Category Archives: A Closer Look

The Art of the Proposal

Mandarin Ducks under Blossoming Plum Tree; mid-18th century; Shen Quan, Qing dynasty; Hanging scroll mounted on panel; F1916.101

Dear Freer and Sackler Galleries:

Last month, I proposed to my girlfriend, Maria, in front of your Chinese scroll Mandarin Ducks under Blossoming Plum Tree. A year ago, Maria had traveled from Venezuela to visit her brother in DC, and made a special trip to the Freer to see the painting.

When she was younger, Maria had read a story of a princess who had lost the love of her life. Each day, the princess would walk to a pond and watch a pair of Mandarin ducks who would never leave each other’s side. One day, during the winter, she saw one of the ducks alone, and the duck cried as if it was a human.

Understanding the symbolism of the ducks that mate for life (friendship, loyalty, fertility, and wedded bliss), last summer Maria took a picture of her reflection in the glass that protects the painting. We met three months later. Over the winter, we went to the Freer and took a picture of our reflection in the glass. On Sunday, August 12, the day we got engaged, we took our second picture there together.

Thank you,
Max

Max, Maria, and the mandarins.

Nomads and Networks in the Field: Everyday Life in the Iron Age

Wild apricots, Tuzusai, Kazakhstan

Claudia Chang, professor of archaeology at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, is director of an international field research project on the archaeology of the Iron Age in the Republic of Kazakhstan. Throughout the exhibition Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan, on view in the Sackler until November 12, 2012, Claudia will share tales from her ongoing fieldwork with us on Bento.

Tuzusai, the little village in Kazakhstan where our team is researching Iron Age burial sites, flourished this summer. The fruit trees were full with ripening cherries, both sour early cherries and sweet late cherries. Wild and domesticated apricots, raspberries, black and red currants, and gooseberries were all ready to be picked; a high school student told us he planned to lay the apricots out to dry on the tin roof of his dacha. Our young neighbor Lyuba stopped by one day after work with two freshwater fish she had just caught in Lake Kapchigai. The wheat turned yellow and the soy plants reached almost a foot tall.

The bounty of today’s Kazakhstan is a reminder of how rich and fertile the Talgar region must have been more than two thousand years ago. Rob Spengler, a paleo-ethnobotanist, has taken soil samples from trash pits, pit house fill (remains after the pit house dwelling collapsed), and ancient hearths at the site of Tuzusai. In 2008, 2009, and 2010 he washed these soil samples using a method called flotation, where the light particles of ancient carbonized seeds are separated from the soil matrix. He has found millet, barley, wheat, and even grape pips. The idea that the Saka and Wusun people of the first millennia BCE grew cereal crops, as well as kept sheep, goats, cattle, and horses, has changed our perspective on early nomadic cultures. There is subtle evidence that the diets of ancient people of Kazakhstan were highly variable, including plants, fish, birds, and other wild animals, as well as the meat and milk of their livestock. In our area, the Ili River runs for hundreds of miles from western China and empties into Lake Balkhash. Fish and other river and marsh resources must have been important in ancient times.

During one of our digs, we found some broken pieces of spindle whorls, small ceramic disks with perforated centers. (When I couldn’t think of the word in Russian for “spindle whorl,” I made the motion of using a drop spindle for spinning wool into thread. Lyuba immediately understood.) Finds of such domestic objects remind us that nomads were members of household groups. How important were women to the basic economy? Did they spin the hair and wool fibers for the clothing worn by an entire household, as the ancient Mayan women apparently did? Who made the large storage vessels, sometimes dripping them with red slip and glaze?

Sometimes the elite burial sites, with their magnificent inventories of gold and silver ornamentation, can cloud our visions of the everyday lives of the commoners. But during the bountiful months of the summer, planting gardens, tending to livestock, fishing, gathering berries and wild fruit, putting up stores for the winter, and repairing their mud-brick houses must have been the average Iron Age person’s main concerns. Our work at Tuzusai, often hot, tiring, and dusty, reminds us again of a simple life.

Inspired by…Art

Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings from the St. Petersburg Album, F1942.15a

Art historian Anna Seastrand led us on a tour entitled Dressed to Impress: Fashioning Allegiance in the Mughal Court. These paintings clearly call for careful looking, so make sure you use the magnifying glasses when you visit. Seastrand helped us look deeply into these amazing works of art and decode the elaborate luxury items worn by the Mughal emperors. Is that just a robe or is it a not-so-subtle symbol of power?

In the above painting, Jahangir wears a pearl earring. We learned from Seastrand that in 1614 the emperor was gravely ill, and wrote that if he recovered he would pledge his allegiance to the Sufi Shaikh: “I would pierce my ear and become his ear-pierced devotee.”

You can see the white pearl in Jahangir’s ear. What’s also interesting is that once the emperor pierced his ear, so did his attendants and members of the court.

Clearly, this emperor knew how to dress to impress.

Inspired by…Cupcakes

Cupcakes with the flavors of India.

The Indian palette is filled with vibrant colors, but the Indian palate…ah, that’s a different story. Thanks to Fraiche Cupcakery, we can not only admire India, but we can get a literal taste as well. Find these yummy cupcakes made with rosewater, pistachio, and cardamom, in the Freer courtyard (and don’t miss the red velvet). According to Fraiche owner, Nina Deva, “We take flavors from different cultures and combine them. It takes a lot of experimenting.” Come and try the delicious results yourself!

Tom Vick in Korea: Now it Gets Interesting…

Seoul’s brand-new City Hall

This is the second post from Tom Vick, our curator of film, about his recent trip to Korea.

I’m back from Korea, after one more night in Seoul and four days at the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (PiFan). Seoul is a gargantuan, overwhelming metropolis in which every building seems to be vying for your attention. While trying to work in my hotel room I could be distracted by no less than three huge video screens beaming advertisements from nearby rooftops. Adding to the city’s already jumbled skyline are more and more avant-garde, deliberately incongruous buildings dubbed “aliens” in architectural circles. Across the street from my hotel sat one of the most notorious: Seoul’s brand-new City Hall, which looms like a giant wave about to crash over its soon-to-be dismantled, Japanese occupation-era predecessor, in a perhaps deliberate reference to the Korean Wave (hallyu) that has inundated Asia with Korean pop culture in recent years.

Puchon, a small satellite city near Seoul, is a different experience entirely: a jumble of lights and garish signs enticing the visitor to all sorts of temptations. Indeed, Puchon has a somewhat seedy reputation, making it the perfect setting for PiFan, a festival specializing in the extremes of genre cinema: comedy, action, horror, sex, and violence. The fact that festival guests (your correspondent included) are put up in the city’s notorious “love hotels” only adds to the atmosphere.

Bright Lights, Big City: Puchon at Night

In addition to the new releases, I was very intrigued by a special retrospective section devoted to Korean comedies of the 1970s. That decade is generally considered a low point in Korean cinema history, but PiFan’s program, along with Udine Far East Film’s 1970s series dubbed “The Darkest Decade,” indicate, if not a revival, then at least an attempt to understand the ways filmmakers reacted to the political censorship and public indifference of the time, ideas that were illuminated during an interesting panel discussion following one of the screenings.

A panel discusses Korean comedies from the 1970s at PiFan.

Having sampled these films at both Udine and PiFan, I can say that most of them may not be “good” by traditional standards, but watching a loud, silly comedy from the ’70s can be as much a cultural learning experience—in its own way—as gazing upon the Buddhas in the National Museum.

“Masters of Mercy: Buddha’s Amazing Disciples” Closes July 8

Masters of Mercy: Buddha’s Amazing Disciples is for Western audiences a first look at the last great Japanese Buddhist painting ensemble before the onset of modern times. The series was initiated by artist Kano Kazunobu in 1854, the same year that Commodore Matthew Perry “encouraged” Japan to open its doors after a period of two hundred years of isolation (and interestingly, the year museum founder Charles Lang Freer was born). These paintings, as described by curator James Ulak in the video above, alternate between the fantastic and the everyday. A remarkable blend of traditional Buddhist iconography laced with then-contemporary references to theater, myth, and religious cult practice, the paintings depict the miraculous interventions and superhuman activities of the five hundred disciples of the Buddha. Hurry, the exhibition closes this Sunday—”Buddha’s Amazing Disciples” are needed elsewhere!

Peacocks: Four Men in Three Acts

Portrait of Whistler by Thomas Robert Way, lithograph on paper, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1901.188

The history of the Peacock Room has all the makings of a quirky little opera, including larger-than-life cast members—artist, aesthete, and raconteur James McNeill Whistler; industrialists-turned-art-collectors Charles Lang Freer and Frederick Leyland; and architect Thomas Jeckyll. It’s a story of art, money, taste, and a world with one foot in the West and the other in the East. Our tale begins in London in 1876. Cue the music.

I. 1876
The home of Frederick Leyland
49 Prince’s Gate, London, England

For his new mansion in the fashionable neighborhood of Kensington, Leyland commissions artist James McNeill Whistler to decorate the stairway and asks architect Thomas Jeckyll to design the adjacent dining room, whose walls are covered in antique gilt-leather. Jeckyll obliges by creating a structure of latticed walnut shelving inspired by traditional European porcelain cabinets, thus giving Leyland the means to display his extensive collection of Chinese blue-and-white Kangxi porcelain.

When he has a question about what to paint the wooden shutters and doors, Jeckyll calls on Whistler for advice (did I mention Leyland was out of town?). Whistler takes matters into his own hands and begins to paint the dining room in much the same way he does the hall: using imitation gold leaf and a transparent green glaze to emulate the shimmering effects of Japanese lacquer. Shortly after, Jeckyll becomes ill and has to remove himself from the project. (He eventually goes mad and dies in an insane asylum.)

From there, Whistler, whose celebrated painting Princess from the Land of Porcelain is the central focus of the dining room, starts to make other changes. Inspired by the Princess, he brings a Japanese sensibility to the room. We’re in the heart of Victorian England, but in Whistler’s world, we’re entering a doorway to Asia. He even ignites the craze for collecting blue-and-white porcelain that the London tabloids of the day nickname “Chinamania.”

When Leyland returns home and discovers the extensive renovations he did not approve, he refuses to pay Whistler in full for “the gorgeous surprise.” In turn, Whistler immortalizes their feud by painting a pair of fighting peacocks on the wall opposite the Princess. He calls it “Art and Money, or the Story of the Room.”

The New York Herald announces the sale of the Peacock Room, Freer|Sackler Archives.

II. 1904
The home of Charles Lang Freer
33 Ferry Avenue, Detroit, Michigan

Two years after his death in 1892, Leyland’s home is sold to Blanche Watney, who is not enamored of the Peacock Room. (Leyland’s large collection of blue-and-white porcelain doesn’t convey in the sale.) She decides to sell it and has it dismantled in 1904. It is moved to the offices of Obach and Company, a London art dealer.

Somewhat ambivalent about the Peacock Room as a work of art, Charles Lang Freer purchases it out of a sense of duty to his old friend Whistler (who had died the previous year) and has an extension built on his Detroit house to accommodate it. In time, Freer makes it his own: the room becomes a staging area where he refines his concept of aesthetic correspondences between American and Asian art. In Michigan he takes pleasure in placing objects from different countries side-by-side and being astonished by the “conversation” that takes place between the pieces. He prefers ceramics with textured surfaces and subtle green and gray glazes, as opposed to the slick blue-and-whites favored by Leyland, and fills the shelves of the Peacock Room with ceramics acquired from China, Japan, Korea, Iran, and Syria.

The Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery of Art during an extensive renovation in 1947.

III. 1923–present
Freer Gallery of Art Washington, DC

Charles Lang Freer bequeaths the Peacock Room and his extensive collection of American and Asian art to the Smithsonian. The room is dismantled in 1919 and sent to the nation’s capital, where it is permanently installed in the Freer Gallery of Art. Peacocks are even kept in the museum’s courtyard, a nod to the famous dining room that had been transformed into a timeless work of art.

Over the years the Peacock Room has become the most visited gallery in the museum. People come to see the Princess and the fighting peacocks on the wall opposite her.

Two years ago, technicians from Google photographed the Princess in super-high definition as part of a worldwide museum documentation project. Last year, the Chinese blue-and-white ceramics were temporarily removed, and the ceramics that Freer held in highest esteem were installed in the Peacock Room under the exhibition title The Peacock Room Comes to America. The Princess and the fighting peacocks remain, but the room once again appears the way Charles Lang Freer envisioned it at the turn of the last century, thus adding a new chapter to “the story of the room.”

Curtain.

You can also listen to an audio recording of Four Men and Three Acts, as well as other stories inspired by the Peacock Room, and view a panorama of this famous work. Bring the room home with you by picking up our gorgeous new book, available exclusively in the Sackler shop.

Japan: the Apple of Steve Jobs’ Eye?

Woman Combing Her Hair, 1920, Hashiguchi Goyo, woodblock print, ink and color on paper, Robert O. Muller Collection, S2003.8.121

Carly Pippin is a member of the Office of Development at Freer|Sackler, and the founder of the Silk Road Society for young professionals.

Steve Jobs, architect of the Apple Inc. empire, was a Japanophile. This came as a surprise to me (despite the fact that I own a few slickly designed, white-on-white Apple products). My awareness of Jobs’ Japanese fascination began when I walked through The Patents and Trademarks of Steve Jobs: Art and Technology that Changed the World—a new exhibition in the Smithsonian’s Ripley Center on view through July 8, 2012. The exhibition includes a photo of a young Jobs leaning over an early model of the Macintosh desktop computer. The computer monitor depicts a famous Japanese woodblock print, Hashiguchi Goyo’s Woman Combing Her Hair. Two of these prints reside in the Freer|Sackler collection.

Steve Jobs with an early Apple computer displaying the Goyo print

Jobs, like hundreds of thousands of visitors to Freer|Sackler each year, was inspired by the Japanese zen aesthetic of simplicity. An avid follower of Zen Buddhism, he led Apple in adopting the mantra “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” The minimalist design of his products is only superseded by the bare-bones functionality of his wardrobe. His signature black turtleneck and jeans uniform, crafted by Japanese designer Issey Miyake, was supposedly born out of a trip to the Sony factory in Japan, where he witnessed hundreds of factory workers dressed in unison.

In the world of technology, it can be easy to forget the traditional stylistic influences of silk and ink, paintbrush and gold-foil that have inspired artmakers for centuries. Jobs, known for countless inventions and innovations, should also be celebrated for his traditionalism—in that simplicity never goes out of style.

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

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.