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.

Anime and Manga Summer Camp

Matthew Lasnoski, youth and family programs educator, leads campers on a tour of the Freer’s collection of Japanese art.

Matthew Lasnoski, youth and family programs educator, leads campers on a tour of the Freer’s collection of Japanese art.

Last month, the Freer|Sackler welcomed twenty-one campers to the seventh annual summer camp dedicated to Japanese anime and manga. Throughout the five-day session, the class traced the origins of manga drawing and anime films by exploring the Freer’s collection of Japanese art. To better understand place and setting, campers considered the Japanese screen Pheasants and Cherry Trees, sketching and adapting details to incorporate into their own projects. As the week progressed, the campers encountered a frightening guardian figure and imagined a story panel in which they would have to maneuver past this character. Freer|Sackler staff also taught figure-drawing lessons to build the class’s technical skills.

Taking advantage of the Freer|Sackler’s location on the National Mall, half-day field trips were scheduled to see art around town. Campers visited the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library to see its collection of Japanese graphic novels and ventured to the Smithsonian American Art Museum to view Korean-born artist Nam June Paik’s Electronic Superhighway. This multimedia work showed students how to provide a sense of place in their own works. At the end of the week, campers shared their finished manga-inspired comic books with their parents at an end-of-camp party.

A student carefully works on her anime project during the ImaginAsia workshop.

An eight-year-old student designs her manga-inspired comic book, Marshmello, in the ImaginAsia classroom.

During the school year, the Freer|Sackler offers art-making workshops, drop-in programs, activity guides, and many other ways to enrich family visits. Check out the complete schedule of ImaginAsia family programs.

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.

Museum TLC: Sound Advice

Visitors take a tour of "Peacock Room REMIX" during Asia After Dark.

Visitors take a tour of “Peacock Room REMIX” during Asia After Dark: PEACOCKalypse.

A recent article in the Washington Post talked about the possible effects of loud music on artworks during large-scale museum events. We hear you and appreciate your concern. In fact, sound, light, temperature, and security are all factors that go into the planning and exhibiting of artworks. How does a museum care for its objects on exhibit while providing interesting, closeup experiences for visitors? Let’s ask the experts.

When I spoke to Beth Duley, head of collections management at the Freer|Sackler, she talked about the delicate balance between care and access. “Smithsonian museums are open 364 days a year, and we host millions of visitors,” she told me, adding, “Maintaining that balance is part of the day-to-day function of our job. In my 25 years at Freer|Sackler, no artwork has ever been damaged at an event.”

According to Jenifer Bosworth, exhibitions conservator, the process of caring for artworks begins long before objects are chosen for exhibition. “Our conservation department ensures that all objects chosen for display are in good condition and that an appropriate level of security for each object is reflected in the exhibition design. Specially made cases and vitrines, as well as custom-built mounts, are all fabricated with the objects’ safety in mind. We want people to get as close as possible, because that’s an amazing part of seeing great works of art in person.”

This preparation keeps artwork protected both during normal wear and tear (the constant vibration of passing trucks, the occasional wayward umbrella) and extraordinary circumstances (the 2013 earthquake that rocked DC). “After the earthquake, I ran into the Peacock Room, and all of the ceramics were still safely held in their specially made mounts,” said Duley.

For special events, such as the museums’ popular Asia After Dark after-hours parties, the entire staff works together. Conservators, curators, and security guards start early and work closely with event planners to map out traffic flow and the placement of speakers, lights, food and drink, and furniture. Conservators and members of the collections management team act as monitors during the event to ensure that all works of art remain safe and sound.

And speaking of sound, what about the issue of loud music in the galleries? Bosworth told me, “If anyone on my team feels that vibrations from a music performance could affect construction materials within the galleries and thus potentially the art, we address the issue immediately.” In fact, the effects of loud music on works of art have been studied in the conservation literature.

We strive to protect our objects on display while providing visitors a variety of ways to experience and learn about our collections. Our staff works together to find the best ways to balance security and access. This allows visitors to return to the Freer|Sackler often, knowing that their favorite works of art will still be here for their children and grandchildren, and the generations to come.

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.

Vote for the Cosmic Buddha in SI’s Summer Showdown!

Cosmic Buddha (Buddha draped in robes portraying the Realms of Existence); China, probably Henan province, Northern Qi dynasty, (550-577); Limestone; Purchase; F1923.15

Cosmic Buddha (Buddha draped in robes portraying the Realms of Existence); China, probably Henan province, Northern Qi dynasty, (550-577); Limestone; Purchase; F1923.15

Voting begins today for the Smithsonian’s Summer Showdown. Last year more than 90,000 people from across the country voted for their favorite object in the Smithsonian. This year, Freer|Sackler is represented by the Cosmic Buddha, one of our most iconic images that is currently on view in the exhibition, Promise of Paradise: Early Chinese Buddhist Sculpture.

Like all Buddhas (fully enlightened beings), this life-size limestone figure of Vairochana, the Cosmic Buddha, is wrapped in the simple robe of a monk. What makes this object exceptional are the detailed narrative scenes that cover its surface. They represent not only moments in the life of the Historical Buddha but also the “Realms of Existence,” a symbolic map of the Buddhist world. Heaven appears at the top toward the shoulders, while various hells are at the bottom, along the hem of the figure’s robe. Humans, animals, spirits, and demigods reside between the two.

With help from the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, the Cosmic Buddha also exists as a 3D model. This format enables scholars to study the work as never before, and it provides worldwide access to this masterpiece of Buddhist sculpture.

Vote for this amazing object in #SIShowdown!

Beyond the Instagram Filter

Blue and Gold: The Rose Azalea; James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903); United States, ca. 1890–95; watercolor on brown paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1894.25. Left to right: visible light; reflected infrared (IR); ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (UV). The yellow-green fluorescence in the UV image indicates the presence of zinc oxide (zinc white).

Blue and Gold: The Rose Azalea; James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903); United States, ca. 1890–95; watercolor on brown paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1894.25. Left to right: visible light; reflected infrared (IR); ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (UV). The yellow-green fluorescence in the UV image indicates the presence of zinc oxide (zinc white).

Most of us are familiar with the transformational power of Instagram filters such as Amaro and Earlybird, and the magic they can work for our amateur iPhone photography. But what can we learn in an art historical context by making use of traditional camera filters? Multispectral imaging uses cameras that can “see” into the ultraviolet (UV) and infrared (IR) wavelengths along the electromagnetic spectrum, allowing us to photograph features of artworks that are not visible to the naked eye. At the Freer|Sackler, I used the conservation department’s Nikon D100 camera and Kodak Wratten gelatin filters to create UVIR photographs of the museum’s entire collection of watercolors by James McNeill Whistler. These photographs will be used as part of a larger project called Whistler and Watercolor, a collaborative, technical art history research project by an F|S conservator, curator, and conservation scientist.

While most of Whistler’s oeuvre has had the benefit of in-depth study, the watercolors have been waiting for their turn in the spotlight. Whistler created more than three hundred watercolors in his lifetime, most of which were executed in the 1880s, during the height of his fame. Museum founder Charles Lang Freer acquired fifty-two of them. Whistler and Watercolor will provide Whistler scholars and enthusiasts with a technical description of the artist’s working methods in watercolor. Were his materials and techniques similar or significantly different from the way he used other mediums? How do they compare to watercolors by other artists of the time period? Did he follow the methods taught in watercolor manuals and how-to books of the late nineteenth century or was he more innovative and experimental?

Reconstructed 19th-century watercolor palette. Left to right: visible light; reflected infrared (IR); ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (UV)

Reconstructed 19th-century watercolor palette. Left to right: visible light; reflected infrared (IR); ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (UV)

Multispectral imaging using traditional photographic filters can help us answer some of these questions. Look at the three images above for an example of a reconstructed nineteenth-century palette (like Whistler’s) photographed normally and then using two gelatin filters with different light sources. Certain pigments exhibit characteristic behaviors in reflected infrared (IR) and ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (UV) that allow us to identify them. Cobalt-containing pigments, such as cerulean blue or cobalt green, become transparent and disappear completely in reflected infrared (at approx. 850 nm). With ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence, red madder lake typically emits a red fluorescent “glow” due to the presence of a compound called purpurin. By using photographic filters, as well as a variety of other techniques to back up these visual observations, it will be possible to reconstruct Whistler’s use of watercolor pigments in the late nineteenth century to aid future research and study.

London Bridge; James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903); United States, early 1880s; pencil and watercolor on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.115. Top to bottom: visible light; reflected infrared (IR); ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (UV). Note the enhanced visualization of the graphite underdrawing in the IR image.

London Bridge; James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903); United States, early 1880s; pencil and watercolor on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.115. Top to bottom: visible light; reflected infrared (IR); ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (UV). Note the enhanced visualization of the graphite underdrawing in the IR image.

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.