Category Archives: A Closer Look

Religion in the Gallery: A First-person Perspective

Newark Museum Tibetan Buddhist Altar, 1991, Altar Painting by Phuntsok Dorje, Commissioned by the Newark Museum, 1990

In an evening lecture on May 24, four scholars—including F|S curators Jim Ulak and Debra Diamond—explored “Religion in the Gallery” as part of our Exhibiting Asia in the 21st Century lecture series. Jenna Vaccaro, assistant in the Scholarly Programs and Publications Department, attended the event and reported her thoughts back to Bento. 

The politics surrounding the display of religious content in museum galleries are complicated, to say the least. Opinions differ wildly on the role museums ought to play when putting religious art on view. Some argue that we must provide more context and meaning for religious art than we do for other forms of expression, as meaning dissolves with time, language, and cultural barriers. Others go further, advocating for a display that provides the viewer with a transcendent experience.

During “Religion in the Gallery,” Katherine Anne Paul, curator of the arts of Asia at the Newark Museum, presented several variations of Tibetan Buddhist shrines in American museums and abroad, and waxed philosophically on the way the different displays might make viewers feel. Bold reds and yellows among golden statues, butter sculptures—literally, lamps burning on animal fat and colorful shapes made out of butter—and musical instruments were common elements of each shrine. It appears that the goal of each exhibit was to completely envelop the viewer in color and light, described by Paul as a “more is more” method of display. The panel of speakers considered this similar to the Baroque design period: the more glitz and ornamentation, the better.

Gregory Levine speaks on Zen art at “Religion in the Gallery,” held May 24, 2012.

Paul’s Tibetan shrines were juxtaposed by a presentation on Zen art by Gregory Levine, associate professor of the art and architecture of Japan and Buddhist visual cultures at the University of California, Berkeley. Zen art is much different than a Tibetan shrine, and its elements are harder to define. Generally with Zen, a “less is more” approach is taken when putting objects on display. Traditionally we see minimalism, nature, and stillness as the representative elements of Zen art, though what “Zen” means has changed over time. Meditative and natural design principles have been watered down and usurped by popular culture. Citing scholars from the mid-1900s and beyond, Levine tracked how Zen has been appropriated in America from the museum context to commercial design. Rather than using minimalist motifs for a meditative purpose, Zen styles today are used to sell a product, such as Zen mp3 players or Zen perfume.

As a casual observer, I do feel a stronger, transcendent connection to the Tibetan shrines’ display. The exhibits Paul presented demand attention and never let the unfamiliar viewer forget that this was or could be a religious space. The pieces that Levine showed did not provide the same experience. The questions I was left with after considering my own different reactions to the presentations are personal, but perhaps not uncommon: Has the appropriation of Zen religious art by American marketing and design companies already ruined the transcendent experience for me? Is there any way in which I can see Zen art as sacred when it has been a staple of American secular design for so long?

An audience member asked a question along these lines, wondering whether we must contextualize religious art that is distinctively different than the culture in which it is being displayed. Paul responded by asking if we have the same duty to contextualize a Monet painting. Jim Ulak, F|S curator of Japanese art, followed up by stating that staff at the National Gallery are constantly surprised at how many people today have trouble understanding the Christian art on display, which wasn’t the case a generation or two ago.

In my humble opinion, all religious art, particularly when we are presenting that of another culture, deserves to be given more respect and context than a Monet painting for the sheer fact that the religion and its practitioners still exist. If we appropriate the style of a Monet painting and get it wrong in our gallery, the only harm done is a misunderstanding of a visual style. If we appropriate a religious design we have the potential to misinterpret and erase important cultural meaning—the opposite of what a museum ought to do.

—Jenna Vaccaro

New On View: Mary Thayer

Portrait of the Artist’s Eldest Daughter; Abbott Handerson Thayer; 1893-94, oil on canvas, F1906.96a

To change things up a bit, we’ve replaced the painting of Abbott Thayer’s son, Gerald, with this beautiful oil of his daughter Mary. Portrait of the Artist’s Eldest Daughter now hangs near Thayer’s monumental work A Virgin, which features all three of the artist’s children and is prominently displayed over the staircase between the Freer and Sackler.

According to Lee Glazer, associate curator of American art at Freer|Sackler, “Thayer’s three children endured countless sessions posing for their father in the years following their mother’s untimely death in 1891. Thayer declared his children to be his ‘passion of passions.’ He explained to Freer, ‘I paint, during this period of my life, almost nothing except my children, yet must sell them. Perhaps these very paintings goad me to paint another and a better each time.'”

Freer paid ten thousand dollars for A Virgin, a hefty sum in 1893. Shortly after shipping A Virgin to Freer’s house in Detroit, Thayer sent his patron this complementary portrait of Mary as “a bonus,” as he said, “to ease my conscience about the $10,000.” Mary’s portrait would go well with that of her brother Gerald, already in Freer’s collection.

Over the years Freer would acquire several more paintings of the Thayer children, including the two monumental “winged figures”: A Winged Figure and Winged Figure Seated Upon a Rock, in which the artist’s younger daughter, Gladys, appears in the guise of an angel. According to Glazer, “Thayer regarded these paintings as among his most inspired works.”

Learn more about American art in the F|S collections.

Ai Weiwei: A Model Exhibition

A rendering of Ai Weiwei’s installation “Fragments” in the pavilion of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s monumental work Fragments opens at the Sackler this Saturday, May 12. Exhibition designer Jeremiah Gallay gives us a behind-the-scenes glimpse into what it takes to prepare for a new installation.

We exhibition designers generally love to draw, and we try to draw things as accurately as we can. Our job is to create scale drawings and models, perspective renderings, and mock-ups to study display options and to provide instructions for the production and installation processes. The rendering shown here, for Ai Weiwei’s Fragments in the Sackler pavilion, was one of about a dozen options drawn up in multiple views, using computer software that allows us to create complex digital models and place them within architectural environments.

In addition to design visualizations, we create detailed production drawings for wall demolition and construction, cabinetry, electrical work, painting, mount-making, environmental graphics, and other custom fabrications. It’s always fun to see the drawings come to life—to walk into a real space after designing it on paper.

Monks at an Exhibition

At the welcoming ceremony for “Masters of Mercy: Buddha’s Amazing Disciples”; photo by John Tsantes

Monks from Tokyo’s elite Pure Land Buddhist temple Zōjōji came to the Sackler Gallery on the evening of Saturday, April 21. They performed a ceremony to protect the paintings in Masters of Mercy: Buddha’s Amazing Disciples and to ensure the success of the exhibition. A blessing and consecration typically occurs when Buddhist institutions lend works of art to secular institutions.

In the Pure Land tradition, the lotus (a primary Buddhist symbol), is the vehicle upon which souls are reborn in the Western Paradise. The image of lotus petals showering down from the heavens is a symbol of the blessings of the Amida Buddha. During the ceremony at the Sackler, Hasuike Koyo, chief secretary of  Zōjōji, scattered oversized and colorfully painted paper lotus petals around the exhibition space to indicate the temple’s fond prayers for our endeavors.

The out-of-this-world scrolls by Kano Kazunobu in Masters of Mercy were created from 1854 until the artist’s death in 1863. The Sackler exhibition marks the first time that the scrolls have been shown in the West. It runs through July 8, 2012. Learn more about Japan Spring at the Freer|Sackler.

Kimchi, Drinks, and a Movie

Director Na Hong-jin in the Freer courtyard before a screening of his film “The Chaser”

Popcorn and a movie? I don’t think so. Following on the heels of the popular event Noodles and a Movie, Freer|Sackler presented “Kimchi, Drinks, and a Movie” last Friday night. Guests nibbled on savory jeon pancakes and sipped makgeolli rice wine in the Freer courtyard, mingled with director Na Hong-jin, and then watched his film The Chaser in the Meyer Auditorium. On Sunday, Na Hong-jin returned to the Freer to introduce another of his films, a thriller titled The Yellow Sea.

Enjoying kimchi before a screening of “The Chaser”

Stay tuned to the F|S online calendar for more fun, film, and food-filled events!

Eye Wonder Redux

Kenzan style desk screen with design of mountain retreat; late 19th century; Kyoto workshop; buff clay, iron pigment, enamels under transparent lead glaze; gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1897.20

About a year ago we invited our web visitors to engage in a new form of “Eye Wonder” by experiencing the Freer Gallery of Art on Google Art Project. The Art Project is an armchair art lover’s dream, offering unprecedented online access to collections and in-gallery street views, not to mention stunning gigapixel-level encounters with selected works of art in some of the world’s greatest museums. The Freer was among the first 17 museums around the globe to engage in this new digital art adventure.

Today Google Art Project launches a considerably enhanced and expanded “phase two” version. The site now brings together a wide range of institutions, large and small: iconic art museums as well as less traditional settings for great art.

On the Freer pages of Art Project, visitors will find 100 newly uploaded high-resolution images from the collections and greatly improved street view technology. Street-view strolls now extend to the entire museum and make more artworks available for up-close inspection. A virtual walk through The Peacock Room—as restored to its appearance in 1908, when museum founder Charles Lang Freer installed the room in his home and used it to organize and display his collection of more than 250 Asian ceramics—is resplendent with colors, textures, and shapes.

After taking in all four walls of this remarkable exhibition, a visitor, perhaps sitting at home in Hamburg or Honolulu with a cup of tea, can click a mouse to explore selected ceramics in thrilling detail. Take, for example, this intriguing Japanese desk screen from the Meiji era, inscribed with a poem by Li Dongyang.

We do indeed live in a time of Eye Wonder.

 

Deb Galyan is the head of public affairs and marketing at Freer|Sackler.

Hokusai: Making Waves

The Great Wave

Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji: Under the Wave off Kanagawa; H. O Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929, Metropolitan Museum of Art (JP1847). Image source: Art Resource, NY

Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji opens Saturday, March 24, as part of our Japan Spring celebration. In honor of the exhibition, Bento presents a series of posts on the life and times of Hokusai, the famed artist behind the esteemed series that includes the iconic print Under the Wave off Kanagawa, better known as The Great Wave. This article was written by Victoria Dawson and previously appeared in Asiatica magazine.

In the 1850’s—the decade after Hokusai’s death—Japan was opened up to the West and paintings and prints began to flow to Europe and into America. Over the next fifty years, Hokusai gradually emerged in Western eyes and in the Western imagination as the Asian artist par excellence. Much has been written about his influence on designs of European and American artists in the late nineteenth century. Indeed, in Vienna, at the 1873 international exhibition, a major exhibition of Hokusai works underscored the high degree of popularity that he enjoyed in the West. But through most of the last century, beyond a relatively small group of researchers and collectors, the artist was largely identified in the popular imagination as a print designer. His most famous work, The Great Wave from the print series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (circa 1830–33), is virtually synonymous with Japanese art—and so ubiquitous that it can be found almost anywhere that ink can adhere to a surfave—from tote bags to magnets. [The print can be seen at the Sackler Gallery as part of the exhibition on view from March 24 through June 17, 2012.]

Hokusai was someone with a very deep sense that wherever he was, it was not the final place—he was always looking for something beyond. He was an individualist whose art seems infused with a sense of irony, hauntedness, and a search for meaning. His prolific productivity, his cherished independence, and his groundbreaking visual techniques suggest a man who was obsessed with something other than money or social standing.

Then, as now, there were scores and scores of artists who were content with the status quo, satisfying rather than challenging the expectations of their viewers. Not so Hokusai. Consider, for example, the contrast between two prints of waves, created within several years of one another. In The Great Wave, Hokusai presents a rather generous vision of sweeping waves with Mount Fuji in the distance. A print he created only a year or two later offers a claustrophic alternative: In Chosi in Shimosa Province (circa 1833–34, from the series One Thousand Pictures of the Ocean) the waves cleave to a sharp diagonal line, crashing against the jagged rocks and shoals. A second, distant fishing boat offers none of the reassuring stability that Mount Fuji provides in the earlier print.

“There is no escape. Visually, Hokusai doesn’t allow it,” says Jim Ulak, senior curator of Japanese art at the Freer|Sackler. “He seems to say, ‘Well, you were comfortable with The Great Wave? Now, I’ll give you something to be afraid of—a darker vision, a sense of being trapped.’ Why would Hokuasi have done that? Not to make the viewer feel comfortable. You can always expect him to pull the rug out from under you.”

Hokusai: A Mad Man Before His Time

Hokusai: 36 Views of Mt. Fuji opens Saturday, March 24, as part of our Japan Spring celebration. In honor of the exhibition, Bento presents a series of posts on the life and times of Hokusai, the famed artist behind the esteemed series that includes the iconic print Under the Wave off Kanagawa, better known as The Great Wave. This article was written by Victoria Dawson and previously appeared in Asiatica magazine.

What could be more intriguing than the image of a man so unsettled that at the end of his long life he had lived in ninety-three places? Or an artist who changed his professional name so often that one of his contemporaries remarked “no artist ever had more names”? And how can one resist the determination of one who, on his deathbed and with faltering breath, implored the gods to grant him an extension of just five or ten more years—so that he might yet become a true artist? Even an inventory of this man’s possessions—one earthenware pot, two or three teacups, and a single cotton robe—exerts a curious hold on the imagination.

In approaching the art of Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), one of Japan’s most renowned artists, it is tempting to linger over the engaging and eccentric facets of his life. Indeed, such colorful images provide ready toeholds as one attempts to grasp the scope of a visual master endowded with boundless creative energy and technical virtuosity. “He was seemingly oblivious to the practicalities of everyday life. Not because he was absent-minded, but because he was single-minded in his devotion to uncovering the truth through the use of his brush,” says James Ulak, senior curator of Japanese art at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

Hokusai had an abiding desire to excel—not in a competetive worldly way, but as a means for sharing. “For Hokusai, transmission was what art was all about,” says Roger S. Keyes, an art historian and consultant for the 2006 Hokusai exhibition at Freer|Sackler. “It’s what he got out of art, and it’s what he hoped to accomplish through art. It was about transmitting the conviction of what he knew through his experience to others.”

The sheer volume of Hokusai’s brushwork beggars both the imagination and the intellect. Over the course of seven decades, which included occasional periods of profound personal distraction, this “man mad about painting,” as he called himself, created an estimated thirty thousand images—and wrote novels and poetry as well. He turned out ink drawings, paintings, and prints that varied greatly in both subject and format—actor portraits; landscapes; beautiful women; the spiritual and supernatural; legendary figures and historical tales; still life; nature, including birds and flowers; erotica; surimono (highly refined, privately commissioned prints); fan paintings; manga; illustrated albums, books, poetry anthologies; and novels; teaching manuals for artists, and even performance art. His illustrated books alone number some 270 volumes. “There is so much you have to look at before you get a sense of this artist,” says Keyes. “I’ve never caught up with him.”

Spring in DC

Magnolias in bloom outside the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery; photo by Cory Grace

Springtime in DC is all about the cherry blossom—especially this year, as we get ready to celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of the gift of cherry trees to Washington from the city of Tokyo, Japan. But today, we’ll let the magnolia take center stage. This is pretty much the view outside the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery this week: bright sunshine and an explosion of magnolia blossoms. The only thing we can’t share with you is the intoxicating fragrance—it’s out of this world.

Why Bento?

Visitors in the Freer Gallery

A Closer Look at American Art

The Freer and Sackler Galleries at the Smithsonian Institution boasts some of the world’s foremost examples of Asian art (not to mention the best Whistlers this side of Glasgow). We were trying to think of a way to bring the arts and varied cultures of Asia to our museumgoers who visit us in person, and those who stop by for a virtual browse. We wanted a name that would signify Asia, show that we’re made up of more than one thing, plus become a destination for those who want a filling serving of Asia on their plate … and so, Bento was born. We hope you enjoy the blog and learning about our resources, staff, exhibitions, and special events. And please drop us a note; we’re hoping that Bento can help us break the ice and strike up a conversation!