Category Archives: Art Elsewhere

Indonesia Intrepid

Emma at Ratu Boko (photo by Jinah Kim)

Emma Natalya Stein, Freer|Sackler curatorial fellow for Southeast Asian art, shares scenes from her recent journey to Indonesia.

August 4, 2017

It’s 6 pm Friday evening, and the mosques compete for airtime on my balcony at Chakra Homestay. I am in the city of Solo (Surakarta), one of Java’s historical courtly centers, where I arrived this afternoon. For the past week I have been in Central Java’s other epicenter of art and culture, Yogyakarta, for an exciting workshop on Southeast Asian art history, co-organized by SOAS London and Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta. The program brought together scholars from Southeast Asia, Europe, and the United States to explore topics relating to the interconnected Hindu-Buddhist world. A particular focus was esoteric religious practice (tantra) in Indonesia and its appearance in art.

Candi Siwa at Prambanan, relief carving with female practitioner performing an esoteric dance

Candi Siwa at Prambanan, relief carving with female practitioner performing an esoteric dance

After several days of seminars, we set out for a field trip to temples—always the greatest part, especially for an art-loving group! Each of the sites we visited dates to the Central Javanese period (circa eighth–tenth century).

First on our list was the majestic Buddhist monument of Borobudur, famous for its five terraces brilliantly carved with narrative reliefs and its hundreds of seated Buddhas.

The terraced monument of Borobudur

The terraced monument of Borobudur

Borobudur, relief showing the enlightenment of the Buddha

Borobudur, relief showing the enlightenment of the Buddha

On day two we ascended the Dieng Plateau, a four-hour drive north of Yogyakarta, where Hindu temples that closely—but not entirely—resemble Indian temples overlook the surrounding lowlands, beside an emerald green lake.

Candi Arjuna, Dieng Plateau, temple in a South Indian architectural mode

Candi Arjuna, Dieng Plateau, temple in a South Indian architectural mode

Dieng Plateau, sulfuric lake with Gunung (volcano) Sindoro in the distance

Dieng Plateau, sulfuric lake with Gunung (volcano) Sindoro in the distance

The third day was devoted to the palatial Ratu Boko monastery and the vast complex of temples at Prambanan.

The temple-complex of Loro Jonggarang at Prambanan

The temple-complex of Loro Jonggarang at Prambanan

We then returned to Yogyakarta for a final day of intensive seminars. After the workshop, I’ll head off for a week of additional temple visits farther east in central Java and in Bali. It begins tomorrow at 6 am with a visit to a cluster of esoteric temples on the tea-covered slopes of Gunung (volcano) Lawu.

Candi Cetho on Gunung Lawu

Candi Cetho on Gunung Lawu


August 13, 2017

Sacred sites in Indonesia are intimately connected with the natural environment. They are carved into rocks, situated on the banks of rushing rivers, and carefully positioned with respect to the archipelago’s sometimes-violent volcanoes. In Bali, where Hindu tradition continues to be vibrant, this connection is especially evident.

Gunung Kawi

Gunung Kawi

Gunung Batur from Pura Pancer Jagat in Trunyan village

Gunung Batur from Pura Pancer Jagat in Trunyan village

Although the island’s sacred landscape is densely packed with sites both old and new, the greatest concentration is situated centrally, within a fertile tract of land between two rivers. Basing myself in Ubud, I was able to make day trips to many places of art historical and archaeological interest.

Map of central Bali, A.J. Bernet Kempers, Monumental Bali: Introduction to Balinese Archaeology & Guide to the Monuments (Berkeley: Periplus, 1991), 116.

Map of central Bali, A.J. Bernet Kempers, Monumental Bali: Introduction to Balinese Archaeology & Guide to the Monuments (Berkeley: Periplus, 1991), 116.

I began my days in the damp cool of early morning and traveled on the back of a local driver’s motorbike. In addition to the driver’s familiarity with the roads, I had as my primary resource A.J. Bernet Kempers’ volume Monumental Bali. It remains the essential guide to the area, despite the fact that the data was collected in the 1980s. Fortunately, since its publication, some of the sites labeled “difficult access” have become more easily accessible, and further excavation work has revealed additional important destinations.

Candi Kalebutan

Candi Kalebutan

Each place I visited presented a unique picture of the interconnectedness of Bali’s sacred art and its natural landscape. However, what I found most compelling was when I could see the connection between sites. One way to do so was by walking from one to another—but such opportunities are increasingly rare. As sacred places are converted into tourist attractions, the links between them become obscured or, worse, obliterated. The creation of a monument carves out a discrete space and isolates it from the surrounding landscape. This can entail the destruction of related sites through the paving of parking lots and stairways and the building of ticket offices, restrooms, and other visitor facilities.

Cave façade and bathing place at Goa Gajah

Cave façade and bathing place at Goa Gajah

Goa Gajah cave interior

Goa Gajah cave interior

I did remember from a brief visit to Bali ten years ago that it had been possible to walk through the jungle between two of central Bali’s better-known attractions—the cave temple of Goa Gajah and the monumental relief carving at Yeh Pulu. Most guidebooks don’t mention the link, but some inquiries at Goa Gajah soon led me to the trailhead. Walking back behind the main archaeological area, I could see some fragments of a large relief that had been carved into the rock face and hear the sounds of the jungle beginning to take over.

Fragment of relief carving at entrance to jungle path behind Goa Gajah

Fragment of relief carving at entrance to jungle path behind Goa Gajah

The narrow footpath is lined on both sides by purple flowers and a dense tangle of dripping vines. Sounds of the rushing river rise from the gorge below. At several places, the path branches off and plunges down to the water. Here, the jungle’s cacophony emerges.

Farther along the jungle path from Goa Gajah to Yeh Pulu

Farther along the jungle path from Goa Gajah to Yeh Pulu

At one place, a recently constructed bamboo bridge leads to a series of caves. Thick tree roots growing through the rocks suggest a relatively ancient date of excavation.

Caves along jungle path from Goa Gajah to Yeh Pulu

Caves along jungle path from Goa Gajah to Yeh Pulu

After about a half a mile, the path halts at a small temple with a bathing place below.

Shrine and bathing place near Yeh Pulu

It then wends out of the jungle and into paddy fields to emerge at Yeh Pulu, where a monumental relief carving depicts stories associated with the Hindu deity Krishna amid scenes of pastoral life in Bali.

Yeh Pulu

Yeh Pulu

Another place where I was clearly able to see the connection between sites was when—to my surprise—a steep ascent through terraced rice fields led me from Tirta Empul, one of Bali’s holiest bathing places, up to Pura Pegulingan, the next temple I’d hoped to visit that day! Pura Pegulingan presents an excellent picture of Bali’s unique fusion of Buddhism and Hinduism. Remains of sculptures related to the deity Shiva can be found throughout the temple courtyard, which is centered on a towering stupa, a Buddhist reliquary mound.

Stupa at Pura Pegulingan

Stupa at Pura Pegulingan

Off the beaten pathways was where I most often discovered walkable connections among sites. I found that following the rivers revealed a network of related places, often composed of a larger, perhaps primary place with a proliferation of smaller shrines, caves, and bathing places around it. While the larger monuments suggest elite patronage, the constellation of minor sites likely functioned as hermitages and places of worship for ascetics and local communities—much, in fact, as some still do today.

Ceremonial offerings in front of sculptures of deities at Candi Puser Ing Jagat in Pejeng village

Ceremonial offerings in front of sculptures of deities at Candi Puser Ing Jagat in Pejeng village

Indonesia is a fantastic place to visit. Whether or not you’ve had the chance to go, you’ll be able to experience examples of its artwork firsthand in Washington, DC. Come see the new Southeast Asia galleries when the Freer|Sackler reopens this October!


All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Reviving “The Death of the Historical Buddha”


Standing sixteen feet tall, The Death of the Historical Buddha by Japanese artist Hanabusa Itchō is among the most important Buddhist paintings of its time. Two of our conservators recently traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to help restore this massive hanging scroll, which hasn’t been treated and remounted since the 1850s. With the help of a GoPro camera, we’re able to give a quick look at their many hours of work. Below, supervisory conservator Andrew Hare talks about the project and the conservation processes seen in these time lapses.

Fellow conservator Jiro Ueda and I headed up to Boston in August to join the MFA’s conservation project. Over the past month, we have helped restore and remount a large Buddhist painting in one of their galleries, with public access available throughout the process.

As seen in the video above, we applied a temporary facing to the painting (front and back) using water and several layers of synthetic and Chinese papers. This process protects the painting’s surface while gently drawing away staining and soiling. We then placed the painting between layers of felt to dry.



Next, we covered the work table with several layers of protective paper. We then laid the painting on the work surface and humidified it before removing the temporary facing from the front. After more humidifying, we turned the painting face down on the table. We removed sections of the old lining paper that covered creases in the work, and then brushed out those sections to expand the creases and make the painting flat.



In the third video, we are carefully removing the old lining paper from the back of the painting using tweezers and bamboo spatulas. This is careful and time-consuming work. To complete the removal as efficiently as possible, Chinese painting conservation colleagues from the MFA Boston team joined in to help. As we removed large sections of the old lining, about a quarter of the painting at a time, we applied a new lining of thin Mino paper with wheat starch paste. Once the entire painting was relined, we again left it to dry between felt.

The project continues in Boston, where the public can watch the conservators at work. Follow along on our blog and the MFA‘s. 

The Big Sneeze

Jade nose plug, China

Jade nose plug, China

As the pollen count rises, we in tree-lined Washington, DC, also witness an increase in sniffles, sneezes, and, in response, “bless you”s. Many of us in the States are also familiar with “gesundheit”s or “You’re sooooo good-looking“s.

But what about our fellow allergy sufferers around the globe? In some Arabic-speaking countries, people answer a sneeze with “Alhamdulillah,” meaning “praise be to God.” In Turkey, a sneeze elicits “Çok yaşa“; in Persian, it’s “عافیت باشه” (Afiat basheh).

Sneezes generally aren’t acknowledged in China; neither are they in Japan. However, there is a Japanese saying about sneezing:


If you sneeze once, someone is talking or spreading bad things about you.

If you sneeze twice, someone is making fun of you.

If you sneeze three times, someone loves you.

If you sneeze four times, you’ve got a cold.

Sunflowers in the Peacock Room

Sunflower andirons; designer: Thomas Jeckyll (1827–1881), manufacturer: Barnard, Bishop, & Barnards; England, Norwich, ca. 1878–84; iron with gilding; Purchase, Freer Study Collection, FSC-M-66a–b

Sunflower andirons; designer: Thomas Jeckyll (1827–1881), manufacturer: Barnard, Bishop, & Barnards; England, Norwich, ca. 1878–84; iron with gilding; Purchase, Freer Study Collection, FSC-M-66a–b

While the Freer is under renovation, its famed Peacock Room is closed. We continue to explore it in Peacock Room REMIX, however, as well as in our Peacock Room app, the Story of the Beautiful web feature, Google Art Project, and on Bento. Below, Clive Lloyd, a retired professor and blogger in Norwich, England, writes about the contributions of architect Thomas Jeckyll, who designed the original dining room that Whistler made into his masterpiece. 

The Peacock Room may be stunningly beautiful, but my eye is drawn to the contents of the fireplace, where I see the sunflower andirons designed by Thomas Jeckyll (1827–1881), born just outside my home city of Norwich, England. As a pioneer of the Anglo-Japanese Aesthetic Movement and chief designer for a local ironworks, Jeckyll introduced Japanese motifs—such as sunflowers, cherry blossoms, and fan shapes—to their products. Similar to the larger freestanding sunflowers that form the Peacock Room’s andirons, the bloom appears in various forms embossed on domestic fireplaces. Since writing an article for my blog on these sunflowers, several people have contacted me to say they have an Aesthetic fireplace identical to the one I illustrated.

I have been fascinated with this motif since I read about the seventy-two sunflowers forming the railings around a Chinese pagoda that once stood in my local park. Jeckyll designed the pagoda for the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition; he would later adapt the sunflowers for the Peacock Room’s rather more ostentatious versions. The Norwich Corporation purchased the pagoda in 1880 and placed it in Chapelfield Gardens. The structure suffered damage from bombing during World War II and was dismantled in 1949, but the best of its sunflowers were refurbished and used first as railings, then later as gates, at another Norwich park.

  • Jeckyll’s pagoda exhibited in Philadelphia, surrounded by the golden sunflower railings. Image courtesy Jonathan Plunkett.
    Jeckyll’s pagoda exhibited in Philadelphia, surrounded by the golden sunflower railings. Image courtesy Jonathan Plunkett.

During the most recent refurbishment, a local photographer told me she had seen original and replacement sunflowers mixed in boxes in the city council’s works department. Imagine my excitement when I saw a solitary sunflower in the corner of a nearby architectural salvage yard. I realized it must have been a surplus item liberated during the last restoration. I hoped the owner was unaware of exactly what he had, but no luck: He mentioned the magic name of Jeckyll (and the price), and I went home disappointed.

NYFW: Accessories through the Ages

As New York Fashion Week struts toward its final round of shows, all eyes are on the apparel—and on the accessories. After all, you can’t truly dress to impress without the proper accoutrements, a tenet that discerning dressers seem to have embraced for millennia. Take, for example, the vivid splash of cerulean offered by this string of glazed-clay beads, which may date as far back as Late Period Egypt (712–332 BCE).

String of beads

Spinning to the opposite side of the color wheel (and to some two thousand years later), this Chinese necklace, dating to the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), comprises coral, amber, and gold beads.


Women also decorated their wrists in Qing dynasty China. The bracelet on the left is made of jade, known in China as the “fairest of stones.” The gold bracelet on the right likely would’ve been worn as one of a pair by an elite Chinese woman. Within the filigree design, two dragons play with a magic pearl.


Gold, unsurprisingly, has been shaped into fine adornments for centuries across the globe. Both this ring and these earrings are hollow, fashioned from gold sheets. Made in twelfth-century Iran, the ring bears Arabic inscriptions that read in part, “Good fortune and blessing and joy and sovereignty.” The earrings, created in India circa 1880, are typically worn by Muslim women in the southern state of Kerala, along the country’s west coast.

ring and earrings

And let’s not forget a key piece of arm candy: the purse. This twentieth-century version was made by Pakistan’s Sodha community. Closed with a drawstring, it bears geometric and peacock designs stitched in satin, as well as discs of mirrored glass.


Circling back to brilliant blue: these three Qing dynasty Chinese hair ornaments, fashioned from kingfisher feathers, are nothing short of stunning. We wouldn’t be surprised to see contemporary versions of these accessories accenting the updos at a fashion week sometime soon.


NYFW: Catwalk-Worthy Fashions in Our Collections

New York Fashion Week has officially hit the runways. As top designers’ latest work is swooned over and scrutinized, let’s look at a few catwalk-worthy styles from Asian art history.



As documented in such publications as Fruits magazine, Japanese street style pushes boundaries a bit further each year. Going back a few centuries proves that Japanese fashion has a history of catching eyes. There would be no missing the girl in an orange vermilion dress, painted somewhere between 1661 and 1673. Compare her ensemble to the eighteenth- or nineteenth-century silk costumes made for No performances. Gold is seen extensively in No costumes, used to reflect light and highlight the actors’ slow, stylized movements.



Long, flowing robes also were en vogue in China, as seen in these tiny but detailed figurines dating between the eighth and thirteenth centuries.



A few hundred years later, noblewomen wore coats over their floor-length robes. Dating to the mid-1800s, this summer surcoat is patterned with encircled dragons. The number of these roundels—and of the dragons’ claws—let everyone know the high status of the woman within the silk garment. The woman in the nineteenth- or early twentieth-century portrait posed in her coat, which she paired with a headpiece made of vivid kingfisher feathers. Speaking of which: Check back for a post on fabulous accessories in our collections.

Super Bowl: Panthers (?) vs. Broncos

We have to wait until Sunday night to know whether the Panthers or Broncos will win the Super Bowl. In the meantime, you can weigh in on who would win in this fight:

The panther (officially listed as a “feline animal figure”)…



… or the bucking bronco?



Only time will tell.

Shadows and Light (Sabers): Star Wars Puppetry

Traditional Malaysian shadow puppetry, known as wayang kulit, with scenes from Star Wars. Photo: AFP

Traditional Malaysian shadow puppetry, known as wayang kulit, with scenes from Star Wars. Photo: AFP

While Star Wars: The Force Awakens breaks box office records around the world, in Malaysia, the story of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and company is being used to reinvigorate the traditional art of shadow puppetry. A recent shadow puppet performance has been technologically updated to tell the story of Star Wars. The hope is to gather new audiences and a new appreciation for an old-fashioned method of storytelling.

In Southeast Asia, shadow puppets have been used for centuries to convey stories that can be educational, spiritual, or just entertaining. The puppets are intricately carved and animated by flickering candlelight. In the collections of the Freer|Sackler, we have two shadow puppets from Cambodia and depictions of puppets in artworks from other parts of Asia.

One of the quotes I’ve heard from The Force Awakens is, “The Light—It’s always been there. It will guide you.” The same goes for storytelling. Whether that light is from a computer screen, a candle, or a movie projector, the stories we tell all around the world link us and, hopefully, guide us as well.

The Freer Gallery closes for renovation on January 4, 2016, so we can better present our art and serve our visitors. The Sackler Gallery remains open and as dynamic as ever. Learn more about our plans for the future.

Curator of Film Tom Vick: Korea in Five Scenes

Historic streets of Bukchon

Tom Vick is curator of film at Freer|Sackler.

I am in Korea, currently as a guest of the Korean Culture and Information Service (KOCIS) and next week as a guest of the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival. Each year, KOCIS invites 18 people from around the world to participate in a cultural exchange program. For my visit, I chose to combine business meetings and visits to museums and cultural sites in the hopes of enhancing my understanding of Korean history and culture. I have spent the last week crisscrossing Seoul with my official guide and interpreter, who have enthusiastically embraced the Korean government’s recently imposed relaxed dress code.

My official government guide and interpreter in Seoul

Early in my trip I was treated to a personal docent tour of highlights from the National Museum of Korea. The tour included a room of Buddha sculptures that shows off not only the sophistication of ancient Korean sculptors, but also the influence of other cultures via the Silk Road nearly 2,000 years ago.

Buddha from the National Museum of Korea

That same day I was treated to lunch by filmmaker Lee Chang-dong, who visited the Freer a few years ago to show his films, and Hanna Lee, producer of Chang-dong’s masterpiece Secret Sunshine. He showed me around another site where cultures mix: the Bukchon section of the city (top photo), where picturesque old streets have become the settings for wildly popular Korean television dramas, which in turn attract tourists from all over Asia seeking to walk the same streets as their favorite Korean TV stars.

Hanna Lee, producer, and Lee Chang-dong, filmmaker

After a week of enriching cultural experiences, productive meetings, and reconnections with old Korean friends, I write today from Gyeongju, city of burial mounds of ancient kings. For everyone I’ve met who loves Gyeongju, I meet someone who complains about obligatory middle school field trips there to be force-fed ancient Korean history. I even saw an installation at Samsung Museum of Contemporary Art lampooning this tradition. But even though Gyeongju dresses up its burial mounds with piped-in mood music and a nighttime light show, it’s hard not to be awed by being in the presence of massive graves that have been left undisturbed for nearly two millenia.

Burial mound in the city of Gyeongju

Next week I will experience another kind of spectacle, the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival, where far-out films from around the world meet an enthusiastic audience of movie geeks. Stay tuned!

On Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence

Orhan Pamuk, photographed in the Sackler Gallery by John Tsantes

Head of Scholarly Publications and Programs at Freer|Sackler, Nancy Micklewright is just back from a trip to Istanbul, where she met with leading scholars and colleagues and visited the city’s newest museum.

Istanbul, already a city of great museums, has a new one. Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence (Masumiyet Müzesi in Turkish) opened on April 28. Pamuk, the Nobel Prize laureate, conceived of his museum and his novel of the same name, published in 2008, as two parts of the same project. His novel, set in Istanbul of the 1970s, is a love story. The protagonist, Kemal, is obsessed with Füsun, his beloved, and lives out his obsession by trying to collect everything she has touched or that embodies their lives together so that he will always remember her.

Kemal’s collection, painstakingly assembled by Pamuk, is displayed in the museum, a converted 19th-century house. The 83 vitrines correspond to the 83 chapters in the book and are filled with thousands of objects—snapshots, keys, watches, salt and pepper shakers, matchbooks, restaurant menus. Some pieces have been fabricated, including the collection of 4,213 cigarette butts (every cigarette smoked by Füsun during the years of Kemal and Füsun’s love affair), but most were collected from the junk and antique stores of Istanbul. The museum’s design and installation were a collaborative effort of the author and a team of professional designers, and the result is engaging, even bewitching.

Ticket and postcard from the Museum of Innocence

Presenting fabricated objects together with historic artifacts, all in the service of a narrative that is itself a fiction, disrupts the visitor’s expectations about authenticity and reality. The multiple voices of the wall text, sometime Pamuk reporting on a conversation with Kemal, sometimes Kemal himself speaking, further confuse the visitor.

The museum offers a chance to engage with big questions: What is the relationship between objects and memory? Does a novel need a museum to complete its message? What does it mean when a museum collection is a work of fiction? What is the difference between a museum and the performance of a museum? Is there a difference?

Interested in learning more about contemporary practice in museums? The Freer|Sackler’s lecture series Exhibiting Asia in the 21st Century resumes on September 12 with a look at The Gulshan Album: The Collections of a Young Prince by distinguished scholar Milo Cleveland Beach.