Monthly Archives: August 2013

Busted! The Secret Lives of Agnes Meyer and Charles Lang Freer

Head of Agnes Meyer by Charles Despiau; Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Ruth Meyer Epstein; FSC-M-69

“Head of Agnes Meyer” by Charles Despiau; Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Ruth Meyer Epstein; FSC-M-69

Claire Douglas, a student of American studies and studio art at Occidental College, was a summer intern in the American art department at Freer|Sackler.

It’s easy to walk into the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Auditorium in the Freer Gallery without giving the bronze bust of Mrs. Meyer in the entryway a second thought. Head of Agnes Meyer, which was sculpted by Charles Despiau (1874–1946) in 1928 and installed in the Freer Gallery in 1992, is just what one might expect to find in a theater named after an old-money family—a conservative portrait in a traditional medium of a beautiful woman with downcast eyes, betraying little in her expression.

Meyer’s name may ring a bell with Washingtonians—she was the mother of Katharine Graham, the legendary publisher of the Washington Post, and wrote for the Post herself. She spent the later part of her life as an activist for labor, civil, and women’s rights, earning her a spot on President John F. Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women. She was also passionate about Asian art, which inevitably led to a great friendship with Detroit industrialist and museum founder Charles Lang Freer. Agnes Meyer’s contributions to the founding and early history of the Freer Gallery were vast. She bequeathed pieces from her own priceless collection of Asian art to the museum and worked with curators and directors to ensure that the museum reflected Freer’s original vision. Significantly, only she and Freer’s secretary, Katharine Nash Rhoades, had carte-blanche in making new acquisitions for the museum after Freer’s death. Mrs. Meyer’s official legacy as an accomplished and influential woman, whose public persona is embodied in Despiau’s bust, lives on after her death in 1970.

Yet the story that Despiau’s portrait conceals in its conventional form is equally as interesting. Agnes Meyer, or Agnes Ernst as she was known before her marriage to multimillionaire banker Eugene Meyer, was not quite the circumspect matronly type that her bronze statue suggests. During her youth, she actually had a notorious reputation among art and society circles as a social butterfly, a shameless gossip, and a flirt. Her radiant personality earned her the nickname “Sun Girl” in Alfred Stieglitz’s circle of avant-garde artists, and a spot as one of the most coveted subjects for painters, sculptors, photographers, and poets. Even after her marriage in 1910, she maintained scandalously passionate and intimate friendships with such powerful men as photographer Edward Steichen, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and, of course, Charles Lang Freer.

Agnes Meyer first met Freer at an exhibition of Chinese paintings in a New York City gallery in 1913, and later recalled an intense connection from the moment they shook hands. She quickly nicknamed Freer, who was 59 to her 26, “Prince Charming.” Freer’s health was seriously failing by 1913, but Meyer nevertheless portrayed the seemingly staid connoisseur as a longtime ladies’ man. As reticent as Meyer was flamboyant, Freer rarely divulged details about his personal life—including his sexuality. She later recalled “His numerous relationships with the opposite sex, which were no secret from his many friends.” When she visited Freer in Detroit, her husband insisted that she bring along a friend to accompany her “into the dangerous lair of Prince Charming.” She and her beautiful young friends Marion Beckett and Katharine Rhoades all began to pay Freer visits. He called the group of young ladies the “Three Graces” and they affectionately called him “The General.”

But Agnes’ carefree and punchy personality also made her a magnet for controversy. In 1970, more than fifty years after Freer’s death and shortly before her own, she published a memoir about their unique relationship entitled Charles Lang Freer and His Gallery. Told through the filter of memory and filled with previously unknown accounts of Freer’s personal life, this short pamphlet stirred up so much controversy that for a time it was banned from the Freer Gallery’s library. Full of tales of Freer’s philandering in Europe with Stanford White, his fiery temper later in life, and the “exquisite” quality of their personal relationship, Charles Lang Freer and His Gallery says as much about Mrs. Meyer as it does about Mr. Freer.

Agnes E. Meyer by Constantin Brancusi, marble, National Gallery of Art, Gift of Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer; F1967.13.4

“Agnes E. Meyer” by Constantin Brancusi, marble, National Gallery of Art, Gift of Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer; 1967.13.4

Even the bronze bust itself, so modest and unassuming in appearance, stirred up controversy in the art world. Upon hearing that his rival Charles Despiau had created a likeness of Mrs. Meyer, modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi is said to have declared to her, “[I will show you] what a portrait of you is really like!” Three years later, in 1929, he finished a sleek, monumental black marble sculpture entitled Agnes E. Meyer: La Reine pas Dedaigneuse (the Not-Disdainful Queen), which towers seven-and-a-half feet tall. Even though it is hardly recognizable as a human figure, lacking the detail of Despiau’s bust, Brancusi’s work manages to evoke Meyer’s naturally intense and mesmerizing presence. Brancusi’s larger-than-life stylistic challenge to Despiau is now housed at the National Gallery of Art.

So the next time you attend an event at the Meyer Auditorium, take a moment to consider the demure bronze bust that greets you on your way to your foreign film screening or scholarly lecture. If Agnes Meyer, for all her eccentricities, her love of gossip and mischief, and her affinity for controversy, could be immortalized as this proper and staid-faced woman, what other wild stories may lurk behind the manicured façade of the Freer Gallery?

Asia After Dark in 3D

3-D scan image of Buddha probably Vairochana (Piluzhena) with the Realms of Existence and other Buddhist scenes.

3D scan image of the Cosmic Buddha with the Realms of Existence and other Buddhist scenes.

Allison Tyra is an intern in the F|S Public Affairs and Marketing Department.

On Saturday, Asia After Dark welcomes a special guest. He has no hands, and no head, but the Cosmic Buddha has plenty to tell us. This desktop version of a stone sculpture on view in the exhibition Promise of Paradise: Early Chinese Buddhist Sculpture was made using a 3D printer. The incredibly detailed depictions on the deity’s robe tell stories of the Buddhist Realms of Existence, from the heavenly devas to the hells of the less fortunate—fascinating to small children and PhD-wielding scholars alike.

Just as fascinating are the technological advances that allow engineers such as Vince Rossi, 3D Digitization Coordinator at the Smithsonian, to create exact replicas of ancient artifacts out of paper and other materials. Rossi can make small, lightweight versions or large, sturdy copies that could be easier to examine with incredible precision.

“Our focus is on 3D scanning of collection objects and archaeological sites, not just 3D printing replicas,” Rossi says. “With the 3D data itself, we are able to do many things that we cannot do with the real object or 3D printed replica—providing new analysis tools for research, for example. Since 3D scanning is nothing more than millions of measurement points describing an object’s surface, we can offer a researcher many more ways to virtually investigate an object. For example, a conservator can look at two 3D scans of an object taken from one year to the next to see exactly how the object is changing over time.”

Once all of the original item’s data has been uploaded, people around the world can view these details, as well as use a 3D printer to produce their own versions of the object. In other words, a schoolteacher in Oklahoma or a researcher in Shanghai can use the Smithsonian’s information to create interactive tools for learning at all levels.

See how it works and talk with Rossi in person on Saturday, August 17, 7–11 pm, by attending Asia After Dark: Chinese Martial Arts at the Freer. Other highlights of the evening will include the DJs of Hop Fu providing a live score to classic kung fu films, tai chi in the galleries, a DIY crafty teacup sleeve art activity, Tsingtao Chinese beer, kung fu martial performances, and more. Tickets are $25 in advance and $30 at the door; Silk Road Society members pay $15 in advance and $20 at the door. The ticket price includes one free drink. Guests must be 21 years old with valid photo ID to attend.

Almost Perfect: Maud Franklin and Whistler’s Wistful Impressions

 

Pink note: The Novelette

Pink note: The Novelette; James McNeill Whistler, early 1880s; watercolor on paper; F1902.158a-c

Maggie Abe, a student at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, spent the summer in the Freer|Sackler’s American art department, where she was the Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies intern and did research for an ongoing technical and art historical study of Whistler’s watercolors. She will graduate from Colby College in May 2014 with BAs in studio art and biology. The Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies is supported by the generosity of the Lunder Foundation and comprises the Freer|Sackler, the Colby College Museum of Art, the University of Glasgow, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Despite accusations of reducing them to arrangements, notes, and harmonies in his paintings, the women whom James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) kept for company were driving influences in his life and art. Although he vocally eschewed narrative in his works to focus on color, his feelings for his female subjects are couched in the subtleties of his compositions. Beneath carefully crafted color harmonies linger the unspoken wishes, unrealized fantasies, and quiet lamentations of a man probably not as aloof as he would have had the public believe.

Whistler’s complicated relationship with his long-term mistress and model Maud Franklin (1857–1941) provides the basis for several sentimental watercolors in the Freer collection. They were together for more than a decade, but because they never married, Maud was excluded from society. These watercolors are tender impressions of how Whistler saw Maud and wished she could be seen by his acquaintances: as his significant other deserving of their respect.

Pink note: The Novelette, Note in Opal: Breakfast, and Bravura in Brown, all painted from 1883–84, are united by a common formula. In all three, Maud is alone, but props such as empty chairs and rumpled bed sheets suggest her companion has only just stepped out. Reading or playing the piano, she is introspectively occupied: a demure woman in an attractive, but not ostentatious space. Unlike Whistler’s earlier oil Arrangement in White and Black, in which Maud’s youth and immodesty are hard to ignore, these watercolors do not put on a show, but rather leave a gentle impression. To Whistler, they were probably bittersweet, allowing him to pretend that his life with Maud was as pleasant and stable as the watercolors suggest. In reality, it was only on paper that she would be received by the homes of proper society.

Notwithstanding their volatile relationship, Whistler painted Maud with great affection in these watercolors. She is repeatedly depicted in rooms with art, the obsession of Whistler’s world. Paintings feature in the décor of all three rooms; indeed, one scholar suggests that the color of Maud’s blouse in Pink note: The Novelette is meant to connect her with the pink-tinged painting on the mantle. As Maud posed for more than 60 of Whistler’s paintings, drawings, and prints, it is hardly surprising that he would associate her with his art. By placing them together in these images, Whistler is acknowledging her influence in the development of his passion.

While such sentiment for a mistress seems to go against the grain of Whistler’s general reputation, it is important to note that these paintings were the products of his standing as an aging artist with an established name. Unlike the earlier days when he lived with his first mistress, Joanna Hiffernan, as a relatively unknown artist with something to prove, 50-year-old Whistler did not feel content living as a rogue on the fringes of society.

Whistler and Maud’s relationship began to suffer in 1879, when the artist went bankrupt and was forced to face reality. When he suddenly proposed to Beatrix Godwin (1857–1896) in 1888—a marriage that would provide him with stability, order, and favorable connections—it may have been that the opportune moment had finally presented itself after years of mounting discomfort.

The Sisters

The Sisters; James McNeill Whistler, 1894-95; lithograph on paper (transfer lithograph); F1903.82

In his marriage to Beatrix, Whistler seems to have attained the harmony that he had been courting in his watercolors. The wistful depictions of Maud in solitude are replaced by accounts of Beatrix and her sisters delighting in domestic bliss, though it would not last long. Hints of Beatrix’s terminal cancer surface in lithographs such as The Sisters—all would be well in this interior if it were not for Beatrix’s languishing posture. She appears weak beside her upright sister, and there is an air of concern polluting the peaceful scene.

The tables turned in Whistler’s art: in the watercolors, he altered Maud to satisfy his desire to change reality, but in later depictions of his ailing wife Beatrix, his art became an outlet for his grief. This time, it was an inescapable sickness that snapped Whistler from his reverie.

Remembering Leslie Cheung

Leslie Cheung in Days of Being Wild (photo courtesy of PhotoFest)

Leslie Cheung in “Days of Being Wild” (photo courtesy of PhotoFest)

Tom Vick is curator of film at Freer|Sackler.

On April 1, 2003, Leslie Cheung ended his life by leaping from the 24th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in central Hong Kong. He was forty-six years old. On the tenth anniversary of his death, fans from around the world made two million origami cranes in his honor—a Guinness World Record. A teen heartthrob Cantopop star before adding film acting to his repertoire, Cheung was a celebrity not only in Hong Kong, but also across East Asia and beyond. In a 2005 poll conducted in honor of the centenary of Chinese cinema, Hong Kongers named him their favorite all-time actor, beating out the likes of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. A 2010 CNN International poll ranked him as the world’s third most iconic musical artist, behind Michael Jackson and the Beatles. His legions of fans run the gamut from millennials to retirees.

Last summer, around the time of our annual Made in Hong Kong Film Festival, I began receiving emails from near and far asking if we were planning a tribute to Cheung for our 2013 festival. In response to this unprecedented outpouring, I decided to include four classic Cheung performances in this year’s lineup, including three 35mm prints from the Hong Kong Film Archive that are otherwise unavailable in any form in the United States.

In keeping with the crowdsourced nature of this tribute, we left the selection of the final film up to our audience. A Facebook poll allowed fans to choose between three of Cheung’s films that were directed by the great Wong Kar-wai: Ashes of Time, Days of Being Wild, and Happy Together.

The winner, Days of Being Wild, couldn’t be a more appropriate choice. It was a pivotal film in both the actor’s and the director’s careers, garnering each his first Hong Kong Film Award. As film critic J. Hoberman put it in the Village Voice, “Days of Being Wild is the movie with which Wong Kar-wai became Wong Kar-wai—the most influential, passionate, and romantic of neo-new-wave directors.” The first of Wong’s many collaborations with master cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the film radiates the dreamlike atmosphere of lush romanticism and longing for lost time that would become his trademark in more famous films, such as In the Mood for Love and 2046. At a time when Hong Kong was known for action movies, broad comedies, and kung fu flicks, this luxuriously paced portrait of wounded hearts and lost souls looked like and felt like nothing else.

In a beautifully nostalgic version of 1960s Hong Kong, Cheung stars as Yuddy (York in English), a charming playboy (Hong Kong film critic Edmund Lee calls him “James Dean reincarnated”) who breaks hearts while seeking to leave his foster mother and solve the mystery surrounding his real one. That Yuddy compares himself to a “bird without legs” of Chinese legend, which can only land when it dies, is especially poignant considering the depression Cheung struggled with throughout his all-too-short life.

Days of Being Wild will be shown in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium on Friday, August 2, at 7 pm, and Sunday, August 4, at 2 pm. Admission is free, with seats available on a first-come, first-served basis.