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Religion in the Gallery: A First-person Perspective

Newark Museum Tibetan Buddhist Altar, 1991, Altar Painting by Phuntsok Dorje, Commissioned by the Newark Museum, 1990

In an evening lecture on May 24, four scholars—including F|S curators Jim Ulak and Debra Diamond—explored “Religion in the Gallery” as part of our Exhibiting Asia in the 21st Century lecture series. Jenna Vaccaro, assistant in the Scholarly Programs and Publications Department, attended the event and reported her thoughts back to Bento. 

The politics surrounding the display of religious content in museum galleries are complicated, to say the least. Opinions differ wildly on the role museums ought to play when putting religious art on view. Some argue that we must provide more context and meaning for religious art than we do for other forms of expression, as meaning dissolves with time, language, and cultural barriers. Others go further, advocating for a display that provides the viewer with a transcendent experience.

During “Religion in the Gallery,” Katherine Anne Paul, curator of the arts of Asia at the Newark Museum, presented several variations of Tibetan Buddhist shrines in American museums and abroad, and waxed philosophically on the way the different displays might make viewers feel. Bold reds and yellows among golden statues, butter sculptures—literally, lamps burning on animal fat and colorful shapes made out of butter—and musical instruments were common elements of each shrine. It appears that the goal of each exhibit was to completely envelop the viewer in color and light, described by Paul as a “more is more” method of display. The panel of speakers considered this similar to the Baroque design period: the more glitz and ornamentation, the better.

Gregory Levine speaks on Zen art at “Religion in the Gallery,” held May 24, 2012.

Paul’s Tibetan shrines were juxtaposed by a presentation on Zen art by Gregory Levine, associate professor of the art and architecture of Japan and Buddhist visual cultures at the University of California, Berkeley. Zen art is much different than a Tibetan shrine, and its elements are harder to define. Generally with Zen, a “less is more” approach is taken when putting objects on display. Traditionally we see minimalism, nature, and stillness as the representative elements of Zen art, though what “Zen” means has changed over time. Meditative and natural design principles have been watered down and usurped by popular culture. Citing scholars from the mid-1900s and beyond, Levine tracked how Zen has been appropriated in America from the museum context to commercial design. Rather than using minimalist motifs for a meditative purpose, Zen styles today are used to sell a product, such as Zen mp3 players or Zen perfume.

As a casual observer, I do feel a stronger, transcendent connection to the Tibetan shrines’ display. The exhibits Paul presented demand attention and never let the unfamiliar viewer forget that this was or could be a religious space. The pieces that Levine showed did not provide the same experience. The questions I was left with after considering my own different reactions to the presentations are personal, but perhaps not uncommon: Has the appropriation of Zen religious art by American marketing and design companies already ruined the transcendent experience for me? Is there any way in which I can see Zen art as sacred when it has been a staple of American secular design for so long?

An audience member asked a question along these lines, wondering whether we must contextualize religious art that is distinctively different than the culture in which it is being displayed. Paul responded by asking if we have the same duty to contextualize a Monet painting. Jim Ulak, F|S curator of Japanese art, followed up by stating that staff at the National Gallery are constantly surprised at how many people today have trouble understanding the Christian art on display, which wasn’t the case a generation or two ago.

In my humble opinion, all religious art, particularly when we are presenting that of another culture, deserves to be given more respect and context than a Monet painting for the sheer fact that the religion and its practitioners still exist. If we appropriate the style of a Monet painting and get it wrong in our gallery, the only harm done is a misunderstanding of a visual style. If we appropriate a religious design we have the potential to misinterpret and erase important cultural meaning—the opposite of what a museum ought to do.

—Jenna Vaccaro

Posted by in A Closer Look, Sackler 25, Talks and Lectures | 3 Comments

New On View: Mary Thayer

Portrait of the Artist’s Eldest Daughter; Abbott Handerson Thayer; 1893-94, oil on canvas, F1906.96a

To change things up a bit, we’ve replaced the painting of Abbott Thayer’s son, Gerald, with this beautiful oil of his daughter Mary. Portrait of the Artist’s Eldest Daughter now hangs near Thayer’s monumental work A Virgin, which features all three of the artist’s children and is prominently displayed over the staircase between the Freer and Sackler.

According to Lee Glazer, associate curator of American art at Freer|Sackler, “Thayer’s three children endured countless sessions posing for their father in the years following their mother’s untimely death in 1891. Thayer declared his children to be his ‘passion of passions.’ He explained to Freer, ‘I paint, during this period of my life, almost nothing except my children, yet must sell them. Perhaps these very paintings goad me to paint another and a better each time.’”

Freer paid ten thousand dollars for A Virgin, a hefty sum in 1893. Shortly after shipping A Virgin to Freer’s house in Detroit, Thayer sent his patron this complementary portrait of Mary as “a bonus,” as he said, “to ease my conscience about the $10,000.” Mary’s portrait would go well with that of her brother Gerald, already in Freer’s collection.

Over the years Freer would acquire several more paintings of the Thayer children, including the two monumental “winged figures”: A Winged Figure and Winged Figure Seated Upon a Rock, in which the artist’s younger daughter, Gladys, appears in the guise of an angel. According to Glazer, “Thayer regarded these paintings as among his most inspired works.”

Learn more about American art in the F|S collections.

Posted by in A Closer Look, American Art | No Comments

Garden to Go: Strolling through the Seasons with ImaginAsia

The Moongate Garden

The theme of this year’s Garden Fest, presented by Smithsonian Gardens, was healthy living, inspired by First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign. ImaginAsia decided to get people up and moving through the Moongate Garden, right outside of the Sackler pavilion, by handing each visitor a brochure outlining the many benefits of walking. Participants then created dioramas using images of the garden during different seasons, whether covered with a flurry of flowers or that other kind of flurry we get in winter. Some people stuck with one season, while others mixed things up a bit as in the diorama pictured here: a view of spring blossoms opens up into a garden filled with snow-covered magnolias.

Learn more about ImaginAsia family programs and check out some other views of the Moongate Garden.

Posted by in ImaginAsia, Japan Spring | No Comments

Ai Weiwei in Just Over a Minute

In addition to being our go-to guy for all things technological, Hutomo Wicaksono is the F|S videographer, creating features on exhibitions and special events. Here’s how he put together the time-lapse of the installation of Ai Weiwei’s work Fragments in the Sackler pavilion.

We mounted the camera high on the wall, very close to the ceiling, with the camera running for approximately eight hours each day. Every two minutes it took a picture, giving us about 250 photos each day. That part of the process took four days to complete, so by the end of day four, I had collected about 1,000 images.

Then it was on to two days of editing. I combined all of the photos together as a continuous action video using Adobe After Effects. Because we wanted to see fast-action movement, I set up the timing of each photo to be 0.05 second, so we could see about twenty photos per second. Once that finished, we searched for background music, created a video bumper, and shot some closing stills. I put everything back together in After Effects, added some mojo, and voilà, six days later, it was finished!

Posted by in Behind the Scenes, Chinese Art, Contemporary Art | No Comments

Cooking with Whistler’s Mother

Photomechanical reproduction in halftone, after Whistler’s portrait of his mother, “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1,” Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1898.93

James McNeill Whistler painted Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, a portrait of his mother, Anna, in 1871. James was a devoted son and his mother’s arrival in London in the mid-1860s forced Whistler’s model and mistress, Joanna Heffernan, to seek other quarters.  Mrs. Whistler insisted on living with her “Jemmie” and presiding over his household.

That included the kitchen. Anna Whistler kept a diary and often recorded what she had been cooking. Her recipes, compiled by Professor Margaret MacDonald of the University of Glasgow, are filled with soups, puddings, cakes, and gingerbreads. There’s also a recipe for a peach cordial that calls for 300 peach pits and three quarts brandy and must be left for one month before opening. I’m afraid we’ll have to leave that for another time!

In honor of Anna Whistler and Mother’s Day, and the painting that has perhaps become the quintessential mom image of the art world, we present Mrs. Whistler’s recipe for a dessert called Floating Island:

***

Take a cup of currant jelly, beat the whites of 3 eggs to a froth
add a spoonful of rose water then put it in a dish of cream on which it will float, sweeten your milk or cream to your taste

2 1/2 cups heavy or double cream
1 tablespoon sugar
3 egg whites
1 cup red currant jelly
1 tablespoon rose water

Whip the cream with the sugar until it stands up in peaks. Put it into a large serving dish and smooth the top. Stiffly whip the egg whites and whisk in the red currant jelly 1 tablespoon at a time. Beat in the rose water. Spoon the mixture in 8 peaks on top of the cream. Serve as soon as possible after making or the peaks will gradually subside.
Serves 8

Light, fluffy, pink islands floating on a creamy sea. A delicate combination of flavors which tastes as good as it looks.

* * *

Let us know if you give the recipe a try. If so, post some pictures on our Facebook page. Happy Mother’s Day from Bento, and remember: Mother knows best.

Posted by in American Art | No Comments

Ai Weiwei: A Model Exhibition

A rendering of Ai Weiwei’s installation “Fragments” in the pavilion of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s monumental work Fragments opens at the Sackler this Saturday, May 12. Exhibition designer Jeremiah Gallay gives us a behind-the-scenes glimpse into what it takes to prepare for a new installation.

We exhibition designers generally love to draw, and we try to draw things as accurately as we can. Our job is to create scale drawings and models, perspective renderings, and mock-ups to study display options and to provide instructions for the production and installation processes. The rendering shown here, for Ai Weiwei’s Fragments in the Sackler pavilion, was one of about a dozen options drawn up in multiple views, using computer software that allows us to create complex digital models and place them within architectural environments.

In addition to design visualizations, we create detailed production drawings for wall demolition and construction, cabinetry, electrical work, painting, mount-making, environmental graphics, and other custom fabrications. It’s always fun to see the drawings come to life—to walk into a real space after designing it on paper.

Posted by in A Closer Look, Chinese Art, Contemporary Art | 1 Comment

Monks at an Exhibition

At the welcoming ceremony for “Masters of Mercy: Buddha’s Amazing Disciples”; photo by John Tsantes

Monks from Tokyo’s elite Pure Land Buddhist temple Zōjōji came to the Sackler Gallery on the evening of Saturday, April 21. They performed a ceremony to protect the paintings in Masters of Mercy: Buddha’s Amazing Disciples and to ensure the success of the exhibition. A blessing and consecration typically occurs when Buddhist institutions lend works of art to secular institutions.

In the Pure Land tradition, the lotus (a primary Buddhist symbol), is the vehicle upon which souls are reborn in the Western Paradise. The image of lotus petals showering down from the heavens is a symbol of the blessings of the Amida Buddha. During the ceremony at the Sackler, Hasuike Koyo, chief secretary of  Zōjōji, scattered oversized and colorfully painted paper lotus petals around the exhibition space to indicate the temple’s fond prayers for our endeavors.

The out-of-this-world scrolls by Kano Kazunobu in Masters of Mercy were created from 1854 until the artist’s death in 1863. The Sackler exhibition marks the first time that the scrolls have been shown in the West. It runs through July 8, 2012. Learn more about Japan Spring at the Freer|Sackler.

Posted by in A Closer Look, Exhibitions, Japan Spring, Sackler 25 | No Comments

You Ask, We Answer: Why is it so Dark in Here?

Thirty-six Views: Hokusai at the Sackler

A visitor recently wrote in our Japan Spring comment book wanting to know why it is “so dark” in the Hokusai exhibit. We asked Richard Skinner, F|S lighting designer extraordinaire, to field this one.

RS: Good question. Many of the objects on display at the Freer|Sackler are made with materials that can react to light, so it is necessary to carefully control what kind of light, how much light, and duration of exposure on these materials. The Hokusai prints are made with pigments that could easily fade or shift in color if overexposed to light. Curator Ann Yonemura has carefully selected the best copy available of each print—and to preserve these objects in their current pristine condition, the light level is restricted to 5 foot-candles of visible light. We carefully measure the light level at each individual object with an illuminance meter and also monitor how long lights are on each day using a digital data logging system. Typically, prints of this nature can only be displayed for a limited length of time before they must go back into storage.

Any more questions for us? Let us know in the comments!

Posted by in Exhibitions, Japan Spring, Japanese Art | 3 Comments