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.

Making Musical Waves

Descending Geese of the Koto; Suzuki Harunobu 鈴木春信 (1724–1770); Japan, Edo period, ca. 1766; woodblock print; The Anne van Biema Collection, S2004.3.21

Descending Geese of the Koto; Suzuki Harunobu 鈴木春信 (1724–1770); Japan, Edo period, ca. 1766; woodblock print; The Anne van Biema Collection, S2004.3.21

We owe the emergence of modern music for the koto, a Japanese zither, to a temple-court musician named Hosui. In the mid-1600s, Hosui was dismissed by the famously capricious nobility in Kyoto for giving an unacceptable performance.

Hosui ultimately prevailed. After resettling in Edo (modern-day Tokyo), he taught blind commoners how to play the exclusive court music styles and instruments that were previously restricted to Buddhist priests and Confucian scholars. Among Hosui’s students was the shamisen player Yatsuhashi Kengyo (1614‒1685), who pioneered a large and influential repertoire of secular koto music that is still performed today.

More than three hundred years after his death, Yatsuhashi’s tomb in Kyoto is marked by a commemorative stone. His accomplishments in music mirror those of the Japanese artist Sōtatsu, who is credited with bringing the visual arts of the court to a much wider public.

You can hear a few of of Yatsuhashi’s signature works and several of their later incarnations performed by local koto artist Miyuki Yoshikami and flutist Amy Thomas. Their free performance is held on Saturday, January 30, at 1 pm in the ground-level pavilion of the Sackler Gallery. While you’re here, take a last look at Sōtatsu: Making Waves before it closes on January 31.

Princess: Unleashed

The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine); James McNeill Whistler, 1863–65; oil on canvas; F1903.91a–b

The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine); James McNeill Whistler, 1863–65; oil on canvas; F1903.91a–b

For the first time since 1904, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain has left the Peacock Room. James McNeill Whistler’s painting of Anglo-Greek beauty Christina Spartali dressed in a Japanese kimono has hung over the mantelpiece in the Peacock Room for more than a century. Now it is on display in the Sackler as part of the exhibition The Lost Symphony: Whistler and the Perfection of Art.

The painting has presided over the Peacock Room for so long that it may come as a surprise to learn it was not originally a site-specific work. It was an exhibition picture, painted in 1864 and displayed at the Paris Salon the following year. Critics at the time generally liked the work, but they described it as a “pastiche chinoise” since parts of it seemed to imitate the decorations found on Chinese porcelain.

British shipping magnate Frederick Leyland acquired the painting around 1872. When he moved to a new home in 1875, he hung it over the mantel in the dining room, which had been redecorated by the architect Thomas Jeckyll to showcase Leyland’s extensive collection of blue-and-white Chinese pots. Leyland asked Whistler to offer suggestions about the color scheme of the woodwork. As the artist began to make a few modest changes, he realized Jeckyll’s designs clashed with his princess. Whistler was soon carried away with covering the walls, shutters, and ceiling with peacock motifs. The result was the beautiful Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room—and the end of his friendship with Leyland.

View of the northeast corner of the Peacock Room.

View of the northeast corner of the Peacock Room.

After Leyland died in 1892, his art collections were sold at auction. William Burrell, a collector from Glasgow, Scotland, bought La Princesse at that time. He sold it to Charles Lang Freer in 1903, shortly after Whistler’s death. The following year, Freer loaned the painting to Whistler’s memorial retrospective held in Boston, where the princess hung in a place of honor at the end of a long gallery. Later that spring Freer acquired the entire Peacock Room from Blanche Watney, who had purchased Leyland’s house, and he shipped the room to his own residence in Detroit in the summer of 1904. He once again hung La Princesse over the mantelpiece, where it remained when the Peacock Room was installed in the Freer Gallery of Art in 1920.

While the Freer Gallery is temporarily closed for renovation, La Princesse is liberated from her high perch. Enjoy this opportunity to take a closeup look at Whistler’s work before the princess once again returns to her lofty position, perhaps to gaze down on us for another hundred years.

#MuseumSelfie Day!

Hutomo Wicaksono, audiovisual and media specialist, gets framed in The Lost Symphony.

Hutomo Wicaksono, audiovisual and media specialist, gets framed in The Lost Symphony.

Every year, there comes a day when the humble selfie is deemed museum-worthy. That’s right: It’s #MuseumSelfie Day, the annual call for museum-goers to capture themselves enjoying their favorite cultural institutions. In your case, of course, that would be the Freer|Sackler!

This year, you can up your self-portrait game by taking one in our new exhibition The Lost Symphony: Whistler and the Perfection of Art, on view alongside Peacock Room REMIX. Without touching the art (that’s still a no-no, as are selfie sticks), pose in front of a reproduction of the frame that James McNeill Whistler once intended for The Three Girls, an unrealized masterpiece. Snap, share, and prove that you too are a true work of art.

Sōtatsu: Pieces of the Past

<em>Screen with Scattered Fans</em>; Tawaraya Sōtatsu (act. ca. 1600–40); Japan, early 17th century; six-panel folding screen; color, gold, and silver over gold on paper; Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1900.24

Screen with Scattered Fans; Tawaraya Sōtatsu (act. ca. 1600–40); Japan, early 17th century; six-panel folding screen; color, gold, and silver over gold on paper; Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1900.24

Stories about looting historic tombs and architectural sites are common fare in today’s media. Given the images that accompany these updates, of crudely severed elements hacked from pillaged ruins or plundered gravesites, the idea of considering cultural “fragments” in a positive light is akin to wearing mink at a PETA convention. The concept is is rightly tainted by associations with destruction and misappropriation.

But not all fragmenting is fundamentally destructive. Our current exhibition Sōtatsu: Making Waves (through January 31, 2016) is incomprehensible without an understanding of what could be called Tawaraya Sōtatsu’s (active circa 1600–40) strategy of fragmentation. Instead of theft and pillage, his process more closely resembled collaging—taking scraps from here and there and arranging them in a way that simultaneously displaced and expanded the original meaning.

Sōtatsu worked in a period of incredible social change. Though the population of Kyoto didn’t understand it at the time, a national solidification was taking place in the early seventeenth century. Japan was becoming the defined country we know today, emerging from a time when region, rather than nation, was the framework of identity.

This new national unity required a shared past. The world of classical literature—poetry, tales of adventure and romance—previously had been the purview of the aristocracy. Learning the classics, creating an interpretive framework for their revered words, and creating imagery to enhance those words were all elite activities—that is, until society began to come apart.

From his beginnings as a commoner, a fan painter, and an illuminated manuscript specialist, Sōtatsu eventually gained access to the highest levels of “the old order” (having the emperor’s consort as a patron, for instance)—a remarkable feat. With that access, he was able to view the artworks that had been sequestered, allowing him to pick apart Japan’s past and then energize and distribute it to a far more diverse audience.

Sōtatsu was not going at some beautiful stucco wall relief with a pickaxe. But he and his studio mates were doing an extraordinary amount of foraging, accessing largely out-of-reach collections and seeing one-of-a-kind paintings—often long, horizontal historical or literary narratives. They copied episodes depicted in such works and reinterpreted them onto folding fans, some of which were surely sold out of Sōtatsu’s Kyoto shop, the Tawaraya. He and his fellow artists also produced a folding screen whose surface was decorated with such fans, swirling as if they were being carried away on a rushing stream.

Detail, Screen with Scattered Fans

Detail, Screen with Scattered Fans

Our current ability to arrange pieces of an art historical past into chronologies of artist, style, culture, and so forth gives us a window onto the primary works that Sōtatsu studied. These thirteenth- and fourteenth-century paintings, which we now know in their completeness, are often accessible in museums today. But how many who viewed Sōtatsu’s repurposed snippets in the 1600s would have seen the original works from which they were extracted? Your chance of knowing his sources—via art history books and exhibition catalogues—is exponentially greater than that of a typical townsperson in Sōtatsu’s day.

So what did Sōtatsu’s contemporaries make of these fragmented images? My guess is that many simply saw an affectation of the past: a brush with the classics, an obscure recounting of the history of a temple or shrine, or a vaguely generalized image of warriors riding off to battle, for example. Sōtatsu’s folding fans served as portable image quotations from the past, allowing ancient narratives to float across social boundaries.

In many cases, fragmenting has resulted in losing the thread of a cultural history, at least for a while. But in Sōtatsu’s case, it offered up bite-size bits of a past that many, many more people were able to appreciate than ever before.

Another period of great dispersal or fragmentation of Japanese art occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Revisit Bento in the coming weeks to learn more about that amazing period.

A Painting That Doesn’t Exist

Three Female Figures, James McNeill Whistler, 1869–74, pen on brown paper with white heightening, Colby College Museum of Art, The Lunder Collection, 007.2009

Crouching Figure: Study for The White Symphony: Three Girls, James McNeill Whistler, 1869–70, black and white chalk on brown paper, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.139

Draped Figure at a Railing, James McNeill Whistler, 1868–70, black and white crayon on brown paper, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.130

Draped Female Figure, James McNeill Whistler, 1870–73, black and white chalk and pastel on brown paper, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.133

Draped Figure Standing, James McNeill Whistler, 1870–73, black and white chalk and pastel on brown paper, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.136

Woman with Parasol, James McNeill Whistler, 1870–73, black and white chalk on brown paper, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.138

The White Symphony: Three Girls, ca. 1868, oil on millboard mounted on wood panel, Freer Gallery of Art, F1902.138

The White Symphony: Three Girls, James McNeill Whistler, ca. 1868, oil on millboard mounted on wood panel, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.138

Girl with Cherry Blossom, James McNeill Whistler, 1868–78, oil on canvas, The Courtauld Art Gallery, London. Private Collection (on loan to The Courtauld Gallery)

The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre, James McNeill Whistler, 1879, oil on canvas, frame designed and decorated by the artist, ca. 1872–73, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Gift of Mrs. Alma de Bretteville Spreckels through the Patrons of Art and Music, 1977.11

Opening Saturday, The Lost Symphony: Whistler and the Perfection of Art is an exhibition about a painting that doesn’t exist. The saga began in 1867, when American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) received a commission from a promising new patron, the nouveau riche shipping magnate Frederick Richards Leyland (1832–1892). Leyland paid the artist to create a “symphony in white,” meant to be the fourth in a series of works in which Whistler experimented with idealized color and form. For ten years, Whistler painted and repainted the painting, which he titled The Three Girls—but he was never satisfied with it. As his mother would explain to Leyland, her son had tried too hard to make the painting “the perfection of art” and was thwarted by his own lofty ideals.

By 1876, Whistler was involved in another large project for Leyland: the redecoration of his patron’s dining room, eventually titled Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room. If Whistler had completed The Three Girls, it would have hung there, opposite his Princesse du pays de la porcelaine (Princess from the Land of Porcelain). But when painter and patron quarreled over the extent of Whistler’s work on the Peacock Room, Whistler destroyed the still-unfinished canvas of The Three Girls. In its place, he painted a mural of two fighting peacocks on the south wall of Leyland’s dining room, later known as “Art and Money; or, the Story of the Room.” As a final affront to Leyland, Whistler repurposed the frame that would have surrounded The Three Girls for another work, The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frithly Lucre (The Creditor), which depicts Leyland morphing into a monstrous peacock.

As suggested by Whistler’s sketches and related paintings above, The Three Girls would have been a remarkable work. Fortunately, Whistler left a significant paper trail that allowed our two guest curators, Linda Merrill and Robyn Asleson, to reconstruct the story of the fugitive painting. A rescued fragment of the original canvas, numerous figure studies and preparatory sketches, and the frame that Whistler originally intended to enclose it are among the tantalizing clues that hint at the masterpiece that might have been.

Part of Peacock Room REMIX, The Lost Symphony is the second in a series of exhibitions staged alongside contemporary painter Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre, an immersive installation that reimagines Whistler’s Peacock Room as a resplendent ruin, a visualization of the consequences of creative and monetary excess. The works on view in The Lost Symphony allow us to imagine another ending to the story and trace Whistler’s path to aesthetic mastery. Yet, the destruction of the never-completed picture and the afterlife of its repurposed frame also illuminate Whistler’s less-rarified preoccupation with patronage, payment, and professional reputation—the very themes at the heart of Filthy Lucre.


Egyptian balls

See more of these Egyptian balls on Open F|S.

Now, THESE are powerballs. Made of glass in Egypt, each one dates to the Ptolemaic dynasty or Roman period (305 BCE–14 CE). That’s not 1.5 billion years, but we’ll take 2,300! We’re not sure what they were for, though women may have used the larger ones to cool their hands after the balls soaked in melted snow.

Freer, Marlboro, and the Library of Congress: A Musical History

Clarinetist Anthony McGill performs at the Library of Congress on January 20 as part of our Meyer Concert Series.

Clarinetist Anthony McGill performs at the Library of Congress on January 20 as part of our Meyer Concert Series.

As our first concert during the Freer closure approaches, we can appreciate how apt it is for the performance to take place at the Library of Congress and to feature artists from the Marlboro Music Festival. These three institutions share a history that originates in the early twentieth century and continues to bear fruit today.

The Freer Gallery opened to the public in 1923. In February 1924, arts patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who was looking for an outstanding venue to host a new music series, held three concerts at the museum. She eventually settled on the Library of Congress as the site for her series, which launched the following year.

In museum founder Charles Lang Freer’s later life (he died in 1919), two of his closest friends and collaborators had been Eugene and Agnes Meyer. The three traveled on a joint collecting trip to Asia, and they frequently acquired art together. During World War II, Agnes Meyer intervened with the State Department to secure visas for German violinist Adolf Busch and pianist Rudolf Serkin to come to the United States. These virtuosos made their American debuts in concert at the Library of Congress and went on to found the Marlboro Music Festival in 1951.

Eugene Meyer and family. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. © The Estate of Edward Steichen/ © Joanna T. Steichen

Agnes Meyer (far left), Eugene Meyer (far right), and their children in 1926, in a portrait by Edward Steichen. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. © The Estate of Edward Steichen / © Joanna T. Steichen

A few years later, Eugene and Agnes Meyer donated most of their Chinese art collection to the Freer in a gift that was the largest presented to the museum since its opening. When Eugene Meyer died in 1959, his personal papers, documenting his career as a financier, owner of the Washington Post, chair of the Federal Reserve, and first head of the World Bank, were donated to the Library of Congress.

In 1965, the Marlboro Festival began touring its ensembles across the country. The Library of Congress hosted many of the festival’s legendary artists in the succeeding decades.

When the Freer’s auditorium reopened in 1993 after a five-year renovation, it bore a new name: the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Auditorium. The Meyers’ daughter, Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, and grandchildren helped fund the renovation and established the Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series. Named for the son and daughter-in-law of Eugene and Agnes, the Meyer Concert Series has featured Musicians from Marlboro every season since then.

Lastly, if you’ve looked closely at labels in our special exhibitions, you may have noticed that important books and manuscripts from the Library of Congress often complement the artwork. For example, we featured early twentieth-century yoga manuals from the library in our recent exhibition Yoga: The Art of Transformation.

Please note that advance tickets to the Musicians from Marlboro concert on January 20 are sold out.  However, all unclaimed tickets are distributed to standby patrons five minutes before the concert begins. Looking ahead, tickets to our April 26 concert with Wu Man and the Shanghai Quartet go on sale Monday, February 1, at 9 am, via the Smithsonian Associates.

Fan Favorite Finalists: Like Your Vote

Like your Fan Favorite at

Vote for your Fan Favorite at!

Inspired by Tawaraya Sōtatsu’s Screen with Scattered Fans (top left), visitors to our Sōtatsu exhibition—both in person and online—emulated his work on their own fans. Of the dozens of entries to our Fan Favorite contest, a team of Freer|Sackler judges narrowed down the candidates to five finalists. Vote for the one that you think should win a Sōtatsu gift basket by liking its image in our Facebook gallery. Voting is open until 11:59 pm on Monday, January 25.

What were the parameters? As emphasized by James Ulak, senior curator of Japanese art, we encouraged participants to choose a design that suited the fan’s curved shape. We also suggested that entrants adapt popular images or famous scenes for their fans, as Sōtatsu—who began his artistic career as a maker of finely decorated papers and folding fans—once did. Finally, we looked for entries that were creative, beautiful, or simply stood out from the pack. Which will you choose? Vote now!

Reseeing Iran: Our 20th Iranian Film Festival

"The President" screens Sunday, January 17, 4 pm, at the National Gallery of Art.

The President screens Sunday, January 17, 4 pm, at the National Gallery of Art.

The new year is upon us, and with the Freer now closed for renovation, our film program has made its temporary move to other theaters around the DC area. I was pleased to see big crowds in the National Gallery of Art’s spacious East Building Auditorium during the opening weekend of our Twentieth Annual Iranian Film Festival on January 2 and 3.

If you weren’t able to join us, there are still plenty of provocative and inspiring Iranian films to come this month, starting with Dariush Mehrjui’s 1969 masterpiece The Cow. This landmark of Iranian cinema has long been unavailable on DVD, but thanks to the efforts of the National Film Archive of Iran, we are able to bring you a digitally restored version this Saturday at 1 pm.

Also not to be missed are Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s biting political allegory The President on January 17 and Jafar Panahi’s award-winning Taxi on January 23. This is the third film Panahi has made in defiance of a ban on directing films imposed by the Iranian government for alleged treasonous activities. Like its predecessors This is Not a Film and Closed Curtain, Jafar Panahi’s Taxi is a moving testament to his devotion to artistic freedom, no matter the cost.