Monthly Archives: September 2013

X-Ray Art: The Conservator Will See You Now

An x-ray of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin) in the guise of a Buddha reveals three wood support screws; China; F1957.25

An x-ray of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin) in the guise of a Buddha reveals three wood support screws. F1957.25

Eve Rosekind, an art history major at Johns Hopkins University, was a summer intern in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research at Freer|Sackler.

For the past sixty-two years, the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research has used x-radiography in its study and treatment of Freer|Sackler objects. The department houses approximately 4,170 x-rays of paintings, sculptures, ceramics, and prints that have been examined by the museums’ conservators and curators.

To preserve these images, the Smithsonian’s Office of the Chief Information Officer funded a project to digitize all of the department’s x-ray films. Digitization also makes the images more accessible and easier to use in studying the collection. My summer efforts focused on cataloguing and organizing the x-ray films and their corresponding digital images.

In x-radiography, film is placed beneath a work of art, which is exposed to x-rays in order to create an image on the film. A visual record of the condition of the piece at the time it was taken, an x-ray can reveal how an object was constructed, as well as any subsequent treatments or changes.

X-ray: Dagger-axe, China, bronze with iron ore, F1934.11

An x-ray of a dagger-axe from China showing signs of “channeling.” F1934.11

A number of our x-rays are on a cellulose acetate film-base and are now deteriorating. The deterioration is characterized by three main symptoms:

1. The film becomes brittle and small parts begin to break off.
2. Known as “channeling,” the different layers of the x-ray shrink at different rates, causing air pockets in the film. In the image above, the lines on the film are examples of channels on the surface of the x-ray.
3. The “vinegar syndrome.” The deterioration of acetate film is due to chemical decomposition that produces acids—in this case, acetic acid—that escape from the film in the form of a gas, causing a vinegar-like smell.

One example of how an x-ray can show the construction of an object is the image of a Chinese ivory standing Buddha (pictured at top and digitized so that it could be included in this blog post!). The x-ray is a close-up of the Buddha’s head and upper torso. In the middle of the head, the large wooden screw that attaches the head to the rest of the body can be seen along with two other wooden screws in the shoulder. These wooden screws are part of the original construction of the ivory statue and are used to hold the multiple pieces together.

X-ray of  Long Lagoon by James McNeill Whistler, F1887.10

The x-ray of “Long Lagoon” by James McNeill Whistler reveals the watermark. F1887.10

The x-ray pictured above is of a Whistler etching on paper. In this image, the paper’s watermark is visible. A watermark is made by impressing a thin wire design into the paper when it is being constructed. The wire thins the paper, and when light passes through the design is visible. This specific mark, containing a fleur-de-lis beneath a crown, is known as the Strasburg Lily, which was used on paper throughout Europe from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. The letters LVG, seen below the lily, most likely refer to Lubbertus van Gerrevinck, a paper manufacturer in Holland and possibly in England. Revealing the watermark can help determine who made the paper, as well as when and where it was made.

We can learn a lot from a work of art, and some of what we learn lies beneath the surface. Each x-ray image is unique and shows the object in a new light. Now that the films are digitized, it will be easier to share these images with researchers and the public. This summer, my project gave me an incredible perspective on an aspect of the museums’ collections rarely accessible to others.

Readers and Movie Lovers: You Have Homework

Scene from Perfect Number.

Scene from “Perfect Number,” screening October 13 at the Freer

Tom Vick is curator of film at Freer|Sackler.

Our current film series Pages of Beauty and Madness: Japanese Writers Onscreen not only includes classics from such famous Japanese filmmakers as Hiroshi Teshigahara, Mikio Naruse, and Kon Ichikawa. We also go beyond Japan’s borders to bring you international film versions of Japanese literature. For example, Gibier d’Elevage (October 11) sets Kenzaburo Oe’s World War II-era novella The Catch in Vietnam War-era Cambodia. The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea (September 27), a notoriously racy ’70s cult film, stars Kris Kristofferson in its adaptation of a seriously disturbing Yukio Mishima novel.

But this series has more than just movies to offer. On September 20, Chicago-based jazz musician Tatsu Aoki brings his MIYUMI Quartet to provide live musical accompaniment for the avant-garde silent film A Page of Madness (cowritten by famed novelist Yasunori Kawabata). Yale professor Aaron Gerow, author of A Page of Madness: Cinema and Modernity in 1920s Japan, also will be on hand to introduce the film and sign copies of his book.

So what’s your homework assignment? On September 29 and October 13 and 20, the film screenings will be followed by book club gatherings, giving you the chance to discuss the movies and the works that inspired them. The September 29 book club will look at the Ryunosuke Akutagawa tales that inspired both Rashomon and that day’s film, The Outrage (starring F|S September calendar coverboy William Shatner). On October 13 we’ll discuss Keigo Higashino’s eerie murder mystery The Devotion of Suspect X and its Korean film version, Perfect Number, and on October 20 we explore the world of manga and anime after the screening of 5 Centimeters per Second, which Makoto Shinkai adapted from his own manga comic book.

Visit the special Pages of Beauty and Madness display in the Sackler shop to pick up these books, and get reading!

September 11, 1893

Swami Vivekananda on the platform at the Parliament of Religions, September 1893.

Swami Vivekananda on the platform at the Parliament of World Religions, September 1893.

September 11 is a day we’ve come to associate with intolerance, but 120 years ago that was not the case. In September 1893, Swami Vivekananda traveled from India to the United States to address the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. “Sisters and brothers of America…” the swami said, and was met with thunderous applause from the nearly seven thousand people in attendance. Only thirty years old, he wowed the audience, conveying a message of hope and peace. Wearing his orange robes, he spoke as a Hindu monk with a universal message: “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.” Reporting on the event, the New York Herald wrote: “Vivekananda is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions. After hearing him we feel how foolish it is to send missionaries to this learned nation.”

Swami Vivekananda was also the author of Raja Yoga, a groundbreaking treatise that became a bestseller in India and around the world. In the book, Vivekananda writes that “Raga Yoga. . .never asks the question of what our religion is. We are human beings, that is sufficient” (Raja Yoga, 1896). His teachings helped shape modern discourses on yoga, which we will explore in greater depth when Yoga: The Art of Transformation opens on October 19.

Listen to Swami Vivekananda’s speech from September 11, 1893.

Learn more about Swami Vivekananda and his connection to Charles Lang Freer.

The Clay’s the Thing: Claymation at ImaginAsia

Making claymation at ImaginAsia

Producing a claymation short at ImaginAsia

Siobhan Donnelly, a summer intern in the department of public affairs and marketing, is currently a student at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.

In August a group of students from the ages of nine to eighteen had the opportunity to study the art of claymation at ImaginAsia’s Young Artists Residency. The program combined discovery in the galleries with a chance for students to create their own claymation videos, with help from Erik Swanson, an instructor from the Corcoran School of Art and Design. As ImaginAsia coordinator Stephen Eckerd explained, the residency aims to give students the “technical skills to actualize their vision, because they always have a vision.” The program teaches them “techniques that have been handed down through the centuries” as they learn about the rich historical tradition of making art move.

First, the students explored the Sackler galleries to find works of art that piqued their interest. After some research on their chosen pieces, they then created a storyboard detailing what would happen if their selected works suddenly sprang into action. They imagined their characters had lived for centuries before being confined to the museum. What would happen if these figures were suddenly brought back to life? Finally, students built their own clay figures and sets, and worked with Erik to animate the characters.

Claymation close-up: a detail from one student's project.

Claymation close-up: a detail of one student’s project.

I had a chance to walk around on the final day of the residency and speak to a few students as they completed their projects. Two students were there for their fourth year in a row! Madeleine, 16, and Ray, 12, bounced ideas back and forth to achieve their final product. Ray said his favorite part of the process was “fleshing out the characters, especially when you don’t know what they are going to look like.” They both agreed that they can see a lot of improvement in their work each year.

At the opposite end of the spectrum was Arjit, 11, a newcomer to the claymation residency. He said that the idea of learning to make his own video was what first drew him to the program. He and his friends were unanimous in wanting to come back next year! Each student will be invited to a “grand premiere” at the Sackler, where they will see a compilation of the videos made in their class—and take home a copy for themselves!