Category Archives: From the Collections

Remembering A Memorial

Left: the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC (Joe Ravi, CC-BY-SA 3.0). Right: Mausoleum of Cyrus, Ernst Herzfeld, Iran, 1905–28.

Left: the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC (Joe Ravi, CC-BY-SA 3.0). Right: Mausoleum of Cyrus, Ernst Herzfeld, Iran, 1905–28.

Imagine Washington, DC, abandoned and half-submerged into the Atlantic. The rounded dome of the Jefferson Memorial is visible like a little white island, but no one remembers the structure or its origins. Imagine New York covered with layers and layers of sands, the Chrysler Building in ruins, and the identity of the Statue of Liberty forgotten.

A doomsday scenario? The plot for a science fiction movie? A little far fetched? Maybe, but not when compared to the fate of Pasargadae, the magnificent capital of the Achaemenids (550–330 BCE), the first empire of the ancient world. It was built by the empire’s founder, Cyrus the Great (reigned 550–530 BCE), who conquered much of the Near East within a twenty-year period. He was known for his military skills as well as his tolerance: in 539, when he conquered Babylon, Cyrus allowed the Jews and other prisoners to return to their homeland.

Pasargadae was located in southwestern Iran, in the so-called “plain of the water bird.” Introducing a new architectural plan that would be widely emulated, the palace complex was centered on a large garden and included striking columnar palaces and pavilions, as well as Cyrus’s tomb. It was a pivotal site of the ancient world. Even when the Greeks conquered the Achaemenids in 330 BCE, Alexander the Great visited Pasargadae and paid his respects to Cyrus.

View of dasht-i murghab, or "plain of the water bird"

Over the years, however, Pasargadae gradually fell into neglect and was largely forgotten in favor of nearby Persepolis, built by Darius I (522–486 BCE). In the thirteenth century, a local ruler transformed Cyrus’s tomb into a mosque using stones and columns from the nearby palace. According to fifteenth-century Western travelers to the area, very little of the capital and the palace grounds remained, and the tomb was believed to be a woman’s resting-place. Although some scholars had speculated that the site was that of ancient Pasargadae, it was only in 1908 that the celebrated German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld identified it beyond any reasonable doubt as the royal capital of the Achaemenid Empire.

Even if not much of the once-magnificent capital still stands, thanks to Herzfeld’s efforts, Pasargadae and the tomb are once again linked to Cyrus the Great. The story is a poignant reminder of the passage of time and the power of our collective memory. Experience it in person in Heart of an Empire: Herzfeld’s Discovery of Pasargadae, on view through July 31.

Seventeen Angry Heads

Seventeen Angry Heads; Central Tibet, 15th century; gilt copper alloy with inlays of semiprecious stones; Purchase—Friends of Asian Arts in honor of the 10th Anniversary of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery; S1997.27

Seventeen Angry Heads; Saptadashashirshi Shri Devi; Central Tibet, 15th century; gilt copper alloy with inlays of semiprecious stones; Purchase—Friends of Asian Arts in honor of the 10th Anniversary of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery; S1997.27

Howling in anger and wearing skulls as ornaments, this goddess is a fierce form of the compassionate and beautiful Tara. Buddhist deities are peaceful, enlightened beings, but sometimes their passion turns to rage—particularly when they are protecting devotees and sacred teachings. A master craftsman sculpted her seventeen human and animal heads.

The sculpture was once part of a frieze (a horizontal band of painted or carved images) on a shrine at Densatil, a Buddhist monastery in Tibet. The monastery burned down in the 1960s, and fragments from the frieze were acquired by American and European collections. Experience these seventeen heads of ferocity in our galleries of South Asian and Himalayan art.

Sunflowers in the Peacock Room

Sunflower andirons; designer: Thomas Jeckyll (1827–1881), manufacturer: Barnard, Bishop, & Barnards; England, Norwich, ca. 1878–84; iron with gilding; Purchase, Freer Study Collection, FSC-M-66a–b

Sunflower andirons; designer: Thomas Jeckyll (1827–1881), manufacturer: Barnard, Bishop, & Barnards; England, Norwich, ca. 1878–84; iron with gilding; Purchase, Freer Study Collection, FSC-M-66a–b

While the Freer is under renovation, its famed Peacock Room is closed. We continue to explore it in Peacock Room REMIX, however, as well as in our Peacock Room app, the Story of the Beautiful web feature, Google Art Project, and on Bento. Below, Clive Lloyd, a retired professor and blogger in Norwich, England, writes about the contributions of architect Thomas Jeckyll, who designed the original dining room that Whistler made into his masterpiece. 

The Peacock Room may be stunningly beautiful, but my eye is drawn to the contents of the fireplace, where I see the sunflower andirons designed by Thomas Jeckyll (1827–1881), born just outside my home city of Norwich, England. As a pioneer of the Anglo-Japanese Aesthetic Movement and chief designer for a local ironworks, Jeckyll introduced Japanese motifs—such as sunflowers, cherry blossoms, and fan shapes—to their products. Similar to the larger freestanding sunflowers that form the Peacock Room’s andirons, the bloom appears in various forms embossed on domestic fireplaces. Since writing an article for my blog on these sunflowers, several people have contacted me to say they have an Aesthetic fireplace identical to the one I illustrated.

I have been fascinated with this motif since I read about the seventy-two sunflowers forming the railings around a Chinese pagoda that once stood in my local park. Jeckyll designed the pagoda for the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition; he would later adapt the sunflowers for the Peacock Room’s rather more ostentatious versions. The Norwich Corporation purchased the pagoda in 1880 and placed it in Chapelfield Gardens. The structure suffered damage from bombing during World War II and was dismantled in 1949, but the best of its sunflowers were refurbished and used first as railings, then later as gates, at another Norwich park.

  • Jeckyll’s pagoda exhibited in Philadelphia, surrounded by the golden sunflower railings. Image courtesy Jonathan Plunkett.
    Jeckyll’s pagoda exhibited in Philadelphia, surrounded by the golden sunflower railings. Image courtesy Jonathan Plunkett.

During the most recent refurbishment, a local photographer told me she had seen original and replacement sunflowers mixed in boxes in the city council’s works department. Imagine my excitement when I saw a solitary sunflower in the corner of a nearby architectural salvage yard. I realized it must have been a surplus item liberated during the last restoration. I hoped the owner was unaware of exactly what he had, but no luck: He mentioned the magic name of Jeckyll (and the price), and I went home disappointed.

NYFW: Accessories through the Ages

As New York Fashion Week struts toward its final round of shows, all eyes are on the apparel—and on the accessories. After all, you can’t truly dress to impress without the proper accoutrements, a tenet that discerning dressers seem to have embraced for millennia. Take, for example, the vivid splash of cerulean offered by this string of glazed-clay beads, which may date as far back as Late Period Egypt (712–332 BCE).

String of beads

Spinning to the opposite side of the color wheel (and to some two thousand years later), this Chinese necklace, dating to the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), comprises coral, amber, and gold beads.

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Women also decorated their wrists in Qing dynasty China. The bracelet on the left is made of jade, known in China as the “fairest of stones.” The gold bracelet on the right likely would’ve been worn as one of a pair by an elite Chinese woman. Within the filigree design, two dragons play with a magic pearl.

bracelets

Gold, unsurprisingly, has been shaped into fine adornments for centuries across the globe. Both this ring and these earrings are hollow, fashioned from gold sheets. Made in twelfth-century Iran, the ring bears Arabic inscriptions that read in part, “Good fortune and blessing and joy and sovereignty.” The earrings, created in India circa 1880, are typically worn by Muslim women in the southern state of Kerala, along the country’s west coast.

ring and earrings

And let’s not forget a key piece of arm candy: the purse. This twentieth-century version was made by Pakistan’s Sodha community. Closed with a drawstring, it bears geometric and peacock designs stitched in satin, as well as discs of mirrored glass.

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Circling back to brilliant blue: these three Qing dynasty Chinese hair ornaments, fashioned from kingfisher feathers, are nothing short of stunning. We wouldn’t be surprised to see contemporary versions of these accessories accenting the updos at a fashion week sometime soon.

hair

Thanks, Mr. President!

Portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt; Gari Melchers (1860–1932); United States, 1908; oil on canvas; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1908.17a

Portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt; Gari Melchers (1860–1932); United States, 1908; oil on canvas; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1908.17a

Happy Presidents Day! Did you know that President Theodore Roosevelt was instrumental to the Freer|Sackler’s existence? In 1904, Charles Lang Freer offered the United States his collections of Asian and American art and funds for a museum to house them. Because of restrictions he placed on the gift, the Smithsonian hesitated to accept it until President Roosevelt intervened.

To show his appreciation, Freer commissioned artist Gari Melchers to paint this portrait. Roosevelt considered the painting the best that had ever been done of him, and Freer predicted that it would always be considered the one that captured the “dignity, force and character” of the president. “Art is a language,” he wrote to Melchers, “and your portrait will talk to the people through coming centuries.”

Heart of an Empire: Herzfeld’s Discovery of Pasargadae

Mausoleum of Cyrus: view from the south; Ernst Herzfeld; Iran, 1905–28; cyanotype from glass plate negative; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA A.6 04.GN.1543p

Mausoleum of Cyrus: view from the south; Ernst Herzfeld; Iran, 1905–28; cyanotype from glass plate negative; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA A.6 04.GN.1543p

“I am Cyrus, son of Cambyses, who founded the Persian Empire and was King of Asia. Grudge me not this monument.”

According to the Greek historian Strabo (circa 64 BCE–21 CE), these words were inscribed on the tomb of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Empire of Iran (reigned 550–530 BCE). Before his untimely death, Cyrus laid the foundation of the ancient world’s first empire in his birthplace, Anshan (Parsa), in southwestern Iran. He had overthrown the Medes, a kingdom in northwestern Iran, and had captured Sardis, the capital of the Lydian kingdom in Anatolia. In 539 BCE, Cyrus conquered Babylon and allowed the Jewish community to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the second temple. At the same time, he chose Pasargadae as the heart of his multilingual, multifaith empire and transformed it into a magnificent symbol of Achaemenid power. The site also became Cyrus’s final resting-place.

Located in the fertile plain known as the dasht-i murghab, or “plain of the water bird,” Pasargadae comprised palaces, gardens, pavilions, and a number of structures with not-yet-identified functions. Although several classical Greek authors mention Pasargadae, the site gradually fell into neglect after the fall of the Achaemenid Empire in 330 CE and was largely forgotten in favor of nearby Persepolis, built by Darius I (522–486 BCE). In the early thirteenth century, materials from the palace grounds were used to transform Cyrus’s mausoleum into a mosque. Western travelers to the site after the fifteenth century referred to the structure as a woman’s burial place using its local designation, “Tomb of the Mother of Solomon.” Although some scholars suggested the tomb might be Cyrus’s, it was not until 1908 that the German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld (1879–1948) devoted his dissertation to Pasargadae and proved conclusively that it was the royal capital of the Achaemenid Empire.

Heart of an Empire focuses on Herzfeld’s discovery of Pasargadae and explores his meticulous work to restore the site’s historical and archaeological importance. See it tomorrow when it debuts in the Freer|Sackler.

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.

 

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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.

Celebrate the Year of the Monkey

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing

Calling visitors of all ages: Ring in the Year of the Monkey at our second annual Lunar New Year Celebration on Saturday, February 6, 11 am–4 pm. Join us to explore the museum, take family-friendly tours of the suspended sculpture Monkeys Grasp for the Moon, and enjoy dance performances by the Madison Chinese Dance Academy. Plus: ribbon dancing, mask making, calligraphy, photo booth fun, and Lunar New Year resolutions!


About the Artwork

Chinese artist Xu Bing created Monkeys Grasp for the Moon specifically for the Freer|Sackler. Each of the sculpture’s twenty-one pieces represents the word “monkey” in one of a dozen different languages and writing systems, including Indonesian, Urdu, Hebrew, and Braille. The work is based on a Chinese folktale in which a group of monkeys attempt to capture the moon. Linking arms and tails, they form a chain reaching down from a tree branch to the moon—only to discover that it is just a shimmering reflection in a pool of water.

Listen to Xu Bing chat about the work during its initial installation at the Freer|Sackler (click on “Interview with the Artist”).

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.

The Cosmic Buddha’s New Dimensions

The Cosmic Buddha, centerpiece of the forthcoming exhibition Body of Devotion, has transcended time and space. The limestone sculpture started its life in China during the Northern Qi dynasty (550–77), most likely carved by a team of craftsmen. From that point forward, little is known about the Cosmic Buddha’s history until it appeared on the art market in Beijing more than a millennium later, in 1923. Freer Gallery curator Carl Whiting Bishop spotted the sculpture and bought it for the museum.

Covering the sculpture, which is formally titled Buddha Vairochana with the Realms of Existence, are detailed narrative scenes representing moments in the life of the Historical Buddha. Scenes of the Realms of Existence, a symbolic map of the Buddhist world, also are etched into the sculpture’s robe. Together, the sculpture’s many images provide a rare glimpse into early Chinese symbolic visions of the Buddhist cosmos.

In earlier times, the only way to capture the Cosmic Buddha’s rich content was through photographs or rubbings, impressions in black ink on white paper made directly on the sculpture’s surface. Today, anyone with a computer can zoom in on its intricate details. With help from the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, the Cosmic Buddha now exists as a three-dimensional model, enabling scholars to study the work as never before and providing worldwide access to this masterpiece of Buddhist sculpture.

The Cosmic Buddha’s next journey is from the Freer to the Sackler, where it will appear in Body of Devotion: The Cosmic Buddha in 3D when it opens this Saturday. The interactive installation explores not only the work itself, but also the evolving means and methods of studying sculpture, from rubbings and photographs to the technological possibilities of today.