Category Archives: A Closer Look

Snow in Japan

Dressed in Japanese kimono, young women who have turned or will turn 20 this year, the traditional age of adulthood in Japan, walk in the snow following a Coming of Age ceremony in Tokyo earlier this month. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

Japan was recently socked by a storm that left a few inches of snow in the capital of Tokyo and more than six feet on the island of Hokkaido. To get my fill of a snowy Japanese landscape, I can travel to Japan, check out photographs of the storm online, or have a look at some of my favorite works of art in the Freer|Sackler collection.

Winter, from Beauty of the Seasons by Isoda Koryusai, late 18th century, color and gold on silk; F1902.39

Artist and designer Isoda Koryusai produced a series of “beauty” prints in the 1770s. Like the Tokyo women in the photograph above, this woman is dressed in traditional kimono and holds an umbrella to protect her from the snow. I love the blue rim of the large, rice paper umbrella and the red that peeks out from the layers of her garments, against the gold background and the white hush of snow.

In 1760 Edo, kabuki producers adapted a famous Noh drama dance routine called The Heron Maiden (Sagi musume). The protagonist was associated with snowfall and possibly inspired an interest in images of courtesans in snow. Koryusai designed woodblock prints precisely referencing the play, but any painting of a maiden in snow suggested a connection to the general theme. This painting forms a pair with Summer, in which a woman holds on to an umbrella twisted by a downpour.

The nearly fifty works by Koryusai—prints, paintings, and printed books—in the Freer|Sackler collections focus on the fashionable, no matter the season.

Freer @ 90: Early Acquisitions

Satsuma ware bottle by Kano Tangen from the Edo period, acquired by Charles Lang Freer in 1892.

This year, we celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Freer Gallery of Art. When it opened in 1923, the Freer became the first fine art museum on the Smithsonian campus. But the story is older than that: In 1906, Freer offered his collections of Asian and American art to the nation, a gift he had proposed to President Theodore Roosevelt the year before.

In the late 1880s, Freer began collecting American works of art, most notably paintings and works on paper by James McNeill Whistler. It was Whistler who turned his patron’s attention to the East. In 1887, Freer purchased his first Asian art object: a Japanese fan, which he bought from Takayanagi Tozo, an importer of “high class Japanese art objects and a choice collector of bric-a-brac” with a storefront in New York City. From the same dealer, in 1892, Freer acquired his first Japanese ceramic: an 18th-century Satsuma ware jar with an underglaze blue decoration (pictured above) that reminded Freer of Whistler’s landscapes. In 1893, Freer again made a purchase from Takayanagi: his first Chinese painting, a small Ming dynasty scroll of herons.

Freer’s interest in Asia led him to take multiple tours of the continent, his first in 1894 and his last in 1911. By the end of that final visit to Asia, Freer was an internationally recognized collector and connoisseur of Asian art.

Throughout this anniversary year, we’ll take a look at some of the highlights from the more than 24,000 objects in the Freer Gallery’s renowned collection.

Food for Thought: Melons, Mangoes, and Mughals

In “Babur Receives a Courtier,” by Farrukh Beg, the emperor is seen with a bounty of melons before him.
(opaque watercolor and gold on paper, S1986.230)

Although our recent exhibition Worlds within Worlds: Imperial Paintings from India and Iran has now closed, many of the images can be viewed in great detail online. Michael Rendelmann, curatorial intern at Freer|Sackler, takes a look at the rich Mughal paintings in terms of a different kind of palate.

Throughout the reign of the Mughals, fruit occupied a special place in court culture as well as on the court’s table. Fruit served not only as a foodstuff, but also as an omnipresent statement of who the Mughals were and how they viewed their relationship with their Indian subjects. Fruit was an edible yardstick of civilization, the cultivation and appreciation of which was a key indication of civilized culture.

Mughal elites famously spent lavishly to grow or import exquisite fruits. Gifts of fruit were a matter of protocol in the upper echelons of Mughal society, and formed an unspoken language of diplomacy. While the Mughal love of fruit remained constant, the varieties consumed and the status ascribed to them tell the story of how a dynasty that emerged in Central Asia became Indian.

Babur, the first Mughal emperor, was raised on a Central Asian diet that placed tremendous emphasis on the many fruits that passed through the region. In the markets of Samarkand one could purchase sweet apples, lush melons, and a bounty of other fruits from the region’s orchards. Above all other fruit, the melon was most prized by Babur’s people, for whom the fruit was synonymous with home.

While he was conquering northern India, Babur lamented the paucity of the fruit available in his new kingdom. He had melons of Central Asia rapidly transplanted in India, but during Babur’s lifetime, these had limited horticultural success. To the homesick Babur, the fruit was a means of connecting with his long-lost homeland; according to the emperor’s memoir, the Baburnama, he wept upon tasting one.

By the time Jahangir ascended to the Mughal throne, 75 years after the death of Babur, a great deal about the formerly nomadic conquerors had changed. The relatively austere fare of Babur’s day had given way to an exotic cuisine that drew from every corner of the vast Mughal Empire. Fruit still occupied a prized place at the table and in ceremonial exchanges, but the available produce had changed dramatically (credit mahones). While later Mughals looked to the fruits of their homeland as a nostalgic statement of their heritage, they were far removed from the nomads of Central Asia. Indeed, the melons over which Babur had wept were now forced to share the table with a variety of new produce, such as the Indian mango, for the favor of the court.

Jahangir may have been a descendant of Babur, but for him, Central Asia was only a story, a homeland to which he was a stranger. India was his home, and the mango, not the melon, his fruit of choice. While Babur had dismissed the mango, Jahangir praised it, declaring that “notwithstanding the sweetness of the Kabul fruits, not one of them has, to my taste, the flavor of the mango.”

In this painting, “Jahangir Entertains Shah Abbas,” the dish to Jahangir’s left bears traditional Central Asian fruits such as apples, grapes, and a melon. The dish to Jahangir’s right bears more exotic fruits such as oranges, lemons, pineapple, bananas, and of course, mangoes. (F1942.16a)

The bounty of fruits arrayed before Jahangir in the image above reveals a great deal about the trajectory of Mughal court culture. Babur and his melons tell the story of a conquering warrior ruling over an alien land. Babur drew comfort from seeking to replicate the flavors of home, to which he always looked back longingly. Conversely, the cosmopolitan Jahangir had truly “gone native” in his new homeland of India. His love of the exotic and the new told the story of a new Mughal, no longer at home riding across the plains of Central Asia, but dining on the riches of the empire in the lush gardens of India.

Making History: Google Teams Up with Freer|Sackler

Alice Roosevelt Longworth in a rickshaw in 1905. Freer|Sackler Archives.

With today’s launch of the Google Cultural Institute, following last year’s Art Project, the Freer|Sackler became the first Smithsonian museum to partner with Google in both. The Cultural Institute provides visitors the chance to see close-up views of largely unseen archival materials—including letters, photos, videos, and manuscripts—relating to some of the most important events in the 20th century. David Hogge, head of the Archives at Freer|Sackler, tells us what it was like to work on the project.

For the past few months I have been working with staff of the Google Cultural Institute to create an online presentation of one of my favorite recent acquisitions, the Alice Roosevelt photographs of the 1905 Taft Mission to Asia—a three-month diplomatic trip that transformed the United States’ diplomatic and military presence in Asia.

When I was approached for ideas on how the Archives could collaborate with Google on topics relating to 20th-century history, my first thought was to focus on the Alice Roosevelt collection. It has an abundance of imperial portrait photographs, which richly illustrate relations between the US and East Asia in the early 1900s, as well as the critical role of photography in diplomatic encounters.

Google staff were enthusiastic, and worked with us to add our data and images into their new online “Curation Tool.” While still rough in places, the tool promises to a powerful and user-friendly system for non-techies like me to create well-designed, image-rich presentations online.

In the coming months we plan to complete telling the tale of Alice Roosevelt’s travels in the following chapters: San Francisco and Hawaii, Japan, Philippines, Hong Kong, China, and Korea. In the meantime, take a look at Imperial Exposures, our online photographic exhibition on the 1905 mission.

Remixing the Museum: An Interview with DJ Spooky

DJ Spooky, Novara Jazz Festival 2007; credit: Giancarlo Minelli

In anticipation of Asia After Dark: Asian Soundscape, Bento caught up with acclaimed digital media artist and musician Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky. He will perform at F|S on Friday evening, playing music set against 1940s black-and-white films featuring Asian American pioneer actress Anna May Wong.

Bento: As the first DJ in residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, can you tell me what it’s like to score for a museum, a place that’s known primarily for visual arts?

DJSpooky: Everybody likes to think of museums as places of “permanence”—but it couldn’t be further from reality. Shows change all the time; collections come and go. I like to think the performance I’m doing at the Sackler is essentially about the constantly changing landscape of digital media. It’s also a musical homage to how people perceived one of the principal figures of the beginning of the last century. It’s always cool to play with history. Anna May Wong is super cool!

B: As an artist and musician, what inspires your creativity?

DJS: Fun! Everything serious should be seriously fun!

B: Can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming performance here and why you chose to rescore the Lady from Chungking, starring Anna May Wong?

DJS: If you’ve seen Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, if you’ve seen Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, you get the vibe—mysterious, Oriental exotic; yeah! Gangnam style, from the 1920s! That’s why I thought Lady from Chungking would be a cool film to present as a dance party film. Mystery + history … keep it movin’!

Anna May Wong, photographed by Carl Van Vechten; via Wikimedia Commons

B: When did you first become interested in Asian cinema?

DJS: Everybody from Wu-Tang Clan on over to Hendrix’s incredible album covers based on Indian mythology, to even more pop-influenced material like David Bowie’s China Girl: That’s all stuff in my record collection. When I was growing up listening to mix tapes, everyone put clips from Chinese and Japanese films on their mixes. It just made everything sound cool. The dynamics of Kurosawa, the intensity of Bruce Lee, the surrealness of Beat Takeshi, and of course, the wildness of Takashi Miike … plus Lucy Liu … that’s the vibe. I guess I was like an American kid of the last 40 years, immersed in the subtle influences of both pop cinema and arthouse material.

B: As a native Washingtonian, was the Smithsonian an important part of your childhood?

DJS: The Smithsonian museum system was always a portal into a different world, where you could easily drift into the way that they reflected so much history, and so much of the way the world’s complexity is part of the American experience. As a kid, I could imagine them as worlds unto themselves. You could get lost and wander in them for hours, if not entire days. That was the beauty of growing up in DC—you had the entire world at your figertips. It’s experiences like going to Antarctica to write a string ensemble work that made me realize how much the museums of DC gave me the ability to think of the immense horizons DC kids have access to. It’s a great situation.

B: Can you tell us what’s next for DJ Spooky?

DJS: After I do my show at the Sackler, I have concerts in Korea and China mid-October. I’m also finishing my next book with MIT, about apps. It’s called The Imaginary App.

Get your Asia After Dark tickets here.

The Art of the Proposal

Mandarin Ducks under Blossoming Plum Tree; mid-18th century; Shen Quan, Qing dynasty; Hanging scroll mounted on panel; F1916.101

Dear Freer and Sackler Galleries:

Last month, I proposed to my girlfriend, Maria, in front of your Chinese scroll Mandarin Ducks under Blossoming Plum Tree. A year ago, Maria had traveled from Venezuela to visit her brother in DC, and made a special trip to the Freer to see the painting.

When she was younger, Maria had read a story of a princess who had lost the love of her life. Each day, the princess would walk to a pond and watch a pair of Mandarin ducks who would never leave each other’s side. One day, during the winter, she saw one of the ducks alone, and the duck cried as if it was a human.

Understanding the symbolism of the ducks that mate for life (friendship, loyalty, fertility, and wedded bliss), last summer Maria took a picture of her reflection in the glass that protects the painting. We met three months later. Over the winter, we went to the Freer and took a picture of our reflection in the glass. On Sunday, August 12, the day we got engaged, we took our second picture there together.

Thank you,

Max, Maria, and the mandarins.

Nomads and Networks in the Field: Everyday Life in the Iron Age

Wild apricots, Tuzusai, Kazakhstan

Claudia Chang, professor of archaeology at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, is director of an international field research project on the archaeology of the Iron Age in the Republic of Kazakhstan. Throughout the exhibition Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan, on view in the Sackler until November 12, 2012, Claudia will share tales from her ongoing fieldwork with us on Bento.

Tuzusai, the little village in Kazakhstan where our team is researching Iron Age burial sites, flourished this summer. The fruit trees were full with ripening cherries, both sour early cherries and sweet late cherries. Wild and domesticated apricots, raspberries, black and red currants, and gooseberries were all ready to be picked; a high school student told us he planned to lay the apricots out to dry on the tin roof of his dacha. Our young neighbor Lyuba stopped by one day after work with two freshwater fish she had just caught in Lake Kapchigai. The wheat turned yellow and the soy plants reached almost a foot tall.

The bounty of today’s Kazakhstan is a reminder of how rich and fertile the Talgar region must have been more than two thousand years ago. Rob Spengler, a paleo-ethnobotanist, has taken soil samples from trash pits, pit house fill (remains after the pit house dwelling collapsed), and ancient hearths at the site of Tuzusai. In 2008, 2009, and 2010 he washed these soil samples using a method called flotation, where the light particles of ancient carbonized seeds are separated from the soil matrix. He has found millet, barley, wheat, and even grape pips. The idea that the Saka and Wusun people of the first millennia BCE grew cereal crops, as well as kept sheep, goats, cattle, and horses, has changed our perspective on early nomadic cultures. There is subtle evidence that the diets of ancient people of Kazakhstan were highly variable, including plants, fish, birds, and other wild animals, as well as the meat and milk of their livestock. In our area, the Ili River runs for hundreds of miles from western China and empties into Lake Balkhash. Fish and other river and marsh resources must have been important in ancient times.

During one of our digs, we found some broken pieces of spindle whorls, small ceramic disks with perforated centers. (When I couldn’t think of the word in Russian for “spindle whorl,” I made the motion of using a drop spindle for spinning wool into thread. Lyuba immediately understood.) Finds of such domestic objects remind us that nomads were members of household groups. How important were women to the basic economy? Did they spin the hair and wool fibers for the clothing worn by an entire household, as the ancient Mayan women apparently did? Who made the large storage vessels, sometimes dripping them with red slip and glaze?

Sometimes the elite burial sites, with their magnificent inventories of gold and silver ornamentation, can cloud our visions of the everyday lives of the commoners. But during the bountiful months of the summer, planting gardens, tending to livestock, fishing, gathering berries and wild fruit, putting up stores for the winter, and repairing their mud-brick houses must have been the average Iron Age person’s main concerns. Our work at Tuzusai, often hot, tiring, and dusty, reminds us again of a simple life.

Inspired by…Art

Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings from the St. Petersburg Album, F1942.15a

Art historian Anna Seastrand led us on a tour entitled Dressed to Impress: Fashioning Allegiance in the Mughal Court. These paintings clearly call for careful looking, so make sure you use the magnifying glasses when you visit. Seastrand helped us look deeply into these amazing works of art and decode the elaborate luxury items worn by the Mughal emperors. Is that just a robe or is it a not-so-subtle symbol of power?

In the above painting, Jahangir wears a pearl earring. We learned from Seastrand that in 1614 the emperor was gravely ill, and wrote that if he recovered he would pledge his allegiance to the Sufi Shaikh: “I would pierce my ear and become his ear-pierced devotee.”

You can see the white pearl in Jahangir’s ear. What’s also interesting is that once the emperor pierced his ear, so did his attendants and members of the court.

Clearly, this emperor knew how to dress to impress.

Inspired by…Cupcakes

Cupcakes with the flavors of India.

The Indian palette is filled with vibrant colors, but the Indian palate…ah, that’s a different story. Thanks to Fraiche Cupcakery, we can not only admire India, but we can get a literal taste as well. Find these yummy cupcakes made with rosewater, pistachio, and cardamom, in the Freer courtyard (and don’t miss the red velvet). According to Fraiche owner, Nina Deva, “We take flavors from different cultures and combine them. It takes a lot of experimenting.” Come and try the delicious results yourself!

Tom Vick in Korea: Now it Gets Interesting…

Seoul’s brand-new City Hall

This is the second post from Tom Vick, our curator of film, about his recent trip to Korea.

I’m back from Korea, after one more night in Seoul and four days at the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (PiFan). Seoul is a gargantuan, overwhelming metropolis in which every building seems to be vying for your attention. While trying to work in my hotel room I could be distracted by no less than three huge video screens beaming advertisements from nearby rooftops. Adding to the city’s already jumbled skyline are more and more avant-garde, deliberately incongruous buildings dubbed “aliens” in architectural circles. Across the street from my hotel sat one of the most notorious: Seoul’s brand-new City Hall, which looms like a giant wave about to crash over its soon-to-be dismantled, Japanese occupation-era predecessor, in a perhaps deliberate reference to the Korean Wave (hallyu) that has inundated Asia with Korean pop culture in recent years.

Puchon, a small satellite city near Seoul, is a different experience entirely: a jumble of lights and garish signs enticing the visitor to all sorts of temptations. Indeed, Puchon has a somewhat seedy reputation, making it the perfect setting for PiFan, a festival specializing in the extremes of genre cinema: comedy, action, horror, sex, and violence. The fact that festival guests (your correspondent included) are put up in the city’s notorious “love hotels” only adds to the atmosphere.

Bright Lights, Big City: Puchon at Night

In addition to the new releases, I was very intrigued by a special retrospective section devoted to Korean comedies of the 1970s. That decade is generally considered a low point in Korean cinema history, but PiFan’s program, along with Udine Far East Film’s 1970s series dubbed “The Darkest Decade,” indicate, if not a revival, then at least an attempt to understand the ways filmmakers reacted to the political censorship and public indifference of the time, ideas that were illuminated during an interesting panel discussion following one of the screenings.

A panel discusses Korean comedies from the 1970s at PiFan.

Having sampled these films at both Udine and PiFan, I can say that most of them may not be “good” by traditional standards, but watching a loud, silly comedy from the ’70s can be as much a cultural learning experience—in its own way—as gazing upon the Buddhas in the National Museum.