Category Archives: Japanese Art

Friday Fave: Writing Box

Box for writing utensils; Japan, Edo period, early 19th century; wood, lacquer, gold, metal, shell; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.37a–c

Box for writing utensils; Japan, Edo period, early 19th century; wood, lacquer, gold, metal, shell; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.37a–c

As a visual information specialist, one of my jobs is to measure objects that have been selected for an exhibition, just to make sure they’ll fit into our cases. This also gives me the opportunity to look at works of art up close before they go on view. The upcoming exhibition Bold and Beautiful: Rinpa in Japanese Art features one of my favorite objects: a Japanese lacquer box from the Edo period that Charles Lang Freer acquired more than one hundred years ago. When I first looked at it, I was struck by the powerful image of a man on a horse in movement. The overall design has a textured surface made with various materials, including mother-of-pearl, used to create the man’s face, and gold and silver, which decorate his clothes and outline the horse.

Rinpa takes its name from the painter, textile, and lacquer designer Ogata Korin (1658–1716). The style became associated with innovative designs for objects including lacquerware. In fact, this lacquer writing box was done in the style of Korin and depicts a scene from the Japanese classic Tales of Ise.

The inside of the lacquer box is just as beautiful as the exterior cover. It has clean lines that outline a landscape image, also using silver and gold. The box has small compartments for writing materials. The inlay design of the interior seems to have a smoother finish than the horse and rider on the cover.

I am excited for this particular lacquer box to be on display in the coming months. Although it is a simple writing box, it has a mysterious feel to it that makes me wonder if it was a decorative piece in a household or used by nobles or high officials. Who was the letter writer, and what did he or she write?

When Bold and Beautiful: Rinpa in Japanese Art opens in the Freer on June 28, the writing box will be featured along with nearly forty works of art by Korin, his brother Kenzan, and later artists inspired by Rinpa designs.

Friday Fave: Pheasants and Cherry Trees

Pheasants and Cherry Trees; Japan, Momoyama period, first quarter of the 17th century; ink, color, and gold on paper; Purchase, F2006.3.1–2

Pheasants and Cherry Trees; Japan, Momoyama period, first quarter of the 17th century; ink, color, and gold on paper; Purchase, F2006.3.1–2

Spring has sprung in the District! In celebration of this long-awaited season and the cherry blossoms that are almost in bloom, I’d like to present my favorite artwork, Pheasants and Cherry Trees.

One of the most impressive things about this work of art—and the one thing that you can’t get a sense of from any digital image—is its grand scale. The pair of screens takes up half of one of our Japanese galleries, and the delicate, detailed cherry blossom trees that dot the landscape are truly a sight to behold. Despite its size, if you look closely enough, you can discern individual petals in varying shades of pink, rough patches of bark, and even small blots of green buds about to take shape.

The pheasants are equally impressive. A few wait patiently, beaks to the ground underneath the shade of the trees. But two have taken flight into the pure gold background, seemingly awash in sunlight. The long, striped feathers of the first bird still almost touch the grass, and the second one’s wingtip comes close to the top edge of the screen, connecting earth and sky. Follow their line and your eye floats across the screen and then up and over to the wall beyond.

Pheasants and Cherry Trees is on view in the Freer Gallery of Art. Come see it for yourself tomorrow during our Cherry Blossom Celebration, a day full of Japanese art, anime and manga films, a book signing, a vintage kimono trunk show, and family activities.

Friday Fave: March MADness

Mask; Japan, Edo period, 1615–1868; wood with paint and hair; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.314

Mask; Japan, Edo period, 1615–1868; wood with paint and hair; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.314

 

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art.

Not only is it Friday the 13th, but it’s also just days until the year’s scariest, most cutthroat contest: March MADness. While the rest of America roots for their favorite men’s basketball teams, we at the museums will pit sixteen intimidating objects against one another for the coveted title of Freer|Sackler’s Fiercest. Pictured is last year’s winner (after edging out the Maiden of Dojoji), a Japanese mask that represents a demon (oni). It probably was used in a ritual exorcism performed the night before the New Year, and its eyes may once have been coated with gilt metal for extra glaring power.

On Tuesday, as the NCAA kicks off its tournament, head to the F|S Facebook page to vote for the maddest, baddest objects in our collection. Then, follow along with our bracket to see if your picks make it to the final rounds. As head of our social media team, it would be biased of me to name a top choice in this sure-to-be-contentious battle—but I can divulge that this year’s group ups the ante in pure nightmare fuel.

Visit our Connect page to find more ways to follow the Freer|Sackler on social media.

Grey Matters

No. 5; Takiguchi Kazuo (born 1953); Kyoto, Japan, Heisei era, 1996; stoneware with dark gray matte textured glaze; Purchase—John and Marinka Bennett, S1997.33

No. 5; Takiguchi Kazuo (born 1953); Kyoto, Japan, Heisei era, 1996; stoneware with dark gray matte textured glaze; Purchase—John and Marinka Bennett, S1997.33

Well, we all know what movie you saw last weekend. Enough said.

But why be satisfied with a mere fifty shades of grey? The Freer|Sackler’s newly digitized collections contain more than four hundred objects featuring most every kind of grey known to man … and woman. Enter grey (or gray, if you prefer) into the search, and hundreds of works of art will become available for your viewing, study, and personal pleasure.

Curious? Check out Open F|S and enter a world you’ve always wanted to know more about.

Friday Fave: Tea Bowl

Tea bowl, possibly Satsuma ware; possibly Kagoshima prefecture, Japan, Edo period, 17th century; stoneware with clear, crackled glaze, stained by ink; gold lacquer repairs; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.323

Tea bowl, possibly Satsuma ware; possibly Kagoshima prefecture, Japan, Edo period, 17th century; stoneware with clear, crackled glaze, stained by ink; gold lacquer repairs; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.323

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art.

This Japanese tea bowl from the 17th century is beautiful enough to stop me in my tracks. It’s stoneware with a crackled glaze, and most likely a Satsuma ware vessel, a style of Japanese ceramic associated with the region formerly known by that name. It seems perfect on its own, but it’s rich with narrative and has a story to tell. Sometime during its life, the tea bowl broke and shattered into pieces. It was repaired using powdered gold sprinkled over repairs made in lacquer. It became a graceful alternative to the traditional Chinese method of using staples to repair ceramics. The technique became known as “golden joinery” (kintsugi) or “golden concealment” (kintsuguroi). The broken object is not only fixed, but somehow transformed. Apparently, as the technique developed over the centuries, some people may have deliberately broken their bowls so that they could make a plain vessel more interesting and valuable by adding a golden repair.

When I look at the bowl, I don’t see damage. The break and repair have made it more beautiful. It looks to me like an artist has riffed on a Japanese poem of a moon entangled in the branches of a tree, and etched it onto the bowl.

Though today is Friday the 13th, tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. Good follows bad—and the same goes for luck. What you may think is broken today could be something you cherish tomorrow.

Friday Fave: Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank

Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank, by Sesson (1504–1589); Japan, Momoyama period, 1568–1615; ink on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.218–19

Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank, by Sesson (1504–1589); Japan, Momoyama period, 1568–1615; ink on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.218–19

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art.

When I need a break from the monkeyshines in my office, I visit the Freer’s Japanese galleries to spend some time with Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank, a pair of six-fold screens.

Painted in the 16th century, the monochromatic screens illustrate a Zen Buddhist parable about monkeys that try to grasp the reflection of a full moon in the water, warning us about the futility of chasing illusion. But I think the monkeys also show that there can be meaning in the effort.

When I walk quietly through DC’s Sligo Creek Park near my house, animals start to appear from the woods: birds, rabbits, and if I’m lucky, deer. Similarly, at the museum, when I look at the screen at top, what first seems to be a classical Japanese landscape of bamboo and pine livens up on closer inspection: the twisting vines enveloping the tree become the sinewy arms and legs of monkeys climbing an old pine to get a better look at the moon floating below. Meanwhile, an all-white monkey on the riverbank stretches his arm across the water, his eyes fixed on the luminous prize that is so far out of reach.

A mother monkey and her baby take what they believe is a more direct approach. Hanging by a tree limb, the mother curls her leg, ready to snatch up the moon with her sharp toes. Her baby holds on tight and grabs at the moon with his other hand, excited to be a part of the adventure.

Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank, left-hand screen

Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank, left-hand screen

Another monkey in the companion screen (above) has a similar plan: he swoops at the moon from a low hanging grapevine, but it has disappeared in a splash of water! Though determined to try again, it may be time to quit, judging from the grumpy expression of the monkey nearby. She has had it with the moon and its illusions, as have her children. One baby curls up beside her, eyes closed and his head resting on crossed arms, ready for a nap.

The monkey parable has endured for centuries, evidenced by Xu Bing’s contemporary sculpture in the Sackler Gallery. And while we take the lesson to heart—desire turns into resignation through life’s experiences—the monkeys demonstrate what’s also essential along the way: curiosity, companionship, innovation, and sometimes a good nap.

Friday Fave: Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami

Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami; Kitagawa Utamaro; Japan, Edo period, late 18th–early 19th century; ink and color on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.54

Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami, by Kitagawa Utamaro
Japan, Edo period, late 18th–early 19th century
Ink and color on paper, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.54

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art in Open F|S, our newly digitized collection.

My favorite object in the collection? That’s a tough one. Truth is, I have lots of favorites.

There is one painting, however, that I grew to admire the more time I spent photographing it. Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami is an amazingly detailed panel painting by Kitagawa Utamaro (1754–1806), filled with scenes of an elite pleasure establishment that form a visually compelling narrative. For a special educational project by the Kyoto Cultural Association, I spent two full days photographing the painting’s every detail. At the Freer|Sackler, we often photograph art with an eye on the technical challenges each object presents or with a deadline in mind. In the case of Moonlight Revelry, we were asked to photograph this masterpiece in eighteen precisely overlapping sections in order for it to be recreated back in Japan as closely to the original as possible.

I love that the painting has so much to offer. In fact, the more you look, the more you discover: from the intriguing center salon to the ships sailing in the distant background and all the sundry activities near and far. Moonlight Revelry has an amazing perspective that draws you in. It invites you to imagine being in that salon and life in that period with a quality and technique that, as I came to learn later, influenced future generations of artists, including American artist James McNeill Whistler.

Finding Fish for “Bountiful Waters”

Carp ascending a waterfall; Ohara Koson (Japanese, 1877–1945), Japan, ca. 1926; ink and color on paper; F2002.15

Carp ascending a waterfall; Ohara Koson (Japanese, 1877–1945), Japan, ca. 1926; ink and color on paper; F2002.15

Cecelia Reed is the editor of the Smithsonian Associates‘ monthly program guide. A longer version of this article originally appeared in their August 2014 newsletter.

The waters that surround the island nation of Japan have always been an integral part of its life and culture. Legend has it that the islands were born of male and female deities that descended from heaven. The mountains, rivers, and lakes became home to the plants and marine life that have sustained human life for millennia.

Japanese respect and appreciation for this life in all its beauty and variety is at the heart of Bountiful Waters: Aquatic Life in Japanese Art, on view at the Freer Gallery of Art through September 14. The exhibition brings together for the first time a selection of woodblock prints, paintings, illustrated books, and ceramics from the museum’s collections, many of which were gifts of founder Charles Lang Freer. However, the origin of the show’s highlight—20 woodblock prints of fish and crustaceans by artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), known as the “Large Fish” series—is another story entirely.

Hiroshige’s fish didn’t leap suddenly onto the museum walls. Rather, it took nearly two decades to find and catch them all, says Ann Yonemura, the Freer|Sackler’s senior associate curator of Japanese art. “I have been working with John Fuegi and Jo Francis, the collectors of the [Large Fish] prints, for almost 20 years,” she explains. When this partnership began, Fuegi, today a documentary filmmaker, was a professor at the University of Maryland with an interest in Japanese art. “He came into the museum and asked to look at a rare Edo period printing block from Hiroshige’s fish series” that had come from Charles Lang Freer, Yonemura recalls. “When John saw the dreadful condition of the actual finished print, he asked if I’d be interested in his helping to build, incrementally over time, a set for the museum that was in better condition. I told him it was a great idea.” Fuegi started the project in 1995. Today, the Freer’s is one of the few public collections with a complete set of prints.

The result of this 20-year curator-collector partnership, says Yonemura, is a “spectacular collection of Japanese fish prints and paintings” from which she was able to design a rich and varied exhibition. Bountiful Waters features the first showing of a full set of prints in the “Large Fish” series, accompanied by lively and lyrical verses by various poets.

Bountiful Waters remains on view through this Sunday. Learn more about Japanese art in the Freer|Sackler collections.

Why is the Smithsonian Covered in Yarn?!

Scenes from last night's yarn bomb.

Scenes from last night’s yarn bomb.

If you pass by the Smithsonian Castle today or over the weekend, you may be surprised to see its gates and gardens wrapped up in red yarn. Why would the Freer|Sackler do such a thing? Read on to find out!

What are you doing?
We’re yarn bombing!

Yarn bombing involves covering the surface of large objects with knitted material—in this case, six miles of bright-red yarn. The yarn was knit in separate pieces, and then attached and connected to the gates, benches, lampposts, and other parts of the Enid A. Haupt Garden.

Why?
Opening this weekend in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is an installation by contemporary Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota, whose art uses everyday objects such as yarn, shoes, and keys to create room-filling works that have deep personal meaning. In her installation, called Over the Continents, she used 350 donated shoes and 4 miles of the same shade of red yarn used in the yarn bomb. Part of the Freer|Sackler’s Perspectives series of contemporary art, Shiota’s work will be on view for the next year. The yarn bomb, unfortunately, can only stay up through Labor Day.

How is the yarn bomb related to the exhibition?
Yarn is one of Shiota’s signature materials—it’s lightweight, flexible, and familiar—and she uses massive amounts to create something greater than its original form. As Shiota herself explained, “The threads are woven together. They become entangled. They tear. They unravel. They are a mirror of the emotions.” Red yarn, in particular, symbolizes the human body and states of being.

There’s also an element of community in Shiota’s pieces. She crowdsources many of the components, and she appreciates how people can come together for an artistic experience. For example, many visitors dropped by to watch her work during the public installation of Over the Continents on August 18–21. Similarly, the yarn bomb was created by many volunteers. It’s a fun way to alert people outside that there are dynamic things going on inside the Freer|Sackler.

In addition, the view of the gates and the castle is among the most iconic at the Smithsonian—and it happens to be right in front of the Sackler’s entrance.

Who is doing this?
The marketing staff at the Freer|Sackler started the yarn bomb, but once word got out, the project quickly grew to include more than 120 volunteers from around the Smithsonian and the DC area. People knit, helped to string up and attach the works, and spread the word among their friends and networks.

When was it done?
The yarn bomb was installed the evening of August 28 and revealed early in the morning on August 29, the day before Perspectives: Chiharu Shiota officially opened to the public. We had been knitting for about two weeks to create all of the pieces.

Are you making fun of the artist?
No, we certainly aren’t! We were inspired by Shiota’s use of simple, everyday materials, her involvement of community in her projects, and the vibrancy of her choice of color. The yarn bomb is a way to honor that outside the museums and to inject a little bit of the unexpected into everyone’s Friday commute or weekend visit to the Galleries.

What was the hardest part of the project?
The trickiest aspect was planning it. After we figured out what could be covered (benches, poles, fences) and what couldn’t (trees, flowerpots), we mapped out the surfaces and lengths of yarn we needed, working backward to convert it to lengths and then to skeins of yarn. It was comparatively easy to find the right shade of yarn, and easiest of all to learn to knit (which many of us did just for this project)!

What will you do with the yarn once it’s taken down?
We’re not sure yet! We hope to put the yarn to good use (it’s covered with a substance to make it fire resistant, so that presents some limitations). We’d love to hear suggestions, which you can tweet to @FreerSackler (hashtag: #perspectives) or post on our Facebook page.

Whistler, Hiroshige, and a Fortunate Find

Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl; James McNeill Whistler; 1864, oil on canvas; Tate Britain, London

Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl; James McNeill Whistler; 1864, oil on canvas; Tate Britain, London

Margaret MacDonald, professor emerita of art history at the University of Glasgow, is guest curator for An American in London: Whistler and the Thames, on view at the Sackler through Sunday, August 17.

Luck plays its little tricks on the hardened researcher. Sometimes I try for hours, weeks even, to crack a particular puzzle. And then something exciting—and vital—turns up out of the blue. I am based in glorious Glasgow, so I rely on Scottish libraries, the Whistler Collection, university archives, and of course, the Internet to learn more about artist James McNeill Whistler. However, once or twice a year, I spend a frenzied week researching in London, where the British Library and Victoria and Albert Museum are high on my list of beloved places. They even have good cafes.

Today’s tale involves the V&A. I had arrived early, stoked up with Kensington cafe coffee and croissants. I dumped my bags in the cloakroom and loaded everything needed in a see-through plastic bag, which ensured I couldn’t nick the Whistlers. A spacious modern print room awaited with comfy chairs and online catalogues. A curator came over to gossip…bliss. I’d requested to see some of the museum’s earliest acquisitions of Whistler etchings, but the delivery was a bit slow that day, so I whiled away the time on the museum’s online collections. Somehow, I strayed further and further into the website. I entered various names and words in the search box. Apparently, a huge collection of Japanese woodcuts, including fans, had been put online. Serendipity, second sight, or sheer luck came into play at this point. I entered ‘Hiroshige River Fan’ and a gorgeous Hiroshige work appeared. I had fed in the right words and—open sesame—the wonders of Hiroshige’s world were revealed. I think I stopped breathing.

The Banks of the Sumida River, from the series Famous Places in the Eastern Capital; Utagawa Hiroshige; Japan, Edo period, 1857; woodblock print; ink and color on paper; Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Banks of the Sumida River, from the series Famous Places in the Eastern Capital; Utagawa Hiroshige; Japan, Edo period, 1857; woodblock print; ink and color on paper; Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The image I saw before me was The Banks of the Sumida River, a woodcut from Hiroshige’s series Famous Places in the Eastern Capital. The scene it depicts is strikingly similar to one within Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl (pictured at top of this post). For this work, Whistler’s mistress, Jo, posed in a white muslin summer dress, standing by a mantelpiece in his house in Lindsey Row, her face reflected in a mirror. Blue-and-white porcelain adorned the fireplace, and Jo held an Asian fan or hand-screen. Until recently, this fan had not been identified. Indeed, I had thought it perhaps showed a woman holding a parasol. It appears that I was looking at it upside down! The fan (when looked at the right way up) shows a boat with a sail billowing in the wind, on a broad river of deep blue with green waves. In the distance are two more boats with rectangular sails and, on the left, several barges. The spacious composition and broad bands of rich colour are striking.

The print, dating from 1857 (Hiroshige died the following year), would have traveled from Japan to London via ship, on a journey that could have taken up to seven years. It was probably trimmed and mounted for sale in Britain as a fan or hand-screen, used as a shade against heat or light. Although there may have been many impressions of this uchiwa-e (rigid fan print) in different colour ranges, few appear to have survived.

The V&A print is not literally Whistler’s fan. Along with never being mounted within a frame as a fan, the V&A print has a sky of deep blue at the horizon, where Whistler’s was red. In addition, Whistler’s collection of Japanese and Chinese objects—prints and porcelain and all—was sold when he went bankrupt. The bankruptcy sale, held by Baker & Sons in 1879, featured “Japanese hand screens,” possibly including Jo’s fan. The V&A fan came from another collection and entered the museum in 1886. However, the two prints are dated from the same time and probably traveled on the same ship.

On a later trip to London, I was able to arrange to see the fan print itself, a woodcut of great beauty. The print shows the Sumida River, with Mount Tsukuba on the horizon, from the middle of the Azuma Bridge, the northernmost of four bridges spanning the river. To the left is the Shoten Shrine at Matsuchiyama, and beyond is the entrance to the San’yabori Canal, whence travellers walked along the Nihon Embankment to the Yoshiwara licensed pleasure quarters. To the right is the Mukojima district, with steps leading down to the river and the Takeya ferry crossing, behind which, over the embankment, the torii gate of the Mimeguri Shrine is visible.

The scene makes a fascinating comparison to the approach up the river Thames to the Cremorne Pleasure Gardens, which were very close to Whistler’s house on Lindsey Row, on the same north bank of the river (more or less visible from the front room where the Little White Girl was painted). In subject, composition, and detail, prints such as Hiroshige’s had a strong influence on Whistler, not only as accessories but in composition and subject.

By the time I saw the woodcut, it was long past the date for adding works to the Whistler show, but given its importance and relevance, we were able to make a case for its inclusion. The V&A generously agreed to lend the work. The fan had pride of place in the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery and is currently on view in An American in London: Whistler and the Thames, on view at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery…but only for a few more days. I strongly advise everyone to go and see it while you have the chance!

View a gallery of images from An American in London: Whistler and the Thames, on view through Sunday, August 17.