Friday Fave: Brass Basin

Basin; probably Damascus, Syria, Ayyubid period (1171–1250), 1247–49; brass inlaid with silver; Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art, F1955.10

Basin; probably Damascus, Syria, Ayyubid period (1171–1250), 1247–49; brass inlaid with silver; Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art, F1955.10

To me, one of the most exquisite objects in the Freer|Sackler is a brass basin inlaid with silver, created during the reign of the last Ayyubid sultan, Al-Salih Ayyub (1205–49). The intricately designed basin must have taken a variety of artisans many hours to complete.

When I look at the basin, I am first drawn to the etching in the silver sheets and the black niello (a mixture of copper, silver, and lead), featuring both Islamic and Christian motifs. The etchings serve as a way to refine and provide further pictorial details. The Al-Salih Ayyub basin demonstrates the etcher’s excellence in drawing human figures and robes. The polo players riding horses in the middle register are brought to life with just a few simple, rapid strokes. This technique helps to transmit the character of the figures or animals, while displaying the etcher’s high competence and self-confidence in his trade.

Another technical feature of this basin that amazes me is the five medallions distributed along the top register, representing scenes from the life of Christ. The abbreviated spaces within which these scenes exist must have forced the craftsmen to rework images from standard iconographic manuscript sources. For instance, the Annunciation demonstrates how the craftsmen needed to simplify the narrative to include only the most essential human figures, Gabriel and Mary, without additional details such as the dove or rays of light typically portrayed in Syriac lectionaries.

If you’re interested in the basin, check out more high-resolution images of it on Open F|S, the complete digitized collections of the Freer and Sackler Galleries. Surprisingly, you’ll find a shot of the exterior of the base stamped with a medallion of a European coat of arms. This was added in the eighteenth century by a member of the House of Arenberg, one of the most influential and wealthy noble families of the Habsburg Netherlands. It’s interesting to think about the life of objects beyond the era in which they were made.

Zooming In: Crystal Clear

Photomicrographs at 6x and 50x magnification of stained-glass windows from a painting in the Haft awrang (16th c.) exemplify the use of geometric patterns in manuscript painting. Photomicrographs of a penny have been taken at the same magnifications to emphasize the minute scale of the painted patterns.

Photomicrographs at 6x and 50x magnification of stained-glass windows from a painting in the Haft awrang (16th c.) exemplify the use of geometric patterns in manuscript painting. Photomicrographs of a penny have been taken at the same magnifications to emphasize the minute scale of the painted patterns.

This is the third and final post in Amanda Malkin’s series exploring geometric patterns in Islamic paintings, focusing on the possible use of optical devices by the manuscript illustrator. Previous posts discussed Geometric Patterns in Islamic Paintings and Tools of the Manuscript Illustrator.

The first true magnifying lens—an instrument with a handle created for the purpose of magnification—was developed in 1250 CE by Roger Bacon in England. However, a large group of archaeologists and scientists believes that ancient cultures were experimenting with rudimentary optical devices, made from rock crystal, many centuries before Bacon.

Rock crystals with plano-convex surfaces dating from 2500 BCE to 1500 BCE have been found in Egypt, Greece, and Mediterranean cities. Many of these rock crystals were of optical quality, according to the definition put forth by Dominic Ingemark in his article “A Rare Rock-Crystal Object from Pompeii.” That is, the rock crystal is acceptably transparent and homogeneous with at least one surface that is curved with minor surface irregularities. Additionally, the crystal must be able to form a reasonable image.

There is an interesting, ongoing debate regarding the function of these highly valuable rock crystals. Some theories suggest they were used as decoration on furniture, game pieces, or medical instruments. Ancient sources describe bi-convex lenses—basically, glass or rock-crystal balls—that were used to cauterize wounds or remove tissue. These sources do not mention the use of plano-convex lenses as optical devices, and this absence is convincing evidence, for some, that they were not used as such.

However, other scholars argue that the craftsmen who made the “lens-shaped objects,” as they are sometimes called, would have had to use an optical device themselves to do such precise work. The minute, archaic decoration on engraved gems, coins, cylinder seals, intricate jewelry, and of course, manuscript illustrations also suggest that lenses were present and used. The quality and precision of the microscopic ornamentation seem inconceivable without the use of magnifying lenses.

A controversial theory suggests that, instead of using lenses, men with myopia, or nearsightedness, were sought out and trained as craftsmen. Their distorted, magnified vision could have been exploited for creative purposes. The hypothesis, based on thoughtful and clearly investigated theories regarding genetics and a possibly high occurrence of myopia in early civilizations, remains an over-reaching argument. It seems unrealistic to believe that, even with extensive training, men with myopia could have become the majority of master engravers. Their optic handicap would have hindered their work as apprentices: Publications state that master engravers traditionally dealt with the raw stone and carried out the intricate work, while their assistants did the grinding and polishing.

The lack of written historical evidence confirming the function of these somewhat mysterious objects has made this research incredibly intriguing. Although the results are inconclusive, it is certain that as more plano-convex rock crystals are unearthed, more knowledge and information will follow.

Friday Fave: “Sunrise: April”

"Sunrise: April"; Dwight William Tryon; United States, 1897–99; oil on wood panel; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1906.79a–b

“Sunrise: April”; Dwight William Tryon; United States, 1897–99; oil on wood panel; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1906.79a–b

In the summer of 2009, I moved to Washington with a freshly minted bachelor’s degree in illustration and, maybe not surprisingly, spent most days stocking the milk fridge at a Trader Joe’s. Squatting inside the bluish hull of the icebox, my skin chilled to a uniform 35 degrees by the roaring fan, I could peer out from behind the glass doors and watch the vague, broken outline of shoppers moving between the milk cartons. Of course, they could see me, too, but I felt the same sense of hidden stillness in the back of that fridge as I felt perched in the high branches of a pine tree as a kid, staring intently but aimlessly at the people below. There’s a sort of focused calm to looking around from a solitary vantage, a feeling of everything and nothing, which perfectly suits the naïve self-absorption of a child and the melodramatic career turmoil of a recent college graduate.

On days off, I would ride out to the National Mall to visit the art museums. It felt good to keep my head in the game: To keep thinking about art, you have to keep looking. Invariably, I would go to the National Gallery for Turner, Cézanne, and Rothko, or wind my way around the Hirshhorn looking for the de Koonings. (Sometimes I think that the answers to all of life’s problems lie hidden in a great painting, and that I’m just not looking hard enough.)

One morning, I came out of the Metro and walked up the steps of the Freer. It was new to me, for I had yet to be keyed in to the secret wonder of its American art collection. The Whistler galleries were, of course, beautiful, and I figured that they were a serendipitous and worthy discovery to sate me of my painterly cravings.

But then I entered a different gallery, anchored by a gorgeous double-panel painting by Thomas Dewing. I turned to face the opposite wall and was struck silent by a canvas that seemed entirely transparent. It was simple and reductive, stripped down to the barest mechanisms of composition and value. It had almost no shape, and the more I looked, the more it seemed to lack even color. It was a landscape painting, I supposed, with a broadly impressionistic sense of atmosphere, but it employed none of the flourish or willful distortion that I’d known from the work of Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, or Van Gogh.

I had never seen a painting like this. There was no barn silhouetted against the horizon, no fence, no nameless farmhand or rusted chisel plow punctuating the stillness. Just a row of trees on the cusp of budding, with the sun barely peeking over the distant horizon.

The painting enveloped me completely. It captured that rare feeling of a perfect moment in nature, a hazy awe that is impossible to fully absorb. It was that same feeling I had in the milk fridge and the pine tree, of everything and nothing, hidden peacefully within my world while staring back into it without reason or expectation.

Without having ever thought about it, I’d never imagined that feeling could be captured. I still can’t understand how it was painted. The label read, “Dwight Tryon. Sunrise: April.” I had to leave, for I had stopped seeing.

Four years later, I got to see the painting again. This time, I was working at the Freer for the curator of American art. Sunrise: April was in collections storage. I cannot wait until it is brought out again.

Friday Fave: Pen Box

Pen box (qalamadan); Shaykh Muhammad; India, state of Gujarat, 1587; lacquered teakwood with mother-of-pearl inlay; purchase, F1986.58

Pen box (qalamadan); Shaykh Muhammad; India, state of Gujarat, 1587; lacquered teakwood with mother-of-pearl inlay; purchase, F1986.58

My favorite object in the Freer|Sackler’s collection is one I saw on my first visit to the museums with family several years ago. I’ve been with Freer|Sackler since 2013 and have seen many spectacular works of art from Asia. However, the pen box in the South and Southeast Asian galleries in the Freer is still the object that captivates me the most. From the moment I saw the pen box, I was in awe. This elegant 16th-century object is perched high in a case with other objects made in the Indian state of Gujarat. Its shiny lacquer surface and glimmering figures feature graceful nasta’liq script inlaid with mother-of-pearl. These elegant details make it one of the most beautiful artworks in the collection. Whenever I bring a friend or family member to the Freer, the pen box is always our first stop.

As someone who has a great love of literature and a passion for art and art history, I suppose it’s not surprising that I would be drawn to this object over so many others. The translation of the inlaid script on the box reads, “When I tested the ink, I remembered your black tresses.” Such a poetic phrase matches the physical beauty of the box. Its owner must have had a love of literature and poetry, just as I do. I think this is the reason why I continue to return to it and share it with everyone I know. The pen box reminds me of a time when writing was an important act that took care and effort. Today, we often use iPads and computers to do our writing as quickly and effortlessly as possible.

I hope everyone who visits the Freer and Sackler Galleries can connect with one (or more) of the hundreds of works of art that are on view. If you can’t visit, more than 40,000 objects in our collections have been digitized and are available in super hi-rez at Open F|S.

Friday Fave: Chiharu Shiota

Installation view of "Over the Continents" by Chiharu Shiota

Installation view of “Over the Continents” by Chiharu Shiota

If your shoes could talk, what story would they would tell?

I began working at the Freer|Sackler last July. One month later, Chiharu Shiota began assembling Over the Continents as part of the Perspectives series of contemporary art. Watching her work on the installation—shoes with little notes attached by red yarn—was enough reason for me to love it. Shiota spent three days carefully placing each shoe in the Sackler pavilion and then tying on the yarn, which originates in the corner of the room and connects one shoe to the next. For the artist, discarded shoes and notes link us to memories of times and people who are now lost to us.

Not only do I love the installation and the stories that it tells, I love the memory that I now have because of it. When I began working here, I was afraid that without a background in Asian art, I would have a hard time connecting to the artworks and exhibitions. Watching Shiota install her work changed that, allowing me to appreciate and understand my new place of work. Having moved twelve times in twenty-eight years, it’s very important for me to solidify a connection to a new place early on. If my shoes could talk about my first few months at the Freer|Sackler, this is the story they would tell.

A selection of the notes on view in the installation have been translated from Japanese and made available on our website and on the computer in the pavilion. The exhibition closes this Sunday, so you only have a few days to check it out!

Friday Fave: Chinese Bells

Bell; China, Eastern Zhou dynasty, ca. 5th century BCE; bronze; Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, S1987.285

Bell; China, Eastern Zhou dynasty, ca. 5th century BCE; bronze; Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, S1987.285

My favorite part of physics in high school was the physics of sound. I was part of several ensembles then and ended up studying music in college. Years later, as a graduate student, I initially learned about Chinese bronze bells through a course on the music of Asia. The following quarter, my first art history course was on Chinese bronzes. This time, I learned about the bells from an art historical perspective.

Naturally, on my first visit to the Freer and Sackler with a friend in 2011, I was delighted to see a bronze bell on display. There it was: over a foot and a half tall; lens-shaped mouth; thirty-six studs jutting out from its body; a slight patina running down the middle, hinting at age; the taotie motif—fangs, horns, and brows snaking around protruding eyes—near the lip.

Clapperless and struck instead with a mallet, these bells were an integral part of ancient court rituals. A full set consists of more than sixty bells of varying sizes. Acoustically, each bell is capable of producing two tones depending on where it is hit: Striking along the side produces one tone, and striking along the middle results in a tone three degrees—or the equivalent of a major or minor third—away. Even in modern times, bronze bells have been used in important ceremonies, such as the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, and in the theme music for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

These bells highlight China’s advanced state of technological advancement and early mastery of bronze casting: Bells of this complexity would not begin to be produced in Europe for another millennia. Bronze bells were included in the British Museum’s History of the World in 100 Objects, and the Freer|Sackler has one of the finest collections of these bells in the world.

Friday Fave: Chinese Taoist Immortals

The Chinese Taoist Immortals, Han-shan and Shih-te (Kanzan and Jittoku); Hashimoto Gahō (1835–1908); Japan, Meiji era, 1886; ink and slight tint on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.227

The Chinese Taoist Immortals, Han-shan and Shih-te (Kanzan and Jittoku); Hashimoto Gahō (1835–1908); Japan, Meiji era, 1886; ink and slight tint on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.227

When I came to work at the Freer|Sackler in 1987, I had no idea how profoundly it would affect the path of my life. I discovered that the museums are in many ways a crossroads for lives past and present—a beautiful time machine. There are many noteworthy objects within the collections, but when I was asked to write about a “favorite object” this particular painting came to mind right away. It is the work of a master, but one of many within the museums. To me, this picture is so expressive and so evocative that the Chinese Taoist Immortals very nearly come alive.

Han-shan (pictured above), a legendary poet whose name translates as “Cold Mountain,” wrote the following verse:

The everyday mind: that is the way.
Buried in vines and rock-bound caves,
Here it’s wild, here I am free,
Idling with the white clouds, my friends.
Tracks here never reach the world;
No-mind, so what can shift my thought?
I sit the night through on a bed of stone,
While the moon climbs Cold Mountain.

Friday Fave: Monkeys Grasp for the Moon

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing, S2004.2.1-21

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing, S2004.2.1-21

First-time visitors to the Sackler Gallery are often surprised and delighted by Chinese artist Xu Bing’s sculpture Monkeys Grasp for the Moon. The impressive installation comprises a series of twenty-one interlocking laminated wood “monkeys.” They hang from the ceiling of the Gallery’s atrium and descend, one beneath another, through the center of the three-story stairwell to end suspended above a reflecting pool at the bottom level.

What I particularly love about this work is the seamless integration of sculptural forms, multiple writing systems and languages, and storytelling. It starts with a Chinese folktale that describes a group of monkeys in a tree that decide to capture the moon. By linking their arms and tails, they form a chain down toward the moon, only to discover that it is a reflection in a body of water at the base of the tree. Xu’s monkeys certainly look the part, despite being heavily abstracted. They have tails and arms and faces that are clearly identifiable. But each one also spells out the word “monkey” in a different language, in scripts as diverse as Urdu, German, Chinese, and Braille. People, children especially, will often work their way through the entire installation, carefully matching each monkey to a key that shows which one represents which language.

By bringing together these different languages and writing systems into such a coherent form, Monkeys Grasp for the Moon speaks to me about universal connections between peoples of different cultures. It is a fitting way to welcome visitors to an institution devoted to such a culturally and artistically diverse part of the world.

Friday Fave: Fragment of a Glass Beaker

Fragment of a beaker; Syria, Late Bronze Age, 1400–1200 BCE; glass; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1909.604

Fragment of a beaker; Syria, Late Bronze Age, 1400–1200 BCE; glass; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1909.604

Some objects in the Freer|Sackler are quite small yet provide substantial information about their place of manufacture, ultimate destination, and function. This fragment of an ancient glass beaker is a little more than an inch wide and in remarkably good condition considering it is about 3,400 years old. It is an example of one of the most extraordinary glass vessels produced during the Late Bronze Age in the ancient Near East, specifically in places such as Tell Braq in northern Syria, Tell er Rimah in northern Iraq, and Hasanlu in Iran. The beaker fragment is composed of tiny colored glass canes that form a pattern of lozenge shapes in four colors: red, white, blue, and turquoise. Of surviving examples, this one is probably in the best condition.

The fragment becomes more interesting when one discovers that Charles Lang Freer acquired it along with 1,387 mostly glass objects from the famous antiquities dealer Giovanni Dattari in Cairo, Egypt, during the summer of 1909. This collection included dozens of glass objects clearly dated to the later Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt, more specifically to the reigns of Amenhotep II (r. 1427–1400 BCE) through Tutankhamun (r. 1334–1325 BCE).

In order to understand how such a vessel could end up in Egypt, one has to consider its potential function as a political gift between rulers of the ancient Near East and those of Egypt. According to information provided by some remarkable clay tablets, written in cuneiform in an international dialect of Akkadian and found in a diplomatic archive at Tell el Amarna, Egypt was held in high regard by its neighbors. These included both small city-states and larger empires such as the Hittites, Mittanians, and Assyrians. Rulers writing to the pharaoh would address him as “brother” to indicate an equal status. Important and beautiful royal gifts of the highest quality would have been exchanged.

Though Egypt could send beautiful vessels and objects made of gold, ivory, or painted pottery, its developing industry of glass vessels could not yet meet the standards of its Near Eastern compatriots. These craftsmen were so advanced in the production of glass objects that they kept cuneiform documents with recipes for making different kinds. And though Egyptian glassmakers would produce some mosaic glass dishes, they could never produce a beaker such as this one—a royal gift of such high technical skill as to equal any Egyptian gift, even of vessels of gold.

The beaker likely ended up either in a royal tomb or in the ruins of a palace of an Eighteenth Dynasty ruler, such as Malqata at Thebes or Tell el Amarna in Middle Egypt. This object, with its geometric patterning, would have been just as attractive to a pharaoh as were Egyptian objects, with their exotic designs, to the rulers of the ancient Near East.

Friday Fave: Elephants in the Museum

Lidded ritual ewer (huo) in the form of an elephant with masks and dragons; Middle Yangzi Valley, China, Shang dynasty, Late Anyang period, ca. first half 11th century BCE; bronze; Purchase, F1936.6a–b

Lidded ritual ewer (huo) in the form of an elephant with masks and dragons; Middle Yangzi Valley, China, Shang dynasty, Late Anyang period, ca. first half 11th century BCE; bronze; Purchase, F1936.6a–b

A search for “elephant” in Open F|S yields 135 results. This trumps the less engaging turtle or rabbit (65 and 83, respectively) but really can’t compare to the stalwart horse or fantastic dragon (528 and 652). I love searching the collection this way—the objects returned come from wildly different periods and cultures, and are executed in nearly all the media represented in the museums’ collections.

The “elephant” category includes a certain number of objects that are made of ivory (made centuries ago and acquired by the museums when it was legal to do so) or that have the word “elephant” in their title. These, however, aren’t actually depictions of elephants. The elephants in the F|S collection are nearly equally divided between two-dimensional works on silk or paper—from China, Japan, India, and Iran—and three-dimensional pieces, mostly in bronze or stone from China, with a few from Southeast Asia. They date from 1200 BCE to the middle of the twentieth century.

Equally striking are the differences in the elephants: some are mischievous, some are complacent—aware of their magnificence as they parade across the page—while some look disgruntled and even sad. Scanning nine pages of results, we see the full panoply of this animal that so has intrigued artists, travelers, royalty, and others over the centuries.

The elephant pictured here is one of my favorites. It is a ewer (or vessel) intended for ritual use, cast from bronze with elaborate surface ornamentation. Made in China, probably around 1100 BCE, it is of modest size. When this vessel was made more than 3,000 years ago, elephants were probably much more prevalent in China than they are today. The little elephant perched on the vessel’s lid and the use of the animal’s trunk as a spout give the object a whimsical quality that belies its ritual significance. It is also an incredibly rare vessel, the only surviving example with its original lid. We know that the lid and base belong together because of similarities in the decoration.

Acquired by the Freer Galley in 1936, the elephant ewer has been the subject of study over the years, but lately it has been receiving a new kind of attention as a recent addition to the Smithsonian’s 3D imaging project. This innovative program creates 3D models of objects from across the entire Smithsonian, allowing us to discover new insights with cutting-edge technology. The research potential is extraordinary, but it’s also just fun to explore the object in this new way, turning it around on the screen, looking at it from new angles, and zooming in to see the elephant in ways we couldn’t do in the gallery.

A special thank-you to Keith Wilson, curator of ancient Chinese art at Freer|Sackler, for advising on this post.