Category Archives: Sackler 25

Hokusai: Performance Artist

Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji: Umezawa Manor in Sagami Province. By Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), The Mann Collection, Highland Park, Illinois

Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji is on view through June 17, 2012, as part of our Japan Spring celebration. In honor of the exhibition, Bento presents a series of posts on the life and times of Hokusai, the famed artist behind the esteemed series that includes the iconic print Under the Wave off Kanagawa, better known as The Great Wave. This article, the third and last of the series, was written by Victoria Dawson and previously appeared in Asiatica magazine.

Hokusai’s searching restlessness, as evinced by the shifts in style and name, subject matter and audience, reflects his enormous capability for self-renewal. “His demon, in a way, was that he always reached a point where he was becoming a caricature of himself,” according to art historian Roger Keyes. “He got facile—sort of like Picasso, who really struggled with that problem. But Hokusai found a short cut. Whenever he was in a rut, he changed. He just started doing something completely different.”

Hokusai seemed almost playful about the elusiveness of his public persona, on the one hand disappearing from patrons, publishers, and an admiring public and on the other engaging in feats of artist bravura. In 1804, at the age of forty-four, he decided to produce—at the Gokokuji in Edo—what he believed would be the largest painting ever created. On the day of the performance his assistants rolled out an expanse of paper fifty-five feet wide long and thirty feet wide—pieced together from smaller sheets of paper. At Hokusai’s signal, a team of assistants, dressed in black, began to scramble around the jerry-rigged canvas, wielding brooms for paintbrushes and working from tubs of ink—presumably following an outline by the artist. “The spectators said it was the damnedest thing—these people running all over the place,” Keyes says. When the ink dried and the painting was finally hoisted aloft, the assembled crowd beheld the head and shoulders of the Bodhidharma, the Indian patriarch of Zen Buddhism.

“Here,” adds Keyes, “Hokusai is a performance artist, right? So then he said, ‘You think that’s great? Well, check this out!’ The next day he got a grain of rice and, with his one-hair brush, drew two flying sparrows [on it]. Isn’t that great?”

Facing East: Kabuki in Honor of Japan Spring

The art of Kabuki in honor of Japan Spring; photo by H. Wicaksono

In honor of Japan Spring, traditional dance master Bando Kotoji demonstrates and discusses scenes from famous kabuki plays including “Yoshino-yama,” set on a famous Japanese mountain known for its cherry blossoms.The intricate art of kabuki involves costume, makeup, postures, and movement all supported by live music for shamisen, chanter, and percussion.

Japan Spring in the Sackler Gallery

Celebrating Japan Spring in the Sackler Pavilion; photo by Carly Pippin

Here’s the scene in the Sackler Gallery as we celebrate Japan Spring! There’s still time to grab some food and listen to the sounds of the koto. At 2 pm check out Imaginasia activities as well as Kabuki in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium.

Curator Ann Yonemura on Hokusai

Ann Yonemura, senior associate curator of Japanese Art; photo by H. Wicaksono

We have the honor of having Ann Yonemura with us today. Ann is the senior associate curator of Japanese art at the Freer|Sackler. She shares with us how special and rare it is to have the complete set of Hokusai prints on view, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, selected from seven museums and two private collections.

“It’s very difficult to bring the series together this way. It really is the first show of the full series that I have seen in my lifetime. It’s up for twelve weeks only, so it’s brief, just like the cherry blossoms. The prints are beautiful, and in excellent condition. Visitors to the exhibition will be seeing the prints as they would have appeared in the 1830s, when they were first published.”

Sketching the Koto Player

Sketching the Koto Player in the Sackler; photo by H. Wicaksono

Japan Spring is a feast for the ears as well as the eyes. Come listen to the sounds of the koto, the national instrument of Japan, happening now through 2 pm.

Cherry Blossom Origami

Making cherry blossom origami in the Sackler; photo by Hutomo Wicaksono

Not happy with the cherry blossoms outside? Come into the Sackler and make your own! Cherry Blossom origami happening now through 2 pm!

Hokusai: Making Waves

The Great Wave

Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji: Under the Wave off Kanagawa; H. O Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929, Metropolitan Museum of Art (JP1847). Image source: Art Resource, NY

Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji opens Saturday, March 24, as part of our Japan Spring celebration. In honor of the exhibition, Bento presents a series of posts on the life and times of Hokusai, the famed artist behind the esteemed series that includes the iconic print Under the Wave off Kanagawa, better known as The Great Wave. This article was written by Victoria Dawson and previously appeared in Asiatica magazine.

In the 1850’s—the decade after Hokusai’s death—Japan was opened up to the West and paintings and prints began to flow to Europe and into America. Over the next fifty years, Hokusai gradually emerged in Western eyes and in the Western imagination as the Asian artist par excellence. Much has been written about his influence on designs of European and American artists in the late nineteenth century. Indeed, in Vienna, at the 1873 international exhibition, a major exhibition of Hokusai works underscored the high degree of popularity that he enjoyed in the West. But through most of the last century, beyond a relatively small group of researchers and collectors, the artist was largely identified in the popular imagination as a print designer. His most famous work, The Great Wave from the print series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (circa 1830–33), is virtually synonymous with Japanese art—and so ubiquitous that it can be found almost anywhere that ink can adhere to a surfave—from tote bags to magnets. [The print can be seen at the Sackler Gallery as part of the exhibition on view from March 24 through June 17, 2012.]

Hokusai was someone with a very deep sense that wherever he was, it was not the final place—he was always looking for something beyond. He was an individualist whose art seems infused with a sense of irony, hauntedness, and a search for meaning. His prolific productivity, his cherished independence, and his groundbreaking visual techniques suggest a man who was obsessed with something other than money or social standing.

Then, as now, there were scores and scores of artists who were content with the status quo, satisfying rather than challenging the expectations of their viewers. Not so Hokusai. Consider, for example, the contrast between two prints of waves, created within several years of one another. In The Great Wave, Hokusai presents a rather generous vision of sweeping waves with Mount Fuji in the distance. A print he created only a year or two later offers a claustrophic alternative: In Chosi in Shimosa Province (circa 1833–34, from the series One Thousand Pictures of the Ocean) the waves cleave to a sharp diagonal line, crashing against the jagged rocks and shoals. A second, distant fishing boat offers none of the reassuring stability that Mount Fuji provides in the earlier print.

“There is no escape. Visually, Hokusai doesn’t allow it,” says Jim Ulak, senior curator of Japanese art at the Freer|Sackler. “He seems to say, ‘Well, you were comfortable with The Great Wave? Now, I’ll give you something to be afraid of—a darker vision, a sense of being trapped.’ Why would Hokuasi have done that? Not to make the viewer feel comfortable. You can always expect him to pull the rug out from under you.”

Feast Your Eyes: An Interview with Curator Massumeh Farhad


Wine horn wih gazelle protome; Iran, Sasanian period, 4th century CE; silver and gilt; Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, S1987.33

The Freer and Sackler’s extraordinary collection of luxury metalwork, considered one of the largest and finest of its kind, is showcased in Feast Your Eyes: A Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran. Featuring exceptional works of silver and gold, the exhibition opened this year in honor of the Sackler Gallery’s 25th anniversary. Many of the objects were collected and donated by Dr. Arthur M. Sackler to the Smithsonian museum that would bear his name.

Bento caught up with Dr. Massumeh Farhad, F|S chief curator, curator of Islamic art, and curator of this exhibition, for a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the ancient Iranians.


Bento: What does Feast Your Eyes reveal about kings and kingship in ancient Iran?

Massumeh Farhad: The objects in the exhibition tell us about how kings projected and expressed their power and authority. The picture plates, such as the one of Shapur II, represent the king as a sharp, skillful rider and hunter. In a way they are portable propaganda. At the same time, Sasanian kings also had their images carved into huge rock reliefs. Here, they would show themselves hunting, succeeding to the throne, or with their enemies kneeling in front of them in defeat. One of the reliefs can be seen in an archival image in the exhibition, taken by the 19th-century photographer Antoin Sevruguin. These huge reliefs were intended more for the public, while the picture plates were sent as portable royal gifts to governors and other high-ranking officials within the empire and beyond. As we can see, the Sasanians adapted imagery to both large and small scale.

Bento: What do the multiple images of hunting tell us about the Sasanians?

MF: Hunting is the most important pastime associated with rulers in the Near East, beginning with the Assyrians and continuing well into the Islamic period. When kings were not at war, they demonstrated their skill and courage by going hunting. The popularity of hunting imagery in the Sasanian period may have also carried a religious meaning and been intended to show the king’s ability to overcome chaos (or at least reign in chaos).

The Sasanians were known for huge cultivated grounds, which they used for hunting. The word “paradise,” meaning an enclosed lush garden, is derived from the Old Persian term pardis. These walled gardens existed all over their empire.

Bento: Tell me a little bit more about Shapur II.

MF: Shapur II is the most frequently depicted king on Sasanian objects. He was one of the most successful Sasanian rulers, who succeeded in pacifying the Central Asian tribes in the east and conquering Armenia in the west. He was also the longest reigning Sasanian king; he reigned for 70 years because he was crowned in his mother’s womb.

Bento: What do we know about the day-to-day lives of the Sasanians?

MF: Sasanian society seemed quite rigid and hierarchical. It was divided into  priests,  warriors, secretaries, and commoners with the king in the center. Most of the information about the Sasanians comes from Persian religious texts or Greco-Roman sources, which tend to be somewhat biased. For the Achaemenids (ca. 550–331 BCE), there are a large number of tablets found at Persepolis, which have been deciphered for the last several decades at the University of Chicago. Once [the research is] completed, we will know much more about their everyday life, social interactions, and economic transactions.

In the meantime, we have to piece together a picture of Sasanian life based on contemporary religious texts and somewhat biased Greek sources. For instance, the Greeks seemed fascinated with Persian eating habits and report extensively about their excesses. Allegedly, they made the Greeks eat out of gold and silver vessels and ate multiple courses. The Sasanians were also very fond of  desserts and wine.

Bento: My heroes! I hear they also ate their meals in silence. Why?

MF: Meals were serious and solemn occasions, even during the Islamic period. In the West, meals can be boisterous and chatty. In Iran, you ate your meals in silence. Basically the only person who could speak was the priest. Everything else was conducted in silence.

Shiraz was well known for many years for its viticulture. Wine was produced there. The Persian king had a vintner and an army of cooks. It was known that the Romans watered down their wine and the Persians did not. They also loved celebrating their birthdays. Aristophanes left a firsthand account and wrote, “And those pitiless Persian hosts! They compelled us to drink sweet wine, wine without water, from gold and glass cups.”

Building a Foundation for Asian Art

In honor of the 25th anniversary of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, we’ll be featuring posts throughout the year that commemorate the museum’s founding. Some, like this one, will look back. Others will look forward, and most will be just right! Here, in 1986 or so (the museum would open in 1987), the Sackler is being built. The Smithsonian Castle and the entrance to the S. Dillon Ripley Center can be seen in the background. In addition to a new home for Asian art, the re-envisioning of the quad included the neighboring National Museum of African Art (which, if the photo were panoramic, would be on the right).

Photo courtesy of the Archives of the Freer Galley of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.