Category Archives: From the Collections

Friday Fave: Chape of a Scabbard

Chape of a scabbard; India, Mughal dynasty, 17th century; iron inlaid with gold; H: 11.2, W: 3.8, D: 1.6 cm; Purchase—Misses Rajinder and Narinder Keith in honor of Mahinder Singh Keith, F1994.5

Chape of a scabbard; India, Mughal dynasty, 17th century; iron inlaid with gold; H: 11.2, W: 3.8, D: 1.6 cm; Purchase—Misses Rajinder and Narinder Keith in honor of Mahinder Singh Keith, F1994.5

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art.

I first encountered this exquisite chape while visiting the Freer Gallery several years before I began to work here. Created in India during the seventeenth century, it is an ornamental covering for the tip of a scabbard. To my mind, it stands on its own as a work of art.

Indian art of the Mughal period is known for its sensitivity to detail and a delight in forms from the natural world. Like so much great Mughal art, this iron and gold chape exists as a world in itself—one you can return to again and again. And so I used to return to the Freer to rediscover it when it was on display. When it wasn’t, there were plenty of other marvels to enjoy, but I never forgot it and it was one of the first works of art I looked up when I arrived.

Like the leaves and flowers it depicts, the chape appears to have been created effortlessly by nature. It is possible to forget that a skilled artisan painstakingly etched out the fractal, interlocking plant forms and filled them with inlaid gold. There appear to be four or five kinds of flowers depicted—one of them a poppy—and six little butterflies lie nestled in the leaves. The intimate power of its scale and the economy of its form make the chape a marvel to behold. Yes, it was created for wealthy tastes that reveled in fine decoration, but from the vantage point of our consumer culture awash in mass-produced things, this little wonder is a reminder that the natural world is the original source of elegance. A true work of art speaks for itself and can be astonishing at any scale.

Friday Fave: Vairochana, the Cosmic Buddha

Buddha draped in robes portraying the Realms of Existence; probably Henan province, China, Northern Qi dynasty, 550–77; limestone; Purchase, F1923.15

Buddha draped in robes portraying the Realms of Existence; probably Henan province, China, Northern Qi dynasty, 550–77; limestone; Purchase, F1923.15

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art.

It’s not a piece I paid a lot of attention to at first. At first glance, the statue is almost forlorn, a robed Buddha missing head and hands. I appreciated it abstractly but never looked very closely at it.

The project that would become SmithsonianX3D changed all that. The Cosmic Buddha was chosen as one of the pieces to showcase for the launch of the 3D site, and I had the chance to learn so much more about this fascinating statue while working with Keith Wilson, curator of ancient Chinese art, and the Smithsonian digitization team. For example, the decoration on the stone robes is not just abstract imagery, but rich illustrations depicting the Buddhist “Realms of Existence” and scenes from the past lives of the Historical Buddha. The stories are told in bands stacked up the front and back of the Buddha. Wear and tear on the low relief carvings show that the Buddha was cleaned and cared for, and probably had scholars taking rubbings of the imagery.

Now, the Cosmic Buddha—as well as Promise of Paradise, the exhibition in which the sculpture is featured—are my favorite things in the Freer. I still love to wander through the gallery and study the Buddha, and try to picture what the missing head and hands were like (we don’t know, though we can make an educated guess from existing depictions of the Vairochana—the Cosmic Buddha).

Next time you’re at the Freer, look closer at the Buddha. Don’t forget that you can explore it online, too, and learn more at 3d.si.edu.

Celebrate the Lunar New Year at Freer|Sackler

Sheep and Goat; Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322); China, Yuan dynasty, ca. 1300; ink on paper; Purchase, F1931.4

Sheep and Goat; Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322); China, Yuan dynasty, ca. 1300; ink on paper; Purchase, F1931.4

Greetings from the ImaginAsia family program!

To ring in the Year of the Sheep, we are hosting our first annual Lunar New Year Celebration on Saturday, February 21, from 11 am to 4 pm. Throughout the day, visitors of all ages can learn, play, and indulge in culinary delights to mark the new year in China, Korea, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, and many other countries.

Visitors can explore the Freer|Sackler’s rich collections through educator-led tours, sample and learn how to make Lunar New Year-themed recipes with author Pat Tanumihardja, and discover the history and traditions of the holiday through book readings hosted by the DC Public Library. Other activities include creating festive good-luck figures with handmade paper and pop-up greeting cards with Sushmita Mazumdar, a local book artist.

This event, held in the midst of the fifteen-day holiday, is co-organized by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

Can’t wait for Saturday? Send a Lunar New Year e-card now!

Grey Matters

No. 5; Takiguchi Kazuo (born 1953); Kyoto, Japan, Heisei era, 1996; stoneware with dark gray matte textured glaze; Purchase—John and Marinka Bennett, S1997.33

No. 5; Takiguchi Kazuo (born 1953); Kyoto, Japan, Heisei era, 1996; stoneware with dark gray matte textured glaze; Purchase—John and Marinka Bennett, S1997.33

Well, we all know what movie you saw last weekend. Enough said.

But why be satisfied with a mere fifty shades of grey? The Freer|Sackler’s newly digitized collections contain more than four hundred objects featuring most every kind of grey known to man … and woman. Enter grey (or gray, if you prefer) into the search, and hundreds of works of art will become available for your viewing, study, and personal pleasure.

Curious? Check out Open F|S and enter a world you’ve always wanted to know more about.

Friday Fave: Tea Bowl

Tea bowl, possibly Satsuma ware; possibly Kagoshima prefecture, Japan, Edo period, 17th century; stoneware with clear, crackled glaze, stained by ink; gold lacquer repairs; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.323

Tea bowl, possibly Satsuma ware; possibly Kagoshima prefecture, Japan, Edo period, 17th century; stoneware with clear, crackled glaze, stained by ink; gold lacquer repairs; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.323

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art.

This Japanese tea bowl from the 17th century is beautiful enough to stop me in my tracks. It’s stoneware with a crackled glaze, and most likely a Satsuma ware vessel, a style of Japanese ceramic associated with the region formerly known by that name. It seems perfect on its own, but it’s rich with narrative and has a story to tell. Sometime during its life, the tea bowl broke and shattered into pieces. It was repaired using powdered gold sprinkled over repairs made in lacquer. It became a graceful alternative to the traditional Chinese method of using staples to repair ceramics. The technique became known as “golden joinery” (kintsugi) or “golden concealment” (kintsuguroi). The broken object is not only fixed, but somehow transformed. Apparently, as the technique developed over the centuries, some people may have deliberately broken their bowls so that they could make a plain vessel more interesting and valuable by adding a golden repair.

When I look at the bowl, I don’t see damage. The break and repair have made it more beautiful. It looks to me like an artist has riffed on a Japanese poem of a moon entangled in the branches of a tree, and etched it onto the bowl.

Though today is Friday the 13th, tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. Good follows bad—and the same goes for luck. What you may think is broken today could be something you cherish tomorrow.

Friday Fave: Wine Horn

Spouted vessel with gazelle protome; Iran or Afghanistan, Sasanian period, 4th century; silver and gilt; Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, S1987.33

Spouted vessel with gazelle protome; Iran or Afghanistan, Sasanian period, 4th century; silver and gilt; Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, S1987.33

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art.

I look at it, and I wonder. How? How did he—one assumes the silversmith was male—make this silver-and-gilt wine horn shaped like a gazelle?

Here’s what scholars know: It was made in the fourth century, long before the technology that would have made the job an easy one. Its maker worked in what we now call Iran, or perhaps Afghanistan, probably for a royal workshop established by the Sasanian dynasty (reign 224–651 CE). Finely crafted drinking horns were a long-practiced Sasanian tradition, and similar examples have been found in China, evidence that people have always sought inspiration from far-off places. In addition to the gazelle ornamentation on the front—known as a protome—a bull, two antelopes, and a lion are carved on the sides. No one is sure what the animals mean, but perhaps they refer to a royal hunt.

Today, we display the drinking horn beneath a glass case, but it was made to be used—somebody probably drank from it. I wonder if our silversmith stopped to admire his work once the final gilding was completed, or if he immediately moved on to his next assignment. I wonder if he’d be pleased to see it on a pedestal or would prefer to see wine flowing from the gazelle’s mouth into someone’s lips.

Here’s what I know: It is exquisite, perfectly executed, a treasure of the Sackler’s collection. I stop to admire it every time I walk through the Feast Your Eyes exhibition, where it is on view. Look for it in the museum or on Open F|S. Perhaps you’ll wonder about that silversmith too.

Friday Fave: “The Lute” by Thomas Dewing

"The Lute" by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, 1904; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1913.34a

“The Lute” by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, 1904; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1913.34a

 

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art.

I recently had the opportunity to view Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s enigmatic painting The Lute up close. I was first drawn to the subtle tones of the painting, characteristic of the works he created at his summer studio in Cornish, New Hampshire. Then, I started wondering about the story. The Lute features four idealized female figures in an atmospheric landscape, subtly charming with its delicate surface texture.

The figures’ dreamlike quality—suspended in a verdurous gossamer backdrop—gives the interaction between the women a certain ethereality. The clear focal point of the four actors drew me closer to examine their relationship.

In my interpretation, the woman on the right plays the lute with an air of contentment, seemingly unaware of the three women watching in judgment, sinistrally. The observer closest to the performer seems to be looking on with contempt, chin raised in superiority; the next stands enviously, arms akimbo with a brick-wall resolution; and the final figure maintains lowered eyes, aloof from the scene, listening on wistfully, sadly.

I love that so many works in Freer’s collection represent points of contact and influence between cultures. The Lute is a lovely representation of that cross-cultural aesthetic interchange, clearly inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e painting and prints of “the floating world,” which were familiar to artists in both the United States and Europe at the turn of the twentieth century. The delicate craftsmanship, leisurely models, and poetic interactions are stunning.

Most interesting to me, though, is the poignant reflection on human nature that Dewing explores. Without any associated writing on the painting, the onus to decipher the narrative is placed on the viewer. Who is this lute player? How are her actions affecting the listeners? Would another person perceive their reactions differently than I do?

To me, as I view what I perceive as troubled responses to the performer, I am cautioned that human nature has a multiplicity of beautiful and vexing facets. I am reminded to listen to the lute with gratitude.

Unfortunately, The Lute is not currently on view. You can still view this American masterwork in stunning detail anytime you like on Open F|S, and you can explore related works in the Sylvan Sounds: Freer, Dewing, and Japan online exhibition feature.

Friday Fave: Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank

Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank, by Sesson (1504–1589); Japan, Momoyama period, 1568–1615; ink on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.218–19

Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank, by Sesson (1504–1589); Japan, Momoyama period, 1568–1615; ink on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.218–19

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art.

When I need a break from the monkeyshines in my office, I visit the Freer’s Japanese galleries to spend some time with Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank, a pair of six-fold screens.

Painted in the 16th century, the monochromatic screens illustrate a Zen Buddhist parable about monkeys that try to grasp the reflection of a full moon in the water, warning us about the futility of chasing illusion. But I think the monkeys also show that there can be meaning in the effort.

When I walk quietly through DC’s Sligo Creek Park near my house, animals start to appear from the woods: birds, rabbits, and if I’m lucky, deer. Similarly, at the museum, when I look at the screen at top, what first seems to be a classical Japanese landscape of bamboo and pine livens up on closer inspection: the twisting vines enveloping the tree become the sinewy arms and legs of monkeys climbing an old pine to get a better look at the moon floating below. Meanwhile, an all-white monkey on the riverbank stretches his arm across the water, his eyes fixed on the luminous prize that is so far out of reach.

A mother monkey and her baby take what they believe is a more direct approach. Hanging by a tree limb, the mother curls her leg, ready to snatch up the moon with her sharp toes. Her baby holds on tight and grabs at the moon with his other hand, excited to be a part of the adventure.

Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank, left-hand screen

Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank, left-hand screen

Another monkey in the companion screen (above) has a similar plan: he swoops at the moon from a low hanging grapevine, but it has disappeared in a splash of water! Though determined to try again, it may be time to quit, judging from the grumpy expression of the monkey nearby. She has had it with the moon and its illusions, as have her children. One baby curls up beside her, eyes closed and his head resting on crossed arms, ready for a nap.

The monkey parable has endured for centuries, evidenced by Xu Bing’s contemporary sculpture in the Sackler Gallery. And while we take the lesson to heart—desire turns into resignation through life’s experiences—the monkeys demonstrate what’s also essential along the way: curiosity, companionship, innovation, and sometimes a good nap.

Friday Fave: Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami

Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami; Kitagawa Utamaro; Japan, Edo period, late 18th–early 19th century; ink and color on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.54

Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami, by Kitagawa Utamaro
Japan, Edo period, late 18th–early 19th century
Ink and color on paper, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.54

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art in Open F|S, our newly digitized collection.

My favorite object in the collection? That’s a tough one. Truth is, I have lots of favorites.

There is one painting, however, that I grew to admire the more time I spent photographing it. Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami is an amazingly detailed panel painting by Kitagawa Utamaro (1754–1806), filled with scenes of an elite pleasure establishment that form a visually compelling narrative. For a special educational project by the Kyoto Cultural Association, I spent two full days photographing the painting’s every detail. At the Freer|Sackler, we often photograph art with an eye on the technical challenges each object presents or with a deadline in mind. In the case of Moonlight Revelry, we were asked to photograph this masterpiece in eighteen precisely overlapping sections in order for it to be recreated back in Japan as closely to the original as possible.

I love that the painting has so much to offer. In fact, the more you look, the more you discover: from the intriguing center salon to the ships sailing in the distant background and all the sundry activities near and far. Moonlight Revelry has an amazing perspective that draws you in. It invites you to imagine being in that salon and life in that period with a quality and technique that, as I came to learn later, influenced future generations of artists, including American artist James McNeill Whistler.

Open F|S: Digital Zero

Composite of 700 images from the Freer Ramayana.

Composite of 700 images from the Freer Ramayana.

Courtney O’Callaghan is chief digital officer at the Freer|Sackler.

We’ve reached an important milestone at the Freer|Sackler, an effort we’re calling Digital Zero. As of this writing, we’ve become the first Smithsonian museums to digitize their collections. This is a great opportunity for scholars and researchers as well as our everyday virtual visitors to have 24/7 access to our works of art.

What exactly is Digital Zero? For the Freer|Sackler, it means that we’ve photographed and uploaded our entire collection into a digital asset management system—more than 40,000 objects and almost twice as many images, from Whistler’s Peacock Room to the tiniest unnamed ceramic sherd. We have examined the rights information on every object and marked them appropriately. We have reviewed records, both complete and incomplete, and deemed them acceptable to make public.

On January 1, 2015, we will finally share all of our objects and accompanying data with the public. We will make available 40,000+ works as high-resolution images with (often) detailed metadata, available for non-commercial use by anyone.

Digital Zero gives us the freedom to begin the rapid prototyping of digital offerings. It allows us to focus on how our visitors want to interact with our collection. And it enables our creative allies to peruse our objects and form their own endlessly variable takes on the Freer|Sackler legacy.

But this is simply the base from which we begin our digital journey. As our curators and their collaborators discover new insights, new connections, and new interpretations of our storied holdings, we must acknowledge the fact that our work is on shifting sands. Our understanding of our own collection continually evolves and changes.

We hope that by releasing this information, we will encourage others to join our journey of discovery and help us fill in the gaps, share stories, and think of new ways to envision and enliven these objects. As we move from the idea of museums as spaces for the static delivery of a monolithic point of view into ones where our objects inspire communal storytelling, and where we share diverse perspectives that are alive and changing, we will be able to engage our visitors in ways that we cannot yet imagine.

This is only the first phase. If you are interested in being part of our adventure, email us at openfs@si.edu and we will include you in our plans.