Category Archives: From the Collections

Peacock Room REMIX: Break it Down

Photo by John Tsantes of Darren Waterston’s installation "Filthy Lucre," 2013–14, created by the artist in collaboration with MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts.

Photo by John Tsantes of Darren Waterston’s installation “Filthy Lucre,” 2013–14, created by the artist in collaboration with MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts.

If you ride Metro to work, your morning commute may have been punctuated by disturbing images of a ransacked Peacock Room. Freer not! No art was destroyed in making Peacock Room REMIX, an exhibition centered on Filthy Lucre, contemporary artist Darren Waterston’s imaginative reenvisioning of the iconic interior. It’s perhaps a tribute to Waterston’s artistry that we’ve worried a few people who think we’ve gone all rock star on the Peacock Room and deliberately destroyed its contents. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is the Smithsonian, people! The room is one of our treasures.

“I wanted to create my piece as a great homage, a contemporary artist’s response to Whistler,” Waterston has said. “At the same time I wanted to interrogate the ideas, aesthetics, and intentions behind the original Peacock Room.”

The Peacock Room was famously decorated by James McNeill Whistler for his friend and erstwhile patron, Frederick Leyland. Leyland didn’t like the surprise home makeover, causing a painful, permanent rupture between the two men. Though Whistler had made good on his promise of a “gorgeous surprise,” transforming the room with brilliant hues of blue, green, and gold, Leyland felt that Whistler went too far; he refused to pay the artist his full fee. Whistler, shocked and insulted, took revenge by painting a pair of fighting peacocks on the room’s south wall to represent the artist and patron. He titled this bit of retribution Art and Money. The break between Whistler and Leyland inspired Waterston’s Filthy Lucre, as did the story behind Whistler’s painting The Gold Scab: An Eruption in Frilthy Lucre (The Creditor), currently on loan to the Sackler from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Why “Frilthy”? In one of his last letters to Leyland, Whistler wrote, “Whom the gods intend to be ridiculous, they furnish with a frill.” In addition to poking fun at Leyland’s dress, the term refers to the biblical phrase “filthy lucre” as well as to Leyland’s initials, FL. In The Gold Scab, Whistler depicts Leyland, an amateur pianist, as a hideous miser—half human, half peacock—perched uncomfortably on the roof of the White House, the studio-residence that Whistler lost as a result of his mounting debts.

Created in London, the Peacock Room eventually was installed in Charles Lang Freer’s Detroit home before he willed his collection to the United States and the museum that would bear his name. In Detroit, Freer used the Peacock Room as a staging area to make connections between world cultures. It was a place of visual harmony. In deconstructing the Peacock Room, Darren Waterston has created a staged area of deliberate destruction to make connections between a centuries-old gilded age and our own world—as he says, “[altering] the appearance of visual harmony by disfiguring it.” Waterston’s breakages are rife with symbolism: The dramatic tensions between art, money, and aesthetics are still relevant to our culture today. With the REMIX, we have a clearer lens into that earlier world and, consequently, our own.

Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre is on view to January 2, 2017.

Friday Fave: Court Ladies Playing with Fireworks

Court Ladies Playing with Fireworks; Muhammad Afzal (act. 1740–80); Delhi, Haryana, India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1740; color and gold on paper;  Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art

Court Ladies Playing with Fireworks; Muhammad Afzal (act. 1740–80); Delhi, Haryana, India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1740; color and gold on paper;  Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art

When I was very young, I once looked up to my father during a Fourth of July fireworks show and demanded to know more about the exploding stars in the sky. What were they? Years later, when I first encountered Court Ladies Playing with Fireworks in the collections of Freer|Sackler, I was again curious about fireworks and set out to learn more about their history in South Asia.

Fireworks had been introduced in Delhi several hundred years before this painting was created. One of the earliest recorded uses of pyrotechnics in South Asia was during the fourteenth century. By the mid-fifteenth century, fireworks were regularly displayed during festive occasions, from weddings to royal parties. There were even Indian medieval manuals containing special firework recipes, which called for fascinating ingredients like iron powder, pastes made from different kinds of foods, and cow urine. Today, the subcontinent’s love of fireworks can be seen in the colorful celebrations of Hindu holidays such as Diwali.

In this painting, women from the imperial Mughal court seem to have stolen away from a party and gathered under the night sky in order to have a bit of their own fun. I love how the artist depicted them in delicately embroidered outfits that match the golden starbursts showering from the lit end of their friend’s sparkler. The nursemaid—the woman on the right wrapped in a white shawl—holds in her outstretched hand a small, velvety apricot, while a rambunctious youngster reaches for his snack. Meanwhile, the sparkler’s flames softly light the women’s faces and the foliage behind them.

Happy Fourth of July, Washington, DC! Here’s hoping your celebrations are as graceful and elegant as the one painted here.

Friday Fave: Brass Basin

Basin; probably Damascus, Syria, Ayyubid period (1171–1250), 1247–49; brass inlaid with silver; Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art, F1955.10

Basin; probably Damascus, Syria, Ayyubid period (1171–1250), 1247–49; brass inlaid with silver; Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art, F1955.10

To me, one of the most exquisite objects in the Freer|Sackler is a brass basin inlaid with silver, created during the reign of the last Ayyubid sultan, Al-Salih Ayyub (1205–49). The intricately designed basin must have taken a variety of artisans many hours to complete.

When I look at the basin, I am first drawn to the etching in the silver sheets and the black niello (a mixture of copper, silver, and lead), featuring both Islamic and Christian motifs. The etchings serve as a way to refine and provide further pictorial details. The Al-Salih Ayyub basin demonstrates the etcher’s excellence in drawing human figures and robes. The polo players riding horses in the middle register are brought to life with just a few simple, rapid strokes. This technique helps to transmit the character of the figures or animals, while displaying the etcher’s high competence and self-confidence in his trade.

Another technical feature of this basin that amazes me is the five medallions distributed along the top register, representing scenes from the life of Christ. The abbreviated spaces within which these scenes exist must have forced the craftsmen to rework images from standard iconographic manuscript sources. For instance, the Annunciation demonstrates how the craftsmen needed to simplify the narrative to include only the most essential human figures, Gabriel and Mary, without additional details such as the dove or rays of light typically portrayed in Syriac lectionaries.

If you’re interested in the basin, check out more high-resolution images of it on Open F|S, the complete digitized collections of the Freer and Sackler Galleries. Surprisingly, you’ll find a shot of the exterior of the base stamped with a medallion of a European coat of arms. This was added in the eighteenth century by a member of the House of Arenberg, one of the most influential and wealthy noble families of the Habsburg Netherlands. It’s interesting to think about the life of objects beyond the era in which they were made.

Zooming In: Crystal Clear

Photomicrographs at 6x and 50x magnification of stained-glass windows from a painting in the Haft awrang (16th c.) exemplify the use of geometric patterns in manuscript painting. Photomicrographs of a penny have been taken at the same magnifications to emphasize the minute scale of the painted patterns.

Photomicrographs at 6x and 50x magnification of stained-glass windows from a painting in the Haft awrang (16th c.) exemplify the use of geometric patterns in manuscript painting. Photomicrographs of a penny have been taken at the same magnifications to emphasize the minute scale of the painted patterns.

This is the third and final post in Amanda Malkin’s series exploring geometric patterns in Islamic paintings, focusing on the possible use of optical devices by the manuscript illustrator. Previous posts discussed Geometric Patterns in Islamic Paintings and Tools of the Manuscript Illustrator.

The first true magnifying lens—an instrument with a handle created for the purpose of magnification—was developed in 1250 CE by Roger Bacon in England. However, a large group of archaeologists and scientists believes that ancient cultures were experimenting with rudimentary optical devices, made from rock crystal, many centuries before Bacon.

Rock crystals with plano-convex surfaces dating from 2500 BCE to 1500 BCE have been found in Egypt, Greece, and Mediterranean cities. Many of these rock crystals were of optical quality, according to the definition put forth by Dominic Ingemark in his article “A Rare Rock-Crystal Object from Pompeii.” That is, the rock crystal is acceptably transparent and homogeneous with at least one surface that is curved with minor surface irregularities. Additionally, the crystal must be able to form a reasonable image.

There is an interesting, ongoing debate regarding the function of these highly valuable rock crystals. Some theories suggest they were used as decoration on furniture, game pieces, or medical instruments. Ancient sources describe bi-convex lenses—basically, glass or rock-crystal balls—that were used to cauterize wounds or remove tissue. These sources do not mention the use of plano-convex lenses as optical devices, and this absence is convincing evidence, for some, that they were not used as such.

However, other scholars argue that the craftsmen who made the “lens-shaped objects,” as they are sometimes called, would have had to use an optical device themselves to do such precise work. The minute, archaic decoration on engraved gems, coins, cylinder seals, intricate jewelry, and of course, manuscript illustrations also suggest that lenses were present and used. The quality and precision of the microscopic ornamentation seem inconceivable without the use of magnifying lenses.

A controversial theory suggests that, instead of using lenses, men with myopia, or nearsightedness, were sought out and trained as craftsmen. Their distorted, magnified vision could have been exploited for creative purposes. The hypothesis, based on thoughtful and clearly investigated theories regarding genetics and a possibly high occurrence of myopia in early civilizations, remains an over-reaching argument. It seems unrealistic to believe that, even with extensive training, men with myopia could have become the majority of master engravers. Their optic handicap would have hindered their work as apprentices: Publications state that master engravers traditionally dealt with the raw stone and carried out the intricate work, while their assistants did the grinding and polishing.

The lack of written historical evidence confirming the function of these somewhat mysterious objects has made this research incredibly intriguing. Although the results are inconclusive, it is certain that as more plano-convex rock crystals are unearthed, more knowledge and information will follow.

Friday Fave: “Sunrise: April”

"Sunrise: April"; Dwight William Tryon; United States, 1897–99; oil on wood panel; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1906.79a–b

“Sunrise: April”; Dwight William Tryon; United States, 1897–99; oil on wood panel; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1906.79a–b

In the summer of 2009, I moved to Washington with a freshly minted bachelor’s degree in illustration and, maybe not surprisingly, spent most days stocking the milk fridge at a Trader Joe’s. Squatting inside the bluish hull of the icebox, my skin chilled to a uniform 35 degrees by the roaring fan, I could peer out from behind the glass doors and watch the vague, broken outline of shoppers moving between the milk cartons. Of course, they could see me, too, but I felt the same sense of hidden stillness in the back of that fridge as I felt perched in the high branches of a pine tree as a kid, staring intently but aimlessly at the people below. There’s a sort of focused calm to looking around from a solitary vantage, a feeling of everything and nothing, which perfectly suits the naïve self-absorption of a child and the melodramatic career turmoil of a recent college graduate.

On days off, I would ride out to the National Mall to visit the art museums. It felt good to keep my head in the game: To keep thinking about art, you have to keep looking. Invariably, I would go to the National Gallery for Turner, Cézanne, and Rothko, or wind my way around the Hirshhorn looking for the de Koonings. (Sometimes I think that the answers to all of life’s problems lie hidden in a great painting, and that I’m just not looking hard enough.)

One morning, I came out of the Metro and walked up the steps of the Freer. It was new to me, for I had yet to be keyed in to the secret wonder of its American art collection. The Whistler galleries were, of course, beautiful, and I figured that they were a serendipitous and worthy discovery to sate me of my painterly cravings.

But then I entered a different gallery, anchored by a gorgeous double-panel painting by Thomas Dewing. I turned to face the opposite wall and was struck silent by a canvas that seemed entirely transparent. It was simple and reductive, stripped down to the barest mechanisms of composition and value. It had almost no shape, and the more I looked, the more it seemed to lack even color. It was a landscape painting, I supposed, with a broadly impressionistic sense of atmosphere, but it employed none of the flourish or willful distortion that I’d known from the work of Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, or Van Gogh.

I had never seen a painting like this. There was no barn silhouetted against the horizon, no fence, no nameless farmhand or rusted chisel plow punctuating the stillness. Just a row of trees on the cusp of budding, with the sun barely peeking over the distant horizon.

The painting enveloped me completely. It captured that rare feeling of a perfect moment in nature, a hazy awe that is impossible to fully absorb. It was that same feeling I had in the milk fridge and the pine tree, of everything and nothing, hidden peacefully within my world while staring back into it without reason or expectation.

Without having ever thought about it, I’d never imagined that feeling could be captured. I still can’t understand how it was painted. The label read, “Dwight Tryon. Sunrise: April.” I had to leave, for I had stopped seeing.

Four years later, I got to see the painting again. This time, I was working at the Freer for the curator of American art. Sunrise: April was in collections storage. I cannot wait until it is brought out again.

Friday Fave: Pen Box

Pen box (qalamadan); Shaykh Muhammad; India, state of Gujarat, 1587; lacquered teakwood with mother-of-pearl inlay; purchase, F1986.58

Pen box (qalamadan); Shaykh Muhammad; India, state of Gujarat, 1587; lacquered teakwood with mother-of-pearl inlay; purchase, F1986.58

My favorite object in the Freer|Sackler’s collection is one I saw on my first visit to the museums with family several years ago. I’ve been with Freer|Sackler since 2013 and have seen many spectacular works of art from Asia. However, the pen box in the South and Southeast Asian galleries in the Freer is still the object that captivates me the most. From the moment I saw the pen box, I was in awe. This elegant 16th-century object is perched high in a case with other objects made in the Indian state of Gujarat. Its shiny lacquer surface and glimmering figures feature graceful nasta’liq script inlaid with mother-of-pearl. These elegant details make it one of the most beautiful artworks in the collection. Whenever I bring a friend or family member to the Freer, the pen box is always our first stop.

As someone who has a great love of literature and a passion for art and art history, I suppose it’s not surprising that I would be drawn to this object over so many others. The translation of the inlaid script on the box reads, “When I tested the ink, I remembered your black tresses.” Such a poetic phrase matches the physical beauty of the box. Its owner must have had a love of literature and poetry, just as I do. I think this is the reason why I continue to return to it and share it with everyone I know. The pen box reminds me of a time when writing was an important act that took care and effort. Today, we often use iPads and computers to do our writing as quickly and effortlessly as possible.

I hope everyone who visits the Freer and Sackler Galleries can connect with one (or more) of the hundreds of works of art that are on view. If you can’t visit, more than 40,000 objects in our collections have been digitized and are available in super hi-rez at Open F|S.

Friday Fave: Chiharu Shiota

Installation view of "Over the Continents" by Chiharu Shiota

Installation view of “Over the Continents” by Chiharu Shiota

If your shoes could talk, what story would they would tell?

I began working at the Freer|Sackler last July. One month later, Chiharu Shiota began assembling Over the Continents as part of the Perspectives series of contemporary art. Watching her work on the installation—shoes with little notes attached by red yarn—was enough reason for me to love it. Shiota spent three days carefully placing each shoe in the Sackler pavilion and then tying on the yarn, which originates in the corner of the room and connects one shoe to the next. For the artist, discarded shoes and notes link us to memories of times and people who are now lost to us.

Not only do I love the installation and the stories that it tells, I love the memory that I now have because of it. When I began working here, I was afraid that without a background in Asian art, I would have a hard time connecting to the artworks and exhibitions. Watching Shiota install her work changed that, allowing me to appreciate and understand my new place of work. Having moved twelve times in twenty-eight years, it’s very important for me to solidify a connection to a new place early on. If my shoes could talk about my first few months at the Freer|Sackler, this is the story they would tell.

A selection of the notes on view in the installation have been translated from Japanese and made available on our website and on the computer in the pavilion. The exhibition closes this Sunday, so you only have a few days to check it out!

Friday Fave: Chinese Bells

Bell; China, Eastern Zhou dynasty, ca. 5th century BCE; bronze; Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, S1987.285

Bell; China, Eastern Zhou dynasty, ca. 5th century BCE; bronze; Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, S1987.285

My favorite part of physics in high school was the physics of sound. I was part of several ensembles then and ended up studying music in college. Years later, as a graduate student, I initially learned about Chinese bronze bells through a course on the music of Asia. The following quarter, my first art history course was on Chinese bronzes. This time, I learned about the bells from an art historical perspective.

Naturally, on my first visit to the Freer and Sackler with a friend in 2011, I was delighted to see a bronze bell on display. There it was: over a foot and a half tall; lens-shaped mouth; thirty-six studs jutting out from its body; a slight patina running down the middle, hinting at age; the taotie motif—fangs, horns, and brows snaking around protruding eyes—near the lip.

Clapperless and struck instead with a mallet, these bells were an integral part of ancient court rituals. A full set consists of more than sixty bells of varying sizes. Acoustically, each bell is capable of producing two tones depending on where it is hit: Striking along the side produces one tone, and striking along the middle results in a tone three degrees—or the equivalent of a major or minor third—away. Even in modern times, bronze bells have been used in important ceremonies, such as the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, and in the theme music for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

These bells highlight China’s advanced state of technological advancement and early mastery of bronze casting: Bells of this complexity would not begin to be produced in Europe for another millennia. Bronze bells were included in the British Museum’s History of the World in 100 Objects, and the Freer|Sackler has one of the finest collections of these bells in the world.

Friday Fave: Chinese Taoist Immortals

The Chinese Taoist Immortals, Han-shan and Shih-te (Kanzan and Jittoku); Hashimoto Gahō (1835–1908); Japan, Meiji era, 1886; ink and slight tint on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.227

The Chinese Taoist Immortals, Han-shan and Shih-te (Kanzan and Jittoku); Hashimoto Gahō (1835–1908); Japan, Meiji era, 1886; ink and slight tint on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.227

When I came to work at the Freer|Sackler in 1987, I had no idea how profoundly it would affect the path of my life. I discovered that the museums are in many ways a crossroads for lives past and present—a beautiful time machine. There are many noteworthy objects within the collections, but when I was asked to write about a “favorite object” this particular painting came to mind right away. It is the work of a master, but one of many within the museums. To me, this picture is so expressive and so evocative that the Chinese Taoist Immortals very nearly come alive.

Han-shan (pictured above), a legendary poet whose name translates as “Cold Mountain,” wrote the following verse:

The everyday mind: that is the way.
Buried in vines and rock-bound caves,
Here it’s wild, here I am free,
Idling with the white clouds, my friends.
Tracks here never reach the world;
No-mind, so what can shift my thought?
I sit the night through on a bed of stone,
While the moon climbs Cold Mountain.

Friday Fave: Monkeys Grasp for the Moon

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing, S2004.2.1-21

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing, S2004.2.1-21

First-time visitors to the Sackler Gallery are often surprised and delighted by Chinese artist Xu Bing’s sculpture Monkeys Grasp for the Moon. The impressive installation comprises a series of twenty-one interlocking laminated wood “monkeys.” They hang from the ceiling of the Gallery’s atrium and descend, one beneath another, through the center of the three-story stairwell to end suspended above a reflecting pool at the bottom level.

What I particularly love about this work is the seamless integration of sculptural forms, multiple writing systems and languages, and storytelling. It starts with a Chinese folktale that describes a group of monkeys in a tree that decide to capture the moon. By linking their arms and tails, they form a chain down toward the moon, only to discover that it is a reflection in a body of water at the base of the tree. Xu’s monkeys certainly look the part, despite being heavily abstracted. They have tails and arms and faces that are clearly identifiable. But each one also spells out the word “monkey” in a different language, in scripts as diverse as Urdu, German, Chinese, and Braille. People, children especially, will often work their way through the entire installation, carefully matching each monkey to a key that shows which one represents which language.

By bringing together these different languages and writing systems into such a coherent form, Monkeys Grasp for the Moon speaks to me about universal connections between peoples of different cultures. It is a fitting way to welcome visitors to an institution devoted to such a culturally and artistically diverse part of the world.