art outside the box | the freer | sackler blog

And the Academy Award for Best Actor Goes To …

The Actor Nakamura Utaemon III as Kato Masakiyo, Edo period, The Anne van Biema Collection, S2004.3.122

The Actor Nakamura Utaemon III as Kato Masakiyo, 1822, The Anne van Biema Collection, S2004.3.259

… the Actor Nakamura Utaemon III as Kato Masakiyo, of course! Utaemon was a major star of the Osaka kabuki stage, but he also performed in Edo. His visits to both cities created great excitement and intensified his rivalries with other star actors, notably Arashi Kichisaburo in Osaka and Bando Mitsugoro III in Edo. Here, a close-up portrait by the Osaka artist Hokushu conveys Utaemon’s projection of strength and determination as the character Kato Masakiyo, also known as Kato Kiyomasa, a symbol of loyalty in the face of lethal treachery. The print commemorates a performance at the Kado Theater in Osaka in 1820. A poem, a common feature of Osaka prints, is inscribed above the actor’s head. It reads: Kiyomasa is the moon shining on the world at midday: an art of piercing insight. Translation of poem by Roger S. Keyes (Roger S. Keyes and Keiko Mizushima, The Theatrical World of Osaka Prints, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973)

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Angry Birds?

Kenzan style tea bowl with design of crane and flowing water; Japan; late 19th century; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.100

Kenzan style tea bowl with design of crane and flowing water; late 19th century;
Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.100


Lee Glazer is associate curator of American art at Freer|Sackler.

Hardly. When artists evoked avian melodies, as Thomas Dewing did in The Four Sylvan Soundsthey intended to soothe and refresh, to take the viewer out of “the harness of business” and into a more pleasant, “sylvan” realm. The sounds and scents of nature are mentioned with surprising frequency in Freer’s correspondence with artists and friends. Dewing used the sensory pleasures of a woodland ramble to induce Freer to visit him at his summer studio in Cornish, New Hampshire. “I wish you could be here,” Dewing wrote in June 1894, “taking in this cool fresh air filled with bird notes & scents of flowers.”

Two years later, the artist translated this experience into the visual language of painting, telling Freer he had begun work on a pair of screens representing “the four forest notes—the Hermit Thrush, the sound of running water, the woodpecker, and the wind through the pine trees.” These screens, now on view in Sylvan Sounds: Freer, Dewing, and Japan, incorporate a number of influences, the most direct being the natural beauty of the New England countryside. The figures were inspired by ancient Greek Tanagra figurines, and the theme came from a poem called “Wood Notes” by the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Dewing’s debt to Japanese art is evident in the bifold format of the screens and the simplicity of the unframed panels. The flowers and forest leaves, some painted with a stencil, resemble the elegant, stylized patterns of many screens in Freer’s Japanese collection, along with the multisensory imagery denoting bird songs and rustling grasses.

Rectangular Dish, Japan, stoneware with white slip and iron pigment under white glaze; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.53

Rectangular dish; Japan; stoneware with white slip and iron pigment under white glaze;
19th century; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.53

Freer had purchased his first two Japanese folding screens early in 1896, just after returning from his first visit to Japan. Later that same year, Dewing began to paint The Four Sylvan Sounds. During the two years that Dewing worked on these panels, Freer acquired sixteen Japanese screens, twelve of which are now in the museum’s collection. After promising his art collection to the Smithsonian Institution in 1906, Freer stipulated that his Japanese screens had to be displayed in a special gallery in a proposed new museum. He envisioned the space as a link between galleries devoted to Dewing and other American artists and those featuring the art of Whistler. This early arrangement underscored Freer’s belief in cross-cultural aesthetic connections between East and West—a principle theme in the current exhibition as well.

Sylvan Sounds: Freer, Dewing, and Japan remains on view through May 18, 2014.

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Eels in July

Ascending Eels by Kimura Buzan; early 20th century; F2008.2a-c

Ascending Eels by Kimura Buzan; early 20th century; F2008.2a-c

The Japanese words for the subject of this painting, unagi nobori, mean “a fast, rocket-like rise.” Eels have been an important delicacy in Japan since the Edo period (1615–1868). Eating eel during the hot, humid summer was believed to increase stamina. It is still customary to consume the fish on a certain midsummer day on the lunar calendar that usually falls in late July.

Confident sweeps of the brush define with utmost simplicity the forms of two eels and ashrimp; gold pigment highlights the edges of their bodies. The artist’s elegant, hand-painted design of maples and grasses serves as a harmonious silk mounting for the painting. Kimura Buzan studied painting under Kawabata Gyokusho (1842–1913), an artist who knew both European and Japanese painting methods. Kimura also studied at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts (founded 1876) and was active in exhibitions of the Nihon Bijutsuin, an association of artists founded in 1898.

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Fireworks!

Fireworks at Ryōgoku, 1880, Kobayashi Kiyochika, S2003.8.1195

Fireworks at Ryōgoku, 1880, Kobayashi Kiyochika, Robert O. Muller Collection; S2003.8.1195

Kobayashi Kiyochika is known for his night scenes in much the same way that James McNeill Whistler is renowned for his Nocturnes. Both men were poets of the night, and will be featured in related exhibitions at the Freer|Sackler in 2014.

In Kiyochika’s Fireworks at Ryōgoku, two boats converge for Kawabiraki, a fireworks display held in mid-July to open the river to summer pleasure boats. In earlier times, fireworks had been used as part of a purification ritual to ward off summer illness. By Kiyochika’s time, the display had lost that earlier meaning and was more of a spectacle.

Kiyochika is not the first artist to depict this scene, but his novel use of light to illuminate the foreground adds a cinematic touch to the print. The members of both boating parties—traveling in a palace boat (yakatabune) on the right and a roof boat (yanebune) at left—cast silhouettes that make the revelers look as if they were sailing across a movie screen.

Happy July 4 from the Freer|Sackler!

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The Paper Chase: Making Japanese Books

Handmade books and paper from Pyramid Atlantic.

Examples of books you can make at our Inner-Artist Workshops: The Art of Japanese Pouch-books

The Freer|Sackler has teamed up with Pyramid Atlantic Art Center to offer six Japanese book-making workshops for adults in conjunction with the exhibition Hand-Held: Gerhard Pulverer’s Japanese Illustrated Books. F|S educator Joanna Pecore chatted with Pyramid Atlantic’s artistic director, Gretchen Schermerhorn, about these events, which will take place on selected weekends through the end of June.

Joanna: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk, Gretchen. Can you tell me about your work with making papers and books?

Gretchen: I am a printmaker and paper-maker. I started making paper around 10 years ago and have since been trained in making both Western and Asian papers. I am also specifically interested in woodblock printing.

Joanna: What inspired you to begin making paper?

Gretchen: In graduate school, one of my professors taught a paper-making class. At the time, I wondered why anyone would want or need to make paper. It is so easy to purchase. Then, I learned about everything that goes into it: the vision, what it is made from, and the control involved in the process. There is so much variation in what can be done.

Joanna: Can you tell me about Pyramid Atlantic?

Gretchen: It is an art center in Silver Spring, Maryland, dedicated to the preservation and creation of prints, paper, and book arts. We offer all kinds of opportunities, like residencies, internships, and classes. Visiting artists come from all over the world to share their art at our center. What’s more important, though, is that we do it all: paper, prints, and books. We explore how all of these elements relate to each other. They are all important to the process of bookmaking. People can do it all under one roof at Pyramid Atlantic.

Joanna: What can participants expect when they join your workshops at the Sackler?

Gretchen: They will to get to create a book and a print inspired by works in the Hand-Held exhibition. After the workshop, they will be able to really understand how the books in the exhibition were made, especially how they were bound and printed. It ties into exhibit. It is not just an art project.

Joanna: What is unique about this opportunity?

Gretchen: This is an authentic experience. It is really exciting for me. Although I have been doing stab binding—the type of binding used in the “pouch-books”—for years, this is the first time I have tried to replicate how it was done in Japan. And we are going to use the “pouch” technique. We haven’t done that before. This workshop is an incredibly rare and affordable way for participants to get this experience.

The first classes begin this weekend. Check the F|S website for the complete schedule.

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The Art of the Book

Case Study: Japanese books from the Gerhard Pulverer Collection

Case study: Japanese books from the Gerhard Pulverer collection

On Saturday, April 6, Hand-Held: Gerhard Pulverer’s Japanese Illustrated Books opens in the Sackler. In honor of the exhibition, we’re hosting a weekend celebrating Japanese arts and design. Check our calendar to learn more about the events that include tours, talks, hands-on activities, and music.

Posted by in Exhibitions, Family Day, Japanese Art | No Comments

Demons Out! Luck In!

Throwing Beans by Kawanabe Kyosai, Japan, 1889, Robert O. Muller Collection, S2003.8.496

Throwing Beans by Kawanabe Kyosai, Japan, 1889, Robert O. Muller Collection, S2003.8.496

New Year’s resolutions not quite working out for you? Winter sleet and dark skies have you down? I have one word to offer: beans. Yep, beans. February 3 marks the start of Setsubun, the Japanese festival where you drive out bad demons (oni) to bring in good fortune. After the beans are tossed, gather up as many beans as years you are old (but not one bean more!) in order to ensure good luck. So, on Sunday, pick up a handful of beans (any kind will do, though traditionally roasted soybeans are the weapon of choice), and join our Japanese friends in the Setsubun festival.

In Kyosai’s print, the woman on the left holds the tray of beans, but she seems to have the mumps. This full-cheeked woman is an Edo-period rendering of the goddess Otafaku, who, according to legend, performed an erotic dance that lured the sun goddess from a cave in which she had hidden, thus filling the world with light. Without demons hanging around your house, the world is a much brighter place.

Ready. Set. Toss.

Posted by in From the Collections, Japanese Art | 1 Comment

Snow in Japan

Dressed in Japanese kimono, young women who have turned or will turn 20 this year, the traditional age of adulthood in Japan, walk in the snow following a Coming of Age ceremony in Tokyo earlier this month. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

Japan was recently socked by a storm that left a few inches of snow in the capital of Tokyo and more than six feet on the island of Hokkaido. To get my fill of a snowy Japanese landscape, I can travel to Japan, check out photographs of the storm online, or have a look at some of my favorite works of art in the Freer|Sackler collection.

Winter, from Beauty of the Seasons by Isoda Koryusai, late 18th century, color and gold on silk; F1902.39

Artist and designer Isoda Koryusai produced a series of “beauty” prints in the 1770s. Like the Tokyo women in the photograph above, this woman is dressed in traditional kimono and holds an umbrella to protect her from the snow. I love the blue rim of the large, rice paper umbrella and the red that peeks out from the layers of her garments, against the gold background and the white hush of snow.

In 1760 Edo, kabuki producers adapted a famous Noh drama dance routine called The Heron Maiden (Sagi musume). The protagonist was associated with snowfall and possibly inspired an interest in images of courtesans in snow. Koryusai designed woodblock prints precisely referencing the play, but any painting of a maiden in snow suggested a connection to the general theme. This painting forms a pair with Summer, in which a woman holds on to an umbrella twisted by a downpour.

The nearly fifty works by Koryusai—prints, paintings, and printed books—in the Freer|Sackler collections focus on the fashionable, no matter the season.

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

Freer @ 90: Early Acquisitions

Satsuma ware bottle by Kano Tangen from the Edo period, acquired by Charles Lang Freer in 1892.

This year, we celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Freer Gallery of Art. When it opened in 1923, the Freer became the first fine art museum on the Smithsonian campus. But the story is older than that: In 1906, Freer offered his collections of Asian and American art to the nation, a gift he had proposed to President Theodore Roosevelt the year before.

In the late 1880s, Freer began collecting American works of art, most notably paintings and works on paper by James McNeill Whistler. It was Whistler who turned his patron’s attention to the East. In 1887, Freer purchased his first Asian art object: a Japanese fan, which he bought from Takayanagi Tozo, an importer of “high class Japanese art objects and a choice collector of bric-a-brac” with a storefront in New York City. From the same dealer, in 1892, Freer acquired his first Japanese ceramic: an 18th-century Satsuma ware jar with an underglaze blue decoration (pictured above) that reminded Freer of Whistler’s landscapes. In 1893, Freer again made a purchase from Takayanagi: his first Chinese painting, a small Ming dynasty scroll of herons.

Freer’s interest in Asia led him to take multiple tours of the continent, his first in 1894 and his last in 1911. By the end of that final visit to Asia, Freer was an internationally recognized collector and connoisseur of Asian art.

Throughout this anniversary year, we’ll take a look at some of the highlights from the more than 24,000 objects in the Freer Gallery’s renowned collection.

Posted by in A Closer Look, From the Collections, Japanese Art | 1 Comment

Who Ya Gonna Call? (Ghost Edition)

The House of Broken Plates from One Hundred Ghost Tales,
Katsushika Hokusai, (1760–1849); woodblock print; color on paper; S2004.3.210

The five ghosts from the published designs of a series titled One Hundred Ghost Tales (Hyaku monogatari) reflect an Edo custom of telling ghost tales in the dark. The ghosts are among the eeriest of Hokusai’s commercially published prints, and they express Hokusai’s interest in imagining the supernatural world, which began in his youth with a print of a haunted house.

Here, a woman’s head with a serpentine neck made up of a stack of dishes represents the ghost of Okiku, whose master threw her into a well because she had broken his favorite dish. At night the sound of smashing porcelain and a voice counting “one, two, three…” emanated from the well.

Happy Halloween from Freer|Sackler. And try not to break any dishes…

Posted by in From the Collections, Japanese Art | 1 Comment