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The Littlest Tea Man

Chigusa, "with and without clothes," by Leo.

“Chigusa, with and without clothes,” by Leo.

Allison Peck is head of public affairs and marketing at Freer|Sackler.

The renowned ceramic known as Chigusa recently added another chapter to its long and storied history, and the drawings of a six-year-old boy entered the permanent record of the Smithsonian Institution. Chigusa, a 700-year-old tea-leaf storage jar, is one of the most important objects in chanoyu, the Japanese art of tea. Acquired by the museums in 2009, the jar currently is making its U.S. debut in Chigusa and the Art of Tea, an exhibition that Leo, age six, visited with his mom earlier this year.

As beautiful as Chigusa is, with its weighty simplicity and mottled brown glaze, what truly brings it to life and creates its legacy is the tradition of documentation and decoration that surrounds it: the 500 years of tea diaries, poems, records, and luxury adornments created by generations of Chigusa fans. The men who have paid homage to the jar and form the most human—and, some would argue, the most interesting—part of its story are called, aptly, “tea men.”

Chigusa and the Art of Tea wasn’t designed as an exhibition to appeal to younger audiences, so we were astonished and a little bemused to receive an email (with the charming subject line of “Chigusa, with and without clothes”) containing Leo’s accurate crayon drawings of the tea jar in various states of ceremonial display. His mom, Amy, reported a similar feeling.

“I was surprised by his drawings of Chigusa because he is the kind of boy who usually draws countless pictures of Angry Birds,” Amy wrote. “It was my idea to go see Chigusa with the family, and I wasn’t sure how Leo would respond to it at first. But he seemed to enjoy the exhibit very much. I suspect that the reasons for that include the fact that it is a jar with a name, which gives it a different kind of status among objects, for kids and grown-ups alike.”

In honor of the tradition of documenting encounters with Chigusa, Amy thought we might like to see the drawings and learn how they came to be. (Actually, she sent them twice: the first time, they had been scanned out of order, and Leo—with a rigid attention to detail worthy of both a true tea man and an art historian—requested they be re-sent in the “correct” sequence that he had intended!)

“I asked Leo why he drew the pictures of Chigusa and what gave him the idea, and he said, ‘Love!’” Amy wrote. “He said that he knew that I liked Chigusa a lot, and so he drew the pictures, so that I could remember it. Chigusa obviously made an impression on him.”

Chigusa, dressed in its new mouth cover, secured with an ornamental knot.

Chigusa, dressed in its new mouth cover, secured with an ornamental knot.

“As Leo gets older with a better sense of time,” Amy went on, “he’s interested—just like we are—in old things that have interesting stories.”

With that last sentence in particular, she unknowingly captured one of the Freer|Sackler’s most essential missions—to bring old things that have interesting stories to light, and then to step back and allow them to speak to visitors of all ages.

Andy Watsky, professor of Japanese art history at Princeton University, responded to Amy and Leo with a thank-you note. “My co-curator of the exhibition, Louise Cort, and I, and many other people at the Sackler and in Japan worked long and hard on this exhibition; we all hoped that the results would be meaningful to those who visited,” he wrote. “But I can tell you that I have never seen as fine a response as your son’s drawings. We have the records of how Chigusa has kept people interested over many centuries, including the tea diaries—in fact, sometimes the diarists included drawings of objects they saw. How wonderful that your son’s drawings now join that history as one such personal memory of Chigusa.”

He and Cort, curator of ceramics at Freer|Sackler, are requesting that Leo’s drawings and the story surrounding his trip and inspiration be entered into Chigusa’s permanent record in the Smithsonian database, making them accessible to future generations of researchers and curators. They’ve become the latest entry in that centuries-long tradition of Chigusa fandom, and Leo has become the littlest tea man.

Chigusa and the Art of Tea remains on view in the Sackler through July 27. On October 11, the exhibition will open at the Princeton University Art Museum.

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Music in the Time of Kiyochika

Teahouse at Imadobashi by Moonlight by Kobayashi Kiyochika, ca. 1997; Robert O. Muller Collection

“Teahouse at Imadobashi by Moonlight” by Kobayashi Kiyochika, ca. 1997; Robert O. Muller Collection

Howard Kaplan is museum writer at Freer|Sackler.

What would it have been like to attend a piano recital in Meiji-era Japan (1868–1912), the period when the city called Edo ceased to exist and was renamed Tokyo (“Eastern Capital”) by Japan’s new rulers? It was a time of modernization that featured the introduction of gaslights, steamships, railroads, brick buildings, and telegraph lines. It was also the time when self-trained artist Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915) captured the rapidly changing city in the woodblock prints on view in Kiyochika: Master of the Night.

During the late 1800s, Western music was embraced with enthusiasm in Japan. (The most popular composer in Japan at the time was Beethoven; he remains so to this day.) With that in mind, Swiss-born American pianist Gilles Vonsattel presented a program in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium that featured Western composers popular in Japan during Kiyochika’s lifetime. The pianist brought out deeper meaning and darker tones in the music, similar to what Kiyochika accomplished in his work.

The first half of the program, played with a combination of passion and precision, featured Beethoven’s “Bagatelles” and “Moonlight Sonata,” followed by Liszt’s “Pensée des Morts.” The pianist ended the first half of the program with “Cloches d’angoisse et larmes d’adieu” (Bells of Anguish and Tears of Farewell) by Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992). Messiaen was born too late to fit neatly into the program, but his work echoes Liszt’s, which itself has ties to Beethoven’s famed sonata. After the intermission, Vonsattel played Schumann’s “Arabeske in C Major, op. 18″ and Books I and II of Debussy’s “Images.” This is where Vonsattel’s playing was marked with poetry and an ethereal air. The themes introduced in the first half—bells, water, and moonlight—reverberated with masterful panache.

You could close your eyes and imagine that you were back in Kiyochika’s Japan, listening to music in a concert hall that was illuminated by gaslight. When viewing the prints in Master of the Night (which often include images of light on water), however, we recommend you keep your eyes wide open.

Kiyochika: Master of the Night remains on view in the Sackler Gallery through July 27, 2014.

#kiyochika

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Night Light

Ariana, age 11, created a beautiful night scene inspired by the art of Kiyochika.

Ariana, age 11, created a beautiful night scene inspired by Kiyochika’s “Fireworks at Ike-no-Hata.”

Stephen Eckerd is head of ImaginAsia family programs at the Freer|Sackler.

As a child, I loved playing in the dark. I could find my way from my bedroom to the refrigerator without turning on a light or bumping into anything. Kobayashi Kiyochika’s woodblock prints, such as one of fireflies dancing over a river, recall childhood evenings in June along the banks of the Potomac.

The moment I saw Kiyochika’s prints, I knew I wanted to create an activity that explored Kiyochika’s nocturnes and allowed children to use oil pastels to paint with light on black paper. In the ImaginAsia classroom, families examined works from the exhibition Kiyochika: Master of the Night and produced nightscapes that incorporate Kiyochika’s silhouettes as overlays for their compositions.

In Kiyochika's print, sepctators climb a willow tree to get a better view of fireworks, 1881, Robert O. Muller Collection.

In Kiyochika’s 1881 print “Fireworks at Ike-no-Hata,” spectators climb a willow tree to get a better view of fireworks. Robert O. Muller Collection.

Mercy, age 8, created a nightscape with colorful fireworks.

Mercy, age 8, painted fireworks that explode in pinwheels of light.

Kiyochika: Master of the Night is on view in the Sackler through July 27. View a slideshow of Kiyochika’s work.

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Thunder on the Mall: Cherry Blossom Edition

Thundering taiko drumming met traditional Japanese dance as artists from Tokyo’s Tamagawa University treated National Cherry Blossom Festival visitors to a special performance this afternoon. The group, which is led and choreographed by Kabuki dance master Isaburoh Hanayagi, is one of the top-ranking Taiko groups in Japan and comes out of the country’s most prestigious performing arts school.

Read more »

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Xanthe Gresham: Telling Tales from the Shahnama

Arash Moradi and Xanthe Greshem

Arash Moradi and Xanthe Greshem

London-based storyteller Xanthe Gresham returns to the Freer|Sackler for Nowruz on March 8.

Arash Moradi and I are delighted to be returning to the Freer|Sackler with tales from the Shahnama (the Persian Book of Kings) for family audiences. It’s always a joy to be part of the museums’ annual Nowruz celebration. Revisiting these stories is like the deepening of a longstanding friendship: Each time we discover something new.

An epic poem consisting of some 50,000 verses, the Shahnama took its author, Firdawsi, more than thirty years to complete. It is the longest poem to have been written by a single person.

According to legend, Firdawsi was supposed to be paid his weight in gold on the poem’s completion. While he was writing, however, a new shah was enthroned, and the poet was only offered his weight in silver. When the new shah finally read the magnificent poem, he was so overwhelmed by its skill and beauty that he rushed to bestow Firdawsi with the riches he was due. The shah was too late and only met the great poet’s hearse.

A heady mixture of tragedy and romance, the Shahnama piles up exquisite images and striking moments of truth and humanity. We can only scratch at the surface of this remarkable narrative, but what a rich surface it is!

On Saturday, March 8, Arash and I will perform three sets of tales:

12 pm: the story of Creation and the Demons, followed by the stories of Jamshed and Zahak

2 pm: the stories of Sam, Zal, and Rustam

4 pm: the tale of Sohrab, Rustam, Bizan, and Manijer

We hope to see you there!

See the day’s schedule of events. Follow the conversation at hashtag #nowruz.

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“The Bad Sleep Well”: How “Hamlet” Is It?

The Bad Sleep Well by Akira Kurosawa

“The Bad Sleep Well” by Akira Kurosawa

Tom Vick is curator of film at the Freer|Sackler.

In his 1965 book The Films of Akira Kurosawa, Donald Richie claimed that the director’s 1960 film The Bad Sleep Well was based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The similarities, after all, are clear. Both feature an ambivalent hero on a quest for revenge. Kurosawa himself named Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare his favorite authors, and Hamlet and Macbeth (which he adapted in 1959 as Throne of Blood) his favorite plays. In addition, Richie’s deep knowledge of Japanese culture and personal friendship with Kurosawa made his book the authoritative guide to the filmmaker’s work.

Thirty years later, Japanese Shakespeare scholar Kaori Ashizu questioned Richie’s theory. In her 1995 essay “Kurosawa’s Hamlet?” Ashizu suggests that Richie’s rarely questioned interpretation detracts from The Bad Sleep Well’s importance as a daring attack on the corrupt corporate culture of the time. While acknowledging similarities in plot, she points out that the true parallels don’t emerge until halfway through the film, so those going into it primed for a modern-day Japanese Hamlet adaptation will be disappointed. She further argues that previous scholars worked a bit too hard to find Hamlet-like qualities in the film’s hero, Nishi (played by the great Toshiro Mifune), and bent over backwards to find exact counterparts in the play for other characters in the film.

Still, she does see a distinct parallel between the venal business executives the film assails and Denmark’s rotten court. This intrigues me because it indicates just how deeply ingrained Hamlet is in both Western and Japanese culture. In another essay, Ashizu sketches a history of the play’s influence in Japan, from its first mention in 1841 through kabuki versions, modern stage adaptations, and various translations and interpretations of the play within a Japanese context.

For Harold Bloom, author of Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Hamlet is that rare character who transcends his own play, possessing an intelligence, wit, and depth beyond not only his fellow characters, but us as readers and playgoers, and perhaps even Shakespeare himself. He’s not so much a fictional character as he is a mythological figure (Bloom compares Hamlet’s status to that of Helen of Troy, Odysseus, and Achilles), deeply entwined with our development as a culture.

Ashizu notes “the long-lasting idolatry” of Hamlet “among young men of letters” in Japan. The intellectual Kurosawa certainly absorbed some of him. How much Hamlet is there in The Bad Sleep Well, and how much Hamlet is there in its hero, Nishi? You can judge for yourself when the film screens this Sunday.

The Bad Sleep Well will be shown on Sunday, March 9, at 2 pm in the Meyer Auditorium.
Throne of Blood will be shown on Friday, March 14, at 7 pm in the Meyer Auditorium.

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Angry Birds?

Kenzan style tea bowl with design of crane and flowing water; Japan; late 19th century; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.100

Kenzan style tea bowl with design of crane and flowing water; late 19th century;
Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.100


Lee Glazer is associate curator of American art at Freer|Sackler.

Hardly. When artists evoked avian melodies, as Thomas Dewing did in The Four Sylvan Soundsthey intended to soothe and refresh, to take the viewer out of “the harness of business” and into a more pleasant, “sylvan” realm. The sounds and scents of nature are mentioned with surprising frequency in Freer’s correspondence with artists and friends. Dewing used the sensory pleasures of a woodland ramble to induce Freer to visit him at his summer studio in Cornish, New Hampshire. “I wish you could be here,” Dewing wrote in June 1894, “taking in this cool fresh air filled with bird notes & scents of flowers.”

Two years later, the artist translated this experience into the visual language of painting, telling Freer he had begun work on a pair of screens representing “the four forest notes—the Hermit Thrush, the sound of running water, the woodpecker, and the wind through the pine trees.” These screens, now on view in Sylvan Sounds: Freer, Dewing, and Japan, incorporate a number of influences, the most direct being the natural beauty of the New England countryside. The figures were inspired by ancient Greek Tanagra figurines, and the theme came from a poem called “Wood Notes” by the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Dewing’s debt to Japanese art is evident in the bifold format of the screens and the simplicity of the unframed panels. The flowers and forest leaves, some painted with a stencil, resemble the elegant, stylized patterns of many screens in Freer’s Japanese collection, along with the multisensory imagery denoting bird songs and rustling grasses.

Rectangular Dish, Japan, stoneware with white slip and iron pigment under white glaze; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.53

Rectangular dish; Japan; stoneware with white slip and iron pigment under white glaze;
19th century; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.53

Freer had purchased his first two Japanese folding screens early in 1896, just after returning from his first visit to Japan. Later that same year, Dewing began to paint The Four Sylvan Sounds. During the two years that Dewing worked on these panels, Freer acquired sixteen Japanese screens, twelve of which are now in the museum’s collection. After promising his art collection to the Smithsonian Institution in 1906, Freer stipulated that his Japanese screens had to be displayed in a special gallery in a proposed new museum. He envisioned the space as a link between galleries devoted to Dewing and other American artists and those featuring the art of Whistler. This early arrangement underscored Freer’s belief in cross-cultural aesthetic connections between East and West—a principle theme in the current exhibition as well.

Sylvan Sounds: Freer, Dewing, and Japan remains on view through May 18, 2014.

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Abbas Kiarostami’s Landscapes in Motion

Landscape by Abbas Kiarostami, S1999.124

Untitled by Abbas Kiarostami (b. 1940, Tehran, Iran), color print, 1997, anonymous gift in memory of
Philip L. Ravenhill, S1999.124

Tom Vick is curator of film at Freer|Sackler.

No filmmaker did more than Abbas Kiarostami to bring the world’s attention to Iranian cinema in the 1990s. With their spare, humanist, and philosophically rich stories imbued with poetic imagery, films like Through the Olive Trees, Taste of Cherry, and The Wind Will Carry Us won awards at major film festivals. They also played to critical raves in North America and Europe, influenced a generation of Iranian filmmakers, and established Kiarostami as a major figure in world cinema.

But in the early 2000s, Kiarostami grew restless and—at the height of his worldwide popularity—embarked on a daringly experimental phase. He challenged traditional notions of film narrative and even the role and function of the filmmaker. In his 2002 film Ten, the master auteur, whose directorial achievements had been recognized with awards from Cannes and Venice, attempted to absent himself from the artistic process: he had his actors perform for cameras mounted inside a car as they drove around Tehran.

Five: Dedicated to Ozu, showing this Sunday at 2:45 pm in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium, is an even more radical departure. Presented in conjunction with the Sackler exhibition Sense of Place: Landscape Photographs from Asia, it is a film constructed of five landscapes, each of which tells its own subtle story. Its stars are dogs, ducks, pieces of driftwood, and the moon. Landscape has always been important to Kiarostami; two of his landscape photographs appear in Sense of Place. It plays a major role even in his narrative films, and in Roads of Kiarostami, which precedes Five at 2 pm, he discusses landscape’s place in his artistic process. But in Five it is the sole subject—which isn’t to say that the film is dry or difficult. Several years ago I heard Kiarostami speak about his work. During his opening remarks he chose to show a humorous clip from Five involving ducks running back and forth on a beach. It was a real crowd-pleaser: comedy constructed purely from movement, timing, and ingenious framing.

If Kiarostami had continued to work in this vein he might have been seen, like Marcel Duchamp or Philip Guston, as an artist who abandoned the gifts that made him famous to deliberately explore more difficult aesthetic terrain. But in recent years he has returned to narrative filmmaking with Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love. Though they were made in Italy and Japan, respectively, these films are as mysterious and beguiling as his earlier work in Iran. So maybe Kiarostami is more like Kim Ki-duk, a filmmaker whose foray into the unfamiliar enriched and refreshed his approach to what we knew and appreciated in the first place.

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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!

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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!

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