Category Archives: Exhibitions

Wu School: Bamboo in Rain

Xiao-Xiang River after Rain; Xia Chang 夏㫤 (1388–1470); China, Ming dynasty, 1464; handscroll; ink on paper; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment; Freer Gallery of Art, F1952.27

Xiao-Xiang River after Rain; Xia Chang 夏㫤 (1388–1470); China, Ming dynasty, 1464; handscroll; ink on paper; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment; Freer Gallery of Art, F1952.27

It’s raining in DC (again). We must stay strong, much like this bamboo dipping into a river in Xiao-Xiang after a rainstorm, on view in Painting with Words. In Chinese tradition, the evergreen bamboo is honored for its strength, resilience, and ability to bend without breaking—qualities also associated with the ideal Confucian gentleman. Naturally straight and tall, bamboo mirrors the gentleman’s upright character. The hollow stems parallel his selfless humility, and their strong, solid joints represent his unbreakable integrity.

Xiao 瀟 and Xiang 湘 are the names of two rivers in Hunan province, central China, that have been famous since ancient times for their extensive groves of bamboo. Together, the names refer to an area known in antiquity as the kingdom of Chu 楚, which occupies a special place in Chinese literature and history.

Any reference to Xiao-Xiang immediately calls famous stories to mind. For example, according to early legend, a sage ruler named Shun 舜 (traditionally 2294–2184 BCE) died suddenly near the Xiang River. His two wives mourned on the water’s edge for days, their copious tears staining the nearby bamboo. Overcome with grief, they cast themselves into the Xiang and drowned, becoming goddesses of the river.

Word Nerd Wednesday: jinshi, juren, and jieyuan

Judging from the poems, these leaves were meant for a promising young man. He had passed the provincial juren exams with flying colors and was en route to the capital, presumably by boat, to take the national jinshi examinations to qualify for the imperial bureaucracy.

Judging from the poems, these leaves were meant for a promising young man. He had passed the provincial juren exams with flying colors and was en route to the capital, presumably by boat, to take the national jinshi examinations to qualify for the imperial bureaucracy.

Cramming desperately for finals week? Students past and present may find some solace in the fact that even China’s literary elite didn’t always ace their exams. As explored in the exhibition Painting with Words, centered on works by Wu School artists, several of these renowned painters, poets, and calligraphers didn’t excel at tests. During the Ming dynasty, the national jinshi (advanced scholar) examination, held every three years in the capital, qualified test takers for service in the imperial bureaucracy. Some artists, such as Xia Chang and Wu Kuan, distinguished themselves in the examinations and rose to high government offices.

Tang Yin (1470–1524) and Wen Zhengming (1470–1559) rank among the leading artists of the Ming dynasty, and they’re considered two of the Four Great Artists of the Ming Dynasty. Tang and Wen met as teenagers, and despite radical differences in character and temperament, they became close friends. In 1498, the eighteen-year-olds went off to Nanjing to sit for the provincial juren examinations. Tang was awarded first place (jieyuan); Wen Zhengming failed. Wen would never pass the jinshi examination, though he made multiple attempts. Regardless, he went on to become the unrivaled leader of the Wu School for much of its heyday during the first sixty years of the sixteenth century.

Traveling South; Tang Yin (1470–1524); China, Ming dynasty, 1505; handscroll; ink and color on paper; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment Freer Gallery of Art, F1953.78

Traveling South; Tang Yin (1470–1524); China, Ming dynasty, 1505; handscroll; ink and color on paper; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment
Freer Gallery of Art, F1953.78

While tests were no match for Tang’s brilliance, he had a wild side. He was given to self-indulgence (some would say decadence) and poor decision-making. While in the imperial capital in 1499 to take the national jinshi examinations, Tang behaved inappropriately—possibly involving drunken debauchery—and became embroiled in a trumped-up cheating scandal. Although he hadn’t actually done anything wrong, Tang was jailed, expelled from the exams, and sent home in disgrace, with the once-certain promise of a glorious official career now reduced to ashes.

Nevertheless, Tang’s status remained intact among the scholarly and wealthy elite of his native Suzhou. He lived and moved in the leading circles of local society, and, through their continuing patronage, he made a successful (if sometimes precarious) living through his writing and art for the next twenty-five years.

Turquoise Mountain: How Old is Afghanistan?

HOA-4

“How old is Afghanistan?” is a very difficult question to answer. The term “Afghanistan” was used as a geographic marker at least since the 1300s. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was a term used primarily by the Durrani Empire (1747–1826) to refer to the region around the Sulaiman Mountains, a range located east of present-day Afghanistan and western Pakistan. “Afghanistan” was thus a loosely defined geographic label for an area between “Hindustan” in the east, “Khurasan” in the west, and “Turkestan” in the north.

1771 Bonne Map of Persia (Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan). Geographicus Persia bonne 1771. Reproduced from www.antiquemaps-fair.com.

1771 Bonne Map of Persia (Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan). Geographicus Persia bonne 1771. Reproduced from www.antiquemaps-fair.com.

The first time that “Afghanistan” came to mean anything like our contemporary conception of the nation-state was in Soltan Mohammad Kales’s book Tarikh-e Soltani, which he began in 1865 but didn’t publish until 1880. During the period between when he wrote the work and when it was published, Afghanistan was beset by disputed claims to the throne of an area without defined borders. This would change with the rise of Amir Abd al-Rahman Khan (r. 1880–1901) and—most importantly—with the recognition by the British government of his suzerainty over “Afghanistan” in the aftermath of the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1879–1880). For the first time, Afghanistan was officially recognized as a territorial and political entity, largely as we currently understand it. Over the following fifteen years (through further border agreements made in 1887, 1893, and the controversial Durand Line demarcations of 1894–96), Afghanistan’s borders became fixed in the manner that they are portrayed on maps today.

Learn more about the history of Afghanistan and the traditions it’s reviving today in Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan, now on view.

Turquoise Mountain Artisans: Meet Matin

 

A descendant of generations of potters, Turquoise Mountain artisan Abdul Matin Malekzadah has joined us from Afghanistan to demonstrate his crafts. Watch his work, hear his story, and come in to meet him.

Malekzadah was born in Istalif, a village in rural Afghanistan. For four hundred years, Istalif was famed for its turquoise glazed ceramics, made using a natural potash glaze known as ishkar. In 1999, the Taliban destroyed many of Istalif’s pottery workshops, as well as knowledge of the distinctive ishkar glaze. Today, Malekzadah, head of the Turquoise Mountain Institute’s ceramics department and the director of Afghan Traditional Pottery, is one of the leading figures in the revival of Istalifi pottery, through which he is reintroducing the use of natural glazes.

Remembering Suzhou

A scholar's studio in Suzhou. Photograph courtesy of the author.

A scholar’s studio in Suzhou. Photograph courtesy of the author.

In December 2014, while I was working on Painting with Words: Gentleman Artists of the Ming Dynasty, I visited China’s Suzhou Museum to see an exhibition on Tang Yin, one of the city’s most celebrated artists and a key member of the Ming dynasty’s Wu School. I spent the first day studying the remarkable assemblage of Tang’s painting and calligraphy, including several works I had long wanted to see. On the morning of the second day, Mr. Pan, a young museum curator, came by my hotel to take me to a famous local garden before we would return to the exhibition in the afternoon. In the spirit of the Three Perfections—painting, poetry, and calligraphy—in which Tang Yin and his fellow Wu School artists excelled, I’ve written the following recollection of that day. 

Curator Pan darts down a narrow side street flanked with whitewashed walls, chatting amiably as we stroll to one of Suzhou’s famous gardens. In the Old City, early morning rituals are in full swing. Under the weak winter sun, brightly colored quilts and bedding are hanging out to air. The wok woman on the corner fires up savory crepes for eager passersby; stacked baskets of gleaming dumplings steam in the stall next door. Up the block, around the public well, bare-armed men and women scrub their laundry in tubs and buckets, sharing gossip of absent neighbors and the rumors of the day.

At a blind corner by the canal, another man cutting crosswise suddenly collides with my companion, butting heads. But their startled curses and momentary consternation quickly turn to wincing laughs and smiles, as old friends clap each other on the shoulder and shake hands. In fact, he lives around the corner now, just down the lane, and we’re invited to drop by for tea on our way back.

Curator Pan loves classical poetry. As we wander the latticed halls and jumbled rockeries of the garden he quotes the early masters, then offers up a sample of his own. He savors every syllable and rhyme, chanting loudly with proud satisfaction: “A new view with every step, Suzhou gardens are the best.” A pavilion, a bridge, fragrant shrubs scattered and massed for every season; tall twisted rocks dredged from nearby lakes and erected on end; maples in full flush and clusters of nandina berries, flaming red: all are reflected clearly in still pools of water. All were put here long ago just to catch our eye as we turn the bend.

Curator Pan texts his friend. Photo courtesy of the author.

Curator Pan texts his friend. Photo courtesy of the author.

We’ve taken our time, and we text Master Liang, the old friend we had encountered, to let him know we’re running late. Out the front gate and back the way we came, we cross the canal and hurry down the street to the left. A long block later, we knock at a set of wooden doors that front the lane. A young girl opens them, and across the courtyard our smiling host beckons us into his studio where the kettle for tea is already boiling. Master Liang, it turns out, is a teacher of the qin—the seven-stringed zither played by almost every classical poet since the time of Confucius—and soon we’re perching comfortably on sturdy stools inside his high-ceilinged classroom. Sleek-bodied black lacquer zithers hang from rings along the wall; woven mats and low polished tables line the stone-tiled floor.

With a practiced flourish Master Liang discards the first pot of tea and adds new hot water to the leaves: “It’s the second steeping that is best, and the only one to serve an honored guest.” Waiting, we talk of his teacher and mine, of the training and traditions that led us each to where we are. Master Liang asks his friend about his newly opened exhibition on the art of Tang Yin (1470–1524), one of the city’s most beloved poets and painters, and the real reason I am here. The show is the talk of the town, featured in all the papers; we tell him that visitors are packed four and five deep in front of every picture and he should probably wait a couple of weeks to come.

By now the tea is ready, and Master Liang pours us each a shallow cup. Its warmth in our hands and the subtle scent and flavor imbue us with a sense of calm. I tell them of a favorite handscroll in the Freer|Sackler: a short landscape by Tang Yin called Traveling South, which he painted in 1505 for his good friend, a young qin player who was setting out from Suzhou to make his way in the world. Then as now, the road was part of life for professional musicians.

Detail, Traveling South; Tang Yin (1470–1524); China, Ming dynasty, 1505; handscroll; ink and color on paper; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, Freer Gallery of Art, F1953.78

Detail, Traveling South; Tang Yin (1470–1524); China, Ming dynasty, 1505; handscroll; ink and color on paper; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, Freer Gallery of Art, F1953.78

Done in marvelously varied brushwork and subtle graded tones of ink, the scroll is one of the artist’s early masterpieces. After the painting, Tang inscribed two short poems:

On the river, springtime breezes blow the tender elms
I clasp my zither and see you off trailing long robes
If someone you encounter should appreciate your music
Cut some reeds where you are and build yourself a hut

Xi Kang long ago performed the Melody of Guangling
Silent for a thousand years its tonalities are lost
Today I have traveled to this place to see you off
That we may look for its tablature in the handbook

Inspired by my description, Master Liang moves to a nearby table where his qin is tuned and waiting. Selecting a favorite melody, he dedicates it to our accidental meeting: “Reading the Book of Changes at a Window Filled with Pines.” By which, of course, he means that if one reads the universe rightly, our meeting was no accident at all. Each note trembles in the chilly air, then warms as the next one huddles in, piling solid and broken lines one atop the other and transporting us momentarily to another place and time: here and now, there and then, all the same.

Master Liang performs. Photo courtesy of the author.

Master Liang performs. Photo courtesy of the author.

The piece ends with a flurry of harmonics, and we finish our replenished cups of tea. His first students of the day will arrive in half an hour, and since we’re meeting a colleague from the museum for lunch, we take our leave. Polite farewells at the door and grateful promises to stay in touch, and as we step across the threshold, returning to the rough-and-tumble, I am struck again by how much Suzhou, for all its modern veneer, remains unwaveringly true to itself. Poetry and painting, zithers and tea, rocks and gardens, crepes and dumplings: the pulse of life for more than five hundred years. Whether 1514 or 2014, certain things abide.

Word of the Day: zhiyin

Seven-stringed zither (qin), named Spring Breeze Forged inscription of Wen Zhengming (1470–1559) China, Ming dynasty, 1369–1644 Lacquered wood, water buffalo horn, mother-of-pearl, and silk strings Gift of Dr. Shing Yiu Yip Freer Gallery of Art F1999.8

Seven-stringed zither (qin), named Spring Breeze; forged inscription of Wen Zhengming (1470–1559); China, Ming dynasty, 1369–1644; lacquered wood, water buffalo horn, mother-of-pearl, and silk strings; Gift of Dr. Shing Yiu Yip; Freer Gallery of Art, F1999.8

As you stroll through the works in Painting with Words, you’ll see—and hear—the Chinese qin, a musical instrument that was ubiquitous in the cultural life of Ming dynasty China. Paintings from the period often show a retired gentleman walking in the mountains or along a stream, followed by a young servant carrying the man’s qin (pronounced “chin”). Viewers would understand that the subject of the painting would stop to play his qin whenever he felt so inspired by the nature around him.

In the center of this album leaf, titled "Walking by a Mountain Stream," a man is followed by a servant holding his qin, the quintessential musical instrument of the Chinese gentleman scholar.

In the center of this album leaf, titled “Walking by a Mountain Stream,” a man is followed by a servant holding his qin, the quintessential musical instrument of the Chinese gentleman scholar.

The qin music playing in the exhibition is a piece called “Flowing Water.” In 1977, when NASA sent Voyager I hurtling toward deep space, the satellite carried a sound disc with fifty pieces of music to represent earthly civilization. “Flowing Water” was the piece chosen to represent Chinese music.

The song is traditionally attributed to Boya, an ancient qin master. His friend Zhong Ziqi was deeply attuned to Boya’s music. When Zhong died, Boya destroyed his qin, declaring that he had no reason to keep playing now that no one understood him. Since then, the term zhiyin 知音, defined as someone who understands or appreciates one’s sound or music, has been used to refer to a dear friend.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, a poem on a handscroll titled Traveling South touches on Boya’s story:

On the river, springtime breezes blow the tender elms
I clasp my zither and see you off trailing long robes
If someone you encounter should appreciate your music
Cut some reeds where you are and build yourself a hut

We’re excited to welcome a present-day qin master to the museum this weekend. Bell Yung, emeritus professor of music at the University of Pittsburgh and one of the world’s leading authorities on the qin, will hold four free concerts from Friday through Sunday. He will play an instrument similar to the one on display in Painting with Words and will focus on pieces that evoke themes seen in the exhibition: plum blossoms, wild geese, river mists, and flowing waters.

A Daylily for Mom

杜菫 《美人獻壽圖》; Beautiful Woman Presenting Longevity; Du Jin (act. 1465–1509); China, Ming dynasty, early 16th century?; hanging scroll; ink and color on gold-flecked paper; Indianapolis Museum of Art; Purchased to complement the Mr. and Mrs. Eli Lilly Collection of Chinese art through the bequest of Mrs. Enid Goodrich and the support of Lilly Endowment Inc., 2004.2, imamuseum.org

杜菫 《美人獻壽圖》; Beautiful Woman Presenting Longevity; Du Jin (act. 1465–1509); China, Ming dynasty, early 16th century?; hanging scroll; ink and color on gold-flecked paper; Indianapolis Museum of Art; Purchased to complement the Mr. and Mrs. Eli Lilly Collection of Chinese art through the bequest of Mrs. Enid Goodrich and the support of Lilly Endowment Inc., 2004.2, imamuseum.org

Looking for a meaningful gift for Mom? Consider giving her a daylily—and a trip to the Freer|Sackler to see the flower in our Painting with Words exhibition, featuring works by China’s Wu School artists.

This Ming dynasty hanging scroll, on loan to us from the Indianapolis Museum of Art, depicts an elegant young woman wearing an elaborate headdress and gazing toward a full moon. In an inscription at the upper right, the artist, Du Jin (act. 1465–1509), identified her as Lady Wu, a deified constellation. A second inscription at the upper left notes that a young man in Beijing commissioned this painting and sent it to his mother as a birthday gift.

In her hands, Lady Wu holds a daylily. The flower symbolizes motherhood in Chinese tradition. In ancient times, women hoping to give birth to sons would wear daylilies on their robes. At the same time, the daylily is known as “the plant for forgetting worry.”

Given the flower’s dual meanings, we can guess that the son intended this painting to express two things to his mother: good wishes for a long and healthy life, and a reminder that she shouldn’t worry about him too much.

Painting with Words: Gentleman Artists of the Ming Dynasty is on view through July 24. (And Mother’s Day is this Sunday!)

 

Gardens of Pasargadae

Gate R: panoramic view prior to excavation; Ernst Herzfeld; Iran, 1905–28; digitally assembled from three glass plate negatives; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA A.6 04.GN.2199, 2201, 2202

Gate R: panoramic view prior to excavation; Ernst Herzfeld; Iran, 1905–28; digitally assembled from three glass plate negatives; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA A.6 04.GN.2199, 2201, 2202

As we gear up for Garden Fest this Friday, let’s take a look back at the ancient Achaemenid Empire, which is known, among many other things, for its appreciation and innovation of gardens.

In 539 BCE, Cyrus the Great chose Pasargadae, located in present-day Iran, as the heart of his multilingual, multifaith empire and transformed it into a magnificent symbol of Achaemenid power. After the empire fell, the site was neglected, and its purpose was forgotten for centuries. It wasn’t until 1908 that the German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld (1879–1948) devoted his dissertation to Pasargadae and proved that it had been the royal capital of the Achaemenid Empire.

View of dasht-i murghab toward Mausoleum of Cyrus; Sketchbook 10: Pasargadae; Friedrich Krefter; Iran, May 5, 1928; graphite on paper; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA A.6 02.0210

View of dasht-i murghab toward Mausoleum of Cyrus; Sketchbook 10: Pasargadae; Friedrich Krefter; Iran, May 5, 1928; graphite on paper; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA A.6 02.0210

Located in the fertile plain known as the dasht-i murghab, or “plain of the water bird,” Pasargadae comprised palaces, gardens, pavilions, and a number of other structures. Herzfeld’s survey produced the first map of the site, drawn up by his assistant, Friedrich Krefter. Along with recording the topography of the palace grounds, the map illustrates how the Achaemenids carefully calculated their buildings’ locations to take full advantage of available water for the gardens.

Excavation of Pasargadae: general plan of the ruins; Friedrich Krefter; Iran, 1928; ink on paper; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA A.6 05.0825

Excavation of Pasargadae: general plan of the ruins; Friedrich Krefter; Iran, 1928; ink on paper; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA A.6 05.0825

One of Herzfeld’s critical discoveries was that Pasargadae was the first ancient Near Eastern capital to abandon the standard architectural plan of strictly linear royal hallways. Instead, the Achaemenids adopted an ingenious open design defined by extensive, lush garden spaces surrounded by palaces and audience halls. This particular layout continued well into the Islamic period, and designers used it for palace compounds in Iran, Central Asia, and Islamic India for centuries.

Palace P: Herzfeld’s reconstructed ground plan and elevation of the ruins; Friedrich Krefter, Iran, 1928; ink on paper; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA.A.6.05.0807

Palace P: Herzfeld’s reconstructed ground plan and elevation of the ruins; Friedrich Krefter, Iran, 1928; ink on paper; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA.A.6.05.0807

Learn more by visiting the exhibition Heart of an Empire: Herzfeld’s Discovery of Pasargadae during Garden Fest this Friday! Or, stop by during lunchtime next Tuesday to hear the exhibition’s curators discuss the site’s historical and architectural significance.

Earth Day: Searching for Plum Blossoms

Searching for Plum Blossoms While Riding on a Donkey; probably Zhou Chen (ca. 1450–ca. 1535);  China, Ming dynasty, early 16th century; hanging scroll mounted on panel; ink and color on silk; Gift of Charles Lang Freer; Freer Gallery of Art, F1917.108

Searching for Plum Blossoms While Riding on a Donkey; probably Zhou Chen (ca. 1450–ca. 1535); China, Ming dynasty, early 16th century; hanging scroll mounted on panel; ink and color on silk; Gift of Charles Lang Freer; Freer Gallery of Art, F1917.108

In this sixteenth-century scroll, a man rides a donkey along a lakeside trail followed by a servant carrying his qin, the quintessential musical instrument of the Chinese gentleman scholar. Bundled against the cold, the man may have set out from the rustic houses nestled below the towering mountains. Glancing up at the first plum tree on the trail, he heads toward a thatch-roofed pavilion shaded by pines and plums in bloom.

Searching for plum blossoms in the winter mountains became a seasonal pastime in China during the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127). Numerous poems and other accounts confirm that it was still a common practice more than two centuries later, during the Ming dynasty (1369–1644). Seen as a harbinger of spring, plum blossoms were admired for their ephemeral, pristine beauty and their fortitude in blooming during the coldest part of the year. They were also an emblem of the dignified gentleman in retirement.

See this scroll and other masterworks of painting, poetry, and calligraphy—known in China as the “Three Perfections”—in Painting with Words: Gentleman Artists of the Ming Dynasty.

Turquoise Mountain Artisans: Meet Saeeda

A look at Saeeda Etebari's jewelry designs.

A look at Saeeda Etebari’s jewelry designs.

Throughout the run of Turquoise Mountain, artisans will visit us from Afghanistan to demonstrate the materials and techniques of their crafts. Meet the artisan who is currently in DC by visiting the exhibition this Thursday and over the weekend.

Saeeda Etebari was born into the miserable conditions of a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1984. She became seriously ill during the first week of her life and was diagnosed with cerebral meningitis. Due to the illness, she did not walk for three years, and she lost her hearing. Her parents tried to find a cure for her loss of hearing, but nothing worked.

After the fall of the Taliban, Saeeda’s family returned to Kabul. She finished high school and even taught at the same school, but she did not find teaching as rewarding as she had hoped. When her brother suggested she study a craft instead, Saeeda enrolled in the Turquoise Mountain Institute.

“I chose jewelry because I love the focus and skill that making jewelry requires,” she says. “You need to be really precise and really patient. I can lose myself for hours when I’m working on a delicate piece. The more intricate the work, the more I enjoy it.” When asked how it feels to sell her works to others, she replies, “Designing a piece that somebody will buy and wear is a special experience for me. I love making a connection with someone through a shared sense of beauty.”