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Larger Than Life: Restoring the Empress Dowager

The painting of the Empress Dowager, before, during, and after conservation.

The painting of the Empress Dowager, before, during, and after conservation.

David Hogge is head of Archives at the Freer|Sackler.

In 2011, the Sackler acquired a life-size portrait of China’s Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) painted by Katharine Augusta Carl in 1904. That year, the painting was one of the Chinese government’s entries at the St. Louis Exposition. Then, it was given to President Roosevelt, who had it added to the Smithsonian’s collections. The painting was shown in the Smithsonian’s Art and Industries Building before being loaned to a museum in Taiwan in the 1960s, where it remained for more than forty years.

Though it was halfway around the world, the painting presented a perfect companion to the original Empress Dowager photographs in the Freer|Sackler Archives that were featured in the exhibition Power|Play: China’s Empress Dowager. I suggested that we should have the painting returned to the Smithsonian and continue to tell the tale of international diplomacy through portraiture. Bringing it back was a big risk: we learned that it was badly deteriorated, and the elaborately carved, half-ton frame was in equally poor shape. Nevertheless, the painting was shipped to Washington, DC, and sent to our storage facility in Suitland, Maryland. When we unwrapped the painting, our worst fears were realized: the canvas was in dreadful condition with tears, cracks, peeling, and layers of grime and discolored varnish.

The Empress Dowager, larger than life.

The restored painting of the Empress Dowager, with MCI conservators Jia-sun Tsang and Inês Madruga.

Since hiring an outside conservator would have been prohibitively expensive, at the time I assumed that we would have to box up the painting and put it away for good. Fortunately, Suitland is also the location of the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute (MCI). Senior Painting Conservator Jia-sun Tsang was brought in to evaluate the painting. Rather than walk away in despair, she immediately saw the painting’s potential as well as its historical importance. Miraculously, Jia-sun requested and was granted the time and resources necessary to rescue the painting. While she and conservation fellow Inês Madruga oversaw a raft of analyses and treatments, Senior Furniture Conservator Donald Williams managed the repair of the frame. Overall, some twenty-three conservators, interns, art handlers, technicians, and contractors quietly labored away to restore the empress’s portrait. Last month, the painting and its frame were united once more. Thanks to these heroic efforts, in time, we hope to share this historic artifact with the public.

View a slideshow of the conservation process. Learn more about this and other images of the Empress Dowager and their role in rehabilitating her international reputation.

Posted by in Chinese Art, From Conservation, From the Archives | No Comments

Remembering Collector Robert H. Ellsworth

Nandi; India, Chola dynasty, 12th century; bronze; Purchase, F1985.30

Nandi; India, Chola dynasty, 12th century; bronze; Purchase, F1985.30

Former head of the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research at Freer|Sackler, Paul Jett was with the museums for nearly thirty years.

Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, a preeminent collector and dealer of Asian art, passed away on August 3 at the age of eighty-five. Long a friend and benefactor of the Freer|Sackler, Mr. Ellsworth gave his collection of Chinese calligraphy to the museums and also supported many of their fundraising efforts. In addition, he was the source for a number of important works purchased by the museums, such as the beautiful bronze figure of Nandi pictured above. Mr. Ellsworth said he found this work being used as decoration near a swimming pool at the home of the owners of the Tandy Leather Company in Texas. (In the Freer|Sackler, the piece earned the nickname “The Tandy Nandi.”)

When I met Mr. Ellsworth, I was a young conservator studying a particular type of Chinese Buddhist bronze from Yunnan, one example of which was in his collection. I was certainly not known in the field of Asian art, and yet Mr. Ellsworth treated me with a gracious, generous cordiality that overwhelmed me. He allowed me to visit his home and study the bronze, and then went on to show me dozens of other bronzes from his collection. It was breathtaking and the first of many visits I made to see his collection and talk about art. A raconteur of the first order, Mr. Ellsworth always had a story to tell, about his collection, his life, or the people he knew. He could be incredibly charming, funny, and welcoming.

For years after my first visit, whenever Mr. Ellsworth saw an article or news about Yunnanese Buddhist bronzes, he would send me copies of the information. I was stunned once to learn that Mr. Ellsworth had bought one of these bronzes for about five times more than anyone had previously paid, but it took him just a month or two to sell it for a significant profit. Mr. Ellsworth not only knew the art market well, but he also seemed able to forecast it. Knowing the art market is one thing; knowing art is something else. I have always believed that, in his prime, Mr. Ellsworth had an eye for art that was better than that of anyone else in the field I ever met.

The museums have lost a good friend, and there are many more who will mourn and miss Robert Ellsworth.

Posted by in Chinese Art, From Conservation, South Asian and Himalayan Art | No Comments

Can Your Tea Jar Do This?

The Art of Tea

Meet Chigusa, the Chinese tea jar that earned a dedicated following in Japan. It’s the star of the exhibition Chigusa and the Art of Tea, on view in the Sackler to July 27Diaries of tea events reveal what the writers admired about Chigusa, which appears alongside other cherished objects—Chinese calligraphy, Chinese and Korean tea bowls, Japanese stoneware jars and wooden vessels—used during a formative era of Japanese tea culture.

This gif shows Chigusa with and without its accessories, which include a mouth cover made of antique Chinese fabric, a net bag that enclosed the jar’s body, and sets of thick silk cords. All were chosen to honor Chigusa’s prominent status.

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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.

Posted by in Chinese Art, Exhibitions, Japanese Art | No Comments

Valentine’s Day: Writing a Poem on a Crimson Leaf

Writing a Poem on a Crimson Leaf by Tang Yin; 16th century; Ink and color on silk, F1917.335; gift of Charles Lang Freer

Writing a Poem on a Crimson Leaf,” Tang Yin; China, Ming dynasty, 16th century; ink and color on silk; gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1917.335

In order to ensure an excellent Valentine’s Day, you’ll need a few supplies: a red (crimson) leaf, a pen, and preferably, a palace with its own stream. Compose a love poem on the leaf and let the world know your feelings. Place the leaf in the stream and watch as it flows out of sight. It will be picked up by somebody who will write a similar poem of longing next to yours and place the leaf back in the water (pay no attention to the whole upstream/downstream thing; in this scenario, water flows to the lover), on which it will return to you. Neither of you will know who wrote the other poem—but in time, the two of you will meet, fall in love, and find out, on your wedding night, that you two penned those love poems on the same crimson leaf. Bliss is guaranteed.

Though this story originated during the Tang dynasty (618–907), “writing a poem on a crimson leaf” became a metaphor in Chinese literature to describe a happy marriage destined by fate.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Learn more about Chinese art in our collections.

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Happy New Year of the Horse!

Horse and Groom, after Li Gonglin, 1347, Zhao Yong , (Chinese, 1291-1361), Ink and color on paper, F1945.32

Horse and Groom, after Li Gonglin, 1347,
Zhao Yong , (Chinese, 1291-1361), Ink and color on paper, F1945.32

The lunar new year begins today and celebrates the year of the horse, one of the twelve-year cycle of animals that appear in the Chinese zodiac. Dating from as early as 1000 BCE, the traditional Chinese method of counting years is based on the sixty-year rotation of the planet Jupiter (known as the “year star”) around the sun. Each sixty-year period is divided into five cycles of twelve years, and each of the twelve years is associated with a particular animal. In general, each year contains twelve lunar months of twenty-eight or twenty-nine days. As a result, lunar years vary in length and do not start or end at the same time each year. The current Year of the Horse begins today, and is observed through February 18, 2015.

According to archaeological discoveries, the character for “horse” (ma) appears in the most ancient form of Chinese writing, which dates from the fourteenth to eleventh century BCE. Surviving painted images of horses date from around the fourth century BCE. Since the species of horse native to China were not as large or strong as those from Central Asia, traders during the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) imported the highly coveted “heavenly horses” (tianma) from the Central Asian kingdom of Ferghana.

Horses did not emerge as a prominent independent category in the Chinese painting tradition until the Tang dynasty (618–907). From that time on, horses appear as a recurring theme, especially in depictions of travel, trade, hunting, and military exercises and in genre paintings showing the nomadic tribes that lived to the north and west of China.

One more thing: Those born in the Year of the Horse (1930, 1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, and 2014) are said to be intelligent, strong, and energetic with an outgoing nature. They enjoy interacting with others and are good at multi-tasking, although they rarely finish projects because they’re off to the next one before they finish the last. Typically they have money issues, and when it comes to matters of the heart, they fall hard and fast.

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The Search for Ancient China … Begins in New Jersey?

Paul Singer's apartment in Summit, New Jersey (photo byJohn Tsantes).

Paul Singer’s apartment in Summit, New Jersey (photo by John Tsantes).

Dr. Paul Singer amassed one of the most important Chinese archaeological collections in the United States and kept the more than five thousand objects in his modest apartment. With One Man’s Search for Ancient China: The Paul Singer Collection opening on Saturday, we asked photographer John Tsantes, head of Imaging and Photographic Services at Freer|Sackler, to talk about shooting the collection in situ at Singer’s New Jersey home back in 1998.

“Dr. Singer’s house, in a nondescript garden apartment complex in New Jersey, was not what I had expected. When you walked in the front door you had to be careful where you stepped. If you weren’t looking, you could bump into an object. In those days before digital, we shot with film. I had a camera mounted on a tripod and had trouble finding any space that would let me stand behind the three legs of the tripod. Every chair, every sofa, indeed every surface in every room—that includes the bathroom—was filled with objects, but everything was very well packaged and organized. One closet was filled with small boxes wrapped in brocade from floor to ceiling, and in each was an important object. When you opened a kitchen cabinet, you’d discover a work of art. Our registrars, who were cataloguing the collection, never thought that they’d be able to leave.”

Posted by in Behind the Scenes, Chinese Art, Exhibitions | No Comments

Cai Guo-Qiang: Sky’s the Limit

Black ink-like smoke rises from the tree, mimicking the flow of traditional Chinese brush painting.

At 3 pm today, Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang created an “explosion event” in honor of two birthdays: the Sackler Gallery’s 25th and the State Department’s Art in Embassies Program’s 50th. Both institutions will join forces in the future, enabling artworks to be displayed at the Sackler before they are shipped off to embassies abroad.

In a series of three timed explosions, Cai Guo-Qiang created the illusion of a second tree of smoke drifting from the original pine tree, mimicking the flow of Chinese brush drawings. From prose, poetry. The archived event will be live soon.

Tomorrow, the celebrations continue with a conversation with artist Xu Bing, an Asian art and culture book fair, classical Arabian music, birthday cupcakes, and the much-anticipated opening of the Pure Land digital cave. Learn more on the Sackler at 25 page.

Posted by in Chinese Art, Contemporary Art, Sackler 25 | 1 Comment

The Art of the Proposal

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

Dear Freer and Sackler Galleries:

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

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

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

Thank you,
Max

Max, Maria, and the mandarins.

Posted by in A Closer Look, Chinese Art | No Comments

Ai Weiwei in Just Over a Minute

In addition to being our go-to guy for all things technological, Hutomo Wicaksono is the F|S videographer, creating features on exhibitions and special events. Here’s how he put together the time-lapse of the installation of Ai Weiwei’s work Fragments in the Sackler pavilion.

We mounted the camera high on the wall, very close to the ceiling, with the camera running for approximately eight hours each day. Every two minutes it took a picture, giving us about 250 photos each day. That part of the process took four days to complete, so by the end of day four, I had collected about 1,000 images.

Then it was on to two days of editing. I combined all of the photos together as a continuous action video using Adobe After Effects. Because we wanted to see fast-action movement, I set up the timing of each photo to be 0.05 second, so we could see about twenty photos per second. Once that finished, we searched for background music, created a video bumper, and shot some closing stills. I put everything back together in After Effects, added some mojo, and voilà, six days later, it was finished!

Posted by in Behind the Scenes, Chinese Art, Contemporary Art | No Comments