Category Archives: From the Collections

The Mystery of the Missing Frame

The mystery frame. Frame for Whistler’s "Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen"; designed by James McNeill Whistler; 1864; gold leaf on wood and gesso, 76.1 x 93.3 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.329

The mystery frame. Frame for Whistler’s “Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen”; designed by James McNeill Whistler; 1864; gold leaf on wood and gesso, 76.1 x 93.3 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.329

It was three hours into my internship at the Freer|Sackler, and I already had a mystery to solve: a Whistler frame. No, artist James McNeill Whistler hadn’t been framed for a crime—though that would’ve been an interesting topic to study. This mystery involves a frame around one of his paintings at the Freer Gallery of Art.

The Mystery

Whistler painted Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen in 1864. This was a time in his career when he was first incorporating Japanese elements into his paintings. He was also designing specially decorated frames for these works.

When museum founder Charles Lang Freer purchased The Golden Screen many years later, in 1904, it was surrounded by what Freer’s secretary described as “the old frame.” That frame was sacrificed for the protection of the painting during the shipping process. Freer had a new frame made for the painting: a relatively simple, reeded design that is still known as a “Whistler frame” because the artist adopted it for his work in the 1880s and 1890s.

In 1905, Freer acquired Whistler’s Portrait Sketch of a Lady. It was enclosed in a frame that clearly did not belong with the work: a so-called Oriental Cassetta frame, the type that Whistler had used in the mid-1860s for his Japanese costume paintings (more on that later).

In short, two Whistler paintings in the Freer collection ended up in frames that, as time went on, didn’t seem quite right. They were swapped in the 1980s, mostly because the Oriental Cassetta frame and The Golden Screen seemed to be an excellent—but perhaps not perfect—match. The opening of the frame, for instance, is not exactly the right size relative to the dimensions of that painting.

Linda Merrill, former curator of American art at the Freer|Sackler, wondered if the frame currently on The Golden Screen had actually been original to another Whistler painting, Symphony in White No. 2: The Little White Girl, now at the Tate. Freer|Sackler staff had long understood that the frame swap in the 1980s may not have resulted in a perfect fit for either The Golden Screen or Portrait Sketch of a Lady, but the involvement of The Little White Girl was a new development.

Like The Golden Screen, The Little White Girl has had several frames at various points in its history. The frame original to The Little White Girl survives only in a period photograph and shares visible stylistic similarities with the frame currently around The Golden Screen. Both were both created in 1864, and the frame of The Little White Girl was believed to have gone missing. But maybe it actually just found a new home around The Golden Screen. My task was to figure out if this was the case.

"The Golden Screen" with the mystery frame. "Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen"; James McNeill Whistler; 1864; oil on wood panel, 50.1 x 68.5 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.75a

“The Golden Screen” with the mystery frame. “Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen”; James McNeill Whistler; 1864; oil on wood panel, 50.1 x 68.5 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.75a

 

The Investigation

To start solving this mystery, it’s helpful to have some context for the frame in question. The Oriental Cassetta style includes Asian motifs, thus allowing the subject matter of the painting to extend onto the frame, the two acting as a complementary pair. In 1864, Whistler designed four such frames to accompany his Japanese paintings, as documented by frame historian Sarah Parkerson: the one currently on Purple and Rose: The Lang Leizen of the Six Marks at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the one on the Freer’s La Princesse du pays de la porcelain, the one original to The Little White Girl, and the one currently around The Golden Screen.

Whistler frequently reframed his work, especially when he adopted his signature gilded and reeded style of framing in the 1880s. By the 1890s, he began to standardize his framing practices, seeking unity and simplicity when his works were exhibited together. He sought to control everything about how his paintings were exhibited and placed great importance on his frames, especially when organizing a big retrospective in 1892. He often requested permission from collectors to reframe works from earlier in his career. This is what happened with The Little White Girl.

This information provided a promising start, but I needed to keep digging to determine whether The Little White Girl‘s original frame ended up around The Golden Screen. So, I focused on the visual evidence. The most convincing evidence that the paintings had two distinct frames are the subtle differences between the frames’ ornament. This evidence, however, is based on visual comparison, which is limited by the fact that the original frame for The Little White Girl is missing and the photograph that exists is dated, low-quality, and black and white.

“The Golden Screen” and “The Little White Girl” in their Oriental Cassetta frames.

Carved, round designs, or roundels, are present in all of Whistler’s Oriental Cassetta frames. However, there’s variation in how they appear. The surface decoration of The Golden Screen frame pictured above includes eight roundels, one on each side and one in every corner. The designs on the sides include ivy or paulownia leaves in Japanese mon designs; each corner features a different roundel with palm leaves.

In the frame around The Little White Girl in the black-and-white photo, there are only six roundels, one at each corner and on two of the sides. Additionally, the design of the roundels in this frame features small rosettes with fringe, distinct from the ivy or palm leaves. Even with a low-quality image of the frame, these differences from The Golden Screen frame are clear. These differences confirm that the frame original to The Little White Girl is not the one currently on The Golden Screen.

The red circles indicate the location of the roundels on each frame.

Future Investigative Work

Though I confirmed that the frame currently around The Golden Screen was not original to The Little White Girl, my research on this topic is not over. It’s still uncertain if the frame you see today around The Golden Screen is indeed the original, and I’d love to confirm what painting Whistler intended this frame to accompany. I never thought I’d be as interested in what’s around the artwork as in the artwork itself, but my time at the Freer|Sackler shifted my focus. Visit the Freer|Sackler during reopening weekend this October 14–15 to see Whistler’s La Princesse du pays de la porcelain proudly sporting one of his four 1864 Oriental Cassetta frames, and see if your focus shifts to the frame, too.

Sarah Parkerson’s dissertation on Whistler’s framing practices, “Variations in Gold: The Stylistic Development of the Picture Frames Used by James McNeill Whistler,” is a resource that was of enormous help to my research and this blog post.

Kobayashi Kiyochika: A Journey through the Shadows

Kobayashi Kiyochika, View of Umaya Bridge, ca. 1880

Japanese woodblock prints produced between 1870 and 1930 reflect a period of immense change as Japan opened to the Western world and urban life transformed in response to technological advances. In investigating this period during my summer internship at the Freer|Sackler, one woodblock print artist of the era, Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915), drew my interest for his contemplative attention to nightscapes, which differed from the work of both his predecessors and contemporaries. He was the subject of the 2014 Freer|Sackler exhibition Kiyochika: Master of the Night—a fitting title. Kiyochika’s intricate use of gradated shadow, often punctuated with sources of illumination, in addition to his diversity in subject matter, from moonlit views to Japanese naval battles, makes him a fascinating artist to study.

After consulting with Jim Ulak, the Freer|Sackler’s senior curator of Japanese art, I decided to focus my summer curatorial research project around Kiyochika and his place within printmaking toward the end of the nineteenth century, a period when the old city of Edo became the rapidly modernizing city of Tokyo. My search began with the Open F|S collections and The Museum System (TMS) database, which allowed me to page through some four thousand images online.

Open F|S search results for Kobayashi Kiyochika

Kiyochika came from a family of bureaucrats living under the Tokugawa shogunate, the final feudal Japanese military government that had remained in power since the early seventeenth century. His development as a woodblock print artist coincided with political upheaval of the era. Following the opening of Japan to Western influence by US Commodore Matthew Perry and the eventual overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate with the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Kiyochika retreated with the shogun from Edo to Shizuoka and began a self-imposed exile.

While Kiyochika established himself in Shizuoka, the capital city of Edo entered a period of dramatic technological change. In addition to the expansion of telegraph wires, the development of a railway system and wheeled vehicles such as the horse-drawn carriage rapidly altered the landscape that Kiyochika had left behind.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, The Great Naval Victory of Chemulpo, 1904

When the artist returned to Tokyo in 1874 after his six-year exile, the city’s once-dark buildings and streets were increasingly illuminated by gas-fueled lights. With the realm of the nightscape now opened to further exploration and experimentation with light and shadow, Kiyochika began in 1876 to produce a series of ninety-three woodblock prints known as Famous Places of Tokyo.

While Kiyochika’s series title draws inspiration from his predecessor Andō Hiroshige’s widely popular series 100 Famous Views of Edo, both artists present markedly different impressions of the landscape of Tokyo. And though Hiroshige’s color palette falls more in line with that of Kiyochika’s contemporaries, who often used the bright light of the day to glorify technological advances, Kiyochika’s attention to night and shadow sought to invert the “invasive” attributes of the new Tokyo. He instead increasingly explored the interplay of technological advances and a growing population in an ever-changing arena of solitude.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, Kudanzaka at Night in Early Summer, 1880

Devoting twenty-five of his ninety-three prints to nightscapes alone, Kiyochika used the recently transformed Japanese landscape against itself, examining the shadows rather than bright city lights that his contemporaries continued to depict.

Andō Hiroshige, Hatsune Riding Ground at Bakurocho, 1857

To further research Kiyochika’s attention to light and shadow, I consulted the Freer|Sackler’s extensive TMS database and research gathered for a past Freer|Sackler exhibition titled Dream Worlds: Japanese Prints and Paintings from the Robert O. Muller Collection. From these sources, I found that Kiyochika often employed a number of print techniques to visually structure his nightscapes and experiment with sources of light.

As displayed in the print above, Kudanzaka at Night in Early Summer, Kiyochika was able to create subtle gradations in the night sky by using the bokashi technique. Rather than applying only one ink value to the entire woodblock surface, Kiyochika instead created a variety of shades by adding ink in a gradient to a dampened block. The variety of dark hues created from this technique further attest to Kiyochika’s intricate exploration of nightscapes and the atmospheric impact of variations in light and shadow.

While using the bokashi technique, Kiyochika showed particular attentiveness to rendering the human form in relation to the rapidly transforming environment. As seen within Kudanzaka at Night in Early Summer, Kiyochika outlined and silhouetted figures against the background as they silently illuminate their respective paths. The placement of figures near the lighthouse adjacent to the Yasukuni Shrine heightens the solemn undercurrent of the print as a depiction of a memorial to Japanese soldiers who had died in service of the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, Fireworks at Ike-no-Hata, ca. 1881

Created using Western techniques, the lighthouse, a physical extension of the Yasukuni Shrine, also subtly commemorates the technological and social changes that initially caused Kiyochika’s own exile and eventual attraction to the woodblock print medium. Cast within an evocatively altered environment and caught between reconciling the past with the present, human figures within the print are unified in form yet isolated in position, quietly populating the scene in which they are placed. In this way, human figures appear as poignant actors as they too are quickly subsumed by the enveloping night sky of the city. This intricate reimagination of familiar Japanese landmarks in uniquely somber contexts distinguishes the work of Kiyochika as a captivating perspective of life in the shadows.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, Koromogawa river at Tennōji-shita, ca. 1880

My exploration of Kiyochika’s use of light and shadow began simply with an initial search on Open F|S. For art history researchers who are interested in the Freer|Sackler collection but are unsure of where to start, Open F|S provides a wealth of readily accessible information. I hope that my process of discovering Kiyochika serves as a template for learning by exploring, even from the shadows.

Indonesia Intrepid

Emma at Ratu Boko (photo by Jinah Kim)

Emma Natalya Stein, Freer|Sackler curatorial fellow for Southeast Asian art, shares scenes from her recent journey to Indonesia.

August 4, 2017

It’s 6 pm Friday evening, and the mosques compete for airtime on my balcony at Chakra Homestay. I am in the city of Solo (Surakarta), one of Java’s historical courtly centers, where I arrived this afternoon. For the past week I have been in Central Java’s other epicenter of art and culture, Yogyakarta, for an exciting workshop on Southeast Asian art history, co-organized by SOAS London and Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta. The program brought together scholars from Southeast Asia, Europe, and the United States to explore topics relating to the interconnected Hindu-Buddhist world. A particular focus was esoteric religious practice (tantra) in Indonesia and its appearance in art.

Candi Siwa at Prambanan, relief carving with female practitioner performing an esoteric dance

Candi Siwa at Prambanan, relief carving with female practitioner performing an esoteric dance

After several days of seminars, we set out for a field trip to temples—always the greatest part, especially for an art-loving group! Each of the sites we visited dates to the Central Javanese period (circa eighth–tenth century).

First on our list was the majestic Buddhist monument of Borobudur, famous for its five terraces brilliantly carved with narrative reliefs and its hundreds of seated Buddhas.

The terraced monument of Borobudur

The terraced monument of Borobudur

Borobudur, relief showing the enlightenment of the Buddha

Borobudur, relief showing the enlightenment of the Buddha

On day two we ascended the Dieng Plateau, a four-hour drive north of Yogyakarta, where Hindu temples that closely—but not entirely—resemble Indian temples overlook the surrounding lowlands, beside an emerald green lake.

Candi Arjuna, Dieng Plateau, temple in a South Indian architectural mode

Candi Arjuna, Dieng Plateau, temple in a South Indian architectural mode

Dieng Plateau, sulfuric lake with Gunung (volcano) Sindoro in the distance

Dieng Plateau, sulfuric lake with Gunung (volcano) Sindoro in the distance

The third day was devoted to the palatial Ratu Boko monastery and the vast complex of temples at Prambanan.

The temple-complex of Loro Jonggarang at Prambanan

The temple-complex of Loro Jonggarang at Prambanan

We then returned to Yogyakarta for a final day of intensive seminars. After the workshop, I’ll head off for a week of additional temple visits farther east in central Java and in Bali. It begins tomorrow at 6 am with a visit to a cluster of esoteric temples on the tea-covered slopes of Gunung (volcano) Lawu.

Candi Cetho on Gunung Lawu

Candi Cetho on Gunung Lawu

*

August 13, 2017

Sacred sites in Indonesia are intimately connected with the natural environment. They are carved into rocks, situated on the banks of rushing rivers, and carefully positioned with respect to the archipelago’s sometimes-violent volcanoes. In Bali, where Hindu tradition continues to be vibrant, this connection is especially evident.

Gunung Kawi

Gunung Kawi

Gunung Batur from Pura Pancer Jagat in Trunyan village

Gunung Batur from Pura Pancer Jagat in Trunyan village

Although the island’s sacred landscape is densely packed with sites both old and new, the greatest concentration is situated centrally, within a fertile tract of land between two rivers. Basing myself in Ubud, I was able to make day trips to many places of art historical and archaeological interest.

Map of central Bali, A.J. Bernet Kempers, Monumental Bali: Introduction to Balinese Archaeology & Guide to the Monuments (Berkeley: Periplus, 1991), 116.

Map of central Bali, A.J. Bernet Kempers, Monumental Bali: Introduction to Balinese Archaeology & Guide to the Monuments (Berkeley: Periplus, 1991), 116.

I began my days in the damp cool of early morning and traveled on the back of a local driver’s motorbike. In addition to the driver’s familiarity with the roads, I had as my primary resource A.J. Bernet Kempers’ volume Monumental Bali. It remains the essential guide to the area, despite the fact that the data was collected in the 1980s. Fortunately, since its publication, some of the sites labeled “difficult access” have become more easily accessible, and further excavation work has revealed additional important destinations.

Candi Kalebutan

Candi Kalebutan

Each place I visited presented a unique picture of the interconnectedness of Bali’s sacred art and its natural landscape. However, what I found most compelling was when I could see the connection between sites. One way to do so was by walking from one to another—but such opportunities are increasingly rare. As sacred places are converted into tourist attractions, the links between them become obscured or, worse, obliterated. The creation of a monument carves out a discrete space and isolates it from the surrounding landscape. This can entail the destruction of related sites through the paving of parking lots and stairways and the building of ticket offices, restrooms, and other visitor facilities.

Cave façade and bathing place at Goa Gajah

Cave façade and bathing place at Goa Gajah

Goa Gajah cave interior

Goa Gajah cave interior

I did remember from a brief visit to Bali ten years ago that it had been possible to walk through the jungle between two of central Bali’s better-known attractions—the cave temple of Goa Gajah and the monumental relief carving at Yeh Pulu. Most guidebooks don’t mention the link, but some inquiries at Goa Gajah soon led me to the trailhead. Walking back behind the main archaeological area, I could see some fragments of a large relief that had been carved into the rock face and hear the sounds of the jungle beginning to take over.

Fragment of relief carving at entrance to jungle path behind Goa Gajah

Fragment of relief carving at entrance to jungle path behind Goa Gajah

The narrow footpath is lined on both sides by purple flowers and a dense tangle of dripping vines. Sounds of the rushing river rise from the gorge below. At several places, the path branches off and plunges down to the water. Here, the jungle’s cacophony emerges.

Farther along the jungle path from Goa Gajah to Yeh Pulu

Farther along the jungle path from Goa Gajah to Yeh Pulu

At one place, a recently constructed bamboo bridge leads to a series of caves. Thick tree roots growing through the rocks suggest a relatively ancient date of excavation.

Caves along jungle path from Goa Gajah to Yeh Pulu

Caves along jungle path from Goa Gajah to Yeh Pulu

After about a half a mile, the path halts at a small temple with a bathing place below.

Shrine and bathing place near Yeh Pulu

It then wends out of the jungle and into paddy fields to emerge at Yeh Pulu, where a monumental relief carving depicts stories associated with the Hindu deity Krishna amid scenes of pastoral life in Bali.

Yeh Pulu

Yeh Pulu

Another place where I was clearly able to see the connection between sites was when—to my surprise—a steep ascent through terraced rice fields led me from Tirta Empul, one of Bali’s holiest bathing places, up to Pura Pegulingan, the next temple I’d hoped to visit that day! Pura Pegulingan presents an excellent picture of Bali’s unique fusion of Buddhism and Hinduism. Remains of sculptures related to the deity Shiva can be found throughout the temple courtyard, which is centered on a towering stupa, a Buddhist reliquary mound.

Stupa at Pura Pegulingan

Stupa at Pura Pegulingan

Off the beaten pathways was where I most often discovered walkable connections among sites. I found that following the rivers revealed a network of related places, often composed of a larger, perhaps primary place with a proliferation of smaller shrines, caves, and bathing places around it. While the larger monuments suggest elite patronage, the constellation of minor sites likely functioned as hermitages and places of worship for ascetics and local communities—much, in fact, as some still do today.

Ceremonial offerings in front of sculptures of deities at Candi Puser Ing Jagat in Pejeng village

Ceremonial offerings in front of sculptures of deities at Candi Puser Ing Jagat in Pejeng village

Indonesia is a fantastic place to visit. Whether or not you’ve had the chance to go, you’ll be able to experience examples of its artwork firsthand in Washington, DC. Come see the new Southeast Asia galleries when the Freer|Sackler reopens this October!

 

All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Utamaro: The Musical at the Freer|Sackler

“Utamaro: The Musical,” recently performed at the Freer|Sackler.

More than two hundred years after his death, the great Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806) came back to life for visitors to the Freer|Sackler this summer. The Tokyo-based It’s Follies musical company visited the museums June 30 through July 2 to perform excerpts from their hit 1985 production Utamaro: The Musical.

Five actors in full costume played the great artist himself as well as a kabuki-style narrator and several of Utamaro’s main muses—courtesans from the famous red-light districts of old Edo. Five performances drew a combined audience of nearly six hundred guests to these programs that complemented our exhibition Inventing Utamaro: A Japanese Masterpiece Rediscovered.

Actress Kurumi Sakai as the kabuki-style narrator of the show.

Their opening number, “Ryogoku, My Town,” extols the stimulating variety of “lonesome losers” who populated the town. The lyrics describe a litany of “pickpockets, snitches, spongers, debt collectors, ruffians, pimps, luggage thieves, sheriffs, sloths, fallen drug dealers, gamblers, drunkards, pilferers, drag queens, male prostitutes, old maids, con men, fakers, storytellers, tumblers, street performers . . . anything is in Ryogoku. This town is my town, I like to walk in this town, a town where lonesome losers lost in the game of life.”

Standing out among the plethora of low-life characters are royalty of the red-light district—the high-end courtesans (oiran) who could be seen by commoners only during a formal parade. One such courtesan was played by actress Yuko Katsube. Her costume featured an ornate kimono and the twelve-inch-tall elevated shoes called koma-geta or mitsu-ashi, worn only by these high-ranking women.

Utamaro (played by Yu Yoshida, left) persuades teahouse worker Okita Naniwaya (played by Tamami Mizutani) to pose for some of his best-selling portraits.

By now a best-selling artist, Utamaro is commissioned to paint a popular waitress at the Naniwa teahouse (which the narrator compares to a modern-day Starbucks). Instead, his attention is drawn to a new girl, Okita, who works there only part-time. Reluctant at first, she is finally persuaded to pose for Utamaro by his persistent and poetic approaches, dramatized in the song “The Woman in You.”

“There is another woman inside you,” he sings, “even though you don’t know. It’s a woman I was looking for, a woman I want to draw a picture of. That is the other woman inside you. Your smile sparkles over the stream on a clear morning. Your portrait is flickering in the candlelight. A beautiful woman radiating her beauty. She is born again.”

Utamaro’s portraits sell wildly and turn Okita into a celebrity.

One of Utamaro’s many famous illustrations of Okita. “Naniwaya Okita,” Kitagawa Utamaro (early 1750s–1806), Japanese, Edo period (about 1793), woodblock print, publisher Tsutaya Jûzaburô (Kôshodô), Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 11.14243, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

Disaster strikes when the reigning ruler, Okitsugu Tanuma, a man who long tolerated the excesses of the red-light district, is replaced by his rival, Sadanobu Matsudaira, a staunch opponent of the city’s culture. The new ruler bans all manner of arts and entertainment, including the courtesan portraits that had made Utamaro famous and successful. Not only does Matsudaira ban these practices, but he seizes the artists’ assets and places them, handcuffed, under house arrest.

The rise of an intolerant new ruler is dramatized in the program.

Under this repressive new regime, Utamaro is asked to paint the portrait of a warrior, which he refuses to do on principle, agonizing over his turn in fortune while wearing handcuffs. He wonders aloud what people two hundred years later might think, and our kabuki narrator explains that one art form—music—became a vehicle of protest known as rock ‘n’ roll. “Resistance to authority that Utamaro showed with ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) is like what today’s youth do with music,” says the narrator.

“I understand that spirit of resistance called rock,” Utamaro declares. “I am living in the same time with you. Dreams, separation, tearing, meaninglessness, setbacks, friendship, nostalgia, oblivion, decadence, loneliness, fatigue, temptation, misunderstanding, defeat, and despair. These are friends of me and you.”

Utamaro (center) demonstrates his determination to continue painting, despite the repressive regime that has taken over Edo.

Utamaro is joined by the full ensemble for the program’s final number, a rousing anthem to resistance and determination called “Rock Land”:

I am living in the same time with you,
feeling lonely in a crowd,
looking on with nostalgia from a cold street corner,
confused by my old diaries,
as I dance fatigued at a bar before dawn,
as I drape my arm casually across a bench of age-old stone,
waiting for a long-awaited dream,
while I am laughing and saying life is full of good-byes,
while I realize I face only despair in the future,
believing in victory though it may never come to me.
Go across the highway and run through the side roads.
My friend, let’s sing a cry of the soul.
I am living with you in Rock Land.

The full ensemble sings the finale, “Rock Land,” with (left to right) Yuko Katsube as Toyohina Tomimoto, Kurumi Sakai as Kyogenmawashi, Yu Yoshida as Kitagawa Utamaro, Haruka Ohkawa as Ohisa Takashima, and Tamami Mizutani as Okita Naniwaya.

In 1804, Utamaro was jailed for three days and handcuffed for fifty days. Two years later, after his release, he died. The program’s final slide affirms that “Utamaro’s soul has never stopped living among Japanese people in the two hundred years since his death.”

Photographs by Hutomo Wicaksono

Meet our Volunteer: Michael Ruddell

Bottle; Korea, late 18th–19th century; Bunwon ware; porcelain with transparent, pale blue glaze; Gift of Graenum and Emma Berger and Elizabeth Lee Berger in memory of Ambassador Samuel D. Berger; F1980.188

Bottle; Korea, late 18th–19th century; Bunwon ware; porcelain with transparent, pale blue glaze; Gift of Graenum and Emma Berger and Elizabeth Lee Berger in memory of Ambassador Samuel D. Berger; F1980.188

Michael Ruddell has volunteered at the Freer|Sackler since 2016 as a Visitor Information Specialist (VIS). VIS provide essential services to the Smithsonian by offering a warm welcome and useful information to our visitors about exhibitions, activities, services, and more. I recently asked him a few questions about his work at the museum.

What drew you to the Freer|Sackler?

I’ve volunteered at Freer|Sackler for a year this month. For as long as I have lived in the DC area, I have been wandering through the Smithsonian museums. This has been a great opportunity for me to get more involved and to learn about art, history, and the people who value and create it.

What’s the most satisfying experience about volunteering for the museum?

As a Volunteer Information Specialist, I get to serve as an ambassador and public face of the Smithsonian Institution, which is very exciting. I really enjoy witnessing how our visitors experience the museum. It’s a lot of fun and very rewarding to hear their perspectives on the art and to learn from the many kinds of people who come to visit.

Can you share a memorable interaction with a visitor you have had?

Throughout the course of the Turquoise Mountain exhibition [on view through October 29, 2017], I [have been] lucky enough to meet some of the artisans from Afghanistan who came to demonstrate their skills in calligraphy, ceramics, and other arts for us at the museum. They were incredibly kind and extraordinarily talented. I watched them working and got to listen in on their conversations with the visitors.

I particularly remember watching Abdul Matin Malekzadah create a beautiful and intricate clay teapot in a matter of minutes (lid, handle, spout, and all) with a traditional potter’s wheel in the gallery, to the amazement of the visitors watching. When he had finished a piece, he would unceremoniously lump it all together and begin again on something different. The visitors’ reactions were priceless.

What’s your favorite artwork in the collection?

I’ve come to love the ceramics in the collection since I started volunteering, especially the Korean pieces. I like to think about the people who molded these shapes and worked so hard to produced these colors. I’m sure [museum founder Charles Lang] Freer would have loved a bottle like this one—it’s gorgeous.

Chinese New Year: Celebrating with Food and Art

 

Meet Baolin Zhang, who creates edible festival toys out of rice flour. He will travel to Washington, DC, from Beijing to demonstrate how to make these dough figurines at our third annual Chinese New Year Celebration on Sunday, February 5.

Although this craft does not require complicated skills or rare materials, it does take a lot of artistic practice. At his demonstration, Zhang will show how he kneads colored dough into different shapes. In the video, you can see how he uses small bamboo slits to depict people, animals, and deities from traditional folktales. Along with glutinous rice flour, he uses other edible materials to create his art, including wax and honey to prevent cracking or mildewing.

After watching Bai’s demonstration, you can watch another Beijing artist use liquid sugar to paint beautiful creatures from the Chinese zodiac. Don’t worry if all this edible art makes you hungry: Pinch Dumpling will sell steamed dumplings, which you can enjoy as a casual lunch with friends and family.

All activities are free and open to the public. For more information (and to invite your friends), check out the event listing on Facebook.

Chinese New Year: Painted Clay Sculptures Celebrate Beijing Opera Characters

 

Meet Hongkui Lin, a craftsman of painted clay opera masks. On Sunday, February 5, watch him demonstrate his more than one-hundred-year-old craft at our third annual Chinese New Year Celebration. Lin is visiting from Beijing, and his demonstration will be a rare opportunity for Americans to experience this popular Chinese craft.

As this video shows, the process for making the clay masks is more complex than it might seem at first glance. Like a complicated recipe, one mask takes a minimum of sixteen steps, from carving models on paper to applying base paint and adding enamel.

Lin selects colors to reflect aspects of each character’s identity and personality. Red often represents loyalty, for instance, while black symbolizes integrity. Colors also may signify age. Pink is reserved for elders, and if your character is immortal, it most likely will bear silver or gold.

After watching Lin’s demonstration, you may be inspired to watch thirty-minute opera performances by students from the Beijing Opera Art’s College at 12:30 and 2:30 pm. Or, you may be tempted to make your own opera mask in the museum’s ImaginAsia classroom.

Seating will be first come, first served, and all activities are free and open to the public. For more information (and to invite your friends), check out the event listing on Facebook.

 

On Sunday, February 5, Beijing folk artist Lin Bai will visit the Freer|Sackler as part of our third annual Chinese New Year Celebration. From 12–5 pm, you can watch him demonstrate how to make traditional bristle dolls.

This handicraft originated in Beijing more than a century ago, at the end of Qing Dynasty. In the video, you can see how Bai uses traditional materials to connect to the origins of this art form. He constructs the doll’s head and base from plaster, and he uses straw to shape the character’s bodies. The figures are then dressed in colored paper or silk and lined with cotton padding.

Bai makes characters inspired by popular operatic plays, including Uproar in Heaven and Four Pairs of Mallets. Each character is secured onto a base with a circle of sticks (or bristles), thus giving the dolls their beloved namesake. Once a collection of dolls is finished, the troupe can be placed onto a copper plate. When hit by a mallet, the figures appear to dance due to the sticks’ flexibility.

After watching Bai’s demonstration, you may be inspired to see the dolls come to life in opera performances by students from the Beijing Opera Art’s College at 12:30 and 2:30 pm. Or, you may be tempted to make your own opera mask in the museum’s ImaginAsia classroom.

Seating will be first come, first served, and all activities are free and open to the public. For more information (and to invite your friends), check out the event listing on Facebook.

Goryeo Buddhist Painting: A Closer Look

Detail, Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha (Jijang bosal); Korean, late 13th or early 14th century; hanging scroll, ink, color, and gold on silk; anonymous gift, S1992.11

Detail, Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha (Jijang bosal); Korean, late 13th or early 14th century; hanging scroll, ink, color, and gold on silk; anonymous gift, S1992.11

Painted in rich reds, greens, and blues patterned with gold, exquisite Goryeo Buddhist paintings survive in very small numbers. Scholars have identified fewer than 160 examples worldwide. Still shrouded in mystery, this genre of Korean religious icon seems to date almost exclusively to around the fourteenth century.

The Goryeo dynasty (pronounced Ko-ree-o, the root of Korea’s modern moniker) lasted from 918 to 1392 and is considered a golden age of artistic and cultural development. The Buddhist images created at the time reflect the strength of the Pure Land tradition, which promises believers rebirth in paradise. The works feature specific buddhas and bodhisattvas who help followers achieve this goal. Through centuries of warfare and loss, most of the paintings left the Korean Peninsula. They now survive in large part in Japanese temple collections.

The tradition has only re-emerged from obscurity in the past few decades as researchers have begun to identify specific visual characteristics that unite the works. These features include delicately painted garments, saturated mineral pigments accented with gold, and illusionary effects such as transparency. Although these similarities are now well-documented, there is still much to discover about the paintings’ artistic methods and cultural context.

Detail, Water-Moon Avalokitesvara (Suwol Gwaneum bosal); Korea, mid-14th century; hanging scroll; ink, color, and gold on silk; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.13

Detail, Water-Moon Avalokitesvara (Suwol Gwaneum bosal); Korea, mid-14th century; hanging scroll; ink, color, and gold on silk; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.13

Scholars and specialists who work to unravel the mysteries of these paintings will visit the Freer|Sackler in March for our symposium Goryeo Buddhist Painting: A Closer Look. Celebrating a new digital catalogue that features sixteen Goryeo Buddhist paintings in US museums, the event will introduce new research into the works’ historical, religious, and geographic contexts. English-language versions of all papers will be provided at the symposium, as presentations will be given in Japanese, Korean, or English.

Discover more art objects from the Goryeo dynasty in our collection, and zoom in to see the delicate details of Goryeo Buddhist paintings.

Meet Our Volunteer: Patrick Hamilton

Machig Labdron as Vajradakini

Machig Labdron as Vajradakini

Patrick Hamilton has volunteered at the Freer|Sackler since 2009 as a Visitor Information Specialist (VIS). VIS provide essential services to the Smithsonian by offering a warm welcome and useful information to our visitors about exhibitions, activities, services, and more. I recently asked him a few questions about his work at the museum.

What drew you to volunteer the Freer|Sackler?

I worked across the street at the Department of Energy from 1994 until 2008. In those days, I visited the Freer|Sackler at least once a week, fantasizing what it would be like to work with all the beautiful things on display—and here I am!

What’s the most satisfying experience about volunteering for the museum?

I most enjoy working with newcomers to our collection. I feel most useful when I’m able to direct guests to something specific that I know they will enjoy and will become a treasured memory of their visit to the Smithsonian.

Can you share a memorable interaction you have had?

I most recall the delight I felt meeting the Tibetan Buddhist monks from Drepung Loseling Monastery when they came to the Sackler to build a traditional sand mandala in the foyer.

What’s your favorite artwork in the collection?

Among the current items on view in the Sackler, I would choose the gilt metal statue of Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Machig Labdron. She is doubly important to me since she is also the patron of an education project I work with in Tibet.