Friday Fave: Sugimoto’s Seascapes

An installation shot from the exhibition, "Seascapes: Tryon and Sugimoto," Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 2009

An installation shot from the 2009 Freer|Sackler exhibition “Seascapes: Tryon and Sugimoto.”

The Freer|Sackler has always been a place of serenity and introspection for me. I enjoy the tranquility of sitting and viewing a work, letting my mind wander and slowly digest the nuances of the piece in front of me. This intimate relationship between art and viewer, for me, is mirrored in the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto.

My first exposure to his work was at the Baltimore Museum of Art. As I turned the corner into a side gallery, I saw a black rectangle the size of a chalkboard. From afar, it appeared as a modernist void, but as I moved closer, subtle details slowly appeared. A horizon, a slight gradation of black and white, filled the space.

That particular piece was a black-and-white photograph of the ocean. It is part of Sugimoto’s Seascapes series, long-exposure photographs of water horizons taken over several hours. The resulting large-format prints are hazy, dreamlike images that are tranquil and meditative. His focus on perceiving the ephemeral is captured in these snapshots of light and time and are simply beautiful in their peacefulness. The images are recognizable, but as if recalled from a memory.

I was delighted to discover that the Freer|Sackler has a series of Sugimoto’s ocean photographs. My personal favorite is Boden Sea/Utwill, demonstrating the artist’s mastery of portraying tonality and near formlessness. Air, water, time, and light all come together in a single photograph. The image is so simple, yet it encapsulates the essence of life on this planet.

While none of Sugimoto’s photographs are currently on view in the galleries, you can always see them online (along with the entire museum collection) at Open F|S.

Come visit! While the Freer Gallery closes for renovation on January 4, 2016, the Sackler Gallery remains open and as dynamic as ever. Learn more about our plans for the future.

Inspired By the Dark

Nocturne: Grey and Silver—Chelsea Embankment, Winter; James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903); United States, ca. 1879; oil on canvas; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.143a–b

Nocturne: Grey and Silver—Chelsea Embankment, Winter; James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903); United States, ca. 1879; oil on canvas; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.143a–b

Today is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Winter light can be exquisite when it changes in late afternoon, as the dark comes earlier and earlier. A wonderful way to take it in, I think, is to walk through our galleries—especially in the Freer, with its central courtyard—and watch the day turn into night.

Artists have long captured changing daylight and dusk and the chromatic layers of evening. James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturnes shimmer with the texture of variable light, turning the surface of the canvas (or paper) into visual poetry. Kobayashi Kiyochika is another favorite artist in our collections whose celebrated woodblock prints were featured in the exhibition Kiyochika: Master of the Night in 2014. The exhibition was held concurrently with An American in London: Whistler and the Thames. Whistler’s London and Kiyochika’s Tokyo were often depicted at night—two distinct worlds separated by nearly six thousand miles, but linked by the play of shadow and light.

For centuries and across cultures, artists have been inspired by the night. If you search for the word “night” on Open F|S, you’ll bring up more than 450 works of art. If you choose “dusk,” you’ll get to see 25 more.

While the Freer goes dark from January 4, 2016, through mid-2017, the Sackler will remain open and as dynamic as ever. Learn more about our plans for the future.

Shadows and Light (Sabers): Star Wars Puppetry

Traditional Malaysian shadow puppetry, known as wayang kulit, with scenes from Star Wars. Photo: AFP

Traditional Malaysian shadow puppetry, known as wayang kulit, with scenes from Star Wars. Photo: AFP

While Star Wars: The Force Awakens breaks box office records around the world, in Malaysia, the story of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and company is being used to reinvigorate the traditional art of shadow puppetry. A recent shadow puppet performance has been technologically updated to tell the story of Star Wars. The hope is to gather new audiences and a new appreciation for an old-fashioned method of storytelling.

In Southeast Asia, shadow puppets have been used for centuries to convey stories that can be educational, spiritual, or just entertaining. The puppets are intricately carved and animated by flickering candlelight. In the collections of the Freer|Sackler, we have two shadow puppets from Cambodia and depictions of puppets in artworks from other parts of Asia.

One of the quotes I’ve heard from The Force Awakens is, “The Light—It’s always been there. It will guide you.” The same goes for storytelling. Whether that light is from a computer screen, a candle, or a movie projector, the stories we tell all around the world link us and, hopefully, guide us as well.

The Freer Gallery closes for renovation on January 4, 2016, so we can better present our art and serve our visitors. The Sackler Gallery remains open and as dynamic as ever. Learn more about our plans for the future.

Sending off Suzuki with “Pistol” and “Princess”

Pistol Opera

Suzuki’s 2001 film “Pistol Opera,” screening tonight, looks back at his inventive career.

When Seijun Suzuki returned to directing in 2001 after a decade-long break, he was in a reflective mood. His work recently had begun reaching new fans around the world thanks to a touring retrospective in the 1990s. Pistol Opera (made in 2001 and screening tonight) was pitched as a remake of Branded to Kill, the notorious 1967 film that simultaneously got Suzuki banned from filmmaking and gained him legions of fans in the Japanese counterculture. Instead, Pistol Opera serves as a tour of Suzuki’s outrageous career: a riot of color, violence, sensuality, and, above all, anarchy.

Our Suzuki retrospective concludes on Sunday with his final film, Princess Raccoon, a charming musical inspired by Japanese folklore and featuring megastars Zhang Ziyi and Jo Odagiri. It concludes, appropriately, with the cast waving goodbye to the camera.

After that screening, we, too, will wave goodbye as the Meyer Auditorium, along with the rest of the Freer Gallery, closes for renovations on January 4. Along with visiting our exhibitions in the Sackler, which remains open, I hope you’ll join us at other venues in the DC area for our 2016 film program. It kicks off with the twentieth edition of our annual Iranian Film Festival, which has found a temporary home at the National Gallery of Art and the AFI Silver Theatre.

Last Chance! Peacock Room Shutters Open Today

Light from the open shutters illuminates the Peacock Room.

Light from the open shutters illuminates the Peacock Room.

Today from 12–5:30 pm, take advantage of the last opportunity until 2017 to view the Peacock Room with its shutters open. Beginning January 4, 2016, the Freer Gallery will close for renovations so that we may better serve our visitors.

We’ve been opening the shutters each month to highlight the chromatic complexity of the Peacock Room’s decoration. Once light pours in, the colors become richer and the gold shines. The effect makes you appreciate the work’s full title, Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room. It is a dazzling moment that feels operatic in its power. No wonder Whistler often chose to title his works with musical references. Viewing the Peacock Room in natural light is a true symphony for the eyes. And, with conservation in mind, a special filtering film has been applied to the windows to preserve the iconic room and protect the contents from fading.

Remember: While the Freer is closed, you can still see the Peacock Room’s contemporary counterpart Filthy Lucre in the Sackler, which remains open. Plus, you can visit Whistler’s masterpiece anytime via our free Peacock Room app.

Friday Fave: The Weavers

The Weavers, John Singer Sargent, oil on canvas, 1912, F1913.59a-c, Gift of Charles Lang Freer

The Weavers; John Singer Sargent (1856-1925); United States, 1912; oil on canvas; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1913.59a-c

The Weavers by John Singer Sargent is something of an anomaly in our collection of American painting. Museum founder Charles Lang Freer generally favored evocative, lyrical images rendered in a softly painted style: Thomas Dewing’s languorous women, Dwight Tryon’s atmospheric landscapes, and, above all, James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturnes, whose evanescent surfaces were, as one contemporary noted, “like breath on glass.” There is nothing breathy about The Weavers. A critic who saw the picture at the 1913 Royal Academy exhibition in London called it “a pictorial exclamation.” It is painted with Sargent’s characteristic bravura brushwork—bold, liquid strokes that almost magically coalesce into the interior of a textile factory that Sargent must have seen during his 1912 sojourn in the Spanish city of Granada.

If the style of The Weavers makes it stand apart from most of the Freer’s American art, the subject makes it distinctive within Sargent’s oeuvre. What is unusual—and what I especially love about this picture—is that the workers it depicts are worlds away from the artist’s customary subjects: rich patrons who counted on Sargent to capture their best likenesses. Instead, Sargent focuses his attention and formidable talent on a group of anonymous laborers. They occupy a dark, crowded space punctuated by intense areas of sunlight so bright they make you want to squint. This is a totally physical picture, from the subject matter to the quality of the paint to the perceptual response it elicits.

The Weavers has not been on view since 1998. Along with other little-seen works of American art, it will come out of storage in 2017, when we celebrate the reopening of the Freer after its renovation. If you’re a fan of Sargent’s work, see his painting Breakfast in the Loggia in the Freer before the building closes on Monday, January 4, 2016.

Fish-Teeth and Friendship

Archer’s Ring; India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1610–20; walrus ivory; courtesy Benjamin Zucker; photo by Neil Greentree

Archer’s Ring; India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1610–20; walrus ivory; courtesy Benjamin Zucker; photo by Neil Greentree

A leading gem connoisseur and collector from a long history of jewelers, Benjamin Zucker joins us Sunday to recall his worldwide travels to acquire precious stones. Hear about the Taj Mahal emerald that inspired his novel Green and the fourth-century Roman diamond in Elihu Yale: Merchant, Collector, and Patron.

And then there’s the walrus ivory archer’s ring, on view December 11–18. It was made four hundred years ago, when Jahangir ruled India’s vast and wealthy Mughal empire. He was introduced to walrus ivory, called “fish-teeth” in Persian, by his ally Shah Abbas, ruler of Persia (present-day Iran). Delighted by the material, he sent agents to Persia to acquire more “fish-teeth … from wherever and whomever at any price.”

Detail, Emperor Jahangir Embracing Shah Abbas of Persia; folio from the St. Petersburg Album; signed by Abu’l Hasan (act. 1600–30); India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1618; opaque watercolor, ink, silver, and gold on paper Freer Gallery of Art, Purchase, F1945.9

Detail, Emperor Jahangir Embracing Shah Abbas of Persia; folio from the St. Petersburg Album; signed by Abu’l Hasan (act. 1600–30); India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1618; opaque watercolor, ink, silver, and gold on paper; Freer Gallery of Art, Purchase, F1945.9

Look closely at this painting, a vision from one of Jahangir’s dreams (click through to zoom in). He and Shah Abbas both wear rings designed to protect their thumbs during archery. (Jahangir’s ring also symbolizes friendship and brotherly affection.) The shah’s translucent ring is probably made of white jade; Jahangir’s is probably walrus ivory. Its brownish color makes it unlike any other archer’s ring we know today. We’re not sure whether the ring on display was made for Jahangir—but scientific tests have determined that it, too, was carved from walrus tusk.

See the ring and painting while they’re on view through December 18, and don’t miss Zucker’s talk on Sunday at 2 pm.

 

A Note on Walrus Ivory
Emperor Jahangir particularly desired “striated and mottled fish-teeth” from Siberia, which he described as beautiful. In the 1600s, people thought walrus tusks would reduce swelling and serve as an antidote to poison. Today, we focus on the long-term survival of the marine mammal. The US Fish and Wildlife Service may put the Pacific walrus on the endangered species list, and several states are considering banning the trade of walrus ivory.

Ars Orientalis 45: Knowledge Triumphs Over Time and Space

The image sequence begins with The white marble Śvetāmbara Jaina Temple in Antwerp, Belgium, has three śikharas, a pronounced terrace and mirrors the essential Māru-Gurjara features, photo courtesy of Verena Bodenstein; “Shore” temple at Mamallapuram with proto-gopura within east wall; Nahalvār temple group, Kadwāhā, from the east, circa 10th century (from left: Viṣnu temple, Śiva temple); Parasurameśvara temple, Bhubhaneshwar, Orissa. Photo courtesy of the American Council of Southern Asian Art (ACSAA) Collection, University of Michigan, History of Art Department, Visual Resource Collections

Images: the white marble Śvetāmbara Jaina Temple in Antwerp, Belgium, with three śikharas and a pronounced terrace that mirrors the essential Māru-Gurjara features, photo courtesy of Verena Bodenstein; “Shore” temple at Mamallapuram with proto-gopura within east wall; Nahalvār temple group, Kadwāhā, from the east, circa 10th century (from left: Viṣnu temple, Śiva temple); Parasurameśvara temple, Bhubhaneshwar, Orissa, photo courtesy of the American Council of Southern Asian Art (ACSAA) Collection, University of Michigan, History of Art Department, Visual Resource Collections

Each fall, the Freer|Sackler and the University of Michigan copublish Ars Orientalis, a journal of the latest research in art of the Middle East and Asia. A collection of scholarship that crosses academic disciplines, the publication aims to connect researchers, institutions, and ideas using one central theme per volume. This month marks the release of the 45th volume of Ars Orientalis—and of our second digital volume.

The current issue takes a close look at temple architecture of South Asia, but the essays move beyond recording architectural features. Each year Ars Orientalis seeks content that approaches the study of art history in innovative ways, combining a range of scholarly perspectives and subject matter. The essays within this year’s volume not only explore temple building techniques, but the methods of communication that allowed this knowledge to travel over widespread geography and generations of architects. Ultimately, AO 45 aims to trace the triumph of architectural knowledge over boundaries of space and time. The essays ask and answer questions about the mysteries behind medieval architectural achievements: Who were the temple builders, for example, and how did they pass on their knowledge? In doing so, the volume relates to larger questions about the formation of artistic traditions and consistent visual cultures.

The issue is organized in a special format in an effort to encourage dialogue among readers. Four initial essays are followed by two sets of responses that together form a conversation over the course of the journal’s pages. We hope the response-based format, in combination with the special features in the digital edition, spark new conversations and ideas at the intersection of art, history, and innovation.

Both formats of AO 45 are now ready and waiting to be explored. Take a look at the digital edition, and order a print copy for your bookshelf.

Shining a Light on Jades at the Freer|Sackler

Chisel-shaped object; China, Song dynasty, 960–1279; jade (nephrite, actinolite/tremolite); Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1917.28

Chisel-shaped object; China, Song dynasty, 960–1279; jade (nephrite, actinolite/tremolite); Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1917.28

Jade was the material most highly prized by the ancient Chinese. Its polish, brilliance, subtle and translucent colors, and extreme toughness have long been associated with the quality of virtue and the concepts of the soul and immortality. The Freer|Sackler’s collections of jades include works of exceptional artistic quality, as well pieces of great cultural, historical, and sociological importance. Searching Open F|S, our fully digitized collection, is a superb way to become familiar with this unparalleled group of jade objects.

Next year, we will further expand access to our holdings with an online jade catalogue. As we prepare to make the evolving field of research on Chinese jades available to the public, we decided to test objects not previously examined for mineral composition to ensure our reports are complete and accurate. Jade is a chemically complex material, and studying its mineral composition is one way to understand more about the choices made by artisans in ancient China. The material properties can provide insights into jade sources, how jades were worked, and how they have changed since they were made.

Xiao Ma, MCI intern, uses a portable Vis/NIR in to analyze a Neolithic jade bi.

Xiao Ma, MCI intern, uses a portable Vis/NIR in to analyze a Neolithic jade bi.

Xiao Ma, a recent intern at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute (MCI), and I spent a few days studying the jades using two noninvasive methods: portable Fourier Transform Infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) and Visible-Near Infrared spectroscopy (Vis-NIR). Both techniques deliver data directly from the surface of a jade in just a few minutes, and because no sample is required, there is no risk of damage to the object.

Example of a Vis-NIR spectrum of a Liangzhu jade bead (F1912.29a) composed of nephrite. The fingerprint bands for nephrite include 1394 nm, 2316 nm, and 2388 nm.

Example of a Vis-NIR spectrum of a Liangzhu jade bead (F1912.29a) composed of nephrite. The fingerprint bands for nephrite include 1394 nm, 2316 nm, and 2388 nm.

How do FTIR and Vis-NIR work? The light we typically see is within the visible portion (400–760 nm) of the electromagnetic radiation spectrum, or the part that human eyes can detect. The light we cannot see, above and below the visible portion, plays an important role in analyzing the composition of materials. For instance, the FTIR technique uses mid-infrared light (2500–25000 nm) to interact with the molecules that make up a jade object. As the infrared light is reflected back to a detector, FTIR measures how well the jade absorbs it at each wavelength, helping us create a molecular fingerprint.

Vis-NIR spectroscopy uses light in the visible region (400–760 nm) and overtones in the near-infrared region (760–2500 nm) to measure light that a material absorbs and scatters. Using this method, we placed jade objects near a light source; the light reflected from the object was collected by the Vis-NIR’s photodetector. The Vis-NIR spectrometer is particularly useful for analyzing mineral composition, as it is highly sensitive to electron transitions in both the visible and near-infrared regions.

We analyzed a total of 103 jades, including bi disks, cong tubes, pendants, ornaments, beads, and axes. Besides the most common jade material, nephrite (tremolite/actinolite), we also found other minerals, such as serpentine, quartz, and diopside. Our research methods and findings promise to serve as guidelines for museums to quickly and noninvasively analyze jade collections. Stay tuned to see more discoveries in the online catalogue when it is released next year.

Case Studies

Freer's "Book of Suggestions" contains sketches that inspired his thoughts on exhibition design and casework.

Freer’s “Book of Suggestions” contains sketches that inspired his thoughts on exhibition design and casework.

Talented carpenters, craftspeople, and exhibits specialists have been making our frames, cases, and vitrines ever since the Freer Gallery of Art opened to the public in 1923. Museum founder Charles Lang Freer took an interest in all aspects of displaying his art, from lighting to the proper way to make a case for ceramics. When the museum was still in the planning stages and Freer was looking for ideas as well as inspiration, he asked his assistant, Katharine Rhoades, to keep a notebook he titled “Book of Suggestions.” In it, Rhoades noted Freer’s ideas for exhibition cases and drew sketches of carpentry work he admired in other museums. At New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1918, for example, he took an interest in ways to display Syrian Rakka ware and mounts for bowls.

This attention to detail continues today throughout the Freer|Sackler (take a look courtesy of Google Art Project!). Cases protect the works, ensure their safety, and provide visitors the opportunity to get up close with rare works of art.

Come visit soon! While the Freer Gallery will close its doors on January 4, 2016, for renovation, the Sackler will remain open. Our fully digitized collections are always on view at Open F|S.