Category Archives: A Closer Look

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.

Super Bowl Sunday

Bowl, possibly Han dynasty, bronze, F1946.18a-b

Bowl, possibly Han dynasty, bronze, F1946.18a-b

We’ve already picked a winner for Super Bowl Sunday. This wonderful bronze bowl from Inner Mongolia was created between 206 BCE and 220 CE. It is approximately seven inches in height and features a Mongolian horse lowering its head to drink from the bowl. Amazing and cute at the same time. Take that Puppy Bowl!

With thousands of bowls and other vessels to choose from in the Freer|Sackler collections, picking a favorite is never easy. To learn more about our collections, begin here.

#superbowlsunday

Almost Perfect: Maud Franklin and Whistler’s Wistful Impressions

 

Pink note: The Novelette

Pink note: The Novelette; James McNeill Whistler, early 1880s; watercolor on paper; F1902.158a-c

Maggie Abe, a student at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, spent the summer in the Freer|Sackler’s American art department, where she was the Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies intern and did research for an ongoing technical and art historical study of Whistler’s watercolors. She will graduate from Colby College in May 2014 with BAs in studio art and biology. The Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies is supported by the generosity of the Lunder Foundation and comprises the Freer|Sackler, the Colby College Museum of Art, the University of Glasgow, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Despite accusations of reducing them to arrangements, notes, and harmonies in his paintings, the women whom James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) kept for company were driving influences in his life and art. Although he vocally eschewed narrative in his works to focus on color, his feelings for his female subjects are couched in the subtleties of his compositions. Beneath carefully crafted color harmonies linger the unspoken wishes, unrealized fantasies, and quiet lamentations of a man probably not as aloof as he would have had the public believe.

Whistler’s complicated relationship with his long-term mistress and model Maud Franklin (1857–1941) provides the basis for several sentimental watercolors in the Freer collection. They were together for more than a decade, but because they never married, Maud was excluded from society. These watercolors are tender impressions of how Whistler saw Maud and wished she could be seen by his acquaintances: as his significant other deserving of their respect.

Pink note: The Novelette, Note in Opal: Breakfast, and Bravura in Brown, all painted from 1883–84, are united by a common formula. In all three, Maud is alone, but props such as empty chairs and rumpled bed sheets suggest her companion has only just stepped out. Reading or playing the piano, she is introspectively occupied: a demure woman in an attractive, but not ostentatious space. Unlike Whistler’s earlier oil Arrangement in White and Black, in which Maud’s youth and immodesty are hard to ignore, these watercolors do not put on a show, but rather leave a gentle impression. To Whistler, they were probably bittersweet, allowing him to pretend that his life with Maud was as pleasant and stable as the watercolors suggest. In reality, it was only on paper that she would be received by the homes of proper society.

Notwithstanding their volatile relationship, Whistler painted Maud with great affection in these watercolors. She is repeatedly depicted in rooms with art, the obsession of Whistler’s world. Paintings feature in the décor of all three rooms; indeed, one scholar suggests that the color of Maud’s blouse in Pink note: The Novelette is meant to connect her with the pink-tinged painting on the mantle. As Maud posed for more than 60 of Whistler’s paintings, drawings, and prints, it is hardly surprising that he would associate her with his art. By placing them together in these images, Whistler is acknowledging her influence in the development of his passion.

While such sentiment for a mistress seems to go against the grain of Whistler’s general reputation, it is important to note that these paintings were the products of his standing as an aging artist with an established name. Unlike the earlier days when he lived with his first mistress, Joanna Hiffernan, as a relatively unknown artist with something to prove, 50-year-old Whistler did not feel content living as a rogue on the fringes of society.

Whistler and Maud’s relationship began to suffer in 1879, when the artist went bankrupt and was forced to face reality. When he suddenly proposed to Beatrix Godwin (1857–1896) in 1888—a marriage that would provide him with stability, order, and favorable connections—it may have been that the opportune moment had finally presented itself after years of mounting discomfort.

The Sisters

The Sisters; James McNeill Whistler, 1894-95; lithograph on paper (transfer lithograph); F1903.82

In his marriage to Beatrix, Whistler seems to have attained the harmony that he had been courting in his watercolors. The wistful depictions of Maud in solitude are replaced by accounts of Beatrix and her sisters delighting in domestic bliss, though it would not last long. Hints of Beatrix’s terminal cancer surface in lithographs such as The Sisters—all would be well in this interior if it were not for Beatrix’s languishing posture. She appears weak beside her upright sister, and there is an air of concern polluting the peaceful scene.

The tables turned in Whistler’s art: in the watercolors, he altered Maud to satisfy his desire to change reality, but in later depictions of his ailing wife Beatrix, his art became an outlet for his grief. This time, it was an inescapable sickness that snapped Whistler from his reverie.

They Came. They Saw. They Took Their Time.

Taking part in Slow Art Day in the Freer Gallery.

Taking part in Slow Art Day in the Freer Gallery.

David Nash is program assistant in the Education Department at Freer|Sackler.

On Saturday, April 27, ten enthusiastic visitors joined Education Specialist Hillary Rothberg and me for Slow Art Day. Joining more than 250 other museums worldwide, we looked at four objects for fifteen minutes each and thought deeply about what the objects represented and how they were crafted. We examined a third-century frieze that depicts the life of the Buddha and sketched it in the gallery. Looking through handmade telescopes, we gazed at ancient scenes of romance and destruction on Japanese screens. We circled four Guardian Kings and looked closely at them from four directions, and we listened to a recording of a piano playing a soft nocturne as we looked upon night scenes from the nineteenth century.

After our time in the galleries, we made our way to Teaism and enjoyed a casual lunch, sharing our thoughts on art and what we’d seen over a slow and delightful meal. Everyone expressed what art means to them and how they were affected by the day’s activities. We took our time listening to each other and offering comments.

Finally, as lunch ended, twelve newly acquainted friends parted ways. Each went on his or her separate path, back to the normal pace of life. However, with memories of this day as a guide, perhaps each will continue the practice of looking at art slowly.

We hope you’ll join us for next year’s Slow Art Day on April 12, 2014!