Category Archives: From the Collections

The Man behind the “Mania”

A Theory of Everything: Dark Stupa; Walter McConnell (b. 1956) 2014 and 2004–16; cast porcelain from salvaged hobby industrial molds, zinc crystalline glaze, sand, and plywood shelving; courtesy the artist and Cross MacKenzie Gallery, Washington, DC

Detail, A Theory of Everything: Dark Stupa; Walter McConnell (b. 1956); 2014; cast porcelain from salvaged hobby industrial molds, zinc crystalline glaze, sand, and plywood shelving; courtesy the artist and Cross MacKenzie Gallery, Washington, DC

Owls, skulls, demure shepherdesses and bucking broncos: all of these figures and dozens more coexist in Walter McConnell’s monumental porcelain sculptures. These “stupas,” as he describes them, are part of Chinamania, an installation named for the craze for Chinese blue-and-white porcelain that swept London in the 1870s and still exists in the West. Coated in glistening crystalline glazes, the stupas are juxtaposed with Kangxi period (1662–1722) ceramics from our collection—as well as a piece made up of 3D-printed replicas of these historical objects. While installing the exhibition, which opens July 9, McConnell sat down with Bento to talk about his work.

Bento: Tell me about your travels to China. Why did you go?

Walter McConnell: As a ceramic artist, I was really interested in experiencing ceramic production in China. In the States, I had been working with this collection of recycled hobby industry molds, weird figurines, kitsch ceramic bric-a-brac, and the like. I had an invitation to participate in an international workshop held in a figurine manufactory in China, so I was curious to see what confluences there might be in terms of outputs from these different cultural milieus. Though the manufactory I worked in was mostly producing high-end items, they were also very good at producing kitsch novelties, like statuettes of Bruce Lee in various karate poses.

On that same trip, I had the opportunity to visit Jingdezhen, the source of the blue-and-white porcelains I rearranged for the Chinamania show. . . . I remember being enamored with the dizzying array of ceramic products on display in Jingdezhen market stalls, one after the other after the other—literally stacks of pots, enormous porcelain vessels, and figurines. So in China, I constructed an early version of my “stupa” sculptures by shopping the markets of Jingdezhen for seconds and castoff pieces. I built a piece called Pagoda—a tall, cylindrical stack of market ceramics, figurines, teapots, roof tile, etc. . . . with a waxed paper parasol on top, a motif often represented on the finial of architectural stupas as well.

Bento: Why do you refer to your works as stupas?

WM: The stepped pyramid architecture allowed for an arrangement of ceramic objects that is presentational: you can see them all at once as you circulate around the work. And then, of course, the structure bore a strong resemblance to the stupa and other Asian temple architecture. Furthering the analogy, they’re also, in a sense, reliquaries, housing cultural remains of North American popular ceramics.

An example of a stupa from our collections. This cloisonne stupa was made during the reign of China's Qianlong emperor (r. 1735–96).

An example of a stupa from our collections. This cloisonne stupa was made during the reign of China’s Qianlong emperor (r. 1735–96).

My interest really is in the way that these objects are evidence of a kind of collective consciousness, an encyclopedic display of a slice of popular culture at a particular moment in time. These things don’t have an explicit function; they’re objects of a momentary caprice, perhaps, a particular passion—[someone deciding] “I need this thing” to fit my home décor, my curio cabinet. So you find things in the mix that are readily familiar or completely arcane, objects that have gone in and out of fashion.

Take an inventory: There are vessels of all kinds, beer steins, adorable animals, neoclassical motifs, collectables, commemoratives, Americana, all markers of cultural heritage and class structure. There’s the pastoral, the shepherdess, garden ornaments, antiquities . . . All facsimiles, of course—relatively cheap, slip cast replicas. Ceramic has always been a medium for translating the aristocratic into the democratic, accessible, cheap, ubiquitous.

Bento: Do you collect anything?

WM: I don’t, at least nothing obsessive that we live with. Perhaps, intermittently, Fiestaware and pottery—but generally I’ve saved the compulsion for my artwork. The obsessive/maniacal part of this is in the accumulation, surely, but also in the arrangement. I think I’m a little obsessive compulsive about how these things get placed and displayed. But that’s what’s required, right? The meticulous arrangement really compels the audience to sit up and take notice. Otherwise, the objects are simply dismissible novelties. Coat them with a fabulously flamboyant glaze with blooms of crystalline zinc and accretions of sand and you get this sense of geologic strata, which allows the stupa and its collected relics to feel connected to nature in some way.

Detail, A Theory of Everything: White Stupa; Walter McConnell (b. 1956); 2014 and 2004–16; cast porcelain from salvaged hobby industrial molds, zinc crystalline glaze, sand, and plywood shelving; courtesy the artist and Cross MacKenzie Gallery, Washington, DC

Detail, A Theory of Everything: White Stupa; Walter McConnell (b. 1956); 2014 and 2004–16; cast porcelain from salvaged hobby industrial molds, zinc crystalline glaze, sand, and plywood shelving; courtesy the artist and Cross MacKenzie Gallery, Washington, DC

BentoChinamania complements Peacock Room REMIX, a contemporary take on Whistler’s masterpiece. How does your work relate to the Peacock Room?

WM: In one sense, they both say something about the psychology of the collector and collections, the need for systems and order. I’ve always been enamored with the aesthetic of abundance and ostentatious display in porcelain rooms that predate the Peacock Room. I’ve researched the history of porcelain manufacture and its migration and reinvention in the West—the aristocratic nature of the medium, the maniacal passion for collecting. In the eighteenth century, Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony, imprisoned Johann Friedrich Böttger to make lead into gold, and instead reinvented porcelain in the West. Augustus famously traded a regiment of soldiers for a collection of porcelain vases, a well-known early narrative of a kind of Chinamania.

Bento: How do your 3D printouts play into the installation?

WM: The connection between the stupas, the Kangxi porcelains, and the 3D prototypes is an interesting one. I was entertaining a number of things that I could do with your collection, yet I was somewhat stymied by prohibitions on actually handling the originals. I’d been doing some scanning and prototyping in another body of work, so I proposed to scan and prototype the blue-and-white collection. Now I can touch them; I can possess a complete set of these extraordinarily detailed facsimiles (but of course, not the originals). The digital clones are democratic, more accessible. That was the motivation, to bring about a question of how objects circulate like this in culture high and low.

I imagined the original Chinese porcelains displayed in a glowing case inset in a dark wall, floating as if an apparition, less tangible than their miniature clones. Those are now in the room at 40 percent of the original size, set in their souvenir boxed set, replicating with some precision the objects at a distance on the wall. So now the boxed set almost seems more accessible than the things that are illuminated in the case. You have more access to it. I was hoping to affect an oscillation between those states.

Chinese porcelains from our collection, produced in the Jingdezhen region of China during the Kangxi reign (1662–1722)

Chinese porcelains from our collection, produced in the Jingdezhen region of China during the Kangxi reign (1662–1722), and their miniature, 3D-printed counterparts.

Bento: What do you hope visitors take away from your installation?

WM: I think the “Stupas” have a lot of different entry points. You walk around them, you find something that catches your eye, evokes a memory, creates an entertaining, improbable narrative, provoking your delight or disdain. They do seem to compel circumambulation by the audience—again, an analogy to the Buddhist model. That kind of active engagement with memory, I suppose, becomes part of what they are.

I think you have to be astonished by their scale, the sheen, the meticulous stacking and improbable structure. Otherwise, they don’t work. The objects are perhaps overly familiar; you can find these things anywhere, an apartment window, your neighbor’s lawn. It’s aesthetic astonishment with the cumulative effect that rouses empathy for the collective consciousness on display here. I hope the work is capable of that.

No Hungry Generations Tread Thee Down

Playing the Chinese qin. Photo courtesy of Bell Yung.

Playing the Chinese qin. Photo courtesy of Bell Yung.

Standing in front of the qin in the Freer|Sackler’s exhibition Painting with Words, I remembered the first time I saw one in my teacher’s house. I cannot recall the name of it, but the slim contour of its body stands vividly in my memory. Under the dim light in the living room, the metal markers shone in the most modest way. Seven strings emanated from the gum, then steadfastly went up along the surface, tied in seven delicate knots on the Mount Yue. My teacher played me “Flowing Water,” a song attributed to the ancient qin master Boya that is featured in the Painting with Words galleries. I remember he said, “It’s always the best piece to lure someone into the world of qin.”

Structure of the qin. Image courtesy of Beijing Musical Instrument Society.

Structure of the qin. Image courtesy of Beijing Musical Instrument Society.

Back then, I was thirteen. To the thirteen-year-old me, the qin was the bridge to the wonderland of ancient Chinese culture. The qin was essential to Chinese artists throughout history. Its significance during the Ming dynasty is clear in Painting with Words—several poets refer to the qin in their lines. Painters also often depicted men either playing or carrying the instrument.

As I started learning to play, I was deeply influenced by the cultural history the qin carries. There have been various schools of qin throughout history. The one I belong to is nowadays called Fanchuan 泛川, founded by Zhang Kongshan 張孔山 and fostered by Gu Meigeng 顧梅羹 in northeast China. My teacher liked to tell me the “inside stories” of the Fanchuan school as well as the history of each piece during our classes. Much of the background information on qin pieces is recorded in Qinxue beiyao 琴學備要, a collection of important qin music. Gu Meigeng hand wrote each character in Qinxue. Every time I open the book and read through the words, I am deeply moved by the master’s great dedication to the study of this enchanting musical instrument.

The book records many wonderful pieces that are representative of the Fanchuan school, including “Oulu wangji” 鷗鷺忘機 (Seabirds and No Ulterior Motives), “Pingsha luoyan” 平沙落雁 (Wild Geese on the Sandbank), “Yigure” 憶故人 (Thinking of An Old Friend), and “Zuiyu changwan” 醉漁唱晚 (Drunk Fisherman Singing at Dusk). Among them, “Flowing Water” 流水is the most essential. Fanchuan’s version of “Flowing Water” adds “seventy-two Gunfu 七十二滾拂” to the sixth section of the music. This change adds a sense of turbulence to the song, as if the flowing water has suddenly come to a dangerous valley and started to dance with its destiny. The contrast between this passion in the middle and the tranquility in the end is thus stronger, creating a more interesting narrative for the piece.

Following behind a robed gentleman, a serving boy carries a wrapped qin. "Walking by a Mountain Stream" is on view in "Painting with Words."

Following behind a robed gentleman, a serving boy carries a wrapped qin. “Walking by a Mountain Stream” is on view in “Painting with Words.”

Since NASA carried “Flowing Water” into space, I always like to imagine how an alien would encounter the song. I picture him walking along a riverbank, watching the beautiful sunset, wondering if there is another being who could enjoy this moment with him. Suddenly, among the thousand beats of water, he hears this music—just for one second, but it has indeed caught his attention. The music goes with the wave and becomes the wave. It achieves pure harmony.

Perhaps the alien in my imagination still does not have an affirmative answer to his question, but I do. Anyone who hears “Flowing Water” is not alone, because the piece transcends time and space. It is immortal, like the song of the nightingale in a poem by John Keats. The music you can hear in Painting with Words was heard “in ancient days by emperor and clown,” for “no hungry generations tread thee down.”

Artist at Work: Michael Joo

Over the past two weeks, artist Michael Joo has been in the galleries working on his latest installation. This Saturday, come in to see his silvered canvas and dynamic sculpture inspired by the rare Korean red-crowned crane.

Japanese Music for the Summer Solstice

Flowers and a brook; Japan, Edo period, 18th century; six-panel screens, color over gold on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1897.27–28

Click to zoom in! Flowers and a brook; Japan, Edo period, 18th century; six-panel screens, color over gold on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1897.27–28

The seasons are frequent subjects of art, but the transitions between them can be difficult to capture. With spring formally becoming summer today, it’s an appropriate time to note the Japanese tradition of narrative paintings that portray seasonal shifts—and the work of a Japanese composer with a similar aim.

One of our Japanese screens from the Edo period (1615–1868), Flowers and a Brook, shows plants blooming in sequence along the shift from spring to summer (right to left). This technique is frequently employed in Japanese screen paintings to depict multiple seasons in a single image. In a musical parallel, Japanese composer Minoru Miki wrote his “Hanayagi” (The Greening) in 1976 as one movement in a larger work representing a year of changing seasons. According to the composer, this work for solo koto “sings in praise of the brilliant life-power of the seasons as they slowly shift from spring to early summer.”

You can listen to this gorgeous ten-minute piece on our concert podcast of koto virtuoso Reiko Kimura, recorded in the Meyer Auditorium in 1998, when she appeared here as part of the Music From Japan Festival (based in New York). Four years before this concert, Kimura joined the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for the premiere of Minoru Miki’s Symphony of Two Worlds at Lincoln Center. Skip to 39:38 and listen to the end to hear the sounds of seasonal change.

Happy Father’s Day!

Americans Strolling About; Utagawa Yoshifuji (1828–1887); Japan, Edo period, 1861; woodblock print, ink and color on paper; Gift of the Daval Foundation, from the Collection of Ambassador and Mrs. William Leonhart; S1991.150

Americans Strolling About; Utagawa Yoshifuji (1828–1887); Japan, Edo period, 1861; woodblock print, ink and color on paper; Gift of the Daval Foundation, from the Collection of Ambassador and Mrs. William Leonhart; S1991.150

Happy Father’s Day, dads! In this 1861 Japanese woodblock print by Utagawa Yoshifuji (1828–1887), the father is depicted smoking a cigar, a form of tobacco that was probably introduced to Japan by American residents of Yokohama. Tobacco had been smoked in elongated pipes since its inception by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. The Japanese word for Americans, Amerikajin, has been divided awkwardly into syllables so that the letters correspond as closely as possible to Japanese phonetic script (and to make them fit into the vertical frame).

See more fathers in our collections.

Whistler’s Portraits: Ripper, Vampire, or Sickert?

Walter Sickert; James McNeill Whistler, 1895; lithograph on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.108

Walter Sickert; James McNeill Whistler, 1895; lithograph on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.108

Beyond the famous portrait of his mother, James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) depicted dozens of people in his personal and public life. A search for “Whistler portrait” on Open F|S returns 299 hits, with subjects ranging from Annie, his niece, to art-world notables. We’ll examine a few fascinating figures who sat before Whistler’s canvas.

Was Whistler gazing at a serial killer when he sketched this portrait of Walter Sickert in 1895? Though the Jack the Ripper murders took place well over a century ago, a few authors recently claimed to have identified the culprit. They say that around when he was studying art with Whistler, Sickert (1860–1942) also was terrorizing London, committing the murders attributed to the legendary Ripper.

Scholars tend to dismiss these theories. We do know, though, that Whistler and Sickert had a turbulent relationship—which one author says left the latter unhinged. Sickert first met Whistler in 1882 and worked with him for several years, serving as the senior artist’s assistant. The two men each completed a portrait of five-year-old Stephen Manuel, Whistler’s distant relative, in 1885. Even then, contention seemed to exist between the artists. Sickert wrote to Whistler, a notorious perfectionist, that he needed to stop tinkering with the portrait; “The picture is finished,” Sickert admonished. Years later, he stated that “Whistler’s portrait was bad” compared to his usual work—and that Whistler had painted much too slowly for the child, “who was wearied with the number of sittings.”

Meanwhile, Whistler seems to have dismissed Sickert’s interpretation. After earning praise for his portrait at the Society of British Artists’ exhibition in November 1885, Whistler wrote to his sister-in-law (and Stephen’s aunt) that his version “certainly seems to be the favourite in all the papers—haven’t you seen?”

Left to right: Whistler's and Sickert's portraits of young Stephen Manuel.

Left to right: Whistler’s and Sickert’s portraits of young Stephen Manuel.

The “friendship” fully imploded in 1896, after Whistler found Sickert socializing with a man who was suing him. Sickert came by Whistler’s home to explain, leaving a calling card behind. Furious, the older artist scrawled the name of a famous traitor on the card and sent it back.

Sickert had already started moving away from Whistler stylistically, embracing the impressionist style of Edgar Degas, with whom he had studied in Paris. But while Degas delighted in ballerinas, Sickert was drawn to more sinister subjects. He often depicted prostitutes and was famously inspired by the murder of one, naming four of his female nudes after the Camden Town Murder of 1907. And he was fascinated by Jack the Ripper; he even completed a dark, shadowy oil of the killer’s bedroom.

But why do some writers allege that Sickert was Jack the Ripper? American crime writer Patricia Cornwell, who is perhaps best known for these claims, in part ties her reasoning to Whistler. The murders occurred in 1888, the same year that Whistler married Beatrice Godwin. Sickert “loathed” women, Cornwell asserts in her book Portrait of a Killer, as much as he “idolized, envied, and hated” Whistler. She adds: “For Walter Sickert to imagine Whistler in love and enjoying a sexual relationship with a woman might well have been the catalyst that made Sickert one of the most dangerous and confounding killers of all time.”

Then again, as Jonathan Jones of the Guardian points out, we could also make a compelling argument that Sickert was Dracula, “that other renowned Victorian monster.” Zoom into the lithograph, and look into Sickert’s eyes. Do you see a murderer, a vampire, or simply a British artist?

Wu School: Bamboo in Rain

Xiao-Xiang River after Rain; Xia Chang 夏㫤 (1388–1470); China, Ming dynasty, 1464; handscroll; ink on paper; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment; Freer Gallery of Art, F1952.27

Xiao-Xiang River after Rain; Xia Chang 夏㫤 (1388–1470); China, Ming dynasty, 1464; handscroll; ink on paper; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment; Freer Gallery of Art, F1952.27

It’s raining in DC (again). We must stay strong, much like this bamboo dipping into a river in Xiao-Xiang after a rainstorm, on view in Painting with Words. In Chinese tradition, the evergreen bamboo is honored for its strength, resilience, and ability to bend without breaking—qualities also associated with the ideal Confucian gentleman. Naturally straight and tall, bamboo mirrors the gentleman’s upright character. The hollow stems parallel his selfless humility, and their strong, solid joints represent his unbreakable integrity.

Xiao 瀟 and Xiang 湘 are the names of two rivers in Hunan province, central China, that have been famous since ancient times for their extensive groves of bamboo. Together, the names refer to an area known in antiquity as the kingdom of Chu 楚, which occupies a special place in Chinese literature and history.

Any reference to Xiao-Xiang immediately calls famous stories to mind. For example, according to early legend, a sage ruler named Shun 舜 (traditionally 2294–2184 BCE) died suddenly near the Xiang River. His two wives mourned on the water’s edge for days, their copious tears staining the nearby bamboo. Overcome with grief, they cast themselves into the Xiang and drowned, becoming goddesses of the river.

Word Nerd Wednesday: jinshi, juren, and jieyuan

Judging from the poems, these leaves were meant for a promising young man. He had passed the provincial juren exams with flying colors and was en route to the capital, presumably by boat, to take the national jinshi examinations to qualify for the imperial bureaucracy.

Judging from the poems, these leaves were meant for a promising young man. He had passed the provincial juren exams with flying colors and was en route to the capital, presumably by boat, to take the national jinshi examinations to qualify for the imperial bureaucracy.

Cramming desperately for finals week? Students past and present may find some solace in the fact that even China’s literary elite didn’t always ace their exams. As explored in the exhibition Painting with Words, centered on works by Wu School artists, several of these renowned painters, poets, and calligraphers didn’t excel at tests. During the Ming dynasty, the national jinshi (advanced scholar) examination, held every three years in the capital, qualified test takers for service in the imperial bureaucracy. Some artists, such as Xia Chang and Wu Kuan, distinguished themselves in the examinations and rose to high government offices.

Tang Yin (1470–1524) and Wen Zhengming (1470–1559) rank among the leading artists of the Ming dynasty, and they’re considered two of the Four Great Artists of the Ming Dynasty. Tang and Wen met as teenagers, and despite radical differences in character and temperament, they became close friends. In 1498, the eighteen-year-olds went off to Nanjing to sit for the provincial juren examinations. Tang was awarded first place (jieyuan); Wen Zhengming failed. Wen would never pass the jinshi examination, though he made multiple attempts. Regardless, he went on to become the unrivaled leader of the Wu School for much of its heyday during the first sixty years of the sixteenth century.

Traveling South; Tang Yin (1470–1524); China, Ming dynasty, 1505; handscroll; ink and color on paper; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment Freer Gallery of Art, F1953.78

Traveling South; Tang Yin (1470–1524); China, Ming dynasty, 1505; handscroll; ink and color on paper; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment
Freer Gallery of Art, F1953.78

While tests were no match for Tang’s brilliance, he had a wild side. He was given to self-indulgence (some would say decadence) and poor decision-making. While in the imperial capital in 1499 to take the national jinshi examinations, Tang behaved inappropriately—possibly involving drunken debauchery—and became embroiled in a trumped-up cheating scandal. Although he hadn’t actually done anything wrong, Tang was jailed, expelled from the exams, and sent home in disgrace, with the once-certain promise of a glorious official career now reduced to ashes.

Nevertheless, Tang’s status remained intact among the scholarly and wealthy elite of his native Suzhou. He lived and moved in the leading circles of local society, and, through their continuing patronage, he made a successful (if sometimes precarious) living through his writing and art for the next twenty-five years.

Remembering Suzhou

A scholar's studio in Suzhou. Photograph courtesy of the author.

A scholar’s studio in Suzhou. Photograph courtesy of the author.

In December 2014, while I was working on Painting with Words: Gentleman Artists of the Ming Dynasty, I visited China’s Suzhou Museum to see an exhibition on Tang Yin, one of the city’s most celebrated artists and a key member of the Ming dynasty’s Wu School. I spent the first day studying the remarkable assemblage of Tang’s painting and calligraphy, including several works I had long wanted to see. On the morning of the second day, Mr. Pan, a young museum curator, came by my hotel to take me to a famous local garden before we would return to the exhibition in the afternoon. In the spirit of the Three Perfections—painting, poetry, and calligraphy—in which Tang Yin and his fellow Wu School artists excelled, I’ve written the following recollection of that day. 

Curator Pan darts down a narrow side street flanked with whitewashed walls, chatting amiably as we stroll to one of Suzhou’s famous gardens. In the Old City, early morning rituals are in full swing. Under the weak winter sun, brightly colored quilts and bedding are hanging out to air. The wok woman on the corner fires up savory crepes for eager passersby; stacked baskets of gleaming dumplings steam in the stall next door. Up the block, around the public well, bare-armed men and women scrub their laundry in tubs and buckets, sharing gossip of absent neighbors and the rumors of the day.

At a blind corner by the canal, another man cutting crosswise suddenly collides with my companion, butting heads. But their startled curses and momentary consternation quickly turn to wincing laughs and smiles, as old friends clap each other on the shoulder and shake hands. In fact, he lives around the corner now, just down the lane, and we’re invited to drop by for tea on our way back.

Curator Pan loves classical poetry. As we wander the latticed halls and jumbled rockeries of the garden he quotes the early masters, then offers up a sample of his own. He savors every syllable and rhyme, chanting loudly with proud satisfaction: “A new view with every step, Suzhou gardens are the best.” A pavilion, a bridge, fragrant shrubs scattered and massed for every season; tall twisted rocks dredged from nearby lakes and erected on end; maples in full flush and clusters of nandina berries, flaming red: all are reflected clearly in still pools of water. All were put here long ago just to catch our eye as we turn the bend.

Curator Pan texts his friend. Photo courtesy of the author.

Curator Pan texts his friend. Photo courtesy of the author.

We’ve taken our time, and we text Master Liang, the old friend we had encountered, to let him know we’re running late. Out the front gate and back the way we came, we cross the canal and hurry down the street to the left. A long block later, we knock at a set of wooden doors that front the lane. A young girl opens them, and across the courtyard our smiling host beckons us into his studio where the kettle for tea is already boiling. Master Liang, it turns out, is a teacher of the qin—the seven-stringed zither played by almost every classical poet since the time of Confucius—and soon we’re perching comfortably on sturdy stools inside his high-ceilinged classroom. Sleek-bodied black lacquer zithers hang from rings along the wall; woven mats and low polished tables line the stone-tiled floor.

With a practiced flourish Master Liang discards the first pot of tea and adds new hot water to the leaves: “It’s the second steeping that is best, and the only one to serve an honored guest.” Waiting, we talk of his teacher and mine, of the training and traditions that led us each to where we are. Master Liang asks his friend about his newly opened exhibition on the art of Tang Yin (1470–1524), one of the city’s most beloved poets and painters, and the real reason I am here. The show is the talk of the town, featured in all the papers; we tell him that visitors are packed four and five deep in front of every picture and he should probably wait a couple of weeks to come.

By now the tea is ready, and Master Liang pours us each a shallow cup. Its warmth in our hands and the subtle scent and flavor imbue us with a sense of calm. I tell them of a favorite handscroll in the Freer|Sackler: a short landscape by Tang Yin called Traveling South, which he painted in 1505 for his good friend, a young qin player who was setting out from Suzhou to make his way in the world. Then as now, the road was part of life for professional musicians.

Detail, Traveling South; Tang Yin (1470–1524); China, Ming dynasty, 1505; handscroll; ink and color on paper; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, Freer Gallery of Art, F1953.78

Detail, Traveling South; Tang Yin (1470–1524); China, Ming dynasty, 1505; handscroll; ink and color on paper; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, Freer Gallery of Art, F1953.78

Done in marvelously varied brushwork and subtle graded tones of ink, the scroll is one of the artist’s early masterpieces. After the painting, Tang inscribed two short poems:

On the river, springtime breezes blow the tender elms
I clasp my zither and see you off trailing long robes
If someone you encounter should appreciate your music
Cut some reeds where you are and build yourself a hut

Xi Kang long ago performed the Melody of Guangling
Silent for a thousand years its tonalities are lost
Today I have traveled to this place to see you off
That we may look for its tablature in the handbook

Inspired by my description, Master Liang moves to a nearby table where his qin is tuned and waiting. Selecting a favorite melody, he dedicates it to our accidental meeting: “Reading the Book of Changes at a Window Filled with Pines.” By which, of course, he means that if one reads the universe rightly, our meeting was no accident at all. Each note trembles in the chilly air, then warms as the next one huddles in, piling solid and broken lines one atop the other and transporting us momentarily to another place and time: here and now, there and then, all the same.

Master Liang performs. Photo courtesy of the author.

Master Liang performs. Photo courtesy of the author.

The piece ends with a flurry of harmonics, and we finish our replenished cups of tea. His first students of the day will arrive in half an hour, and since we’re meeting a colleague from the museum for lunch, we take our leave. Polite farewells at the door and grateful promises to stay in touch, and as we step across the threshold, returning to the rough-and-tumble, I am struck again by how much Suzhou, for all its modern veneer, remains unwaveringly true to itself. Poetry and painting, zithers and tea, rocks and gardens, crepes and dumplings: the pulse of life for more than five hundred years. Whether 1514 or 2014, certain things abide.

Word of the Day: zhiyin

Seven-stringed zither (qin), named Spring Breeze Forged inscription of Wen Zhengming (1470–1559) China, Ming dynasty, 1369–1644 Lacquered wood, water buffalo horn, mother-of-pearl, and silk strings Gift of Dr. Shing Yiu Yip Freer Gallery of Art F1999.8

Seven-stringed zither (qin), named Spring Breeze; forged inscription of Wen Zhengming (1470–1559); China, Ming dynasty, 1369–1644; lacquered wood, water buffalo horn, mother-of-pearl, and silk strings; Gift of Dr. Shing Yiu Yip; Freer Gallery of Art, F1999.8

As you stroll through the works in Painting with Words, you’ll see—and hear—the Chinese qin, a musical instrument that was ubiquitous in the cultural life of Ming dynasty China. Paintings from the period often show a retired gentleman walking in the mountains or along a stream, followed by a young servant carrying the man’s qin (pronounced “chin”). Viewers would understand that the subject of the painting would stop to play his qin whenever he felt so inspired by the nature around him.

In the center of this album leaf, titled "Walking by a Mountain Stream," a man is followed by a servant holding his qin, the quintessential musical instrument of the Chinese gentleman scholar.

In the center of this album leaf, titled “Walking by a Mountain Stream,” a man is followed by a servant holding his qin, the quintessential musical instrument of the Chinese gentleman scholar.

The qin music playing in the exhibition is a piece called “Flowing Water.” In 1977, when NASA sent Voyager I hurtling toward deep space, the satellite carried a sound disc with fifty pieces of music to represent earthly civilization. “Flowing Water” was the piece chosen to represent Chinese music.

The song is traditionally attributed to Boya, an ancient qin master. His friend Zhong Ziqi was deeply attuned to Boya’s music. When Zhong died, Boya destroyed his qin, declaring that he had no reason to keep playing now that no one understood him. Since then, the term zhiyin 知音, defined as someone who understands or appreciates one’s sound or music, has been used to refer to a dear friend.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, a poem on a handscroll titled Traveling South touches on Boya’s story:

On the river, springtime breezes blow the tender elms
I clasp my zither and see you off trailing long robes
If someone you encounter should appreciate your music
Cut some reeds where you are and build yourself a hut

We’re excited to welcome a present-day qin master to the museum this weekend. Bell Yung, emeritus professor of music at the University of Pittsburgh and one of the world’s leading authorities on the qin, will hold four free concerts from Friday through Sunday. He will play an instrument similar to the one on display in Painting with Words and will focus on pieces that evoke themes seen in the exhibition: plum blossoms, wild geese, river mists, and flowing waters.