Friday Fave: Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank

Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank, by Sesson (1504–1589); Japan, Momoyama period, 1568–1615; ink on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.218–19

Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank, by Sesson (1504–1589); Japan, Momoyama period, 1568–1615; ink on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.218–19

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art.

When I need a break from the monkeyshines in my office, I visit the Freer’s Japanese galleries to spend some time with Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank, a pair of six-fold screens.

Painted in the 16th century, the monochromatic screens illustrate a Zen Buddhist parable about monkeys that try to grasp the reflection of a full moon in the water, warning us about the futility of chasing illusion. But I think the monkeys also show that there can be meaning in the effort.

When I walk quietly through DC’s Sligo Creek Park near my house, animals start to appear from the woods: birds, rabbits, and if I’m lucky, deer. Similarly, at the museum, when I look at the screen at top, what first seems to be a classical Japanese landscape of bamboo and pine livens up on closer inspection: the twisting vines enveloping the tree become the sinewy arms and legs of monkeys climbing an old pine to get a better look at the moon floating below. Meanwhile, an all-white monkey on the riverbank stretches his arm across the water, his eyes fixed on the luminous prize that is so far out of reach.

A mother monkey and her baby take what they believe is a more direct approach. Hanging by a tree limb, the mother curls her leg, ready to snatch up the moon with her sharp toes. Her baby holds on tight and grabs at the moon with his other hand, excited to be a part of the adventure.

Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank, left-hand screen

Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank, left-hand screen

Another monkey in the companion screen (above) has a similar plan: he swoops at the moon from a low hanging grapevine, but it has disappeared in a splash of water! Though determined to try again, it may be time to quit, judging from the grumpy expression of the monkey nearby. She has had it with the moon and its illusions, as have her children. One baby curls up beside her, eyes closed and his head resting on crossed arms, ready for a nap.

The monkey parable has endured for centuries, evidenced by Xu Bing’s contemporary sculpture in the Sackler Gallery. And while we take the lesson to heart—desire turns into resignation through life’s experiences—the monkeys demonstrate what’s also essential along the way: curiosity, companionship, innovation, and sometimes a good nap.


Friday Fave: Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami

Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami; Kitagawa Utamaro; Japan, Edo period, late 18th–early 19th century; ink and color on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.54

Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami, by Kitagawa Utamaro
Japan, Edo period, late 18th–early 19th century
Ink and color on paper, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.54

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art in Open F|S, our newly digitized collection.

My favorite object in the collection? That’s a tough one. Truth is, I have lots of favorites.

There is one painting, however, that I grew to admire the more time I spent photographing it. Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami is an amazingly detailed panel painting by Kitagawa Utamaro (1754–1806), filled with scenes of an elite pleasure establishment that form a visually compelling narrative. For a special educational project by the Kyoto Cultural Association, I spent two full days photographing the painting’s every detail. At the Freer|Sackler, we often photograph art with an eye on the technical challenges each object presents or with a deadline in mind. In the case of Moonlight Revelry, we were asked to photograph this masterpiece in eighteen precisely overlapping sections in order for it to be recreated back in Japan as closely to the original as possible.

I love that the painting has so much to offer. In fact, the more you look, the more you discover: from the intriguing center salon to the ships sailing in the distant background and all the sundry activities near and far. Moonlight Revelry has an amazing perspective that draws you in. It invites you to imagine being in that salon and life in that period with a quality and technique that, as I came to learn later, influenced future generations of artists, including American artist James McNeill Whistler.


Friday Fave: Director’s Choice

Cameras new and old

Cameras, new and old

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art. This entry is by Julian Raby, the Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art.

When he first arrived at the Freer|Sackler nearly thirty years ago, John Tsantes, head of photography, used the “Agfa 8×10″ view camera on the right to photograph the collections. The camera on the left, “Phase One,” is the latest digital camera, and is now the museums’ standard equipment. John pioneered digital photography at the Freer|Sackler, and by the end of 2014 he and his team had completely digitized our collections of more than 40,000 objects. On January 1, 2015, in a blaze of publicity, we announced that we’ve made high-resolution images of our entire collection available on Open F|S, free for non-commercial projects and purposes. You can learn about and look deeply at works of art like never before, but also roll up your digital sleeves and have fun: search, download, and create. To that, we can also add “share,” and we look forward to seeing what you come up with.

Canteen; Syria or Northern Iraq; Ayyubid period (1171–1250);  brass, silver inlay; Purchase, F1941.10

Canteen;
Syria or Northern Iraq; Ayyubid period (1171–1250);
Brass, silver inlay; Purchase, F1941.10

With so much to choose from, picking a favorite isn’t easy. The object I find most poignant at the moment is the famous “Freer canteen.” It was produced just under nine hundred years ago in Mosul for the Syriac community. Created by craftsmen who made objects for Muslim leaders, its principal scenes are drawn from the life of Christ: the Nativity, so apt for this time of year; the Presentation at the Temple; and the Entry into Jerusalem. In addition, it features geometric motifs, lively animal scrolls, and elegant inscriptions. The back includes depictions of saints and knights. Today, the vessel reminds us of how many of this region’s ancient communities are fast disappearing, and how centuries-old objects remain vital conduits to the past.


Friday Fave: Tigers!

Chinese bronze tiger fittings from 900 BCE; F1935.21 and F1935.22

Chinese bronze tiger fittings from 900 BCE; F1935.21 and F1935.22

This post inaugurates our Friday Fave blog series, featuring museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art.

What is my favorite object in the Freer? That often depends on my mood. I have favorites within categories: favorite painting, favorite sculpture, favorite monster or god … I could go on.

So, though I have been asked to talk about my favorite object, I am going to talk about the object I most want to touch, regardless of mood. In the back of the Freer’s gallery 18, there are two tigers made of bronze that peek out of their case, ready to be loved.

Anthropomorphization? Absolutely. Every single time I see them.

These two 3,000-year-old kitties call out to me whenever they catch my eye. Their fierce teeth, held up in a friendly, reserved expression, assure me that they would enjoy a bit of a scratch behind the ear or under the chin. I love these tigers because of the emotional tug they have on me. I am in awe that, thousands of years ago, an artist created these bronzes with such attention to detail, understanding of human and animal emotions, and love, that they continue to find admirers from near and far.

Learn more about ancient Chinese bronzes in the Freer|Sackler collections.


Digitocracy!

Digitally altered detail, tomb guardian creature; China, Tang dynasty, ca. 700–740; lead-glazed earthenware; Gift of the Else Sackler Foundation, S1997.24

Digitally altered detail, tomb guardian creature; China, Tang dynasty, ca. 700–740; lead-glazed earthenware; Gift of the Else Sackler Foundation, S1997.24

With a new year, the Freer|Sackler launches a new initiative: Open F|S. We’ve digitized our entire collection and today, we’re making it available to the public. That’s thousands of works now ready for you to download, modify, and share for noncommercial purposes. As Freer|Sackler Director Julian Raby said, “We strive to promote the love and study of Asian art, and the best way we can do so is to free our unmatched resources for inspiration, appreciation, academic study, and artistic creation.” More facts and figures about the project can be found in the infographic below.

Tomorrow, we’ll also introduce the Friday Fave, a weekly blog series in which Freer|Sackler insiders will describe their favorite objects in the newly digitized collections. It’s a chance for us to share with you what inspires us, in the hopes that in the coming months, you’ll tell us your own stories about cherished F|S objects. To participate further, sign up to be a beta tester and help us ensure the ongoing success of Open F|S as it expands and evolves.

Happy New Year, and Happy Open F|S!

Freer|Sackler digitization infographic.


Open F|S: Digital Zero

Composite of 700 images from the Freer Ramayana.

Composite of 700 images from the Freer Ramayana.

Courtney O’Callaghan is chief digital officer at the Freer|Sackler.

We’ve reached an important milestone at the Freer|Sackler, an effort we’re calling Digital Zero. As of this writing, we’ve become the first Smithsonian museums to digitize their collections. This is a great opportunity for scholars and researchers as well as our everyday virtual visitors to have 24/7 access to our works of art.

What exactly is Digital Zero? For the Freer|Sackler, it means that we’ve photographed and uploaded our entire collection into a digital asset management system—more than 40,000 objects and almost twice as many images, from Whistler’s Peacock Room to the tiniest unnamed ceramic sherd. We have examined the rights information on every object and marked them appropriately. We have reviewed records, both complete and incomplete, and deemed them acceptable to make public.

On January 1, 2015, we will finally share all of our objects and accompanying data with the public. We will make available 40,000+ works as high-resolution images with (often) detailed metadata, available for non-commercial use by anyone.

Digital Zero gives us the freedom to begin the rapid prototyping of digital offerings. It allows us to focus on how our visitors want to interact with our collection. And it enables our creative allies to peruse our objects and form their own endlessly variable takes on the Freer|Sackler legacy.

But this is simply the base from which we begin our digital journey. As our curators and their collaborators discover new insights, new connections, and new interpretations of our storied holdings, we must acknowledge the fact that our work is on shifting sands. Our understanding of our own collection continually evolves and changes.

We hope that by releasing this information, we will encourage others to join our journey of discovery and help us fill in the gaps, share stories, and think of new ways to envision and enliven these objects. As we move from the idea of museums as spaces for the static delivery of a monolithic point of view into ones where our objects inspire communal storytelling, and where we share diverse perspectives that are alive and changing, we will be able to engage our visitors in ways that we cannot yet imagine.

This is only the first phase. If you are interested in being part of our adventure, email us at openfs@si.edu and we will include you in our plans.


Meaning and Melody

Folio of calligraphy, signed by Mir Imad Hasani; Iran, probably Isfahan, Safavid period, dated 1611–12; borders signed by Muhammad Hadi; ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; Purchase, F1942.15b

Folio of calligraphy, signed by Mir Imad Hasani; Iran, probably Isfahan, Safavid period, dated 1611–12; borders signed by Muhammad Hadi; ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; Purchase, F1942.15b

Michael Wilpers is manager of performing arts at the Freer|Sackler.

The Sackler’s current exhibition Nasta’liq: The Genius of Persian Calligraphy demonstrates the occasional tension between writing meant to be read and that which is valued primarily for its artistry. One of the more flamboyant Persian scripts on display in the exhibition is almost impossible for most viewers to read. Ornate Persian scripts have often been used in architecture and ceramics, more as decoration than signage.

This kind of tension between intelligibility and artfulness has played out many times in the history of music, between songs with easily understood words and those in which lyrics are almost overwhelmed by melodic invention. A Westerner might compare the emphasis on the words in Christian congregational singing with the kind of melodic invention of a choral fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach, where sometimes the words hardly seem to matter.

Perhaps no sacred music tradition is more devoted to clarity of text than the Vedic chant of Hinduism. You can hear a sample in the first track of our 2006 podcast of Gustav Holst’s “Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda,” featuring Venkatesh Sastri of the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple and recorded at the Freer Gallery. Only three pitches are used and almost every syllable gets its own note, making it easy for anyone who understands Sanskrit to follow along. At the opposite extreme of the Hindu tradition is the classical music of South India, where devotional songs (kritis) are so well known by their melodies that virtuoso musicians can perform lengthy improvisations on them without any need for words at all, confident that their audience will know them. A good example is our 2009 podcast featuring South Indian violinist L. Subramaniam performing highly elaborated variations on devotional songs by Tyagaraja (1767–1847) and his father, V. Lakshminarayana (1911–1990).

Coincidentally, at the very time that Persian nasta’liq script was reaching its peak of development—the mid-sixteenth century—the Roman Catholic Church ordered that sacred music be made more understandable. Composers were to refrain from disguising the words of the liturgies in overly elaborate melodies and counterpoint. One target of these reforms was a genre of medieval plainchant that stretched out each syllable of text over a long string of notes. An excellent example can be heard in our podcast of Cappella Romana singing the fourteenth-century Invitatorium in the Greek Orthodox tradition. Simpler music—and more intelligible lyrics—were in demand again two hundred years later when Bach and Handel were writing their most complex works, a style heard in the music of their contemporary Domenico Scarletti and in our podcast of the Gulbenkian Choir.

The Islamic world saw its own reforms of sacred music when orthodox legalists condemned the ornate style of Koranic recitations that appeared in the ninth to twelfth century. Melodic virtuosity is nevertheless still practiced by some specialists in Koranic recitation, while a much simpler chant style is prescribed for laypeople. In the South Asian music known as qawwali, Islamic texts are joined with praises for Sufi saints in renditions that are sometimes straightforward and at other times in a highly elaborated style. Such contrasts can be heard on our podcast by the Chisty Sufi Sama Ensemble.

View our complete list of podcasts here.

Nasta’liq: The Genius of Persian Poetry remains on view through May 3, 2015.


A Day Without Art

Frame

The Freer|Sackler joins the international arts community in observing World AIDS Day on December 1.
Also known as A Day Without Art, we remember those who are no longer with us and honor their lives,
creative contributions, and legacy.


A Matter of Life and Death

Frontal from the base of a funerary couch with Sogdian musicians and dancers and Buddhist divinities; 550-577; China; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1915.110

Frontal from the base of a funerary couch with Sogdian musicians and dancers and Buddhist divinities;
550–77; China; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1915.110

Rachel Bissonnette, a student at the University of Michigan, recently interned in the Scholarly Programs and Publications Department at Freer|Sackler.

The Freer|Sackler and the University of Michigan jointly publish an annual periodical called Ars Orientalis, which celebrates its sixtieth anniversary this year. Ars Orientalis isn’t exactly “light reading,” but it is an esteemed academic journal that produces pioneering articles on the arts of Asia, the Islamic world, and the ancient Near East. Ars Orientalis themes each of its issues, and Volume 44’s theme is “Arts of Death in Asia.” This exciting issue examines pan-Asian cultures, religious traditions, and the art that honors the deceased and warns of death’s inevitability. The print volume has just been released, and the first digital version of Ars Orientalis will be released soon!

However, you don’t have to wait for the publication to learn about some amazing funerary art. The Freer Gallery has a wonderful Sogdian funerary couch base on display. The couch, called a shichuang, is made of multiple marble slabs. The museum has three slabs on display, which were purchased by Charles Lang Freer in 1915; five other parts of the shichuang are now dispersed throughout various museum collections. Our couch dates to 550–77 CE, which was prime time for Silk Road trade between the Middle East and China. The ancient kingdom of Sogdiana (present-day southern Uzbekistan and western Tajikistan) traded luxury goods with the Tang dynasty in China. This profitable trade resulted in our wonderful funerary couch.

Shichuangs were used as burial furniture for the repose of the deceased. The couches were typically decorated with elaborately carved scenes inspired by teachings of Confucius or protective spirits to guide the dead in the afterlife. However, the Freer Gallery’s funerary couch is decorated with Buddhist themes, musicians, and dancers. The characters are in non-Chinese garb (boots, tight pants, and belted jackets). These costumes and Buddhist themes are likely due to the Sogdian influence from the Silk Road.

Explore the couch along with other spooky objects during our Halloween-themed Fear at the Freer event tonight!


Zooming In: Tools of the Manuscript Illustrator (part two)

Geometric patterns in Islamic manuscripts

Geometric patterns in Islamic manuscripts

Amanda Malkin is the Hagop Kevorkian Fund Fellow Paper Conservator at the Freer|Sackler. This is the second in a series of blog posts that explores geometric patterns in Islamic paintings.

It is clear that the complicated geometric patterns I have observed in many manuscript paintings have, at their core, the circle and the square. During my research into the tools and techniques of manuscript painters, I uncovered two schools of thought regarding the working processes and specific methods used to create these miniscule, complex patterns.

The first theory—and my initial assumption—is that Islamic artisans and craftsmen utilized the long-appreciated ruler and compass to create geometric patterns, which are known as girih. It is exciting to see that, by overlapping certain shapes and connecting those shapes with the straight line of a ruler, one can produce endless geometric constructions. This theory, known as strapwork, is accepted by many scholars and institutions that collect and study Islamic art.

It is possible, however, that another method of construction was utilized in ancient Islam, and this is the second, more recent hypothesis. Physicists Peter J. Lu and Paul J. Steinhardt, of Harvard and Princeton Universities, respectively, proposed that, by using a group of five tiles of varying shapes, artisans could more quickly and exactly construct extremely complex geometric designs. These tiles are called Girih tiles, and they are described by the physicists as “equilateral polygons decorated with lines.” The shapes of the polygons are not random but stem from the empty spaces observed within the basic patterns of circles and squares. When you observe, for example, repeated hexagons, you will see that there are additional shapes created between them.

Steinhardt and Lu’s theory is based on the existence of a late fifteenth-century object in the collection of the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul, Turkey, known as the Topkapi Scroll. The scroll was discovered in 1986 and contains drawings and pattern constructions using the five Girih tiles, likely used as a reference document in a craftsman’s workshop during the Timurid dynasty.

In light of the exciting evidence discovered on the Topkapi Scroll, I believe that both methods described above were likely utilized by illustrators in different regions and with varying skill levels, in order to assist them in the manner that best suited their work.

View Peter Lu’s animation of the Topkapi Scroll.

Stayed tuned for Amanda’s third—and final—post in the series.