works now ready for you to download, modify, and share for noncommercial purposes. As Freer|Sackler Director Julian Raby said, “We strive to promote the love and study of Asian art, and the best way we can do so is to free our unmatched resources for inspiration, appreciation, academic study, and artistic creation.” More facts and figures about the project can be found in the infographic below.

Tomorrow, we’ll also introduce the Friday Fave, a weekly blog series in which Freer|Sackler insiders will describe their favorite objects in the newly digitized collections. It’s a chance for us to share with you what inspires us, in the hopes that in the coming months, you’ll tell us your own stories about cherished F|S objects. To participate further, sign up to be a beta tester and help us ensure the ongoing success of Open F|S as it expands and evolves.

Happy New Year, and Happy Open F|S!

Freer|Sackler digitization infographic.

Open F|S: Digital Zero

Composite of 700 images from the Freer Ramayana.

Composite of 700 images from the Freer Ramayana.

Courtney O’Callaghan is chief digital officer at the Freer|Sackler.

We’ve reached an important milestone at the Freer|Sackler, an effort we’re calling Digital Zero. As of this writing, we’ve become the first Smithsonian museums to digitize their collections. This is a great opportunity for scholars and researchers as well as our everyday virtual visitors to have 24/7 access to our works of art.

What exactly is Digital Zero? For the Freer|Sackler, it means that we’ve photographed and uploaded our entire collection into a digital asset management system—more than 40,000 objects and almost twice as many images, from Whistler’s Peacock Room to the tiniest unnamed ceramic sherd. We have examined the rights information on every object and marked them appropriately. We have reviewed records, both complete and incomplete, and deemed them acceptable to make public.

On January 1, 2015, we will finally share all of our objects and accompanying data with the public. We will make available 40,000+ works as high-resolution images with (often) detailed metadata, available for non-commercial use by anyone.

Digital Zero gives us the freedom to begin the rapid prototyping of digital offerings. It allows us to focus on how our visitors want to interact with our collection. And it enables our creative allies to peruse our objects and form their own endlessly variable takes on the Freer|Sackler legacy.

But this is simply the base from which we begin our digital journey. As our curators and their collaborators discover new insights, new connections, and new interpretations of our storied holdings, we must acknowledge the fact that our work is on shifting sands. Our understanding of our own collection continually evolves and changes.

We hope that by releasing this information, we will encourage others to join our journey of discovery and help us fill in the gaps, share stories, and think of new ways to envision and enliven these objects. As we move from the idea of museums as spaces for the static delivery of a monolithic point of view into ones where our objects inspire communal storytelling, and where we share diverse perspectives that are alive and changing, we will be able to engage our visitors in ways that we cannot yet imagine.

This is only the first phase. If you are interested in being part of our adventure, email us at openfs@si.edu and we will include you in our plans.

Meaning and Melody

Folio of calligraphy, signed by Mir Imad Hasani; Iran, probably Isfahan, Safavid period, dated 1611–12; borders signed by Muhammad Hadi; ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; Purchase, F1942.15b

Folio of calligraphy, signed by Mir Imad Hasani; Iran, probably Isfahan, Safavid period, dated 1611–12; borders signed by Muhammad Hadi; ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; Purchase, F1942.15b

Michael Wilpers is manager of performing arts at the Freer|Sackler.

The Sackler’s current exhibition Nasta’liq: The Genius of Persian Calligraphy demonstrates the occasional tension between writing meant to be read and that which is valued primarily for its artistry. One of the more flamboyant Persian scripts on display in the exhibition is almost impossible for most viewers to read. Ornate Persian scripts have often been used in architecture and ceramics, more as decoration than signage.

This kind of tension between intelligibility and artfulness has played out many times in the history of music, between songs with easily understood words and those in which lyrics are almost overwhelmed by melodic invention. A Westerner might compare the emphasis on the words in Christian congregational singing with the kind of melodic invention of a choral fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach, where sometimes the words hardly seem to matter.

Perhaps no sacred music tradition is more devoted to clarity of text than the Vedic chant of Hinduism. You can hear a sample in the first track of our 2006 podcast of Gustav Holst’s “Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda,” featuring Venkatesh Sastri of the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple and recorded at the Freer Gallery. Only three pitches are used and almost every syllable gets its own note, making it easy for anyone who understands Sanskrit to follow along. At the opposite extreme of the Hindu tradition is the classical music of South India, where devotional songs (kritis) are so well known by their melodies that virtuoso musicians can perform lengthy improvisations on them without any need for words at all, confident that their audience will know them. A good example is our 2009 podcast featuring South Indian violinist L. Subramaniam performing highly elaborated variations on devotional songs by Tyagaraja (1767–1847) and his father, V. Lakshminarayana (1911–1990).

Coincidentally, at the very time that Persian nasta’liq script was reaching its peak of development—the mid-sixteenth century—the Roman Catholic Church ordered that sacred music be made more understandable. Composers were to refrain from disguising the words of the liturgies in overly elaborate melodies and counterpoint. One target of these reforms was a genre of medieval plainchant that stretched out each syllable of text over a long string of notes. An excellent example can be heard in our podcast of Cappella Romana singing the fourteenth-century Invitatorium in the Greek Orthodox tradition. Simpler music—and more intelligible lyrics—were in demand again two hundred years later when Bach and Handel were writing their most complex works, a style heard in the music of their contemporary Domenico Scarletti and in our podcast of the Gulbenkian Choir.

The Islamic world saw its own reforms of sacred music when orthodox legalists condemned the ornate style of Koranic recitations that appeared in the ninth to twelfth century. Melodic virtuosity is nevertheless still practiced by some specialists in Koranic recitation, while a much simpler chant style is prescribed for laypeople. In the South Asian music known as qawwali, Islamic texts are joined with praises for Sufi saints in renditions that are sometimes straightforward and at other times in a highly elaborated style. Such contrasts can be heard on our podcast by the Chisty Sufi Sama Ensemble.

View our complete list of podcasts here.

Nasta’liq: The Genius of Persian Poetry remains on view through May 3, 2015.

A Day Without Art

Frame

The Freer|Sackler joins the international arts community in observing World AIDS Day on December 1.
Also known as A Day Without Art, we remember those who are no longer with us and honor their lives,
creative contributions, and legacy.