Tag Archives: friday fave

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.

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.

Friday Fave: Syrian Glass Bowl

Bowl; Syria, Mamluk period, 1350s–1400s; gilded and enameled glass; Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art; F1933.13

Bowl; Syria, Mamluk period, 1350s–1400s; gilded and enameled glass; Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art; F1933.13

This gorgeous glass bowl is astonishing to me both for its artistry and its sheer survival. Commissioned by the Rasulid rulers of Yemen (1228–1454) and created by artisans in Syria, its impressive scale (approximately punch bowl size) and amazing condition boggle the mind. How could it have survived over six centuries without a scratch, chip, or crack?

What attracted me first and foremost is the beauty of the object. Its thick, golden, glass walls are strewn with tiny bubbles glinting like stars. A band of winged griffins, lions, and unicorns gambol among swirling vines on a cornflower blue field. They circle around the shoulder of the bowl like animals on a carousel. Delicately drawn and playfully animated, they have the character of pets, with wings depicted in bright enamel of lime green and yellow. The remainder of the bowl is decorated with delicate lines of deep red, loosely drawn to create lacy bands of abstracted leaves and vines. For me, this contrast heightens the transparent nature of the glass, pushing the eye forward and back.

If you come to see this bowl in the Freer (and be sure to come before the museum closes for renovation on January 4, 2016), you’ll find it grouped with several other examples of glass from the Mamluk period (1350s–1400s). These include an enormous beaker and a four-handled vase from Syria and a mosque lamp from Egypt. This treasure trove gives me hope. If these beautiful, fragile objects could survive century after century, perhaps there is hope for the very fragile part of the world that gave birth to them.

Friday Fave: Sunrise

Sunrise; Dwight William Tryon (1849–1925); United States, 1915; pastel on cardboard; Gift of Charles Lang Freer; F1915.129a–b

Sunrise; Dwight William Tryon (1849–1925); United States, 1915; pastel on cardboard; Gift of Charles Lang Freer; F1915.129a–b

On my first day as an intern in the Freer|Sackler’s American art department, I was thumbing through the guidebook A Perfect Harmony: The American Collection in the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art. I found myself captivated by a series titled Sea Moods by Dwight William Tryon (1849–1925), a painter and friend of museum founder Charles Lang Freer. My favorite of Tryon’s “moods,” created in 1915 during a summer fishing expedition to Ogunquit, Maine, is Sunrise. Something in the image reminded me of my home back in California. I became mesmerized by the light lavenders, soft yellows, and textured blues. The overall surface of the painting glistens, reiterating the rhythmic movement and shimmer of the waves. The seemingly spontaneous effect contrasts Tryon’s laborious process of layering pastel twenty to thirty times.

An avid outdoorsman, Tryon often spent his summers on the coast of Maine, finding inspiration from the sea. It wasn’t until the winter months that Tryon retreated into his studio, where he would eventually create nineteen of these seaside pastels from memory. Describing the time between inspiration and execution, Tryon wrote that his pastels “went through the alembic of my mind before they were writ onto canvas.” I became fascinated by his artistic process of allowing the experience of a specific moment to evolve over time into a more evocative and spiritual image. The opalescent, layered pastels on rough brown paper are literally palpable: Sunrise has a pulse, making the image deeply personal. Because of the way Tryon layered the pastel, applying coats of fixative between each, the final image is a type of palimpsest, or record of time passing.

The morning before I left for DC, I woke early to watch the full moon set over the horizon. Viewing Sunrise transported me back to that peaceful morning of swimming in the ocean, watching the moon, and observing the sun as it began to rise. Sunrise is imbued with a subtle vitality that inspired an affectionate remembrance of home.

Friday Fave: Buddhist Stele

Buddhist Stele with the "Thousand Buddhas"; China, Northern Wei dynasty, dated 461 CE; sandstone with traces of polychrome pigment; Gift of Marietta Lutze Sackler; S1991.157

Buddhist Stele with the “Thousand Buddhas”; China, Northern Wei dynasty, dated 461 CE; sandstone with traces of polychrome pigment; Gift of Marietta Lutze Sackler; S1991.157

For my first assignment as a summer intern at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, I was asked to research this monumental Chinese Buddhist stele, which is being considered for a future exhibition on Buddhist art. Steles were created to commemorate the Buddhist faith and proliferated during the Northern Wei dynasty (386–535 CE). At the bottom of this stele, the Historical Buddha Shakyamuni sits cross-legged with hands in dhyani mudra, flanked by bodhisattvas and ascetic figures.

The stele’s repetitive pattern is known as the “Thousand Buddhas” (qianfo), characterized by rows of small Buddha figures on the front and back. It’s one of the most important motifs in Northern Wei Buddhist art. According to scholars, it reflects the notion that the cosmos is filled with innumerable realms, which are all simultaneously inhabited by Buddhas. The motif supports the omnipresence of Buddha and Buddha-nature. Many experts propose that the motif is related to the practice of visualization and recitation during Buddhist practice. While there is room for debate on the meaning of the Thousand Buddhas, the inscription provides a concrete example of the hopes of the stele’s sponsors, including their good wishes for the emperor, hope for the spread of Buddhism, and request for peace.

After about a month of reading and researching, I was finally able to view the stele in Sackler storage. It is a remarkable experience to see an object after learning about its many details. It reminded me of meeting a penpal for the first time or reuniting with a childhood friend. I was immediately able to relate all of my research to the physical object in front of me. For instance, I knew to look for the bodhisattva to the right of Shakyamuni who holds a bottle of healing water, indicating that he is Avalokiteshvara. Once I finally saw the stele in person, a wave of complete comprehension and appreciation washed over me. What began as a simple research project evolved into a rewarding, thought-provoking experience.

Friday Fave: Filthy Lucre

Darren Waterston installing "Filthy Lucre" in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Darren Waterston installing “Filthy Lucre” in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

My interest in American art is linked to my love of nineteenth-century American literature. Having graduated with a degree in English from Colby College in the spring, I couldn’t wait to explore the Freer’s American art collection and compare the paintings to the nineteenth-century texts I had studied at school. Most importantly, I was looking forward to stepping inside the Peacock Room, the beautiful interior painted by James McNeill Whistler in 1876–77. On the first day of my internship, however, I walked through the Sackler Gallery and entered the exhibition Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre. The installation reimagines Whistler’s room in a state of decay. I’ve never had much interest in exploring contemporary art, finding more relish in investigating the past than the present. In Waterston’s room, however, I was inspired to reconsider both Whistler’s work and my own thoughts on art and literature.

Filthy Lucre—the centerpiece of Peacock Room REMIX—is inspired by and reconsiders Whistler’s Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, but visitors won’t find harmony in Waterston’s installation. Instead, viewers are confronted with a distorted reflection of Whistler’s iconic room. The slanting shelves, low ceilings, and dilapidated elements made me feel as if the room was closing in around me. The longer I stood in Filthy Lucre, the more susceptible I became to its eerie influence. The walls and the pottery bleed paint, while gold seeps from the wall to the floor. The dim lighting and the red illumination behind the shutters create a warped vision. Deep, booming sounds radiate from different corners of the room, akin to a heartbeat. Voices whisper, as if the room itself is attempting to speak but isn’t loud enough to be fully understood.

The longer I stood in the room, the more alive it seemed to me. This almost supernatural, penetrating quality reminded me of the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe. I found myself drawing comparisons between the Filthy Lucre soundscape and the lugubrious sounds of Poe’s lyrical poetry. Additionally, the aspect of life within the room, the animation of the inanimate and giving voice to art, seemed very similar to Poe’s most famous dark stories. When I walked away from Filthy Lucre, I was somber, moved, and inspired to reconsider nineteenth-century art and literature, viewing them now through a contemporary lens.

Friday Fave: Silver Rosewater Bottle

Silver rose water bottle; Iran, Buyid period (932–1062); silver gilt; Purchase; F1950.5

Silver rosewater bottle; Iran, Buyid period (932–1062); silver gilt; Purchase; F1950.5

Growing up as an Iranian-American, I could always find a container of rosewater in my family’s kitchen. I never thought much about it until I saw this twelfth-century rosewater bottle on view in the Freer.

The first thing that captured my attention was its intricate workmanship. In the Middle East, rosewater bottles are common items, but I had never seen one so elaborately decorated. What makes the bottle so beautiful is the amount of detail that went into making it, including the depiction of flowers and animals. An inscription in Kufic script around the base of the bottle reads, “And Blessing and good fortune. Blessing and good fortune and joy and happiness and safety and honor and longevity to the owner.”

However, what struck me most about the bottle was not its beauty, but its reason for being. Its sole purpose is to hold rosewater. Rosewater can be used for many purposes and is often used as a flavoring for sweets and drinks. It also has medicinal uses and is prescribed to calm nerves. Its fragrance is used to freshen up mosques. For me, rosewater brings up personal memories. While I was growing up, my mother affectionately called me gole golab, which means “the rose of the rosewater.”

I hope everybody gets a chance to view the bottle before the end of the year, when the Freer closes for renovation. Not only is the rosewater bottle beautiful, it’s an important part of Middle Eastern—and especially Persian—culture.

In case you can’t make it to the museums, the bottle is always on view at Open F|S.

Friday Fave: Funerary Bust of “Miriam”

Head of a Woman (known as "Miriam"); Yemen, Wadi Bayhan, 1st century BCE-mid-1st century CE: Alabaster, Stucco, and Bitumen; Gift of the American Foundation for the Study of Man (Wendell and Merilyn Phillips Collection); S2013.2.139

Head of a Woman (known as “Miriam”); Yemen, Wadi Bayhan, 1st century BCE-mid-1st century CE; alabaster, stucco, and bitumen; Gift of the American Foundation for the Study of Man (Wendell and Merilyn Phillips Collection); S2013.2.139

Words don’t adequately describe Wendell Phillips. Archaeologist, adventurer, author, and paleontologist, the debonair explorer was America’s answer to Lawrence of Arabia—and quite possibly the inspiration for the swashbuckling Indiana Jones. When I came to the Freer|Sackler a few years ago and was assigned my first project, I had no idea who Wendell Phillips was or why his excavations in Yemen in the 1950s were so important.

In his mid-twenties—at an age when many of us nowadays are looking for our first full-time jobs—Phillips set off for southern Arabia, becoming one of the first archaeologists to excavate in what is now Yemen. One of the sites, the cemetery at Timna, yielded an unexpected and magical find when workers excavated an alabaster object that had been buried for thousands of years. The object revealed itself to be a perfectly intact funerary sculpture of a woman’s head.

This discovery shocked the local workers and seasoned archaeologists alike. Given the nickname “Miriam” because of her overwhelming beauty, the funerary bust was instantly a prized find. At the time of her creation, Miriam most likely had lapis lazuli eyes complemented by earrings and a gold necklace. Finding Miriam revitalized the dig team. A series of other great discoveries around the cemetery site soon followed, including a wonderful, intact gold necklace that was similar to what Miriam would have worn. After successfully unearthing hundreds of objects from sites in Timna and the surrounding areas, Wendell Phillips returned to the United States with these rare treasures and a wealth of research.

During my work with his collection, I had the pleasure of meeting Wendell’s younger sister, Merilyn Phillips Hodgson. An adventurer and archaeologist in her own right, Merilyn continued her brother’s work long after his death. She shared anecdotes about Wendell and how, as a teenager, she explored dig sites by his side. Whenever she regaled us with fascinating stories, I could feel how much Merilyn loved and admired her older brother and how much these objects mean to her today. Through her memories and experiences, I learned about people and distant places, and I gained an appreciation for a collection that I never would have seen outside the Sackler Gallery. Today, I look at the funerary bust of Miriam in a much different, brighter light.

In 2013 Merilyn Phillips Hodgson—and the organization Wendell founded, the American Foundation for the Study of Man—gifted 374 objects, including Miriam, to the Sackler Gallery as the Wendell and Merilyn Phillips Collection.

Learn more about Wendell Phillips and explore some of his finds on Open F|S.

Friday Fave: Shrine of a Perfected Being

Siddhapratima Yantra (Shrine of a Perfected Being); Western India, 1333; Bronze with traces of gilding; Purchase; F1997.33

Siddhapratima Yantra (Shrine of a Perfected Being); Western India, 1333; Bronze with traces of gilding; Purchase; F1997.33

Commissioned in 1333 by a member of the renowned Gurjara family, this small bronze altarpiece—Siddhapratima Yantra (Shrine of a Perfected Being)—intrigued me from the minute I first saw it in the galleries. What fascinates me most is that it depicts the body as a negative space. The absence of the body draws me in. Carved from a single sheet of copper, the figure is full of light as it floats above a flower. When I look at it, I imagine energy emanates from the shapes. Debra Diamond, curator of South and Southeast Asian art at the Freer|Sackler, describes the altarpiece as “brilliantly evoking the enlightened soul as liberated from the earthly body.”

This object triggered my interest in the Jain tradition. I found out that Jains are depicted in meditation, a state in which no harm can be committed. Jainism, one of the oldest Indian religions, prescribes a path of nonviolence toward all living beings. Practitioners believe nonviolence and self-control are the means to liberation. Siddhas are the liberated souls who have destroyed all karmas and have obtained perfection or enlightenment. Siddhas do not have a body; they are soul in its purest form.

As a graphic designer at Freer|Sackler, I find the strong shapes of the silhouettes simple, powerful, and most of all, inspiring.

The shrine will be on view in the Freer until January 3, 2016, when the museum closes to the public through summer 2017 for renovation. It is always available at Open F|S.

Friday Fave: Guardian Figures

Guardian figure; Japan, Kamakura period (1185–1333); wood; Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art; F1949.21

Guardian figure; Japan, Kamakura period (1185–1333); wood; Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art; F1949.21

The first time I entered the Freer Gallery a couple of years ago, I was immediately struck by the imposing wooden statues positioned at both ends of the north corridor. In June, when I started working as an intern at the Freer|Sackler, I found myself returning to them again and again. I often take a detour to admire their terrifying, unearthly beauty.

Created in the early fourteenth century to guard the gate of the Ebaradera temple in Sakai, Japan, the statues were carved in the likeness of the Kongorikishi, or Ni-o, benevolent kings who accompanied the Buddha and protected him during his travels in India. Their wrathful, violent appearance was believed to ward off evil spirits and protect the temple grounds from thieves.

As film and television and the rest of our visual culture have grown increasingly dark and violent, our ability to be shocked or truly scared by a work of art has diminished. But what must it have been like to encounter one of these wooden guardians at night in the fourteenth century? Would a thief sneaking into the temple under the cover of darkness encounter these supernatural gatekeepers and turn back? As monks moved through the temple at night, would the dancing flame of candlelight give the illusion that the Kongorikishi’s facial expressions were changing?

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be a security guard working the late shift at the Freer|Sackler. Staring at those terrifying faces night after night in the dark, eerie silence of the museum, it’s not hard to believe that your mind could play tricks on you. I can imagine the statues slowly coming to life as the sun sets each night. They would climb down from their plinths and patrol the museum, looking for anything, or anyone, out of place. It would be a long night left alone with only these statues and your darkest flights of fancy to keep you company.

Maybe for those with a vivid imagination, art’s ability to inspire fear hasn’t been so diminished after all.