art outside the box | the freer | sackler blog

On Ernst Herzfeld’s Glass Plate Negatives

al-Darwishiya mosque, courtesy of Freer|Sackler Archives

London native Rohan Ayinde Smith is currently an intern in the Freer|Sackler Archives. About to enter his junior year at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Rohan is studying journalism with a specialization in photojournalism and minors in African studies and creative writing. This is the first in a series of blog posts Rohan will write on his work in the Archives. Here, he takes a look at the glass plate negatives of Ernst Herzfeld (1879–1948), a foremost scholar in the field of Iranian studies.

Ernst Herzfeld explored Near Eastern culture from the prehistoric period to Islamic times. The collection of his papers in the Freer|Sackler Archives primarily relates to his survey of the monuments, artifacts, and inscriptions of Western Asia between 1903 and 1947, and particularly to his excavations at Istakhr (Iran), Paikuli (Iraq), Pasargadae (Iran), Persepolis (Iran), Samarra (Iraq) and Kuh-e Khwaja (Iran). 

A collection of nearly 3,800 glass plate negatives adds another dimension to the Herzfeld collection, providing further evidence of the work he was doing. It also more extensively highlights Herzfeld’s intricate documenting process, which Xavier Courouble (cataloguer) and David Hogge (director of the Archives) uncovered while cataloguing the plethora of items that make up the Ernst Herzfeld Papers.

Indeed, Herzfeld’s mind seemed to work like a modern-day computer in terms of the delicacy and precision with which he documented different facets of his work. He had a journal for each excavation, in which he systematically noted each find, giving it an inventory number and listing the different ways in which he documented it. As such, it is possible to use these journals to find the ways that Herzfeld dealt with the subject at hand—from coordinates on a map of where an object was found to the diary in which he would intricately sketch that object.

Al-Darwishiya drawing

al-Darwishiya drawing, courtesy of Freer|Sackler Archives

Aside from the importance of these images to the Herzfeld collection, there is a lot to be learned from the idea of photography in the archaeological process. When we look at Herzfeld’s photographs of Persepolis, Samarra, and numerous other sites, we are viewing a historical record of each place. We are being transported back into the early twentieth century, to a time when the study of the Near East was relatively new and in which Herzfeld can be understood as one of the early pioneers.

For Herzfeld, these photographs were functional, used to augment his archaeological research. However, with time they have become much more. For scholars, archivists, archaeologists, and the general public alike, the images are artistic remnants or artifacts in their own right. For Herzfeld, who was working at these sites, they were images of his present—imperative studies for his reconstruction of the past. Nearly one hundred years on, many places he photographed have worn away with time. These photographs preserve the sites for the ages.

Herzfeld’s glass plate negatives have been transferred onto film and scanned, and now can be viewed online. To begin a search, visit the Smithsonian collections page and type “Herzfeld GN” into the search box. This will bring up the nearly 3,800 images. You can then narrow your search by entering a specific location. For instance, I entered “Hims (Syria),” which enabled me to see all of the images for this location. I became particularly interested in the al-Darwishiya Mosque and wanted to learn more. In the search box I deleted the “GN” marker and typed “al-Darwishiya Mosque,” which brought me to all relevant materials collected by Herzfeld for this site, including the glass plate negatives.

Learn more about Ernst Herzfeld on the Smithsonian Collections Blog.

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Peacocks: Four Men in Three Acts

Portrait of Whistler by Thomas Robert Way, lithograph on paper, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1901.188

The history of the Peacock Room has all the makings of a quirky little opera, including larger-than-life cast members—artist, aesthete, and raconteur James McNeill Whistler; industrialists-turned-art-collectors Charles Lang Freer and Frederick Leyland; and architect Thomas Jeckyll. It’s a story of art, money, taste, and a world with one foot in the West and the other in the East. Our tale begins in London in 1876. Cue the music.

I. 1876
The home of Frederick Leyland
49 Prince’s Gate, London, England

For his new mansion in the fashionable neighborhood of Kensington, Leyland commissions artist James McNeill Whistler to decorate the stairway and asks architect Thomas Jeckyll to design the adjacent dining room, whose walls are covered in antique gilt-leather. Jeckyll obliges by creating a structure of latticed walnut shelving inspired by traditional European porcelain cabinets, thus giving Leyland the means to display his extensive collection of Chinese blue-and-white Kangxi porcelain.

When he has a question about what to paint the wooden shutters and doors, Jeckyll calls on Whistler for advice (did I mention Leyland was out of town?). Whistler takes matters into his own hands and begins to paint the dining room in much the same way he does the hall: using imitation gold leaf and a transparent green glaze to emulate the shimmering effects of Japanese lacquer. Shortly after, Jeckyll becomes ill and has to remove himself from the project. (He eventually goes mad and dies in an insane asylum.)

From there, Whistler, whose celebrated painting Princess from the Land of Porcelain is the central focus of the dining room, starts to make other changes. Inspired by the Princess, he brings a Japanese sensibility to the room. We’re in the heart of Victorian England, but in Whistler’s world, we’re entering a doorway to Asia. He even ignites the craze for collecting blue-and-white porcelain that the London tabloids of the day nickname “Chinamania.”

When Leyland returns home and discovers the extensive renovations he did not approve, he refuses to pay Whistler in full for “the gorgeous surprise.” In turn, Whistler immortalizes their feud by painting a pair of fighting peacocks on the wall opposite the Princess. He calls it “Art and Money, or the Story of the Room.”

The New York Herald announces the sale of the Peacock Room, Freer|Sackler Archives.

II. 1904
The home of Charles Lang Freer
33 Ferry Avenue, Detroit, Michigan

Two years after his death in 1892, Leyland’s home is sold to Blanche Watney, who is not enamored of the Peacock Room. (Leyland’s large collection of blue-and-white porcelain doesn’t convey in the sale.) She decides to sell it and has it dismantled in 1904. It is moved to the offices of Obach and Company, a London art dealer.

Somewhat ambivalent about the Peacock Room as a work of art, Charles Lang Freer purchases it out of a sense of duty to his old friend Whistler (who had died the previous year) and has an extension built on his Detroit house to accommodate it. In time, Freer makes it his own: the room becomes a staging area where he refines his concept of aesthetic correspondences between American and Asian art. In Michigan he takes pleasure in placing objects from different countries side-by-side and being astonished by the “conversation” that takes place between the pieces. He prefers ceramics with textured surfaces and subtle green and gray glazes, as opposed to the slick blue-and-whites favored by Leyland, and fills the shelves of the Peacock Room with ceramics acquired from China, Japan, Korea, Iran, and Syria.

The Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery of Art during an extensive renovation in 1947.

III. 1923–present
Freer Gallery of Art Washington, DC

Charles Lang Freer bequeaths the Peacock Room and his extensive collection of American and Asian art to the Smithsonian. The room is dismantled in 1919 and sent to the nation’s capital, where it is permanently installed in the Freer Gallery of Art. Peacocks are even kept in the museum’s courtyard, a nod to the famous dining room that had been transformed into a timeless work of art.

Over the years the Peacock Room has become the most visited gallery in the museum. People come to see the Princess and the fighting peacocks on the wall opposite her.

Two years ago, technicians from Google photographed the Princess in super-high definition as part of a worldwide museum documentation project. Last year, the Chinese blue-and-white ceramics were temporarily removed, and the ceramics that Freer held in highest esteem were installed in the Peacock Room under the exhibition title The Peacock Room Comes to America. The Princess and the fighting peacocks remain, but the room once again appears the way Charles Lang Freer envisioned it at the turn of the last century, thus adding a new chapter to “the story of the room.”

Curtain.

You can also listen to an audio recording of Four Men and Three Acts, as well as other stories inspired by the Peacock Room, and view a panorama of this famous work. Bring the room home with you by picking up our gorgeous new book, available exclusively in the Sackler shop.

Posted by in A Closer Look, American Art | No Comments

It’s a Book: The Peacock Room Comes to America

The Peacock Room Comes to America

The Peacock Room has had quite a few adventures since artist James McNeill Whistler painted the London dining room in 1876. From its journey to Detroit, where it was installed in Charles Lang Freer’s home in 1904, and then to Washington, DC, where it found its permanent home in the Freer Gallery of Art in 1923, the room has many stories to tell. The museum’s recent installation The Peacock Room Comes to America shows the Peacock Room as it appeared in 1908, when Freer used it to organize and display more than 250 ceramics that he had collected throughout Asia. As opposed to the blue-and-white wares favored by previous owner Frederick Leyland, Freer preferred to fill the shelves with pots with textured surfaces and subtle green and gray glazes from Egypt, Iran, Syria, China, and Korea.

In honor of the exhibition, we’ve just published The Peacock Room Comes to America, a 64-page paperback with more than 80 color illustrations. Curator of American Art Lee Glazer takes a fresh look at the Peacock Room’s many lives, while focusing on the recent reinstallation. The book also provides insight into Whistler’s Princess from the Land of Porcelain, the conservation of the room, and the curator’s perspective on the project. New photography, bolstered by archival images, makes the book a valuable—and handsome—treasure for the Peacock Room’s many fans.

Copies of The Peacock Room Comes to America are available in the Sackler gift shop for $16.

Posted by in American Art, Exhibitions, Publications | No Comments

Japan: the Apple of Steve Jobs’ Eye?

Woman Combing Her Hair, 1920, Hashiguchi Goyo, woodblock print, ink and color on paper, Robert O. Muller Collection, S2003.8.121

Carly Pippin is a member of the Office of Development at Freer|Sackler, and the founder of the Silk Road Society for young professionals.

Steve Jobs, architect of the Apple Inc. empire, was a Japanophile. This came as a surprise to me (despite the fact that I own a few slickly designed, white-on-white Apple products). My awareness of Jobs’ Japanese fascination began when I walked through The Patents and Trademarks of Steve Jobs: Art and Technology that Changed the World—a new exhibition in the Smithsonian’s Ripley Center on view through July 8, 2012. The exhibition includes a photo of a young Jobs leaning over an early model of the Macintosh desktop computer. The computer monitor depicts a famous Japanese woodblock print, Hashiguchi Goyo’s Woman Combing Her Hair. Two of these prints reside in the Freer|Sackler collection.

Steve Jobs with an early Apple computer displaying the Goyo print

Jobs, like hundreds of thousands of visitors to Freer|Sackler each year, was inspired by the Japanese zen aesthetic of simplicity. An avid follower of Zen Buddhism, he led Apple in adopting the mantra “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” The minimalist design of his products is only superseded by the bare-bones functionality of his wardrobe. His signature black turtleneck and jeans uniform, crafted by Japanese designer Issey Miyake, was supposedly born out of a trip to the Sony factory in Japan, where he witnessed hundreds of factory workers dressed in unison.

In the world of technology, it can be easy to forget the traditional stylistic influences of silk and ink, paintbrush and gold-foil that have inspired artmakers for centuries. Jobs, known for countless inventions and innovations, should also be celebrated for his traditionalism—in that simplicity never goes out of style.

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Catch the Wave: Hokusai Closing this Sunday

Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji is closing on Sunday, June 17. In celebration of the exhibition, this video shows exhibition curator Ann Yonemura discussing two of Katsushika Hokusai’s most famous prints: Under the Wave off Kanagawa (better known as the “Great Wave”) and Red Fuji. Both have become icons of the art world.

Hokusai’s series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji became a landmark in Japanese print publishing when it was first published in 1831, incorporating innovative compositions, techniques, and coloration, and establishing landscape as a new subject. The images proved so popular that Hokusai continued the series and added another ten prints. The exhibition on view in the Sackler is a rare opportunity to see examples of all forty-six, culled from important collections around the world.

On Friday, June 15, from 4 to 5 pm, join Yonemura at the entrance to the exhibition for an informal conversation about Hokusai, Mount Fuji, and woodblock prints in Edo-period Japan. Don’t miss this wonderful opportunity to learn more about Japan’s most famous artist.

Posted by in Exhibitions, Japan Spring, Japanese Art | No Comments

Hokusai by the Book

Katsushika Hokusai, Imayō Kushi Kiseru Hinagata, 1823 (Popular Designs of Comb and Tobacco Pipes)

In honor of the exhibition Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji, Bento asked Reiko Yoshimura, head librarian at Freer|Sackler, to tell us a little about the Hokusai books in the library’s collection.

The Freer|Sackler Library has a collection of close to one thousand volumes of mostly Edo period illustrated books that originally came from Charles Lang Freer’s personal library. Freer collected these books along with other Japanese artworks that are now in the Freer Gallery of Art. The book collection includes many works by major Edo period artists as well as illustrated volumes on the tea ceremony and flower arranging. Among the most prominent works are books by Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849).

Hokusai was as prolific a book illustrator as he was a painter and printmaker. The official Hokusai catalogue lists more than 260 titles of woodblock printed books, including novels, mad verses, painting albums, painting samples and instruction, tourist guides, erotica, and craft designs. Due to the wide range of subjects and genres, his books have been appreciated by an array of audiences, from scholars to children, long after his death. Hokusai is also known for his Hokusai Manga (Hokusai Sketchbooks), which was enthusiastically admired in Europe when it was introduced in the mid-19th century. The Freer|Sackler Library contains sixty-eight volumes of Hokusai’s books, representing most of the genres mentioned above.

Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji remains on view in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery through June 17, 2012. Charles Lang Freer had a special interest in the works of Hokusai and gathered an unmatched collection of paintings and drawings. Two complementary exhibitions in the Freer highlight these magnificent works. Hokusai: Paintings and Drawings closes June 24. Hokusai: Screens remains on view through July 29.

Posted by in Behind the Scenes, Japan Spring, Japanese Art | No Comments

Asia After Dark: Afro-Asiatic Mash-up

A mash-up of Asia After Dark; photos by Cory Grace, Hutomo Wicaksono, and Susan DiMarino

Amanda Williams is a public affairs specialist at Freer|Sackler, and the producer and creative force behind Asia After Dark.

This past Saturday, Freer|Sackler kicked off its wildly popular Asia After Dark event series with a garden party featuring a mash-up performance of Japanese vogue dance, theater, storytelling, and hip-hop music choreographed by visual artist iona rozeal brown and performed by soloist dancer Monstah Black. Guests also created masks using Asian botanical symbols and Ashanti adinkra symbols from West Africa, enjoyed curator-led tours of Hokusai and Perspectives: Ai Weiwei, Afro-disiac cocktails and Sake YUM-YUM shots, a special Chuck Brown tribute, and lots of photo booth fun. The event was attended by more than 1,000 cultural revelers taking in all the excitement the evening had to offer, along with the perfect spring weather and almost full moon.

Asia After Dark: Asian Soundcape returns on Friday, September 28, 7-11 pm, featuring a film soundtrack homage by acclaimed digital media artist and musician Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky, and instrumentalists Danielle Cho and Jennifer Kim, set against an early silent film featuring Asian American pioneer actress Anna May Wong. Tickets on sale now at: www.asia.si.edu/asiaafterdark.

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All Eyes on Venus

Folio from Aja’ib al-makhluqat (Wonders of Creation) by al-Qazvini, F1954.34

With this evening’s transit of Venus keeping everyone looking at the skies, we thought we’d tempt you with something on the screen. This folio from a 15th-century copy of the Aja’ib al-makhluqat (Wonders of Creation) shows two figures. On top is Venus, called al-zuhara in Arabic. In Islamic astronomical and astrological treatises, she is usually shown as a seated (cross-legged) female playing a musical instrument, typically a lute. The planet’s name comes from the Arabic for “to shine” or “to illuminate” because of Venus’s exceptional brilliance in the sky. Below Venus is the sphere of the sun.

The Aja’ib is a two-volume work on cosmology and geography, originally written by al-Qazwini in 13th-century Iraq. The text is divided into two sections, one devoted to heavenly bodies and the other to natural history and terrestrial beings. It was one of the most popular medieval manuscripts and many illustrated copies have survived. Like most scientific works, they are profusely illustrated with schematic but lively images inserted into the body of the text.

Learn more about our collection of Arts of the Islamic World.

Here’s some more information on the transit of Venus from the Smithsonian “Surprising Science” blog.

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Posted by in Islamic Art | 1 Comment