Category Archives: Japanese Art

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!

The Saddest Toad

Large Toad; artist: Obaku Tokuan (act. 1910–35); calligrapher: Ōbaku Chokuō 黄檗直翁 (1867–1937); Japan, Taisho era, 1919; hanging scroll, ink and color on paper; Purchase from the Estate of Robert O. Muller with funds from the Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries and the Harold P. Stern Memorial Fund, F2004.29

Large Toad; artist: Obaku Tokuan (act. 1910–35); calligrapher: Ōbaku Chokuō 黄檗直翁 (1867–1937); Japan, Taisho era, 1919; hanging scroll, ink and color on paper; Purchase from the Estate of Robert O. Muller with funds from the Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries and the Harold P. Stern Memorial Fund, F2004.29

In case you missed it, the Large Toad took the #MarchSadness crown. One of his many fans asked about the writing behind him. Thanks to our talented fellow Alessandro Bianchi, we now have a translation:

奇哉膨月亨

How uncanny! [A toad with such a] large belly

肚裏乾坤

The universe [resides] in its stomach;

一息之際

With every single breath [it takes]

萬象吐呑

All living beings respire.

Spring Has Sprung: Japan

Spring in Mount Atago, from the series Twelve Scenes of Tokyo; Kawase Hasui (1883–1957); Japan, Taisho era, 1921; woodblock print; Robert O. Muller Collection, S2003.8.623

Spring in Mount Atago, from the series Twelve Scenes of Tokyo; Kawase Hasui (1883–1957); Japan, Taisho era, 1921; woodblock print; Robert O. Muller Collection, S2003.8.623

It’s officially spring. In Japan, Vernal Equinox Day is a public holiday—a day to spend time with family and appreciate nature.

The annual cycle of the seasons has been integral to the lives and art of Japanese people since the earliest historical times. Naturally, seasonal associations permeate Japanese literature, art, and customs. The hazy moon of spring, for example, is called oborozuki, while the bright harvest moon of autumn is called meigetsu.

Oborozuki; Toyohara Chikanobu (1838–1912); Japan; woodblock print; Robert O. Muller Collection, S2003.8.2577

Oborozuki; Toyohara Chikanobu (1838–1912); Japan; woodblock print; Robert O. Muller Collection, S2003.8.2577

Intimate views of nature came to dominate representations of the seasons in Japanese art, with specific images associated with each. Early spring is evoked by blossoming plum and the first cry of the warbler; the brief, lush glory of cherry blossoms comes later that same season. Summer equates with abundant flowers and the call of the cuckoo; autumn with red maples, chrysanthemums, and geese in flight; and winter with frozen waters and falling snow.

Spring landscape with blossoming cherries; Japan, Edo period, early 17th century; six-panel screen, ink, color, and gold on paper; Gift of Mrs. Garnet Hulings, F1984.39

Spring landscape with blossoming cherries; Japan, Edo period, early 17th century; six-panel screen, ink, color, and gold on paper; Gift of Mrs. Garnet Hulings, F1984.39

Visit Open F|S to see spring represented throughout our collections of Asian and American art.

NYFW: Catwalk-Worthy Fashions in Our Collections

New York Fashion Week has officially hit the runways. As top designers’ latest work is swooned over and scrutinized, let’s look at a few catwalk-worthy styles from Asian art history.

 

japan-fashion

As documented in such publications as Fruits magazine, Japanese street style pushes boundaries a bit further each year. Going back a few centuries proves that Japanese fashion has a history of catching eyes. There would be no missing the girl in an orange vermilion dress, painted somewhere between 1661 and 1673. Compare her ensemble to the eighteenth- or nineteenth-century silk costumes made for No performances. Gold is seen extensively in No costumes, used to reflect light and highlight the actors’ slow, stylized movements.

 

china-collage

Long, flowing robes also were en vogue in China, as seen in these tiny but detailed figurines dating between the eighth and thirteenth centuries.

 

china-fashion2

A few hundred years later, noblewomen wore coats over their floor-length robes. Dating to the mid-1800s, this summer surcoat is patterned with encircled dragons. The number of these roundels—and of the dragons’ claws—let everyone know the high status of the woman within the silk garment. The woman in the nineteenth- or early twentieth-century portrait posed in her coat, which she paired with a headpiece made of vivid kingfisher feathers. Speaking of which: Check back for a post on fabulous accessories in our collections.

Six Reasons to See “Sōtatsu” Before it Closes

Detail, Waves at Matsushima; Tawaraya Sōtatsu, (act. ca. 1600–40); pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, color, gold, and silver on paper; Freer Gallery of Art, F1906.231–232 Detail, Waves at Matsushima; Tawaraya Sōtatsu, (act. ca. 1600–40); pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, color, gold, and silver on paper; Freer Gallery of Art, F1906.231–232

 

Sōtatsu: Making Waves has done just that. A Wall Street Journal writer claimed to almost “hear the splash of waves swirling” upon entering the landmark exhibition. Noting that ours is the “first exhibition outside of Japan devoted to one of the country’s masters of traditional ink works on paper,” Hyperallergic described Tawaraya Sōtatsu’s works as “mesmerizing compositions that still shine centuries after their creation.” And the Washington Post acknowledged that the Japanese master’s innovations have continued to influence his followers, including “countless artists working in the art deco style in the early 1900s.”

Still need a reason to see the exhibition before it closes on Sunday afternoon? Maybe one of these will convince you:

  1. Imagine if the works of Shakespeare were only accessible to the wealthy and elite. That’s how works of art were treated in Japan before Sōtatsu (active circa 1600–1640) came along. He not only created gorgeous masterpieces, but he also made them available to the general public.
  2. Sōtatsu is one of the forefathers of the Rinpa style, a movement that once defined Japanese art worldwide. He’s also known for advancing the painting technique known as tarashikomi (dropping in). In these works, paint is dropped into a still-wet background to create delicate details such as flower petals and water ripples.
  3. Sōtatsu’s designs echo within the works of luminaries such as Klimt and Matisse, making his 400-year-old paintings appear unexpectedly contemporary.
  4. Three of his paintings, The Gods of Wind and Thunder (Kenninji Temple, Kyoto), Lotus and Waterfowl (Kyoto National Museum), and Channel Buoys and the Barrier Gate (Seikadō Art Museum, Tokyo), have been designated national treasures by the Japanese government.
  5. In celebration of the four-hundredth anniversary of Rinpa art—and the thirtieth anniversary of Super Mario Bros.—Nintendo had an artist create a version of The Gods of Wind and Thunder starring Mario as Raijin, the god of thunder, and Luigi as Fujin, the god of wind.
  6. Importantly, one of the screens in the exhibition is full of cats.

Join us this weekend to bid adieu to this remarkable show.

Making Musical Waves

Descending Geese of the Koto; Suzuki Harunobu 鈴木春信 (1724–1770); Japan, Edo period, ca. 1766; woodblock print; The Anne van Biema Collection, S2004.3.21

Descending Geese of the Koto; Suzuki Harunobu 鈴木春信 (1724–1770); Japan, Edo period, ca. 1766; woodblock print; The Anne van Biema Collection, S2004.3.21

We owe the emergence of modern music for the koto, a Japanese zither, to a temple-court musician named Hosui. In the mid-1600s, Hosui was dismissed by the famously capricious nobility in Kyoto for giving an unacceptable performance.

Hosui ultimately prevailed. After resettling in Edo (modern-day Tokyo), he taught blind commoners how to play the exclusive court music styles and instruments that were previously restricted to Buddhist priests and Confucian scholars. Among Hosui’s students was the shamisen player Yatsuhashi Kengyo (1614‒1685), who pioneered a large and influential repertoire of secular koto music that is still performed today.

More than three hundred years after his death, Yatsuhashi’s tomb in Kyoto is marked by a commemorative stone. His accomplishments in music mirror those of the Japanese artist Sōtatsu, who is credited with bringing the visual arts of the court to a much wider public.

You can hear a few of of Yatsuhashi’s signature works and several of their later incarnations performed by local koto artist Miyuki Yoshikami and flutist Amy Thomas. Their free performance is held on Saturday, January 30, at 1 pm in the ground-level pavilion of the Sackler Gallery. While you’re here, take a last look at Sōtatsu: Making Waves before it closes on January 31.

Sōtatsu: Pieces of the Past

<em>Screen with Scattered Fans</em>; Tawaraya Sōtatsu (act. ca. 1600–40); Japan, early 17th century; six-panel folding screen; color, gold, and silver over gold on paper; Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1900.24

Screen with Scattered Fans; Tawaraya Sōtatsu (act. ca. 1600–40); Japan, early 17th century; six-panel folding screen; color, gold, and silver over gold on paper; Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1900.24

Stories about looting historic tombs and architectural sites are common fare in today’s media. Given the images that accompany these updates, of crudely severed elements hacked from pillaged ruins or plundered gravesites, the idea of considering cultural “fragments” in a positive light is akin to wearing mink at a PETA convention. The concept is is rightly tainted by associations with destruction and misappropriation.

But not all fragmenting is fundamentally destructive. Our current exhibition Sōtatsu: Making Waves (through January 31, 2016) is incomprehensible without an understanding of what could be called Tawaraya Sōtatsu’s (active circa 1600–40) strategy of fragmentation. Instead of theft and pillage, his process more closely resembled collaging—taking scraps from here and there and arranging them in a way that simultaneously displaced and expanded the original meaning.

Sōtatsu worked in a period of incredible social change. Though the population of Kyoto didn’t understand it at the time, a national solidification was taking place in the early seventeenth century. Japan was becoming the defined country we know today, emerging from a time when region, rather than nation, was the framework of identity.

This new national unity required a shared past. The world of classical literature—poetry, tales of adventure and romance—previously had been the purview of the aristocracy. Learning the classics, creating an interpretive framework for their revered words, and creating imagery to enhance those words were all elite activities—that is, until society began to come apart.

From his beginnings as a commoner, a fan painter, and an illuminated manuscript specialist, Sōtatsu eventually gained access to the highest levels of “the old order” (having the emperor’s consort as a patron, for instance)—a remarkable feat. With that access, he was able to view the artworks that had been sequestered, allowing him to pick apart Japan’s past and then energize and distribute it to a far more diverse audience.

Sōtatsu was not going at some beautiful stucco wall relief with a pickaxe. But he and his studio mates were doing an extraordinary amount of foraging, accessing largely out-of-reach collections and seeing one-of-a-kind paintings—often long, horizontal historical or literary narratives. They copied episodes depicted in such works and reinterpreted them onto folding fans, some of which were surely sold out of Sōtatsu’s Kyoto shop, the Tawaraya. He and his fellow artists also produced a folding screen whose surface was decorated with such fans, swirling as if they were being carried away on a rushing stream.

Detail, Screen with Scattered Fans

Detail, Screen with Scattered Fans

Our current ability to arrange pieces of an art historical past into chronologies of artist, style, culture, and so forth gives us a window onto the primary works that Sōtatsu studied. These thirteenth- and fourteenth-century paintings, which we now know in their completeness, are often accessible in museums today. But how many who viewed Sōtatsu’s repurposed snippets in the 1600s would have seen the original works from which they were extracted? Your chance of knowing his sources—via art history books and exhibition catalogues—is exponentially greater than that of a typical townsperson in Sōtatsu’s day.

So what did Sōtatsu’s contemporaries make of these fragmented images? My guess is that many simply saw an affectation of the past: a brush with the classics, an obscure recounting of the history of a temple or shrine, or a vaguely generalized image of warriors riding off to battle, for example. Sōtatsu’s folding fans served as portable image quotations from the past, allowing ancient narratives to float across social boundaries.

In many cases, fragmenting has resulted in losing the thread of a cultural history, at least for a while. But in Sōtatsu’s case, it offered up bite-size bits of a past that many, many more people were able to appreciate than ever before.

Another period of great dispersal or fragmentation of Japanese art occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Revisit Bento in the coming weeks to learn more about that amazing period.

A Glimpse of New Year’s Gold

Tea bowl with design of chrysanthemums; Nin’ami Dōhachi 仁阿弥道八 (1783–1855); Japan, Kyoto prefecture, Kyoto, Gojozaka, Edo period, early 19th century; F1896.55

Tea bowl with design of chrysanthemums; Nin’ami Dōhachi 仁阿弥道八 (1783–1855); Japan, Kyoto prefecture, Kyoto, Gojozaka, Edo period, early 19th century; F1896.55

How are you welcoming in the first day of 2016? Decorated with chrysanthemums, this bowl may have been made for a tea gathering, or chanoyu, to celebrate the New Year. Bowls newly made for New Year’s chanoyu events often were decorated with fragile gold leaf, which wore off in the course of a single use. Artist Nin’ami Dōhachi used a thick white-clay solution to model the relief decoration of chrysanthemum blossoms, a floral motif that is closely associated with autumn through winter.

Friday Fave: Sugimoto’s Seascapes

An installation shot from the exhibition, "Seascapes: Tryon and Sugimoto," Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 2009

An installation shot from the 2009 Freer|Sackler exhibition “Seascapes: Tryon and Sugimoto.”

The Freer|Sackler has always been a place of serenity and introspection for me. I enjoy the tranquility of sitting and viewing a work, letting my mind wander and slowly digest the nuances of the piece in front of me. This intimate relationship between art and viewer, for me, is mirrored in the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto.

My first exposure to his work was at the Baltimore Museum of Art. As I turned the corner into a side gallery, I saw a black rectangle the size of a chalkboard. From afar, it appeared as a modernist void, but as I moved closer, subtle details slowly appeared. A horizon, a slight gradation of black and white, filled the space.

That particular piece was a black-and-white photograph of the ocean. It is part of Sugimoto’s Seascapes series, long-exposure photographs of water horizons taken over several hours. The resulting large-format prints are hazy, dreamlike images that are tranquil and meditative. His focus on perceiving the ephemeral is captured in these snapshots of light and time and are simply beautiful in their peacefulness. The images are recognizable, but as if recalled from a memory.

I was delighted to discover that the Freer|Sackler has a series of Sugimoto’s ocean photographs. My personal favorite is Boden Sea/Utwill, demonstrating the artist’s mastery of portraying tonality and near formlessness. Air, water, time, and light all come together in a single photograph. The image is so simple, yet it encapsulates the essence of life on this planet.

While none of Sugimoto’s photographs are currently on view in the galleries, you can always see them online (along with the entire museum collection) at Open F|S.

Come visit! While the Freer Gallery closes for renovation on January 4, 2016, the Sackler Gallery remains open and as dynamic as ever. Learn more about our plans for the future.

Inspired By the Dark

Nocturne: Grey and Silver—Chelsea Embankment, Winter; James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903); United States, ca. 1879; oil on canvas; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.143a–b

Nocturne: Grey and Silver—Chelsea Embankment, Winter; James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903); United States, ca. 1879; oil on canvas; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.143a–b

Today is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Winter light can be exquisite when it changes in late afternoon, as the dark comes earlier and earlier. A wonderful way to take it in, I think, is to walk through our galleries—especially in the Freer, with its central courtyard—and watch the day turn into night.

Artists have long captured changing daylight and dusk and the chromatic layers of evening. James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturnes shimmer with the texture of variable light, turning the surface of the canvas (or paper) into visual poetry. Kobayashi Kiyochika is another favorite artist in our collections whose celebrated woodblock prints were featured in the exhibition Kiyochika: Master of the Night in 2014. The exhibition was held concurrently with An American in London: Whistler and the Thames. Whistler’s London and Kiyochika’s Tokyo were often depicted at night—two distinct worlds separated by nearly six thousand miles, but linked by the play of shadow and light.

For centuries and across cultures, artists have been inspired by the night. If you search for the word “night” on Open F|S, you’ll bring up more than 450 works of art. If you choose “dusk,” you’ll get to see 25 more.

While the Freer goes dark from January 4, 2016, through mid-2017, the Sackler will remain open and as dynamic as ever. Learn more about our plans for the future.