art outside the box | the freer | sackler blog

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.

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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.

Posted by in A Closer Look, From the Collections, Japanese Art | 1 Comment

Who Ya Gonna Call? (Ghost Edition)

The House of Broken Plates from One Hundred Ghost Tales,
Katsushika Hokusai, (1760–1849); woodblock print; color on paper; S2004.3.210

The five ghosts from the published designs of a series titled One Hundred Ghost Tales (Hyaku monogatari) reflect an Edo custom of telling ghost tales in the dark. The ghosts are among the eeriest of Hokusai’s commercially published prints, and they express Hokusai’s interest in imagining the supernatural world, which began in his youth with a print of a haunted house.

Here, a woman’s head with a serpentine neck made up of a stack of dishes represents the ghost of Okiku, whose master threw her into a well because she had broken his favorite dish. At night the sound of smashing porcelain and a voice counting “one, two, three…” emanated from the well.

Happy Halloween from Freer|Sackler. And try not to break any dishes…

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“Masters of Mercy: Buddha’s Amazing Disciples” Closes July 8

Masters of Mercy: Buddha’s Amazing Disciples is for Western audiences a first look at the last great Japanese Buddhist painting ensemble before the onset of modern times. The series was initiated by artist Kano Kazunobu in 1854, the same year that Commodore Matthew Perry “encouraged” Japan to open its doors after a period of two hundred years of isolation (and interestingly, the year museum founder Charles Lang Freer was born). These paintings, as described by curator James Ulak in the video above, alternate between the fantastic and the everyday. A remarkable blend of traditional Buddhist iconography laced with then-contemporary references to theater, myth, and religious cult practice, the paintings depict the miraculous interventions and superhuman activities of the five hundred disciples of the Buddha. Hurry, the exhibition closes this Sunday—”Buddha’s Amazing Disciples” are needed elsewhere!

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Fireworks Freer|Sackler Style

Fireworks at Ike-no-Hata, 1881, Kobayashi Kiyochika, woodblock print, Robert O. Muller Collection, S2003.8.1197

The Freer|Sackler has a number of works in its collections portraying fireworks, including this one by Kobayashi Kiyochika, a Japanese artist who lived from 1847-1915. The central figure here, who appears to be a young boy watching from a high vantage point, reminds me a little of Hokusai’s painting Boy Viewing Mount Fuji, painted in 1839, eight years before Kiyochika was born.

“Images of fireworks were a standard element in a pre-modern printmaker’s repertoire,” says James T. Ulak, senior curator of Japanese art at Freer|Sackler. “In that sense, Kiyochika fulfills his audience’s expectations for traditional subject matter. He extends the boundaries of that tradition, however, by drawing the viewer into the same intimate perspective experienced by the spectators crowded on the periphery of the image.

“Moreover, Kiyochika pushes the dark tonalities of the print to an extreme that would not have been found in earlier nineteenth-century designs. Viewers look out over Shinobazu Pond toward Benten Shrine, which sits on a small island on a peninsula in Ueno Park, Tokyo.”

No matter where you choose to celebrate, Happy Fourth of July!

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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.

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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.

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You Ask, We Answer: Why is it so Dark in Here?

Thirty-six Views: Hokusai at the Sackler

A visitor recently wrote in our Japan Spring comment book wanting to know why it is “so dark” in the Hokusai exhibit. We asked Richard Skinner, F|S lighting designer extraordinaire, to field this one.

RS: Good question. Many of the objects on display at the Freer|Sackler are made with materials that can react to light, so it is necessary to carefully control what kind of light, how much light, and duration of exposure on these materials. The Hokusai prints are made with pigments that could easily fade or shift in color if overexposed to light. Curator Ann Yonemura has carefully selected the best copy available of each print—and to preserve these objects in their current pristine condition, the light level is restricted to 5 foot-candles of visible light. We carefully measure the light level at each individual object with an illuminance meter and also monitor how long lights are on each day using a digital data logging system. Typically, prints of this nature can only be displayed for a limited length of time before they must go back into storage.

Any more questions for us? Let us know in the comments!

Posted by in Exhibitions, Japan Spring, Japanese Art | 3 Comments

Animazing!

Still from Spirited Away, directed by Hayao Miyazaki

We’re just two days away from our tenth annual anime festival, this year titled “Castles in the Sky: Miyazaki, Takahata, and the Masters of Studio Ghibli.” It’s a celebration of Hayao Miyazaki, the master of Japanese animation who, along with Isao Takahata, cofounded the  influential Studio Ghibli. His Oscar-winning feature Spirited Away remains the highest-grossing film in Japan.

The festivities begin in the Meyer Auditorium at 11 am on Sunday, April 15, with free tickets available beginning at 10:30 am. While you’re here, don’t forget to visit the exhibition Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji in the Sackler, as well as displays of Hokusai’s paintings and drawings in the Freer. His works include a collection of manga, Japanese comics closely related to anime.

If you’re going all-out and dressing up as your favorite Miyazaki character, take a photo and post it to our Facebook wall!

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