A Testament to Love: Palmyra in the North of England

Funerary relief bust; Syria, 231 CE; Limestone; Freer Gallery of Art; F1908.236

Funerary relief bust; Syria, 231 CE; Limestone; Freer Gallery of Art; F1908.236

It’s frequent we hear of yet more monuments in Palmyra being destroyed. It’s daily that we hear of the plight of migrants from Syria seeking a new life in Europe.

Our sculpture of Haliphat, a Palmyrene lady who died in 231 CE, gives us a glimpse of one side of that cosmopolitan and wealthy caravan city. Our copy of Robert Wood’s The Ruins of Palmyra (1753) reminds us of the impact that images of Palmyra had on Europe and this country in the eighteenth century: The book’s depiction of an eagle sculpted on a temple in Palmyra was the model for the eagle on the seal of the United States. And you need go no further than the north entrance of the Freer Gallery to see the imprint of Palmyrene architecture: Look up and you will see a coffered ceiling inspired by the ceilings of Palmyra.

I have been moved to discover an object that brings together the topics of migration and Palmyra. It is a tombstone, dating from the second or third century CE, that was found in the Roman fort of Arbeia, a few miles from Newcastle-on-Tyne, in the north of England. It records the death of a lady called Regina.

Regina was originally from a major tribe in the south of the country, but she was enslaved—we don’t know how or when, but it’s easy to imagine she was a victim of fighting. Her master freed her, and they married. Regina died, though, at the age of thirty, and her husband lovingly had an effigy of her sculpted, seated full frontal under an arch.

The effigy’s style has echoes of sculpture from Palmyra. This is understandable, as her husband records his name as “Barates the Palmyrene.” The inscription below the seated Regina is bilingual—Latin, written in a formal style of capital letters, and Aramaic, written in a cursive Palmyrene style. According to one reading, Barates ended the Aramaic inscription with the poignant exclamation, “Alas!”

We know from his own tombstone, found nearby at Corbridge, that Barates made standards for the Roman legions. How and why he moved from the desert oasis of Palmyra to the windy climes of the North Sea, we may never know. Regina’s tombstone, however, reminds us that affection can bridge the gap between cultures and triumph over the traumas of war and dislocation.

Our Palmyra installation remains on view through December 14, 2015.

Friday Fave: Syrian Glass Bowl

Bowl; Syria, Mamluk period, 1350s–1400s; gilded and enameled glass; Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art; F1933.13

Bowl; Syria, Mamluk period, 1350s–1400s; gilded and enameled glass; Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art; F1933.13

This gorgeous glass bowl is astonishing to me both for its artistry and its sheer survival. Commissioned by the Rasulid rulers of Yemen (1228–1454) and created by artisans in Syria, its impressive scale (approximately punch bowl size) and amazing condition boggle the mind. How could it have survived over six centuries without a scratch, chip, or crack?

What attracted me first and foremost is the beauty of the object. Its thick, golden, glass walls are strewn with tiny bubbles glinting like stars. A band of winged griffins, lions, and unicorns gambol among swirling vines on a cornflower blue field. They circle around the shoulder of the bowl like animals on a carousel. Delicately drawn and playfully animated, they have the character of pets, with wings depicted in bright enamel of lime green and yellow. The remainder of the bowl is decorated with delicate lines of deep red, loosely drawn to create lacy bands of abstracted leaves and vines. For me, this contrast heightens the transparent nature of the glass, pushing the eye forward and back.

If you come to see this bowl in the Freer (and be sure to come before the museum closes for renovation on January 4, 2016), you’ll find it grouped with several other examples of glass from the Mamluk period (1350s–1400s). These include an enormous beaker and a four-handled vase from Syria and a mosque lamp from Egypt. This treasure trove gives me hope. If these beautiful, fragile objects could survive century after century, perhaps there is hope for the very fragile part of the world that gave birth to them.

Enter the Peacock Room with Google Cardboard

Freer|Sackler photographer Neil Greentree tries out Google Cardboard

Freer|Sackler photographer Neil Greentree tries out Google Cardboard

Check your mailbox! The New York Times is sending more than one million Google Cardboard viewers to subscribers over the next few days. Currently, the Freer|Sackler is the only Smithsonian museum with Cardboard content. You can experience James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room in 360° and be transported to what was once an opulent dining room in London, then a private exhibition space in Detroit, and now a treasure of the Freer Gallery of Art.

Just download the Freer|Sackler app for your Android device, snap your phone into a Cardboard viewer, and press play. (iPhone users: stay tuned! We’ll have some good news for you shortly.) With this DIY take on a stereoscope, you’ll be able to experience storytelling in vivid detail.

With the Freer closing its doors on January 4, 2016, only two months remain to see the iconic Peacock Room in person. While you’re here, be sure to visit the Sackler installation Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre for a contemporary take on the room and its many layers of paint, gilding, and intrigue.

If you’re not expecting a Cardboard viewer from the Times, you can easily find one to purchase online or even make your own. In the meantime, explore the museum on Google Art Project.

Friday Fave: Trees

Trees; Sōtatsu school, I’nen Seal; Japan, mid-17th century; pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, colors, and gold on paper; Freer Gallery of Art, F1962.30–31

Trees; Sōtatsu school, I’nen Seal; Japan, mid-17th century; pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, colors, and gold on paper; Freer Gallery of Art, F1962.30–31

I’m not sure if it was the bold color or dramatic composition that first caught my eye. Vivid green pigment brilliantly contrasted against gold foil. An incredible variety of trees, each captured in considerable detail. Striking black ink trunks, festooned with large glossy leaves or spiky delicate ones. Viewed head-on and tightly packed into a constricted space, each tree is arranged precisely across six adjoining panels. It’s as if they are on display in my favorite garden catalog.

These initial impressions have stayed with me for decades. Literally. Although smartphones make it much easier today to take pictures of art, there’s still something really tangible about owning a high-quality reproduction. My now faded postcard is a bit worse for wear and tear—pockmarked with pinholes from its prominent display on every office bulletin board I’ve ever decorated—yet its power still holds. At 7 x 15 inches, it’s big enough to have a presence, and its thick card stock is sturdy enough to withstand the test of time. It shows one of a pair of six-panel folding screens that were last displayed at the Freer almost fifteen years ago.

The screens can now be seen in their rightful place of honor in the exhibition Sōtatsu: Making Waves, on view through January 31, 2016. When I first saw them again, they struck me as breathtaking both in their scale and luminosity. The greens and golds just glow. They are much larger than I remembered and much more detailed. Although painted hundreds of years ago, they seem very contemporary and speak to the astonishing power of Japanese art and design. I’ve had the postcard over my desk for years, but seeing the screens in person is a powerful experience that reminds me of the old Marvin Gaye song “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”

Halloween Help from Freer|Sackler

Mask; Japan, Momoyama or Edo period, 17th–18th century; wood, pigment, lacquer; Collected by Seymour J. Janow and gifted in his memory by his family, F2003.5.16

Mask; Japan, Momoyama or Edo period, 17th–18th century; wood, pigment, lacquer; Collected by Seymour J. Janow and gifted in his memory by his family, F2003.5.16

Not sure what to wear for Halloween this year? You’re on your own when it comes to finding the right costume, but if you’re looking for a mask, we’ve got your back—or at least your front—covered.

This demon mask, given to the museums a dozen years ago, is the perfect scary accessory. It was made in Japan sometime between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Masks have a long and extensive history in Japan that dates back to the prehistoric Jomon period; they often have been used in dance, court rituals, and religious ceremonies. This mask portrays a long-nosed demon (known as tengu in Japanese lore) and was used in Shinto shrine performances.

For Halloween success, follow these simple instructions. First, print the mask as large as you can. Next, carefully cut it out. Make a small hole on either side (near the cheeks would work well) and run a string or elastic through them. Put it on and voila: You and the demon mask are now one! Scare your friends and loved ones, and the candy seekers at your door.

More scary masks can be found when you search the Freer|Sackler collections on Open F|S, as well as on Bento and our Facebook page.

JACK Quartet and Lightbulb: Indonesian Music with a Twist

The Lightbulb Ensemble performing in San Francisco. See them with JACK Quartet tonight.

The Lightbulb Ensemble performing in San Francisco. See them with JACK Quartet tonight.

Tonight, two American ensembles—JACK Quartet and Lightbulb —join forces, fusing classical and Indonesian music into a one-of-a-kind performance. But what do Indonesian gamelan and Western classical music have in common? A lot of history, it turns out. Both Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel were enchanted by the Javanese gamelan they heard at the Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1889. That cross-cultural exposure helped inspire the innovations of French Impressionist music. Performances by a Balinese gamelan at Paris’s 1931 Exposition Coloniale provided French composer Olivier Messiaen with musical ideas for some of his most novel experiments. In the mid-1930s, American composer Colin McPhee lived in Bali, where he wrote an important treatise on gamelan music and then incorporated its forms and sounds into his orchestral works. And starting in the early 1970s, gamelan music influenced American composer Steve Reich in developing what became known as minimalist music.

More recent generations of composers have spent years studying in Indonesia and leading gamelan orchestras in the United States, such as the long-standing Gamelan Sekar Jaya from the San Francisco Bay Area. (I had the opportunity to hear them perform in 1981.) Two leaders of that venerable orchestra, Wayne Vitale and Brian Baumbusch, teamed up with the highly regarded JACK Quartet and Balinese choreographers I Made Bandem and Suasthi Bandem to create the massive work Makaradhwaja, which premiered at the Bali Arts Festival in 2012. A year later, Vitale and Baumbusch created the experimental Lightbulb Ensemble, pursuing new music inspired by Balinese models and utilizing custom-built metal xylophones that resemble the gamelan but have original tunings.

At this evening’s concert, you can hear Lightbulb and JACK perform their latest collaboration, Baumbusch’s Hydrogen(2)Oxygen. Each ensemble also performs alone, with JACK presenting John Cage’s Quartet in Four Parts and Lightbulb playing Vitale and Baumbusch’s Mikrokosma. Don’t miss this chance to hear the latest stage in the fruitful co-evolution of Indonesian and Western music. Tickets will be distributed at the Meyer Auditorium beginning at 6:30 pm on a first-come, first-served basis.

With its combination of Eastern and Western themes, the music in tonight’s performance is paralleled in the collections of the Freer|Sackler. The museums contain both American and Asian masterworks, including nearly one hundred objects from Indonesia.

Sōtatsu Rules the Waves!

Sōtatsu: Making Waves is the first in-depth examination of Tawaraya Sōtatsu (active circa 1600–40), one of the most influential yet elusive figures in the history of Japanese visual culture. The exhibition brings together for the first time more than seventy of Sōtatsu’s masterpieces from collections in Japan, Europe, and the United States, along with homage pieces by later artists that demonstrate his long-ranging influence. The Freer|Sackler is the only venue in the Western Hemisphere for this major Sōtatsu retrospective.

Museum founder Charles Lang Freer is widely credited with introducing both Sōtatsu and his frequent collaborator Hon’ami Kōetsu (1558–1637) to Western audiences. A prescient late nineteenth-century collector, Freer amassed several of Sōtatsu’s most noted paintings, including Waves at Matsushima and Dragons and Clouds. Due to restrictions in Freer’s will, the works cannot travel outside our Galleries. This exhibition is a watershed moment in our understanding of Sōtatsu, bringing together the masterworks Freer collected with others from around the world.

This evening, we’re open for a sneak peek of the exhibition from 5:30–8:30 pm. Explore the art, literature, and creative genius that shaped Sōtatsu’s legacy through curator-led tours, games, hands-on art activities such as block printing and fan painting, and refreshments. The evening also includes a film screening and performances by the Levine Music Jazz Quartet.

Tomorrow, the official opening day for Sōtatsu: Making Waves, join us for the free public colloquium Sōtatsu in Washington: Insights, Discoveries, and Reflections and hear from the international scholars who conceived and developed this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition.

Osumi Yukie: Master of Japanese Metalwork

Osumi Yukie at work in her studio in Japan

Osumi Yukie at work in her studio in Japan

For Osumi Yukie, the Freer|Sackler’s first artist-in-residence in Japanese metalware design, metalwork is more than an art or a craft—it’s a way of life. She’s been working with metal since the early 1960s. A master of inlay decoration, Osumi transforms silver into objects that are both functional and beautiful. Each piece, including those in Wind and Waves—on view in the Sackler through November 15—can take upward of four months to create, from inspiration to early sketch to finished work.

In her hands, metal becomes imbued with a kind of emotion. She takes a flat sheet of silver and lets it reveal its own story, akin to the way Michelangelo tried to bring the “sculpture” out of the stone. When we had the chance to speak last week (with the help of a translator), Osumi told me, “Metal isn’t a cold or hard thing. It is warmed by my own body temperature and becomes soft and comfortable.” Part of what makes the object special is the way it is used. “People who use my pieces will understand that through usage, the work really does become more beautiful. They enjoy the spirit that is behind the piece as well as its function,” she explained.

"Wind and Waves" by Osumi Yukie

“Wind and Waves” by Osumi Yukie

In July, Osumi was designated a Living National Treasure of Japan, making her the first woman to receive this recognition for metalwork. She holds a degree from the Tokyo University of the Arts and also studied in the United Kingdom.

On Sunday, October 18, from 2–4 pm on Sackler sublevel one, join us for Osumi Yukie’s talk, “A Changing Craft: Japanese Metalwork.” Through words and images, she’ll tell us more about her work, the influence of teachers, and her role today in encouraging a broader appreciation of the art of metalwork.

For more Japanese art, save the date to see Sōtatsu: Making Waves, which opens at the Sackler on October 24. A celebration of the life and work of Tawaraya Sōtatsu—one of the most influential yet elusive figures in the history of Japanese visual culture—the exhibition is the first outside Japan to tell his story.

Action, Anarchy, and Audacity: A Seijun Suzuki Retrospective

Film still from "Branded to Kill"

Film still from “Branded to Kill”

Seijun Suzuki is one of Japanese cinema’s legendary eccentrics. He was fired from his job at Nikkatsu Studios in the late 1960s for, as he put it, making films that “made no sense and made no money.” Over the last couple of decades, he has developed a global cult following for those stylistically outrageous send-ups of gangster movies, as well as the mysterious ghost stories he created upon his return to filmmaking in the 1980s.

Though he is virtually a household name in Japan (he was once voted the country’s best-dressed man), very little has been written about Suzuki in the United States—until now. My book Time and Place Are Nonsense: The Films of Seijun Suzuki has been published by the Freer|Sackler. To celebrate, we are devoting the next three months to a retrospective of Suzuki’s work, co-organized with the Japan Foundation and comprising more than twenty films, some of which have never before screened in the United States.

We kick things off this evening with Suzuki’s most notorious film, Branded to Kill, the outrageous excesses of which led to his firing from Nikkatsu. After the screening, I will be on hand to sign copies of Time and Place Are Nonsense. For the rest of the month, you can sample films from the most fertile period of Suzuki’s career: the mid- to late ’60s, during which he twisted B movie scripts into dazzling, funny, and shocking artistic statements. These films are rooted both in the gleefully nihilistic outlook Suzuki gained as a soldier in World War II and in the wild, bawdy underbelly of Japanese aesthetic traditions, such as Kabuki theater, that has fascinated him throughout his career.

I hope you’ll join us and come back in November and December, when we delve into Suzuki’s equally fascinating later career. The complete film schedule is available on our website. And if you have friends in other parts of the United States and Canada, please tell them to keep an eye out for the retrospective. Between now and next May, it will be traveling to cities throughout North America.

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Teen Artist Residency: Peacock Printmaking Project

Clockwise from top left: Teen artists in "Filthy Lucre," inspired by Whistler’s peacock feather pattern, assembled in front of the Freer Gallery of Art, and with printmaker Dennis O’Neil.

Clockwise from top left: Teen artists in “Filthy Lucre,” inspired by Whistler’s peacock feather pattern, assembled in front of the Freer Gallery of Art, and with printmaker Dennis O’Neil.

Local teens have turned the conflicts in their lives into James McNeill Whistler-inspired art. This summer, the Freer|Sackler partnered with ArtReach@THEARC to host a three-week artist residency for DC teenagers with internationally recognized printmaker Dennis O’Neil. The group spent a day visiting the museums, during which they toured Whistler’s famed Peacock Room and the contemporary installation Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre with Lee Glazer, associate curator of American art. Inspired by their experiences, the young artists then investigated the emotional tension behind Art and Money; or, The Story of the Room, Whistler’s mural of fighting peacocks that marked his feud—and subsequent break—with longtime patron Frederick Leyland. Working with graduate-student mentors from George Washington University, the teen artists drew parallels to their own lives and depicted personal stories of conflict on nineteen vase-shaped prints, which were affixed to a Peacock Room-esque screen.

The Peacock Printmaking Project being prepped to go on display at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

The Peacock Printmaking Project being prepped to go on display at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

“I thought many of the vases were extremely creative. I enjoyed the give and take between the students and the George Washington interns,” said O’Neil at the project’s opening reception. The Peacock Printmaking Project remains on view outside the ImaginAsia classroom in the Sackler until January 2016.

Interested in upcoming teen programs at the Galleries? Register for this month’s two-session audio-recording workshop, co-hosted by the Hirshhorn’s ArtLAB+, to explore artworks in Peacock Room REMIX. You also might be a great fit for the Freer|Sackler Teen Council, a group of ten creative and dedicated high school students who help make the museums more welcoming and engaging for young people. The Teen Council plans and hosts events that bring DC-area teens to the museums to hang out, make and design art, and have unique and exciting experiences. Take a look at the schedule, commitment, and benefits associated with participating in the Teen Council. If you think you would be a great fit, apply online by November 1, 2015, to join.