Women in the Persian Book of Kings

Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Firdawsi (d. 1020); recto: Zal climbs to reach Rudaba; verso: text: Zal consults with the priests about Rudaba; Iran, Timurid period, mid-15th century; ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper; Purchase—Smithsonian Unrestricted Trust Funds, Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program, and Dr. Arthur M. Sackler

Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Firdawsi (d. 1020); recto: Zal climbs to reach Rudaba; verso: text: Zal consults with the priests about Rudaba; Iran, Timurid period, mid-15th century; ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper; Purchase—Smithsonian Unrestricted Trust Funds, Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program, and Dr. Arthur M. Sackler

This is the first in an occasional series looking at the role of women in Persian poetry, storytelling, and painting.

With Women’s History Month recently behind us, I began to think about the significance of women in one of the most important works in Persian literature: Firdawsi’s epic of the Persian kings, the Shahnama. Did women have a prominent place in these tales, and how were they portrayed? Are queens represented alongside the kings?

In the first half of the Shahnama—which focuses on Iran’s mythical past, particularly Persian legends—many women play central roles as the mothers of kings and warriors, the heroes in the epic poem. Dr. Dick Davis writes that surprisingly there are “over fifty women … named in the poem … and a number of them play a significant and sometimes primary role in the narrative.” One such woman is Rudaba, the princess of Kabul, who gives birth to one of the greatest Shahnama heroes, Rostam. She is presented as a free agent and engineers her own life by defying male authority, even that of her father. In the painting above, Rudaba lets down her long hair so that Zal, her future lover and husband, can scale the building and join her on the roof. (He chooses, however, to use a lasso to climb the wall.)

Rudaba is independent and takes matters into her own hands, and by no means is she an exception. A whole host of women in the Shahnama actively pursue their desires and take initiative, and they are mostly presented in a positive light for doing so. Moreover, there is hardly any immediate social backlash. Instead, a woman making choices based on desire is glamorized and presented as entirely understandable—something almost unheard of in traditional society.

The women in the Shahnama are not just celebrated for their role as mothers. Like Rudaba, they are known for their beauty, intelligence, independence, and fierceness. The epic poem features women as diplomatic envoys and queens. This gives them a degree of political power and, as Davis has written, has allowed the women “to confront the world on their own terms.”

Despite the action-packed and colorful representations of these works, the strong women in the Shahnama sometimes take a backseat to their male contemporaries. Letting the stories of kings and heroes overshadow those of powerful queens and wise women risks diminishing the complexity of these works, which, after all, is what makes them so exquisite.

Source: Davis, D., “Women in Shahnameh” in Women and Medieval Epic: Gender, Genre and the Limits of Epic Masculinity, edited by Sara S. Poor and Jane K. Schulman (Palgrave MacMillan: 2007), 67-90.

Friday Fave: Tibetan Shrine

The Tibetan Shrine from the Alice Kandell Collection

2010 Installation of the Tibetan Shrine, The Alice S. Kandell Collection, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Years ago, long before I considered becoming a designer in a museum, I made a fateful visit to the Freer|Sackler. In 1990, during my sophomore year at the University of Montana, I traveled with my dorm roommate George to DC for spring break. He was studying to be a scholar of Chinese Buddhism and made a special point of visiting the Freer and Sackler Galleries, which were his favorite museums on the Mall. As a Montana native, I didn’t have much firsthand exposure to Asian art or any non-Western art, for that matter. For me, it was an eye-opening experience.

That spring, there was an amazing exhibition on view at the Sackler, The Noble Path: Buddhist Art of South Asia and Tibet, that sparked my appreciation for Asian art. The works, on loan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, featured rich oxblood-red and gold Tibetan thangkas and mandalas. The imagery was expressive, hyper-detailed, and exuberant. You could almost smell the yak-butter lamps burning nearby and imagine the sound of Tibetan monks chanting. The experience was transformative, and I was hooked.

Some fifteen years later, I was offered a rare opportunity to work as a graphic designer at the Freer|Sackler. I carried with me my love for Asian art born that afternoon on spring break. In 2010, I was reminded of that moment when we installed “The Tibetan Shrine from the Alice S. Kandell Collection” as part of the exhibition In the Realm of the Buddha. Every time I walked by that gallery, I’d stop and spend a few contemplative moments drinking in the atmosphere of the room, which contained hundreds of works of Buddhist art including sculptures, scrolls, and textiles. I’m looking forward to the reinstallation of the shrine in the Sackler in the coming years.

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.

Mats Matter

The Gopis Search for Krishna from a Bhagavata Purana; Punjab Hills, India, ca. 1780; opaque watercolor and gold on paper; Purchase, F1930.84

The Gopis Search for Krishna from a Bhagavata Purana; Punjab Hills, India, ca. 1780; opaque watercolor and gold on paper; Purchase, F1930.84

The Islamic and Indian paintings at the Freer|Sackler are breathing a huge sigh of relief now that the pressure is off! Over the last few months, the paper lab of the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research has rehoused more than one thousand individual folios into new window mats. The window mats relieve the paintings’ fragile surfaces from any pressure when stacked in storage boxes—critical for their long-term preservation. Plus, the paintings just look better that way.

Every painting had to be individually measured and the measurements entered into a spreadsheet. The data was sent in batches to an outside contractor. In return, every couple of weeks we would receive 200–250 newly cut mats. We then had to remove the paintings from their old folders, add new hinges, and attach them into the new mats. We make our hinges in-house from Japanese paper, and each hinge is cut to size to fit the particular folio. Since at least two hinges are used to hold each painting in the window mat, we went through more than 2,024 individual hinges! Although one thousand new mats were cut, 1,012 individual folios were rehoused, since some are presented in double window mats (a single mat with two window openings).

Old, insubstantial folders at left, and new, clean and sturdy mats on the right.

Old, fragile mats on the left; new, clean, and sturdy mats on the right.

One hundred sixty-eight folios had already been placed in mats in-house for various rotations, exhibitions, and loans, bringing the grand total of matted folios to 1,180. But that’s not everything. We still have approximately one hundred Islamic and Indian paintings left to move into mats in the future. Then, on to other collections!

The project was funded by a Smithsonian Collections Care and Preservation Fund grant. It could not have happened without the untiring work of Amanda Malkin (Hagop Kevorkian Fellow in Islamic painting conservation and hinger extraordinaire), Stacy Bowe (mat-measuring maniac and intern), and Emily Cummins (pre-program intern).

Friday Fave: Shiva Nataraja

Shiva Nataraja; Tamil, India, Chola dynasty, ca. 900; bronze; Purchase—Margaret and George Haldeman, and Museum funds, F2003.2

Shiva Nataraja; Tamil, India, Chola dynasty, ca. 900; bronze; Purchase—Margaret and George Haldeman, and Museum funds, F2003.2

As a longtime museum educator, I relish the opportunity to teach in the galleries. Since arriving at the Freer|Sackler a year and a half ago, I repeatedly return to the Shiva Nataraja, currently on view in the Freer’s galleries dedicated to the arts of the Indian subcontinent and the Himalayas.

Shiva is a Hindu god who has many manifestations; as Nataraja, he is a cosmic dancer vigorously performing the “dance of bliss.” A basic question I ask visitors is, “How did the Chola artist who created this Shiva more than 1,000 years ago express in bronze that he was Lord of the Dance?”

Before they answer, I ask them to walk around the sculpture and observe Shiva from multiple angles and perspectives. I may ask visitors to try to adopt Shiva’s pose and feel how difficult it is to maintain one’s balance.

After taking time to look, they note that his left foot is raised. Then they might notice that his right foot is balanced on top of a small misshapen figure known as “the demon of ignorance.”

Visitors often observe Shiva’s face with its slight smile and piercing eyes (including a third eye, which he uses to bring light into the universe). When I ask groups to describe his expression, they respond with words such as “calm,” “serene,” “peaceful,” and “composed,” and they often note that his face is the evocation of stillness. His hair, however—in matted locks (jata) worn by religious ascetics—flows around his head, propelled into rhythm through the energy of his dance.

Groups realize that Shiva has four arms and that each hand represents a different gesture (mudra). For example, his lower right hand illustrates the gesture meaning “Be without fear.” Visitors wonder at the small fire in one of his left hands—a symbol of creation and destruction. This is no ordinary dance!

Museum-goers often conclude that Shiva Nataraja is Lord of the Dance in part because he does what is difficult with ease and grace, and that his dance has great meaning beyond the physical act of movement. He defeats a demon while balanced effortlessly. His face evokes calm and serenity although he is dancing vigorously. Ignorance is crushed; light is restored to the universe.

The Traveler’s Pen

Still from "Old Men," courtesy of Icarus Films

Still from “Old Men,” courtesy of Icarus Films

As a young woman, Val Wang—inspired by Zhang Yuan’s seminal independent Chinese film Beijing Bastards—left her family home in the DC suburbs to move to China. Partly a declaration of independence and partly a way of connecting to her émigré family’s roots, Wang’s time there resulted in the book Beijing Bastard: Into the Wilds of a Changing China.

One of the many odd jobs Wang took on in China was helping independent Chinese filmmakers with English subtitles. Her honest and intimate descriptions of her sometimes complicated relationships with people such as Zhang himself are among the book’s highlights.

Wang is one of two authors I invited to share a film they find meaningful as part of the series Road Works: Films Inspire Writers, presented this month in conjunction with the exhibition The Traveler’s Eye: Scenes of Asia. Wang chose Old Men, an ingenious documentary by another independent filmmaker she got to know, Lina Yang. The complex relationship between the two women, as Wang described in her book, should add spice to the discussion when she presents the film on April 12.

Keith Bellows, travel writer, blogger, and former editor-in-chief of National Geographic Traveler, chose to confront the contradictions and controversies of the very industry in which he works by selecting Gringo Trails. This documentary looks at the impact of global tourism on the cultures, economies, and ecosystems of countries in Asia and South America.

Although Bellows won’t be able to join us in person on April 19, he managed to corral the film’s director, anthropologist Peggy Vail, and its producer, Melvin Estrella, to participate in an Q&A after the screening. Among the topics they’ll discuss is whether tourism is destroying the planet or saving it, and how tourists can change local economies for better … and for worse.

As The Traveler’s Eye illustrates, the ways that travel affects travelers and that travelers impact the places they visit are ideas artists have considered for centuries. I hope you’ll join us for these two contemporary takes on age-old themes.

Friday Fave: Sunflower Andirons

Sunflower and irons; Thomas Jeckyll; England, ca. 1878–84; iron with gilding; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, FSC-M-66a–b

Sunflower and irons; Thomas Jeckyll; England, ca. 1878–84; iron with gilding; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, FSC-M-66a–b

These metal andirons were created by the Peacock Room’s original architect, Thomas Jeckyll, to complement the room’s beautiful design—a form of architectural jewelry, if you will. Although they’re not currently on view, the andirons remind me of the delightfully quirky humanity that often hides behind great masterpieces.

Decorated by American ex-pat artist James McNeill Whistler, the Peacock Room is a magnum opus: a breathtaking combination of artistic genius, technical mastery, and hubris. Visitors step inside and gasp. Crowds gather when the shutters open every third Thursday of the month. It is, without doubt, the most recognizable, memorable, and photographed single installation in the Freer|Sackler.

With its imposing importance, it’s easy to forget that the room was built to be a functional dining room—with, of course, a functioning fireplace. It was built for shipping magnate Frederick Leyland and his family’s London home. I like to imagine the meals and conversations held in this space, the fires that were poked at day in and day out. The Leylands must have fretted over details, planned menus, and proudly showed off their matching andirons to admiring guests.

It is also deeply human. The drama of the room’s decoration is arguably trumped by the stories of the people involved—the patron, Leyland; the architect, Jeckyll; the collector, Freer; and of course, the artist, Whistler. The andirons were commissioned by Leyland, a testament to his impressive attention to appearances, and acquired by Freer, a testament to Freer’s no less impressive quest to assemble Whistler’s complete oeuvre, down to the smallest detail.

The Peacock Room’s most dramatic personal histories take center stage with the incredible reimagining that opens May 16, Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre. You won’t want to miss it! In the meantime, enjoy the details.

Friday Fave: Pheasants and Cherry Trees

Pheasants and Cherry Trees; Japan, Momoyama period, first quarter of the 17th century; ink, color, and gold on paper; Purchase, F2006.3.1–2

Pheasants and Cherry Trees; Japan, Momoyama period, first quarter of the 17th century; ink, color, and gold on paper; Purchase, F2006.3.1–2

Spring has sprung in the District! In celebration of this long-awaited season and the cherry blossoms that are almost in bloom, I’d like to present my favorite artwork, Pheasants and Cherry Trees.

One of the most impressive things about this work of art—and the one thing that you can’t get a sense of from any digital image—is its grand scale. The pair of screens takes up half of one of our Japanese galleries, and the delicate, detailed cherry blossom trees that dot the landscape are truly a sight to behold. Despite its size, if you look closely enough, you can discern individual petals in varying shades of pink, rough patches of bark, and even small blots of green buds about to take shape.

The pheasants are equally impressive. A few wait patiently, beaks to the ground underneath the shade of the trees. But two have taken flight into the pure gold background, seemingly awash in sunlight. The long, striped feathers of the first bird still almost touch the grass, and the second one’s wingtip comes close to the top edge of the screen, connecting earth and sky. Follow their line and your eye floats across the screen and then up and over to the wall beyond.

Pheasants and Cherry Trees is on view in the Freer Gallery of Art. Come see it for yourself tomorrow during our Cherry Blossom Celebration, a day full of Japanese art, anime and manga films, a book signing, a vintage kimono trunk show, and family activities.

Friday Fave: Breakfast in the Loggia

Breakfast in the Loggia; John Singer Sargent (1856–1925); United States, 1910; oil on canvas; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1917.182a–b

Breakfast in the Loggia; John Singer Sargent (1856–1925); United States, 1910; oil on canvas; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1917.182a–b

Did you ever wish you could step into a painting? I feel that way each time I look at John Singer Sargent’s painting Breakfast in the Loggia. It hangs in the Freer in a hallway that leads to galleries of Indian and Islamic art, and it’s overshadowed by an imposing guardian figure from Japan. Most visitors walk right by it, never giving it a first, much less a second, glance. So why is a sunny Italian scene by one of the greatest American painters of the early twentieth century on view in the Freer?

It’s easy to forget that Charles Lang Freer was collecting the leading-edge American art of his time. Many of his American acquisitions look staid and old-fashioned to viewers today. Freer formed friendships with artists, including Abbott Handerson Thayer, Thomas Dewing, and of course, James McNeill Whistler. He acquired their art and commissioned them to create paintings for his home in Detroit, Michigan. A budding connoisseur, Freer learned from artists and honed his sense of aesthetics from their discussions and correspondence. Freer even bought their works, sometimes sight unseen, because he believed in their abilities and creativity.

Freer did not have the same close relationship with John Singer Sargent; I’m pretty sure the two never met. I think I would have liked the artist. I know I like the way he paints and how he fills shadows with an array of colors. A white wall isn’t really white. It’s blue and gray and pink. The “white” tablecloth is primarily slashes of shades of blue. When I look at Breakfast in the Loggia, I imagine myself wearing a big hat, leaning in with my elbows on the table as I eat outside and share a bit of gossip. Best of all, I can feel the warm Italian sun on my back. Ahhh!

Truth be told, this is my second-favorite work in the museums. First is the portrait of Elvis painted on velvet that hangs in the staff kitchen—but that’s a story for another time.

Friday Fave: March MADness

Mask; Japan, Edo period, 1615–1868; wood with paint and hair; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.314

Mask; Japan, Edo period, 1615–1868; wood with paint and hair; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.314

 

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art.

Not only is it Friday the 13th, but it’s also just days until the year’s scariest, most cutthroat contest: March MADness. While the rest of America roots for their favorite men’s basketball teams, we at the museums will pit sixteen intimidating objects against one another for the coveted title of Freer|Sackler’s Fiercest. Pictured is last year’s winner (after edging out the Maiden of Dojoji), a Japanese mask that represents a demon (oni). It probably was used in a ritual exorcism performed the night before the New Year, and its eyes may once have been coated with gilt metal for extra glaring power.

On Tuesday, as the NCAA kicks off its tournament, head to the F|S Facebook page to vote for the maddest, baddest objects in our collection. Then, follow along with our bracket to see if your picks make it to the final rounds. As head of our social media team, it would be biased of me to name a top choice in this sure-to-be-contentious battle—but I can divulge that this year’s group ups the ante in pure nightmare fuel.

Visit our Connect page to find more ways to follow the Freer|Sackler on social media.