Category Archives: Japanese Art

Friday Fave: Trees

Trees; Sōtatsu school, I’nen Seal; Japan, mid-17th century; pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, colors, and gold on paper; Freer Gallery of Art, F1962.30–31

Trees; Sōtatsu school, I’nen Seal; Japan, mid-17th century; pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, colors, and gold on paper; Freer Gallery of Art, F1962.30–31

I’m not sure if it was the bold color or dramatic composition that first caught my eye. Vivid green pigment brilliantly contrasted against gold foil. An incredible variety of trees, each captured in considerable detail. Striking black ink trunks, festooned with large glossy leaves or spiky delicate ones. Viewed head-on and tightly packed into a constricted space, each tree is arranged precisely across six adjoining panels. It’s as if they are on display in my favorite garden catalog.

These initial impressions have stayed with me for decades. Literally. Although smartphones make it much easier today to take pictures of art, there’s still something really tangible about owning a high-quality reproduction. My now faded postcard is a bit worse for wear and tear—pockmarked with pinholes from its prominent display on every office bulletin board I’ve ever decorated—yet its power still holds. At 7 x 15 inches, it’s big enough to have a presence, and its thick card stock is sturdy enough to withstand the test of time. It shows one of a pair of six-panel folding screens that were last displayed at the Freer almost fifteen years ago.

The screens can now be seen in their rightful place of honor in the exhibition Sōtatsu: Making Waves, on view through January 31, 2016. When I first saw them again, they struck me as breathtaking both in their scale and luminosity. The greens and golds just glow. They are much larger than I remembered and much more detailed. Although painted hundreds of years ago, they seem very contemporary and speak to the astonishing power of Japanese art and design. I’ve had the postcard over my desk for years, but seeing the screens in person is a powerful experience that reminds me of the old Marvin Gaye song “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”

Halloween Help from Freer|Sackler

Mask; Japan, Momoyama or Edo period, 17th–18th century; wood, pigment, lacquer; Collected by Seymour J. Janow and gifted in his memory by his family, F2003.5.16

Mask; Japan, Momoyama or Edo period, 17th–18th century; wood, pigment, lacquer; Collected by Seymour J. Janow and gifted in his memory by his family, F2003.5.16

Not sure what to wear for Halloween this year? You’re on your own when it comes to finding the right costume, but if you’re looking for a mask, we’ve got your back—or at least your front—covered.

This demon mask, given to the museums a dozen years ago, is the perfect scary accessory. It was made in Japan sometime between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Masks have a long and extensive history in Japan that dates back to the prehistoric Jomon period; they often have been used in dance, court rituals, and religious ceremonies. This mask portrays a long-nosed demon (known as tengu in Japanese lore) and was used in Shinto shrine performances.

For Halloween success, follow these simple instructions. First, print the mask as large as you can. Next, carefully cut it out. Make a small hole on either side (near the cheeks would work well) and run a string or elastic through them. Put it on and voila: You and the demon mask are now one! Scare your friends and loved ones, and the candy seekers at your door.

More scary masks can be found when you search the Freer|Sackler collections on Open F|S, as well as on Bento and our Facebook page.

Sōtatsu Rules the Waves!

Sōtatsu: Making Waves is the first in-depth examination of Tawaraya Sōtatsu (active circa 1600–40), one of the most influential yet elusive figures in the history of Japanese visual culture. The exhibition brings together for the first time more than seventy of Sōtatsu’s masterpieces from collections in Japan, Europe, and the United States, along with homage pieces by later artists that demonstrate his long-ranging influence. The Freer|Sackler is the only venue in the Western Hemisphere for this major Sōtatsu retrospective.

Museum founder Charles Lang Freer is widely credited with introducing both Sōtatsu and his frequent collaborator Hon’ami Kōetsu (1558–1637) to Western audiences. A prescient late nineteenth-century collector, Freer amassed several of Sōtatsu’s most noted paintings, including Waves at Matsushima and Dragons and Clouds. Due to restrictions in Freer’s will, the works cannot travel outside our Galleries. This exhibition is a watershed moment in our understanding of Sōtatsu, bringing together the masterworks Freer collected with others from around the world.

This evening, we’re open for a sneak peek of the exhibition from 5:30–8:30 pm. Explore the art, literature, and creative genius that shaped Sōtatsu’s legacy through curator-led tours, games, hands-on art activities such as block printing and fan painting, and refreshments. The evening also includes a film screening and performances by the Levine Music Jazz Quartet.

Tomorrow, the official opening day for Sōtatsu: Making Waves, join us for the free public colloquium Sōtatsu in Washington: Insights, Discoveries, and Reflections and hear from the international scholars who conceived and developed this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition.

Osumi Yukie: Master of Japanese Metalwork

Osumi Yukie at work in her studio in Japan

Osumi Yukie at work in her studio in Japan

For Osumi Yukie, the Freer|Sackler’s first artist-in-residence in Japanese metalware design, metalwork is more than an art or a craft—it’s a way of life. She’s been working with metal since the early 1960s. A master of inlay decoration, Osumi transforms silver into objects that are both functional and beautiful. Each piece, including those in Wind and Waves—on view in the Sackler through November 15—can take upward of four months to create, from inspiration to early sketch to finished work.

In her hands, metal becomes imbued with a kind of emotion. She takes a flat sheet of silver and lets it reveal its own story, akin to the way Michelangelo tried to bring the “sculpture” out of the stone. When we had the chance to speak last week (with the help of a translator), Osumi told me, “Metal isn’t a cold or hard thing. It is warmed by my own body temperature and becomes soft and comfortable.” Part of what makes the object special is the way it is used. “People who use my pieces will understand that through usage, the work really does become more beautiful. They enjoy the spirit that is behind the piece as well as its function,” she explained.

"Wind and Waves" by Osumi Yukie

“Wind and Waves” by Osumi Yukie

In July, Osumi was designated a Living National Treasure of Japan, making her the first woman to receive this recognition for metalwork. She holds a degree from the Tokyo University of the Arts and also studied in the United Kingdom.

On Sunday, October 18, from 2–4 pm on Sackler sublevel one, join us for Osumi Yukie’s talk, “A Changing Craft: Japanese Metalwork.” Through words and images, she’ll tell us more about her work, the influence of teachers, and her role today in encouraging a broader appreciation of the art of metalwork.

For more Japanese art, save the date to see Sōtatsu: Making Waves, which opens at the Sackler on October 24. A celebration of the life and work of Tawaraya Sōtatsu—one of the most influential yet elusive figures in the history of Japanese visual culture—the exhibition is the first outside Japan to tell his story.

Action, Anarchy, and Audacity: A Seijun Suzuki Retrospective

Film still from "Branded to Kill"

Film still from “Branded to Kill”

Seijun Suzuki is one of Japanese cinema’s legendary eccentrics. He was fired from his job at Nikkatsu Studios in the late 1960s for, as he put it, making films that “made no sense and made no money.” Over the last couple of decades, he has developed a global cult following for those stylistically outrageous send-ups of gangster movies, as well as the mysterious ghost stories he created upon his return to filmmaking in the 1980s.

Though he is virtually a household name in Japan (he was once voted the country’s best-dressed man), very little has been written about Suzuki in the United States—until now. My book Time and Place Are Nonsense: The Films of Seijun Suzuki has been published by the Freer|Sackler. To celebrate, we are devoting the next three months to a retrospective of Suzuki’s work, co-organized with the Japan Foundation and comprising more than twenty films, some of which have never before screened in the United States.

We kick things off this evening with Suzuki’s most notorious film, Branded to Kill, the outrageous excesses of which led to his firing from Nikkatsu. After the screening, I will be on hand to sign copies of Time and Place Are Nonsense. For the rest of the month, you can sample films from the most fertile period of Suzuki’s career: the mid- to late ’60s, during which he twisted B movie scripts into dazzling, funny, and shocking artistic statements. These films are rooted both in the gleefully nihilistic outlook Suzuki gained as a soldier in World War II and in the wild, bawdy underbelly of Japanese aesthetic traditions, such as Kabuki theater, that has fascinated him throughout his career.

I hope you’ll join us and come back in November and December, when we delve into Suzuki’s equally fascinating later career. The complete film schedule is available on our website. And if you have friends in other parts of the United States and Canada, please tell them to keep an eye out for the retrospective. Between now and next May, it will be traveling to cities throughout North America.

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Behind the Scenes: Sōtatsu

Sōtatsu maquette (with Batman and Catwoman)

Sōtatsu maquette (with Batman and Catwoman)

To prepare for the upcoming exhibition Sōtatsu: Making Waves, our designers are busy exploring ideas for the galleries. This maquette, or scale model, shows fabric banners that will grace the staircase between the exhibition’s two floors. Superheroes, courtesy of the graphic designer’s son, give us a sense of scale … as well as a sense of power!

Sōtatsu: Making Waves, the first exhibition in the West devoted to the seventeenth-century master Tawaraya Sōtatsu, opens at the Sackler on October 24. You never know who will show up…

Anime and Manga Summer Camp

Matthew Lasnoski, youth and family programs educator, leads campers on a tour of the Freer’s collection of Japanese art.

Matthew Lasnoski, youth and family programs educator, leads campers on a tour of the Freer’s collection of Japanese art.

Last month, the Freer|Sackler welcomed twenty-one campers to the seventh annual summer camp dedicated to Japanese anime and manga. Throughout the five-day session, the class traced the origins of manga drawing and anime films by exploring the Freer’s collection of Japanese art. To better understand place and setting, campers considered the Japanese screen Pheasants and Cherry Trees, sketching and adapting details to incorporate into their own projects. As the week progressed, the campers encountered a frightening guardian figure and imagined a story panel in which they would have to maneuver past this character. Freer|Sackler staff also taught figure-drawing lessons to build the class’s technical skills.

Taking advantage of the Freer|Sackler’s location on the National Mall, half-day field trips were scheduled to see art around town. Campers visited the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library to see its collection of Japanese graphic novels and ventured to the Smithsonian American Art Museum to view Korean-born artist Nam June Paik’s Electronic Superhighway. This multimedia work showed students how to provide a sense of place in their own works. At the end of the week, campers shared their finished manga-inspired comic books with their parents at an end-of-camp party.

A student carefully works on her anime project during the ImaginAsia workshop.

An eight-year-old student designs her manga-inspired comic book, Marshmello, in the ImaginAsia classroom.

During the school year, the Freer|Sackler offers art-making workshops, drop-in programs, activity guides, and many other ways to enrich family visits. Check out the complete schedule of ImaginAsia family programs.

Friday Fave: Guardian Figures

Guardian figure; Japan, Kamakura period (1185–1333); wood; Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art; F1949.21

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.

Friday Fave: Lute and White Snake

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

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.

Friday Fave: Hiroshige’s “Sudden Shower”

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

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.