Category Archives: A Closer Look

Pic of the Week: Docents at Work, Kids at Play

FS Docent tour with third graders from Inspired Teaching

FS Docent tour with third graders from Inspired Teaching

 

We recently hosted third graders from DC school Inspired Learning. Led by our wonderful Docents, these young ones toured the Sackler. We can’t begin to express how thankful we are for our docents. If you’re interested in joining the Docent team, fill out the form here.

Chinese New Year: Painted Clay Sculptures Celebrate Beijing Opera Characters

 

Meet Hongkui Lin, a craftsman of painted clay opera masks. On Sunday, February 5, watch him demonstrate his more than one-hundred-year-old craft at our third annual Chinese New Year Celebration. Lin is visiting from Beijing, and his demonstration will be a rare opportunity for Americans to experience this popular Chinese craft.

As this video shows, the process for making the clay masks is more complex than it might seem at first glance. Like a complicated recipe, one mask takes a minimum of sixteen steps, from carving models on paper to applying base paint and adding enamel.

Lin selects colors to reflect aspects of each character’s identity and personality. Red often represents loyalty, for instance, while black symbolizes integrity. Colors also may signify age. Pink is reserved for elders, and if your character is immortal, it most likely will bear silver or gold.

After watching Lin’s demonstration, you may be inspired to watch thirty-minute opera performances by students from the Beijing Opera Art’s College at 12:30 and 2:30 pm. Or, you may be tempted to make your own opera mask in the museum’s ImaginAsia classroom.

Seating will be first come, first served, and all activities are free and open to the public. For more information (and to invite your friends), check out the event listing on Facebook.

A Journey into Whistler’s Drawings

Entré sur la Grande Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

Entré sur la Grande Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

More than 150 years ago, a twenty-four-year-old James McNeill Whistler set off on a summertime journey. He and his friend Ernest Delannoy—both young, aspiring artists—embarked on a road trip through the French and German countryside. Their goal was to visit Amsterdam and pay homage to the revered Dutch painter and etcher Rembrandt van Rijn.

Whistler and Delannoy never made it to Amsterdam; they ran out of money and were forced to return to Paris. But the sojourn gave Whistler an opportunity to observe new scenery and subjects and to develop his artistic style. Throughout the trip, the artist kept a notebook, a visual diary of sorts, which he filled with pencil sketches detailing scenes, people, and places along the way. He produced scores of drawings, some of which he later developed as etchings for his so-called French Set.

This summer, I too traveled in pursuit of art. My journey took me from Colby College in Maine to Washington, DC, for an internship at the Freer|Sackler. When I arrived in June, just a few weeks after graduating with a degree in art history, I began surveying the collection of Whistler’s drawings in media other than watercolor and pastel. The majority of the drawings I looked at were from Whistler’s 1858 trip.

I had extensive background knowledge from my previous experience studying Whistler’s work at the Colby College Museum of Art, a fellow member of the Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies. This project, however, gave me the new opportunity of handling the works. Emily Jacobson, the museum’s paper conservator, showed me how to handle the art. She then let me work on my own with a headband magnifier and flashlight to conduct what was essentially a forensic examination of each sheet.

Examining Whistler's drawings

Examining Whistler’s drawings

We were trying to determine if Whistler favored particular types of paper for a given medium or if he mixed it up, using, for instance, watercolor blocks for pencil drawings. As I examined each drawing, I paid particular attention to the paper, noting its texture and whether it was “hot press” (run through hot rollers to make it super smooth), “cold press” (run through cold rollers, leaving little bumps and grooves); or “rough” (air-dried, leaving lots of texture). I checked for watermarks; measured the paper’s height, width, and thickness; and inspected the edges for remains of adhesive or fabric. Along the way, I noticed distinct similarities among the sketches, such as the thin, off-white woven paper, the graphite markings on the edges, and the occasional appearance of sewing holes—evidence that papers were ripped or cut out of a sketchbook.

One sketch in particular stood out to me: Promenade à Baden, which depicts a group of fashionable people standing near a portico facing a hill. The drawing is on two pieces of paper glued together side by side. The edges are uneven, and the two pieces do not properly align, making the bottom wider than the top. A vertical fold down the middle of the drawing contains three sewing holes, and like the other sketches from Whistler’s 1858 trip, Promenade à Baden has graphite markings on the edges.

Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

Even though Whistler probably never meant it to be a finished work, Promenade à Baden fascinated me because it reveals some of the artist’s process. Not only does this sketch provide us with a snapshot of Whistler’s journey, but it also demonstrates how he experimented with cropping and cutting his drawings. The graphite along the edges was probably how he marked where the paper should be trimmed. Additional cut marks near the edges suggest that he considered cropping the drawing even more before ultimately deciding against it. One thin sheet of paper tells us a story of a young, broke artist who, to further his artistic development, drew on anything he could and made the most of each sheet of paper.

The Saddest Toad

Large Toad; artist: Obaku Tokuan (act. 1910–35); calligrapher: Ōbaku Chokuō 黄檗直翁 (1867–1937); Japan, Taisho era, 1919; hanging scroll, ink and color on paper; Purchase from the Estate of Robert O. Muller with funds from the Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries and the Harold P. Stern Memorial Fund, F2004.29

Large Toad; artist: Obaku Tokuan (act. 1910–35); calligrapher: Ōbaku Chokuō 黄檗直翁 (1867–1937); Japan, Taisho era, 1919; hanging scroll, ink and color on paper; Purchase from the Estate of Robert O. Muller with funds from the Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries and the Harold P. Stern Memorial Fund, F2004.29

In case you missed it, the Large Toad took the #MarchSadness crown. One of his many fans asked about the writing behind him. Thanks to our talented fellow Alessandro Bianchi, we now have a translation:

奇哉膨月亨

How uncanny! [A toad with such a] large belly

肚裏乾坤

The universe [resides] in its stomach;

一息之際

With every single breath [it takes]

萬象吐呑

All living beings respire.

The Freer is Closed, But the Shows Go On

The Freer Gallery of Art is closed through 2017—but the Sackler remains open and as dynamic as ever.

The Freer Gallery of Art is closed through 2017—but the Sackler remains open and as dynamic as ever.

It’s official: The Freer Gallery of Art has closed for renovation, a project that will extend into 2017. As our director, Julian Raby, told WAMU last week, the “basic bones” of our stunning Italian Renaissance-style building will remain the same, as will the collections. But, “there will be different ideas and different types of ideas in different galleries,” Raby reported, as well as more space, more narratives, and more interaction with you, our audience.

A few of you have weighed in on Facebook about what you’d like to see for the Freer’s future. We encourage you to continue sharing your thoughts there or in the comments below.

In the meantime, the Sackler remains open with a full lineup of exhibitions and events, both in the museum and around town. Our twentieth annual Iranian Film Festival, for example, is being copresented and screened at the National Gallery of Art and AFI Silver Theatre. Head to the Library of Congress for our offsite presentation of the Musicians from Marlboro, and use our Haupt Garden entrance to enjoy upcoming performances here at home.

We’ll keep you updated as the year goes on. Questions? Fire away, and we’ll do our best to answer.

A Year of Freer|Sackler

What captured you at the Freer|Sackler this year? It’s been a whirlwind 365 days packed with exhibitions and events—from Bada Shanren to Tawaraya Sōtatsu, film festivals to stirring musical performances, and the original Peacock Room to Peacock Room REMIX to Asia After Dark: PEACOCKalypse.

As we prepare for the future, take a look back at a few highlights. Thank you for a fantastic 2015, and see you next year!

Fish-Teeth and Friendship

Archer’s Ring; India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1610–20; walrus ivory; courtesy Benjamin Zucker; photo by Neil Greentree

Archer’s Ring; India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1610–20; walrus ivory; courtesy Benjamin Zucker; photo by Neil Greentree

A leading gem connoisseur and collector from a long history of jewelers, Benjamin Zucker joins us Sunday to recall his worldwide travels to acquire precious stones. Hear about the Taj Mahal emerald that inspired his novel Green and the fourth-century Roman diamond in Elihu Yale: Merchant, Collector, and Patron.

And then there’s the walrus ivory archer’s ring, on view December 11–18. It was made four hundred years ago, when Jahangir ruled India’s vast and wealthy Mughal empire. He was introduced to walrus ivory, called “fish-teeth” in Persian, by his ally Shah Abbas, ruler of Persia (present-day Iran). Delighted by the material, he sent agents to Persia to acquire more “fish-teeth … from wherever and whomever at any price.”

Detail, Emperor Jahangir Embracing Shah Abbas of Persia; folio from the St. Petersburg Album; signed by Abu’l Hasan (act. 1600–30); India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1618; opaque watercolor, ink, silver, and gold on paper Freer Gallery of Art, Purchase, F1945.9

Detail, Emperor Jahangir Embracing Shah Abbas of Persia; folio from the St. Petersburg Album; signed by Abu’l Hasan (act. 1600–30); India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1618; opaque watercolor, ink, silver, and gold on paper; Freer Gallery of Art, Purchase, F1945.9

Look closely at this painting, a vision from one of Jahangir’s dreams (click through to zoom in). He and Shah Abbas both wear rings designed to protect their thumbs during archery. (Jahangir’s ring also symbolizes friendship and brotherly affection.) The shah’s translucent ring is probably made of white jade; Jahangir’s is probably walrus ivory. Its brownish color makes it unlike any other archer’s ring we know today. We’re not sure whether the ring on display was made for Jahangir—but scientific tests have determined that it, too, was carved from walrus tusk.

See the ring and painting while they’re on view through December 18, and don’t miss Zucker’s talk on Sunday at 2 pm.

 

A Note on Walrus Ivory
Emperor Jahangir particularly desired “striated and mottled fish-teeth” from Siberia, which he described as beautiful. In the 1600s, people thought walrus tusks would reduce swelling and serve as an antidote to poison. Today, we focus on the long-term survival of the marine mammal. The US Fish and Wildlife Service may put the Pacific walrus on the endangered species list, and several states are considering banning the trade of walrus ivory.

Tibetan Healing Mandala

Tibetan monks working carefully to create the sand mandala in 2012.

Tibetan monks working carefully to create the sand mandala in 2002.

In January 2002, four months after the tragedies of September 11, 2001, twenty Buddhist monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery in Tibet came to the Sackler to construct a healing sand mandala (sacred painting). Many of us working at the museums at the time scrambled to make sure we could record the activities of the monks during their three weeks here. In addition to a time-lapse video recording the creation of the sand mandala, we placed notebooks in the gallery so visitors could share their thoughts. Those who wished to draw added sketches, most often of the monks at work. These words and pictures became some of my favorite museum memories. One person wrote:

In four months I’ve come to different levels of understanding, grief, and horror. I’ve wept and screamed. I’ve written and wondered. Simply standing here today brings me to another level. One day I’ll have a word for it. For now, I thank you.

When the mandala was completed, it was subsequently destroyed. The act of destroying a mandala symbolizes the impermanence of existence. At a closing ceremony, the monks distributed some of the sand to visitors in small plastic bags. The rest they poured into the Potomac River, sending the mandala’s healing energy out into the world.

During the closing ceremony, a monk empties sand into the Potomac River.

During the closing ceremony, a monk empties sand into the Potomac River.

So many years later, I still remember the monks, the mandala, and the crowds looking on patiently. I recall the stories and pictures people left behind in our notebooks. Last year, the post we put together on the Tibetan sand mandala became the most shared of any the Freer|Sackler has done on Tumblr. A dozen years after its creation, the mandala’s message was distributed once again.

Women in the Persian Book of Kings

Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Firdawsi (d. 1020); recto: Zal climbs to reach Rudaba; verso: text: Zal consults with the priests about Rudaba; Iran, Timurid period, mid-15th century; ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper; Purchase—Smithsonian Unrestricted Trust Funds, Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program, and Dr. Arthur M. Sackler

Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Firdawsi (d. 1020); recto: Zal climbs to reach Rudaba; verso: text: Zal consults with the priests about Rudaba; Iran, Timurid period, mid-15th century; ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper; Purchase—Smithsonian Unrestricted Trust Funds, Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program, and Dr. Arthur M. Sackler

This is the first in an occasional series looking at the role of women in Persian poetry, storytelling, and painting.

With Women’s History Month recently behind us, I began to think about the significance of women in one of the most important works in Persian literature: Firdawsi’s epic of the Persian kings, the Shahnama. Did women have a prominent place in these tales, and how were they portrayed? Are queens represented alongside the kings?

In the first half of the Shahnama—which focuses on Iran’s mythical past, particularly Persian legends—many women play central roles as the mothers of kings and warriors, the heroes in the epic poem. Dr. Dick Davis writes that surprisingly there are “over fifty women … named in the poem … and a number of them play a significant and sometimes primary role in the narrative.” One such woman is Rudaba, the princess of Kabul, who gives birth to one of the greatest Shahnama heroes, Rostam. She is presented as a free agent and engineers her own life by defying male authority, even that of her father. In the painting above, Rudaba lets down her long hair so that Zal, her future lover and husband, can scale the building and join her on the roof. (He chooses, however, to use a lasso to climb the wall.)

Rudaba is independent and takes matters into her own hands, and by no means is she an exception. A whole host of women in the Shahnama actively pursue their desires and take initiative, and they are mostly presented in a positive light for doing so. Moreover, there is hardly any immediate social backlash. Instead, a woman making choices based on desire is glamorized and presented as entirely understandable—something almost unheard of in traditional society.

The women in the Shahnama are not just celebrated for their role as mothers. Like Rudaba, they are known for their beauty, intelligence, independence, and fierceness. The epic poem features women as diplomatic envoys and queens. This gives them a degree of political power and, as Davis has written, has allowed the women “to confront the world on their own terms.”

Despite the action-packed and colorful representations of these works, the strong women in the Shahnama sometimes take a backseat to their male contemporaries. Letting the stories of kings and heroes overshadow those of powerful queens and wise women risks diminishing the complexity of these works, which, after all, is what makes them so exquisite.

Source: Davis, D., “Women in Shahnameh” in Women and Medieval Epic: Gender, Genre and the Limits of Epic Masculinity, edited by Sara S. Poor and Jane K. Schulman (Palgrave MacMillan: 2007), 67-90.

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.