Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Politics of Beauty

Sarah Johnson, research assistant, works in the curatorial department on Islamic and Ancient Near Eastern art. 


The Shapur plate

Beauty is often political, although politics is rarely beautiful. This early work of propaganda, known as the Shapur plate, was created in the Sasanian Empire of Iran nearly 2,000 years ago. The Sasanian king Shapur II, who is depicted on the plate, probably sent it to another king to show off his power and wealth. Gifts between kings in the ancient world were powerful political symbols and the quality of a gift could solidify or deteriorate a diplomatic relationship. This plate shows the king’s power not only in its imagery of hunting but also in its design and craftsmanship. The lavish materials and intricate design (the plate is made of nineteen separate pieces of silver) showcase Sasanian mastery of the arts. Even aesthetics were subject to politics in the Sasanian Empire.

Long after antiquity, the Shapur plate continued to be subject to the whims of politics. In the 1870s, it was acquired by the famous Stroganovs in Russia, where it quickly became a star of ancient art. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Communist Party confiscated the plate along with the rest of the Stroganov collection. Luckily, the plate passed the test of the Antiques Export Fund: This group decided, based on aesthetic reasons, whether or not silverworks in Russia went to museums like the Hermitage or were sold or melted down to make that universal political necessity, money.

The plate entered the Hermitage Museum. When the Hermitage collection of Iranian metalwork was in danger of being sold or destroyed, Joseph Stalin intervened. Although the decision was more to prevent political disgrace in destroying such a valuable collection than an aesthetic appreciation for Sasanian silver, it is partly thanks to Stalin that the plate survives.

To get up close to the Shapur plate in person, visit the exhibition Feast Your Eyes: A Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran, on view now in the Freer|Sackler.

Spring in DC

Magnolias in bloom outside the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery; photo by Cory Grace

Springtime in DC is all about the cherry blossom—especially this year, as we get ready to celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of the gift of cherry trees to Washington from the city of Tokyo, Japan. But today, we’ll let the magnolia take center stage. This is pretty much the view outside the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery this week: bright sunshine and an explosion of magnolia blossoms. The only thing we can’t share with you is the intoxicating fragrance—it’s out of this world.

Women on the Verge of the Twentieth Century

The Carnation, 1893, Charles Wilmer Dewing, oil on wood panel, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.33a

In honor of Women’s History Month, we take a look at some of the models who posed for American artist Thomas Dewing.

As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, women’s lives and their role in society began to evolve. The push for equality and the suffragist movement led to the passage of women’s right to vote in 1920. James McNeill Whistler, Thomas Dewing, Abbott Thayer, and other artists painted idealized portraits of women and often framed them in elaborate golden creations designed by architect Stanford White or, indeed, by Whistler himself. The women depicted were hardly birds in gilded cages: these models and muses had goals and dreams. Many, such as Julia Baird, were “independently minded.” This seemed to have especially pleased Dewing, who requested that all his models “should have brains.” Underneath the veneer of beauty are women on the verge of coming into their own.

These paintings became a favorite of collector Charles Lang Freer. When he began to build a new home in Detroit in 1890, he decorated his residence with many of these works.

Julia “Dudie” Baird was the model for The Carnation, as well as Portrait of a Young Girl. When Freer purchased the above work in 1892, he declared it to be a “corker.”  An actress and inveterate traveler, Baird was a prominent New York model, who posed for Saint Gaudens’ statue of Diana which he placed on top of the Madison Square Garden.

Thomas Dewing painted La Comedienne in 1906. Miss Allen, who posed for the painting, was an amateur actor. In the painting, she holds a script and is seated in front of a box of costumes, which Dewing kept in his studio for his models to pose with. The model for The Piano was Minnie Clark (the original Gibson Girl), whom Dewing later referred to as “My Piano Model.”  Dewing often portrayed young women in a musical setting as illustrative of refinement. The Piano was the first Dewing painting that Charles Lang Freer chose for his collection.

For more on American Art in the Freer|Sackler collections, click here.

In the Pink, or Holi: the Hindu Festival of Color

Celebrating Holi in India with F|S photographer Neil Greentree and a local musician in traditional costume

The pink-necked man above is longtime F|S photographer Neil Greentree. In March of 2007, he visited Jodhpur, India, to photograph the paintings in the royal collection for the exhibition Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur. During his stay, Neil was invited to the maharaja’s annual Holi celebration, held on the lawns behind Umaid Bhavan palace (where the paintings were stored at the time). The festival was scheduled for Neil’s last day in Jodhpur—he had a 3 pm flight to Delhi.

Having heard about Holi’s wild festivities, Neil prepared by going into town one night and buying an inexpensive, white cotton kurta pajama, which could be tossed afterwards. When he arrived at the party, he found it full of local musicians and dancers, the royal family, and about 150 guests who were treated to food and drink piled high on long buffet tables. Most importantly, everyone was given colored powder to throw.

In a recent interview with Bento, Neil recalled his excitement at the scene: It was as if the Holi paintings featured in Garden and Cosmos had come to life. His favorite moment, he said, was when the princess told him, quite firmly, “Neil, put down your camera. I am not joking; put it down on the table.” He didn’t know why—she was ordinarily so polite and well mannered! Neil was thus astounded when the princess poured a bucket of pink water over his head.

Running late and with a plane to catch, Neil said his goodbyes and headed to the airport, just making his afternoon flight. He boarded dressed like this, with all his color on.

Happy Nowruz!



Celebrating the Persian new year at the Freer|Sackler

Making masks for Nowruz. Photo by Cory Grace.

The museums were packed on Sunday for our fourth annual celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Revelers of all ages spent the day listening to stories by Xanthe Gresham, attending sold-out concerts by vocalist Monika Jalili, and watching the colorful Nomad Dancers in the Freer courtyard. The day also included Haft Sin table displays, paper-flower arranging, traditional Persian food, and contemporary dance beats by Radio Javan. The younger set enjoyed “fire” jumping, and making masks based on characters from the Shahnameh, the Book of Kings, and other works of Persian literature.

Xanthe Gresham and the Art of Storytelling

Storyteller Xanthe Gresham (photo by Mishko Papic)

In honor of Nowruz, Xanthe Gresham returns to the Freer|Sackler on March 4, to tell more exciting tales from the Shahnameh. Bento caught up with the London-based storyteller who has been described as ‘The Aerial Artiste of the Spoken Word.’ Xanthe has worked extensively for the British Museum performing epics from Iran, Iraq, and Ireland, Native American stories, and stories for numerous exhibitions such as The Magic of Persia.

Bento: Tell me about the power of storytelling.

Xanthe Gresham: Storytelling is pure enchantment. It actually is magic and you perhaps only realize how magical it is when you need it. I could go on forever about the power of this enchantment but I’ll tell you two stories. Firstly, I was working as a primary school teacher in a difficult inner city school in London and I was working my socks off. I would get up in the early hours, work until at least 9pm and only stop working at 4pm on Sunday. And I failed, and failed, and failed again with the children. I call it the ‘trying to sell a kitchen’ syndrome. If somebody calls you up on the phone to sell a kitchen, even if you want a kitchen, you don’t want to buy it from them. I was trying to ram knowledge down the children’s throats. And then I told them a story. It was for myself. I’d given up. A storyteller, Ben Haggarty, had come into the classroom the day before and he had enchanted me, never mind the children, and I wanted to have a go. It was for myself. I had fallen in love with the art. The children had never listened to me. They hated listening to me but now they rocked back on their heels, relaxed, their jaws went loose and they listened for 20 full minutes.

I was stunned. It wasn’t me. I had failed so many times before. It was the story. The children taught me I was a storyteller. They didn’t want anything else from me—the stories made us both happy. They comforted us, made us laugh, took us away from curriculums and deadlines and made us the best of friends. It was a long, hard lesson, hard enough to last a lifetime and worth every minute.

Second story: Life went pear shaped. I lost everything and there was nowhere to turn but stories.  They were all I trusted. I love that story of Azar Nafisi’s on your blog where she quotes her father talking to her as a child about the Shahnameh, “We have no other home but this….this is our home, always, for you and your brother, and your children and your children’s children.”  That says it all. It actually makes me think of the painter Marc Chagall who said, “Everything safe on the canvas.”  I think the other story on the blog about Firdawsi and the silver and the gold is wonderful. You can’t take treasure with you when you die but stories never leave you. They dissolve like pearls in your bloodstream; they diffuse into your cells and become encoded in the cells of your children. I don’t have children and yet I have thousands, because of the stories.

Bento: When did you realize that you were a natural storyteller?

Xanthe: I’m always realizing it, I hope.

Bento: There are a lot of strong women in the Shahnameh. Is there a story about a strong woman that you can relate to?

Xanthe: I love the story of Queen Humai, I’m going to tell it on Sunday at the first session of storytelling. I also love Tahmina, [who] turns up in Rustam’s bedroom having rescued his beloved horse and states her case like a lawyer:

‘‘My name is Tahmina,’ she says, ‘I come from a line of lions and fairies and I will kiss you if you dare me. I so adore you and with such passion, I don’t want to be like the weak girls in fashion, who sigh and cry and don’t get what they need. I would have your child if you agreed. Rahksh is your match in strength but I in wit!’ She spoke so wisely, Rustam never doubted it—she was black eyed, rose-cheeked, a rare gazelle—he had to admit he was under her spell….’

Bento: What makes a good storyteller?

Xanthe: The story makes the storyteller and vice versa.  That’s all there is to it.  It’s all about love—wanting to tell and wanting to be told

Bento: Were you told stories from the Shahnameh when you were growing up?

Xanthe: I wasn’t. But I’ve made up for it, especially thanks to places like the Smithsonian and the British Museum where I can listen to the stories along with the audience. And all audiences are different and because of that the stories are always changing and I hear different aspects that sometimes hit me so strongly I almost forget what’s coming next.  Working with Arash Moradi, who did hear the stories as a child is great.  He will often tell me a new detail, or song in rehearsal.  We’ll tell Bijan and Manijer on Sunday in the third session and he told me all about Rustam finding his instrument, the world’s first tanbur in a tree and taking it down, his fingers finding the frets, and playing. And then he played me Rustam’s tune. That was a special moment for me—it shows how the Shahnameh is not just a book, it’s alive, like a tune on the air, like words dancing between the audience and the teller.