Guardian figure; Japan, Kamakura period (1185–1333); wood; Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art; F1949.21
The first time I entered the Freer Gallery a couple of years ago, I was immediately struck by the imposing wooden statues positioned at both ends of the north corridor. In June, when I started working as an intern at the Freer|Sackler, I found myself returning to them again and again. I often take a detour to admire their terrifying, unearthly beauty.
Created in the early fourteenth century to guard the gate of the Ebaradera temple in Sakai, Japan, the statues were carved in the likeness of the Kongorikishi, or Ni-o, benevolent kings who accompanied the Buddha and protected him during his travels in India. Their wrathful, violent appearance was believed to ward off evil spirits and protect the temple grounds from thieves.
As film and television and the rest of our visual culture have grown increasingly dark and violent, our ability to be shocked or truly scared by a work of art has diminished. But what must it have been like to encounter one of these wooden guardians at night in the fourteenth century? Would a thief sneaking into the temple under the cover of darkness encounter these supernatural gatekeepers and turn back? As monks moved through the temple at night, would the dancing flame of candlelight give the illusion that the Kongorikishi’s facial expressions were changing?
I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be a security guard working the late shift at the Freer|Sackler. Staring at those terrifying faces night after night in the dark, eerie silence of the museum, it’s not hard to believe that your mind could play tricks on you. I can imagine the statues slowly coming to life as the sun sets each night. They would climb down from their plinths and patrol the museum, looking for anything, or anyone, out of place. It would be a long night left alone with only these statues and your darkest flights of fancy to keep you company.
Maybe for those with a vivid imagination, art’s ability to inspire fear hasn’t been so diminished after all.
The Lute and White Snake of Benten (Sarasvati); Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849); Japan, Edo period, 1847; ink and color on silk; gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.134
As manager of performing arts at the Freer|Sackler, I’m always on the lookout for interesting images of music in our collections. We use these artworks to enhance our podcasts and as cover art for our concert program notes. An astute intern of mine spent a summer surveying our entire art collection and found more than four hundred musical images and actual instruments. These objects date from ancient Chinese bells (as old as the tenth century BCE) to nineteenth-century paintings and cover a wide variety of musical scenes from China, Japan, India, and Iran.
One of the most unusual images is The Lute and White Snake of Benten (Sarasvati), painted by Hokusai in 1847. At first glance, it seems to show neither a musician nor a musical instrument. What it does depict is a beautiful fabric instrument-case for a Japanese lute called a biwa encircled by a snake, a most intriguing combination.
It turns out that the pear-shaped biwa (closely related to the Chinese pipa) is the instrument of the goddess Benzaiten (aka Benten). This Japanese deity was adapted from the Hindu goddess Sarasvati, who has long been associated in India with music and scholarship. Images and legends of Sarasvati arrived in Japan via the Silk Road sometime between the sixth and eighth centuries. Just as Sarasvati is depicted in Indian art playing the vina (an Indian zither), Benten was given the role of biwa player. She also took on other aspects of Sarasvati, serving as the goddess of language, dance, water, and snakes. In Japan, Benten’s shrines are often located near water; a painting in the Freer collection from the eighteenth century shows her seated on a high rock, playing the biwa, while ocean waters roil below. These elements may not have formed a logical group elsewhere, but in the Hindu-Buddhist context they are all seen as things that flow, making water and snakes close cousins of verbal eloquence and musical virtuosity.
Stay tuned for new podcasts coming soon, and reserve tickets for our live performances.
Sudden Shower over the Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake (Ohasi Atake no yu dachi), from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (Meisho Edo Hyakkei); Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858); Japan, Edo period, 1857; Gift of Alan, Donald, and David Winslow from the estate of William R. Castle, Freer Gallery of Art, F1994.29
If “hot” and “humid” are the two words that come to mind when you think of summer in DC, you’re not alone. The high temperatures coupled with stifling humidity are reason enough for most people to stay indoors during July and August. But while the daytime weather may not be for everyone, the evening thunderstorms make it all worthwhile. For me, hot summer days are just a precursor to the nightly entertainment. I love watching late afternoon clouds roll across the sky, while the thunder and lightning provide the A/V accompaniment to the ten-, twenty-, or thirty-minute rainy performance. The aftereffects of the storms are equally rewarding as the temperature drops and, sometimes, a beautiful, glowing sunset frames the departing clouds.
Utagawa Hiroshige’s woodblock print Sudden Shower over the Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake (Ohashi Atake no yu dachi) from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (Meisho Edo Hyakkei) perfectly fits my image of a DC summer storm. A bright, clear sky rapidly fills with dark clouds that release a torrent of rain. People caught in the downpour take cover under umbrellas, mats, and straw hats while rushing to find shelter. In the distance, a boatman poles his craft down the Sumida River as the clouds gather. It’s not difficult for me to imagine Hiroshige’s view of summertime Tokyo as one of DC, where visitors and residents alike are caught outside as the clouds open above the National Mall.
Hiroshige’s view of summer evoked strong feelings from later Western artists, notably Vincent van Gogh, who copied Sudden Shower in oil. James McNeill Whistler also used Hiroshige’s scenes of Tokyo as sources of inspiration, especially for the series of paintings he called Nocturnes.
Many wonderful works of art can be seen in the Freer Gallery of Art—which also doubles as a great refuge should you get caught on the Mall during a summer storm. For those of you who prefer to look at art from the comfort of your own air-conditioned spaces, check out our digitized collections at Open F|S. No umbrella required.
Installation view of “Over the Continents” by Chiharu Shiota
If your shoes could talk, what story would they would tell?
I began working at the Freer|Sackler last July. One month later, Chiharu Shiota began assembling Over the Continents as part of the Perspectives series of contemporary art. Watching her work on the installation—shoes with little notes attached by red yarn—was enough reason for me to love it. Shiota spent three days carefully placing each shoe in the Sackler pavilion and then tying on the yarn, which originates in the corner of the room and connects one shoe to the next. For the artist, discarded shoes and notes link us to memories of times and people who are now lost to us.
Not only do I love the installation and the stories that it tells, I love the memory that I now have because of it. When I began working here, I was afraid that without a background in Asian art, I would have a hard time connecting to the artworks and exhibitions. Watching Shiota install her work changed that, allowing me to appreciate and understand my new place of work. Having moved twelve times in twenty-eight years, it’s very important for me to solidify a connection to a new place early on. If my shoes could talk about my first few months at the Freer|Sackler, this is the story they would tell.
A selection of the notes on view in the installation have been translated from Japanese and made available on our website and on the computer in the pavilion. The exhibition closes this Sunday, so you only have a few days to check it out!
The Chinese Taoist Immortals, Han-shan and Shih-te (Kanzan and Jittoku); Hashimoto Gahō (1835–1908); Japan, Meiji era, 1886; ink and slight tint on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.227
When I came to work at the Freer|Sackler in 1987, I had no idea how profoundly it would affect the path of my life. I discovered that the museums are in many ways a crossroads for lives past and present—a beautiful time machine. There are many noteworthy objects within the collections, but when I was asked to write about a “favorite object” this particular painting came to mind right away. It is the work of a master, but one of many within the museums. To me, this picture is so expressive and so evocative that the Chinese Taoist Immortals very nearly come alive.
Han-shan (pictured above), a legendary poet whose name translates as “Cold Mountain,” wrote the following verse:
The everyday mind: that is the way.
Buried in vines and rock-bound caves,
Here it’s wild, here I am free,
Idling with the white clouds, my friends.
Tracks here never reach the world;
No-mind, so what can shift my thought?
I sit the night through on a bed of stone,
While the moon climbs Cold Mountain.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.