Category Archives: Events

ImaginAsia: The Lost Finger

Guardian figure; Japan, Kamakura period, 1185–1333; wood (Cryptomeria japonica); Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1949.20

Guardian figure; Japan, Kamakura period, 1185–1333; wood (Cryptomeria japonica); Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1949.20

All was still, absolutely still as the moon rose over the National Mall in Washington, DC. The visitors had left, and the Freer|Sackler was eerily quiet. A shaft of moonlight pierced the museum’s skylights and flooded over the Japanese guardian figures standing proudly in the hallway. Under the magic of the moon, the figures slowly came to life. Towering over mere mortals and rippling with muscles, the guardians were an intimidating sight. In their earlier history, the figures stood guard in front of a Buddhist temple, but that night they battled fierce demons to defend the art collections of the Freer|Sackler.

The next morning, one of our security officers noticed a finger belonging to the guardian figure pictured above resting on its pedestal. It must have been a fearsome fight . . .

Well, OK, that’s probably not exactly how it happened. The only thing we know for sure about that incident in April 2009 is that the security officer found the finger and called me, Ellen Chase, objects conservator. At the Freer|Sackler, we do have figures who fight to defend the collection—but we aren’t made of wood (and we have much smaller muscles). We work in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research.

The Freer|Sackler Objects Lab.

The Freer|Sackler Objects Lab.

Please Don’t Touch
When you go to museums, there often are a lot of “Please don’t touch” signs. But why? It’s because art is a lot more fragile than it seems. The guardians are so big that it is hard to imagine they are delicate, but the wood is at least six hundred years old and can be brittle. Instead of being sacrificed during a brutal fight to defend the museum, the finger more likely was knocked off by a visitor who got too close.

Besides the risk of breaking off a piece, there are a few really big reasons why we ask you to not touch the art:

  1. Touching an artwork just one time doesn’t seem like it would have much impact. But each time someone moves their hand across an object, a tiny bit is rubbed off. Over time, this contact can cause a lot of damage. For example, look inside this installation in the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum:rubbed patina _NMNH
    See the part that looks shiny rather than dark? That’s where people have rubbed off the dark brown layer, or patina. It’s OK in this case—the museum intended for people to touch the object—but what if it weren’t?
  2. Everyone has oils on their hands. When you touch something, you leave some of those oils behind, creating your unique fingerprints. Those residues also can cause damage. Check out this lacquer lid of a ewer in our collection that has fingerprints etched into the surface from oils left behind. We can’t get the prints off; they are now part of the object.

    Fingerprint on the lacquer lid of a Karatsu ware ewer or freshwater jar.

    Fingerprint on the lacquer lid of a Karatsu ware ewer or freshwater jar.

  3. Unless you just washed your hands, remainders of anything else you touched recently will be left on the art as well. So those Nacho Cheese Doritos you had in your lunch? Yup. They’re on there too. As conservators, we wash our hands really well before working with art. And for really sensitive materials, like metals or lacquer or ivory, we also wear gloves.

Try This
Many works of art and historic objects are unique, the only examples of their kind in the world. And every time someone touches one of these objects in the gallery, we lose a little bit of history. Wanna see what I mean? Try this activity and see what happens—and send me pictures!

Take a piece of white printer paper and cover half of it with plastic wrap. Place it at the door of your house or classroom, or another place with a lot of foot traffic (the bathroom, maybe?). Ask everyone to touch or rub the material every time they walk by. Check back in two weeks. What has happened to the exposed part of the object? How does it compare to the side that is covered? What does it make you think about museums’ “don’t touch” policy?

collage

This is the first in a series of blog posts for kids who are interested in art conservation. Follow along for more behind-the-scenes looks at why and how we care for our collections, working to protect and conserve art for you today as well as for future visitors. What do you want to know? We’d love to hear your questions and comments!

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.

Wu Man Comes to Washington

Twice nominated for a Grammy Award, pipa (Chinese lute) master Wu Man comes to DC next Tuesday to perform with the renowned Shanghai Quartet. Along with pieces by other composers, the concert, held in the National Museum of Natural History’s Baird Auditorium, will include Wu’s own “Kui: Song of Kazakhstan.” In this video from Smithsonian Folkways, she plays the song and talks about why she wrote it.

Reserve your tickets now for next Tuesday night!

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.”

 

Painting with Words: Gentleman Artists of the Ming Dynasty

Walking by a Mountain Stream; Shen Zhou (1427–1509); China, Ming dynasty, ca. 1487–89; album leaf; ink and color on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, Freer Gallery of Art, F1911.163o

Walking by a Mountain Stream; Shen Zhou (1427–1509); China, Ming dynasty, ca. 1487–89; album leaf; ink and color on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, Freer Gallery of Art, F1911.163o

From music to drama, cuisine to garden design, members of the Wu School excelled in all forms of creative expression. Centered on the affluent city of Suzhou and nearby towns, this driving force of Chinese culture during the Ming dynasty (1369–1644) took its name from a kingdom that once ruled the region. Of all their talents, Suzhou’s artists were most admired by contemporaries and later generations for their poetry, calligraphy, and painting. These complementary art forms, known collectively in China as the Three Perfections, were considered the ultimate modes of literati expression.

Opening Saturday, Painting with Words: Gentleman Artists of the Ming Dynasty celebrates Wu School works, examining the relationships among their imagery, brushstrokes, and, especially, words. Selections are drawn from the Freer|Sackler—home to one of the best Wu School collections in the country—as well as other museums and collections.

You’ll encounter works by some two dozen Wu School painters and calligraphers in the exhibition, including the “Four Great Artists of the Ming Dynasty”: Shen Zhou (1427–1509; see his work above), Wen Zhengming (1470–1559), Tang Yin (1470–1524), and Qiu Ying (ca. 1494–1552). This foursome exemplifies the two main groups of Wu School artists. Tang and Qiu were professional artists who accepted commissions from a range of clients and relied on their work to make a living. Shen and Wen were literati, or gentleman artists, who embraced the Three Perfections as both a personal pastime and a medium of social currency.

At the time, most of China’s professional artists worked in highly polished styles and favored traditional literary and historical subjects, which had wide public recognition and popular appeal. Gentleman artists, on the other hand, largely created works for each other, and their brushwork and themes tended to be more nuanced and personal in nature. Poetry was the primary vehicle of polite social exchange for most literati artists, as well as their preferred form of self-expression. Poems are ubiquitous throughout the exhibition, alternately inspiring, accompanying, and responding to the paintings and calligraphy.

Upcoming Films: Receptions and Special Guests

Film still from "Images and Reflections: A Journey into Adoor’s Imagery," screening April 8, 7 pm, at American University

Film still from “Images and Reflections: A Journey into Adoor’s Imagery,” screening April 8, 7 pm, at American University

I hate to lead with bad news, but I am sorry to say that Siddiq Barmak, the Afghan filmmaker who was scheduled to present his films and speak in the Turquoise Mountain exhibition, has had to cancel his trip to Washington due to unforeseen circumstances. We hope to reschedule his appearances later this year. The director and star of Ivy, screening on April 11, also will not be able to attend as planned.

The good news is that we have no shortage of guests coming up in April. Film scholar Suranjan Ganguly joins us at American University on April 8 to introduce the documentary Images and Reflections: A Journey into Adoor’s Imagery. The acclaimed Indian filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli directed this portrait of his friend Adoor Gopalakrishnan, a great Indian director (and the subject of a 2003 Freer|Sackler retrospective). The film is preceded by a reception featuring food from Gopalakrishnan’s native Kerala, during which Ganguly will sign his book The Films of Adoor Gopalakrishnan: A Cinema of Emancipation. The author also will be on hand to introduce a screening of Gopalakrishnan’s A Climate for Crime on April 13 at AU.

Ivy, a brilliant film that evokes Melville, Conrad, and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” aboard a Turkish freighter, also will be preceded by a free public reception at 6 pm. You may not want to eat before seeing Baskin the following night, though. This gore-sterpiece is one of the most viscerally and cerebrally terrifying horror movies I’ve seen in years. Director Can Evrenol will be there so you can find out just how twisted he is in person.

Looking for something more family friendly? Our National Cherry Blossom celebrations continue on April 16 as we copresent three recent, fun anime films at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Prints Fit for a Dig

Herzfeld identified the figure standing at the foot of the mausoleum as Sayyid Jawad. Probably a local, his inclusion in the image lends the structure a sense of scale.

Herzfeld identified the figure standing at the foot of Cyrus the Great’s mausoleum as Sayyid Jawad. Probably a local, his inclusion in the image lends the structure a sense of scale.

Why so blue? This “blue print” is an example of the cyanotype process, used throughout the twentieth century to make inexpensive copies of photographs and engineering drawings. Made from a glass plate negative that archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld took during his excavation at Pasargadae, the capital of the ancient Achaemenid Empire, between 1905 and 1928, it shows the mausoleum of Cyrus the Great, who established the site.

Below, another of Herzfeld’s shots captured a rare view inside Cyrus’s tomb, which includes a small wall niche for a lamp. Reportedly, while Cyrus lay mummified in his golden coffin, his clothing was displayed around the chamber and local priests were paid a monthly allowance to stand guard. When the Greeks conquered Achaemenid Iran in 330 BCE, Cyrus’s mausoleum was looted, but the Macedonian conqueror Alexander ordered it to be refurbished in honor of the legendary king.

View through entrance from interior

View through entrance from interior

Making a cyanotype involves coating a piece of paper with chemicals, superimposing the negative on it, and exposing it to sunlight. Fine arts photographers avoided cyanotypes for their intense blue pigments and lack of fine detail. Produced on regular notebook paper, however, cyanotypes proved far more resilient in the rough conditions of an archaeological dig than delicate darkroom prints. Herzfeld’s cyanotypes survived the excavation and are now part of his archives here at the museum. See them in Heart of an Empire: Herzfeld’s Discovery of Pasargadae, now on view.

A Man and His Dog . . . and His Boar

Ernst Herzfeld and Bulbul, his pet boar; Iran, ca. 1933; silver gelatin print; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA A.6 04.5.3.65c

Ernst Herzfeld and Bulbul, his pet boar; Iran, ca. 1933; silver gelatin print; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA A.6 04.5.3.65c

What would you name your pet boar? German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld (1879–1948) went for a not-so-obvious choice, dubbing his trusty hog Bulbul, Persian for “nightingale.”

Herzfeld, known for his revelatory excavations in Pasargadae and Persepolis, among other ancient sites, was a rather serious scholar; some described him as exacting and reserved. Animals seemed to bring out another side of him. He even brought Bulbul along on his digs. Above, he’s feeding the boar in Persepolis, which the Iranian government asked him to document in 1924.

Ernst Herzfeld

Ernst Herzfeld

While in Iran, Herzfeld also kept a pet dog, a Welsh terrier named Romeo. The pup must have known how to win hearts. When he trod over an intricate drawing of a Persepolis structure by Herzfeld’s assistant Karl Bergner, leaving inky paw prints behind, no one seemed too upset. Bergner noted in German at the bottom of this 1935 work: “Romeo bumped into an inkpot and walked upon the drawing! The new drawing is already finished. Be(rgner).”

Persepolis (Iran), great stairway to the Terrace complex, plan and elevation by Karl Bergner, 1935 [drawing].

Persepolis (Iran), great stairway to the Terrace complex, plan and elevation by Karl Bergner, 1935

Visit Heart of an Empire: Herzfeld’s Discovery of Pasargadae to learn more about the animal-loving archaeologist’s adventures in Iran.