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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

Art and Hearts for Valentine’s Day

Throughout Valentine’s Day weekend, join us to celebrate love at the Freer|Sackler. Our Love in Every Language programs (12–4 pm on February 13 and 14) will feature a slideshow of depictions of love in our collections. Japanese artist Kajita Hanko created this work, Unrequited Love, in 1903 for a novel of the same name.

 

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Couple in a Landscape was created in the 1600s, possibly in Herat in historical Iran (present-day Afghanistan). The painting is surrounded by landscape and animal motifs.

 

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Other fun activities include the opportunity to create Valentine’s Day cards, using woodblock prints that say “love” in more than a dozen languages. You also can fold heart-shaped origami. Should you wish to get a jump-start, watch a video that guides you through the process:

 

 

This program is suitable for all ages with adult companions. Join us in the ImaginAsia classroom, located on sublevel 2.  Don’t miss out!

Iranian Film Festival: Grand Finale

Monir screens Saturday afternoon at the National Gallery of Art.

Our Iranian Film Festival has been a great success so far, with many—if not all—of the five hundred seats in the National Gallery of Art’s auditorium filled screening after screening. The festival ends its run at NGA on February 13 with a pair of films by and about artists. Experimental filmmaker Bahar Noorizadeh’s Wolkaan explores memory and exile through two family stories, one set in North America and the other in Iran. And Bahram Kiarostami’s documentary Monir looks at the life of the pioneering artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, who is full of new creative energy as she enters her ninth decade.

After that, the festival moves to the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland. Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, whose screening at NGA was snowed out in January, plays there on February 20. Three additional films will be screened at AFI, each of them an artistically ambitious take on contemporary Iran. Set entirely in the apartment of a couple preparing to go into exile, Nima Javidi’s debut feature Melbourne features brilliant performances and a devastating plot twist. Payman Haghani’s playful 316 traces a woman’s life (and several decades of Iranian history) entirely through shoes.

The festival concludes with a look at a side of Tehran rarely shown on film. Atomic Heart, which takes its title from a Pink Floyd album, follows two drunk party girls on an increasingly apocalyptic nocturne, featuring a mysterious stranger who may be the devil himself.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the twentieth edition of our Iranian Film Festival. Join us in March as we celebrate the DC Environmental Film Festival.

Super Bowl: Panthers (?) vs. Broncos

We have to wait until Sunday night to know whether the Panthers or Broncos will win the Super Bowl. In the meantime, you can weigh in on who would win in this fight:

The panther (officially listed as a “feline animal figure”)…

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… or the bucking bronco?

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Only time will tell.

What’s Up in the Freer?

One of our Chinese art galleries as the Freer undergoes renovation

One of our Chinese art galleries rests as the Freer undergoes renovation.

While the Sackler is as lively as ever, over at the Freer Gallery of Art—now under renovation—the lights are dim, doors are shut, “CLOSED” signs are up, and it is deceptively quiet in the galleries. Every so often, the sounds of hammering and the laughter of hard-hatted contractors drift up the stairs. Come closer and you will find echoing galleries and sleeping beauties—but it didn’t get that way overnight.

The quiet north corridor

The quiet north corridor

"Sleeping beauties" in a gallery of Chinese Buddhist art

“Sleeping beauties” in our gallery of Chinese Buddhist art

Our collections management and design staff, with some very important helpers, worked tirelessly through January to systematically de-install the art from all exhibition areas. Nothing remains but a few sculptures in our Buddhist art gallery (pictured above, secure, tucked in, and dozing) and our two fearsome guardian figures, who are finally off their sore, flat feet and loudly snoring in the Peacock Room after many years of standing sentry in the Freer’s north corridor (see the slideshow below).

 

Stay tuned to Bento and sign up for our e-newsletters to follow along with the renovation project.

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.

A Tour de Force of Iranian Cinema

Fatemeh Motamed-Arya in "Avalanche"

Fatemeh Motamed-Arya in Avalanche.

In a career spanning three decades and more than fifty films, Fatemeh Motamed-Arya (born 1961) has established herself as one of Iran’s most acclaimed actresses, both at home and abroad. At the Fajr Film Festival, Iran’s premier cinema showcase, she has won awards for her performances four times, in addition to prizes at the Montreal World Film Festival and the Prix de Henri-Langlois at the Vincennes International Film Festival.

With her expressive face and impressive range, Motamed-Arya is instantly recognizable to followers of Iranian cinema—including fans of our Iranian Film Festival—particularly through her powerful performances in such films as Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s antiwar drama Gilaneh and Bahram Tavakoli’s Here Without Me. Attendees of this year’s festival already got a taste of Motamed-Arya’s work in the opening film, Bani-Etemad’s Tales, which played at the National Gallery of Art on January 2.

Motamed-Arya also is an in-demand world traveler, having made appearances at film festivals in India, Dubai, Holland, Korea, and Dhaka in the last couple of years (just to name a few). I met her at the 2014 Tokyo International Film Festival. With some mutual friends, we spent a memorable afternoon sightseeing and shopping, during which I broached the idea of inviting her to Washington. I was able to make good on my promise this year, with the release of the film Avalanche, in which she gives a tour-de-force performance as a night nurse tormented by insomnia as a snowstorm descends on Tehran.

Motamed-Arya was scheduled to attend the screening of the film on January 31 at the National Gallery of Art, but I’m sorry to say that she will not be able to attend. Due to a flood of applications from Iran in the wake of the nuclear deal, her visa, unfortunately, was not approved in time.

Just yesterday, I also heard the terrible news that she and director Kaveh Ebrahimpour were attacked by an angry mob at a screening of their latest film, Yahya, in Iran over the weekend. Whether the attack was motivated by the film itself (in which she plays an abortionist), Motamed-Arya’s outspoken progressive political positions, or her habit of defiantly taking off the hijab when she travels abroad ultimately doesn’t matter. It serves as another reminder of the very real threats that uncompromising artists can face in Iran. Luckily, she seems to have come through the ordeal unharmed.

Even though we won’t be able to see her in person, I hope you’ll show your support for this courageous artist by coming out to the screening of Avalanche this Sunday.