Category Archives: Japanese Art

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.

Friday Fave: Chiharu Shiota

Installation view of "Over the Continents" by Chiharu Shiota

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!

Friday Fave: Chinese Taoist Immortals

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

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.

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.