Friday Fave: Gold Ewer

Gold ewer, inscribed with the name and titles of the Buyid ruler Izz al-Dawla Bakhtiyar ibn Mu°izz al-Dawla (r. 967–78); Iran, Buyid period, 966–77; gold with repoussé and engraved decoration; Freer Gallery of Art, Purchase; F1943.1

Gold ewer, inscribed with the name and titles of the Buyid ruler Izz al-Dawla Bakhtiyar ibn Mu°izz al-Dawla (r. 967–78); Iran, Buyid period, 966–77; gold with repoussé and engraved decoration; Freer Gallery of Art, Purchase; F1943.1

Choosing a “fave” object from among the Freer|Sackler’s collection of more than 40,000 priceless artworks is almost impossible. Despite an array of options, I can’t help but be drawn to a small golden ewer currently on view in the exhibition Feast Your Eyes: A Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran. This ewer, though diminutive, packs a mighty punch. Its body is not smooth hammered metal, but instead is formed by countless ridges and bumps. These extra edges catch and throw light in a multitude of directions. The ewer glimmers under the exhibition lights, and its intricate patterns are enchanting. Arabic script coils around the mouth, while peacocks and interlocking floral designs adorn the body. Not even the bottom of the ewer is plain: Vines and blossoms are charmingly wound in geometric patterns. The head of a lion roars menacingly at the top of the handle. The fact that this delicate object has survived for more than a thousand years makes it all the more impressive.

In addition to the ewer’s craftsmanship and physical beauty, I’m fascinated by its history. While it was being forged, Islam was spreading at an unprecedented rate throughout the Near East. During this period, the Buyid dynasty ruled over the southern and western parts of Iran and Iraq. Despite this meteoric rise in converts, Izz al-Dawla Bakhtiyar ibn Mu’izz al-Dawla was not deterred from commissioning it.

Izz al-Dawla himself led a life of defiance, to his own detriment. He was groomed to be a leader from his early youth and married a daughter of a prominent military official. His father, while on his deathbed, advised his son to treat the Turkic populations with respect, cooperate with his powerful cousin and uncle who ruled areas nearby, and to avoid invading Mosul. Instead of ruling prudently, Izz al-Dawla openly defied his father’s advice, enraged the Turks and his powerful relatives, and plunged his domain into chaos and disarray. He was eventually executed for his misdeeds.

Unlike Izz al-Dawla, his ewer has survived as an emblem of, and perhaps a warning against, vanity and arrogance.

Friday Fave: Lute and White Snake

The Lute and White Snake of Benten (Sarasvati); Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849); Japan, Edo period, 1847; ink and color on silk; gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.134

The Lute and White Snake of Benten (Sarasvati); Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849); Japan, Edo period, 1847; ink and color on silk; gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.134

As manager of performing arts at the Freer|Sackler, I’m always on the lookout for interesting images of music in our collections. We use these artworks to enhance our podcasts and as cover art for our concert program notes. An astute intern of mine spent a summer surveying our entire art collection and found more than four hundred musical images and actual instruments. These objects date from ancient Chinese bells (as old as the tenth century BCE) to nineteenth-century paintings and cover a wide variety of musical scenes from China, Japan, India, and Iran.

One of the most unusual images is The Lute and White Snake of Benten (Sarasvati), painted by Hokusai in 1847. At first glance, it seems to show neither a musician nor a musical instrument. What it does depict is a beautiful fabric instrument-case for a Japanese lute called a biwa encircled by a snake, a most intriguing combination.

It turns out that the pear-shaped biwa (closely related to the Chinese pipa) is the instrument of the goddess Benzaiten (aka Benten). This Japanese deity was adapted from the Hindu goddess Sarasvati, who has long been associated in India with music and scholarship. Images and legends of Sarasvati arrived in Japan via the Silk Road sometime between the sixth and eighth centuries. Just as Sarasvati is depicted in Indian art playing the vina (an Indian zither), Benten was given the role of biwa player. She also took on other aspects of Sarasvati, serving as the goddess of language, dance, water, and snakes. In Japan, Benten’s shrines are often located near water; a painting in the Freer collection from the eighteenth century shows her seated on a high rock, playing the biwa, while ocean waters roil below. These elements may not have formed a logical group elsewhere, but in the Hindu-Buddhist context they are all seen as things that flow, making water and snakes close cousins of verbal eloquence and musical virtuosity.

Stay tuned for new podcasts coming soon, and reserve tickets for our live performances.

Twenty Years of the Hong Kong Film Festival

Still from the film "Diva"

Still from the film “Diva”

Twenty years ago, the Freer debuted its very first Made in Hong Kong Film Festival, in collaboration with the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, a partnership that remains strong to this day. Over the years, this ever-popular annual festival has treated our audiences to the films of some of the biggest directors in Hong Kong cinema, among them Wong Kar-wai, John Woo, Johnny To, and Ann Hui. Actors and actresses such as Tony Leung, Anthony Wong, Maggie Cheung, and Sandra Ng have become like old friends to our devoted crew of festival regulars, who come back year after year to watch them onscreen.

To celebrate this milestone, we are bringing a stellar selection of new and classic films to the Meyer Auditorium in July and August, from the street-racing action of Derek Yee’s Full Throttle (which also played in the first festival in 1996) to Fruit Chan’s award-winning sci-fi comedy The Midnight After—one of the most lauded Hong Kong films of last year.

We also have some special events up our sleeves. On July 26, we honor Hong Kong’s rich history of kung fu movies by showing the classic kung fu extravaganza Martial Club. After the film, a group of martial arts masters, some of whom have even appeared in Hong Kong movies, will take to the stage to demonstrate their skills and discuss kung fu cinema with Hong Kong producer, author, and martial arts expert Bey Logan. There will even be a traditional Chinese Lion Dance to get everyone in the mood.

We will also look to the future of Hong Kong cinema when Heiward Mak graces our stage on August 16 to present her backstage drama Diva. And because it is our longtime Hong Kong movie fans who have made this festival one of our most popular events year after year, we are giving you the chance to pick a Jackie Chan classic to show on August 14. You can vote online on our Facebook page or in person at any screening through July 26.

I look forward to seeing Hong Kong movie fans, old and new, at our festival this summer!

Friday Fave: Hiroshige’s “Sudden Shower”

Sudden Shower over the Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake (Ohasi Atake no yu dachi), from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (Meisho Edo Hyakkei); Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858); Japan, Edo period, 1857; Gift of Alan, Donald, and David Winslow from the estate of William R. Castle, Freer Gallery of Art, F1994.29

Sudden Shower over the Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake (Ohasi Atake no yu dachi), from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (Meisho Edo Hyakkei); Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858); Japan, Edo period, 1857; Gift of Alan, Donald, and David Winslow from the estate of William R. Castle, Freer Gallery of Art, F1994.29

If “hot” and “humid” are the two words that come to mind when you think of summer in DC, you’re not alone. The high temperatures coupled with stifling humidity are reason enough for most people to stay indoors during July and August. But while the daytime weather may not be for everyone, the evening thunderstorms make it all worthwhile. For me, hot summer days are just a precursor to the nightly entertainment. I love watching late afternoon clouds roll across the sky, while the thunder and lightning provide the A/V accompaniment to the ten-, twenty-, or thirty-minute rainy performance. The aftereffects of the storms are equally rewarding as the temperature drops and, sometimes, a beautiful, glowing sunset frames the departing clouds.

Utagawa Hiroshige’s woodblock print Sudden Shower over the Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake (Ohashi Atake no yu dachi) from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (Meisho Edo Hyakkei) perfectly fits my image of a DC summer storm. A bright, clear sky rapidly fills with dark clouds that release a torrent of rain. People caught in the downpour take cover under umbrellas, mats, and straw hats while rushing to find shelter. In the distance, a boatman poles his craft down the Sumida River as the clouds gather. It’s not difficult for me to imagine Hiroshige’s view of summertime Tokyo as one of DC, where visitors and residents alike are caught outside as the clouds open above the National Mall.

Hiroshige’s view of summer evoked strong feelings from later Western artists, notably Vincent van Gogh, who copied Sudden Shower in oil. James McNeill Whistler also used Hiroshige’s scenes of Tokyo as sources of inspiration, especially for the series of paintings he called Nocturnes.

Many wonderful works of art can be seen in the Freer Gallery of Art—which also doubles as a great refuge should you get caught on the Mall during a summer storm. For those of you who prefer to look at art from the comfort of your own air-conditioned spaces, check out our digitized collections at Open F|S. No umbrella required.

Peacock Room REMIX: Break it Down

Photo by John Tsantes of Darren Waterston’s installation "Filthy Lucre," 2013–14, created by the artist in collaboration with MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts.

Photo by John Tsantes of Darren Waterston’s installation “Filthy Lucre,” 2013–14, created by the artist in collaboration with MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts.

If you ride Metro to work, your morning commute may have been punctuated by disturbing images of a ransacked Peacock Room. Freer not! No art was destroyed in making Peacock Room REMIX, an exhibition centered on Filthy Lucre, contemporary artist Darren Waterston’s imaginative reenvisioning of the iconic interior. It’s perhaps a tribute to Waterston’s artistry that we’ve worried a few people who think we’ve gone all rock star on the Peacock Room and deliberately destroyed its contents. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is the Smithsonian, people! The room is one of our treasures.

“I wanted to create my piece as a great homage, a contemporary artist’s response to Whistler,” Waterston has said. “At the same time I wanted to interrogate the ideas, aesthetics, and intentions behind the original Peacock Room.”

The Peacock Room was famously decorated by James McNeill Whistler for his friend and erstwhile patron, Frederick Leyland. Leyland didn’t like the surprise home makeover, causing a painful, permanent rupture between the two men. Though Whistler had made good on his promise of a “gorgeous surprise,” transforming the room with brilliant hues of blue, green, and gold, Leyland felt that Whistler went too far; he refused to pay the artist his full fee. Whistler, shocked and insulted, took revenge by painting a pair of fighting peacocks on the room’s south wall to represent the artist and patron. He titled this bit of retribution Art and Money. The break between Whistler and Leyland inspired Waterston’s Filthy Lucre, as did the story behind Whistler’s painting The Gold Scab: An Eruption in Frilthy Lucre (The Creditor), currently on loan to the Sackler from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Why “Frilthy”? In one of his last letters to Leyland, Whistler wrote, “Whom the gods intend to be ridiculous, they furnish with a frill.” In addition to poking fun at Leyland’s dress, the term refers to the biblical phrase “filthy lucre” as well as to Leyland’s initials, FL. In The Gold Scab, Whistler depicts Leyland, an amateur pianist, as a hideous miser—half human, half peacock—perched uncomfortably on the roof of the White House, the studio-residence that Whistler lost as a result of his mounting debts.

Created in London, the Peacock Room eventually was installed in Charles Lang Freer’s Detroit home before he willed his collection to the United States and the museum that would bear his name. In Detroit, Freer used the Peacock Room as a staging area to make connections between world cultures. It was a place of visual harmony. In deconstructing the Peacock Room, Darren Waterston has created a staged area of deliberate destruction to make connections between a centuries-old gilded age and our own world—as he says, “[altering] the appearance of visual harmony by disfiguring it.” Waterston’s breakages are rife with symbolism: The dramatic tensions between art, money, and aesthetics are still relevant to our culture today. With the REMIX, we have a clearer lens into that earlier world and, consequently, our own.

Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre is on view to January 2, 2017.

Friday Fave: Court Ladies Playing with Fireworks

Court Ladies Playing with Fireworks; Muhammad Afzal (act. 1740–80); Delhi, Haryana, India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1740; color and gold on paper;  Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art

Court Ladies Playing with Fireworks; Muhammad Afzal (act. 1740–80); Delhi, Haryana, India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1740; color and gold on paper;  Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art

When I was very young, I once looked up to my father during a Fourth of July fireworks show and demanded to know more about the exploding stars in the sky. What were they? Years later, when I first encountered Court Ladies Playing with Fireworks in the collections of Freer|Sackler, I was again curious about fireworks and set out to learn more about their history in South Asia.

Fireworks had been introduced in Delhi several hundred years before this painting was created. One of the earliest recorded uses of pyrotechnics in South Asia was during the fourteenth century. By the mid-fifteenth century, fireworks were regularly displayed during festive occasions, from weddings to royal parties. There were even Indian medieval manuals containing special firework recipes, which called for fascinating ingredients like iron powder, pastes made from different kinds of foods, and cow urine. Today, the subcontinent’s love of fireworks can be seen in the colorful celebrations of Hindu holidays such as Diwali.

In this painting, women from the imperial Mughal court seem to have stolen away from a party and gathered under the night sky in order to have a bit of their own fun. I love how the artist depicted them in delicately embroidered outfits that match the golden starbursts showering from the lit end of their friend’s sparkler. The nursemaid—the woman on the right wrapped in a white shawl—holds in her outstretched hand a small, velvety apricot, while a rambunctious youngster reaches for his snack. Meanwhile, the sparkler’s flames softly light the women’s faces and the foliage behind them.

Happy Fourth of July, Washington, DC! Here’s hoping your celebrations are as graceful and elegant as the one painted here.

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.