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Angry Birds?

Kenzan style tea bowl with design of crane and flowing water; Japan; late 19th century; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.100

Kenzan style tea bowl with design of crane and flowing water; late 19th century;
Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.100


Lee Glazer is associate curator of American art at Freer|Sackler.

Hardly. When artists evoked avian melodies, as Thomas Dewing did in The Four Sylvan Soundsthey intended to soothe and refresh, to take the viewer out of “the harness of business” and into a more pleasant, “sylvan” realm. The sounds and scents of nature are mentioned with surprising frequency in Freer’s correspondence with artists and friends. Dewing used the sensory pleasures of a woodland ramble to induce Freer to visit him at his summer studio in Cornish, New Hampshire. “I wish you could be here,” Dewing wrote in June 1894, “taking in this cool fresh air filled with bird notes & scents of flowers.”

Two years later, the artist translated this experience into the visual language of painting, telling Freer he had begun work on a pair of screens representing “the four forest notes—the Hermit Thrush, the sound of running water, the woodpecker, and the wind through the pine trees.” These screens, now on view in Sylvan Sounds: Freer, Dewing, and Japan, incorporate a number of influences, the most direct being the natural beauty of the New England countryside. The figures were inspired by ancient Greek Tanagra figurines, and the theme came from a poem called “Wood Notes” by the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Dewing’s debt to Japanese art is evident in the bifold format of the screens and the simplicity of the unframed panels. The flowers and forest leaves, some painted with a stencil, resemble the elegant, stylized patterns of many screens in Freer’s Japanese collection, along with the multisensory imagery denoting bird songs and rustling grasses.

Rectangular Dish, Japan, stoneware with white slip and iron pigment under white glaze; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.53

Rectangular dish; Japan; stoneware with white slip and iron pigment under white glaze;
19th century; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.53

Freer had purchased his first two Japanese folding screens early in 1896, just after returning from his first visit to Japan. Later that same year, Dewing began to paint The Four Sylvan Sounds. During the two years that Dewing worked on these panels, Freer acquired sixteen Japanese screens, twelve of which are now in the museum’s collection. After promising his art collection to the Smithsonian Institution in 1906, Freer stipulated that his Japanese screens had to be displayed in a special gallery in a proposed new museum. He envisioned the space as a link between galleries devoted to Dewing and other American artists and those featuring the art of Whistler. This early arrangement underscored Freer’s belief in cross-cultural aesthetic connections between East and West—a principle theme in the current exhibition as well.

Sylvan Sounds: Freer, Dewing, and Japan remains on view through May 18, 2014.

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Yoga: The Art of Transformation opens Saturday, October 19

Vishnu Vishvarupa India, Rajasthan, Jaipur, ca. 1800–1820 Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 38.5 x 28 cm Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Given by Mrs. Gerald  Clark, IS.33-2006

Vishnu Vishvarupa, India, Rajasthan, Jaipur, ca. 1800–1820, Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Given by Mrs. Gerald Clark, IS.33-2006

Through masterpieces of Indian sculpture and painting, Yoga: The Art of Transformation explores yoga’s goals; its Hindu as well as Buddhist, Jain, and Sufi manifestations; its means of transforming body and consciousness; and its profound philosophical foundations. The first exhibition to present this leitmotif of Indian visual culture, it also examines the roles that yogis and yoginis played in Indian society over two thousand years.

Follow the conversation at #artofyoga

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September 11, 1893

Swami Vivekananda on the platform at the Parliament of Religions, September 1893.

Swami Vivekananda on the platform at the Parliament of World Religions, September 1893.

September 11 is a day we’ve come to associate with intolerance, but 120 years ago that was not the case. In September 1893, Swami Vivekananda traveled from India to the United States to address the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. “Sisters and brothers of America…” the swami said, and was met with thunderous applause from the nearly seven thousand people in attendance. Only thirty years old, he wowed the audience, conveying a message of hope and peace. Wearing his orange robes, he spoke as a Hindu monk with a universal message: “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.” Reporting on the event, the New York Herald wrote: “Vivekananda is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions. After hearing him we feel how foolish it is to send missionaries to this learned nation.”

Swami Vivekananda was also the author of Raja Yoga, a groundbreaking treatise that became a bestseller in India and around the world. In the book, Vivekananda writes that “Raga Yoga. . .never asks the question of what our religion is. We are human beings, that is sufficient” (Raja Yoga, 1896). His teachings helped shape modern discourses on yoga, which we will explore in greater depth when Yoga: The Art of Transformation opens on October 19.

Listen to Swami Vivekananda’s speech from September 11, 1893.

Learn more about Swami Vivekananda and his connection to Charles Lang Freer.

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Almost Perfect: Maud Franklin and Whistler’s Wistful Impressions

 

Pink note: The Novelette

Pink note: The Novelette; James McNeill Whistler, early 1880s; watercolor on paper; F1902.158a-c

Maggie Abe, a student at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, spent the summer in the Freer|Sackler’s American art department, where she was the Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies intern and did research for an ongoing technical and art historical study of Whistler’s watercolors. She will graduate from Colby College in May 2014 with BAs in studio art and biology. The Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies is supported by the generosity of the Lunder Foundation and comprises the Freer|Sackler, the Colby College Museum of Art, the University of Glasgow, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Despite accusations of reducing them to arrangements, notes, and harmonies in his paintings, the women whom James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) kept for company were driving influences in his life and art. Although he vocally eschewed narrative in his works to focus on color, his feelings for his female subjects are couched in the subtleties of his compositions. Beneath carefully crafted color harmonies linger the unspoken wishes, unrealized fantasies, and quiet lamentations of a man probably not as aloof as he would have had the public believe.

Whistler’s complicated relationship with his long-term mistress and model Maud Franklin (1857–1941) provides the basis for several sentimental watercolors in the Freer collection. They were together for more than a decade, but because they never married, Maud was excluded from society. These watercolors are tender impressions of how Whistler saw Maud and wished she could be seen by his acquaintances: as his significant other deserving of their respect.

Pink note: The Novelette, Note in Opal: Breakfast, and Bravura in Brown, all painted from 1883–84, are united by a common formula. In all three, Maud is alone, but props such as empty chairs and rumpled bed sheets suggest her companion has only just stepped out. Reading or playing the piano, she is introspectively occupied: a demure woman in an attractive, but not ostentatious space. Unlike Whistler’s earlier oil Arrangement in White and Black, in which Maud’s youth and immodesty are hard to ignore, these watercolors do not put on a show, but rather leave a gentle impression. To Whistler, they were probably bittersweet, allowing him to pretend that his life with Maud was as pleasant and stable as the watercolors suggest. In reality, it was only on paper that she would be received by the homes of proper society.

Notwithstanding their volatile relationship, Whistler painted Maud with great affection in these watercolors. She is repeatedly depicted in rooms with art, the obsession of Whistler’s world. Paintings feature in the décor of all three rooms; indeed, one scholar suggests that the color of Maud’s blouse in Pink note: The Novelette is meant to connect her with the pink-tinged painting on the mantle. As Maud posed for more than 60 of Whistler’s paintings, drawings, and prints, it is hardly surprising that he would associate her with his art. By placing them together in these images, Whistler is acknowledging her influence in the development of his passion.

While such sentiment for a mistress seems to go against the grain of Whistler’s general reputation, it is important to note that these paintings were the products of his standing as an aging artist with an established name. Unlike the earlier days when he lived with his first mistress, Joanna Hiffernan, as a relatively unknown artist with something to prove, 50-year-old Whistler did not feel content living as a rogue on the fringes of society.

Whistler and Maud’s relationship began to suffer in 1879, when the artist went bankrupt and was forced to face reality. When he suddenly proposed to Beatrix Godwin (1857–1896) in 1888—a marriage that would provide him with stability, order, and favorable connections—it may have been that the opportune moment had finally presented itself after years of mounting discomfort.

The Sisters

The Sisters; James McNeill Whistler, 1894-95; lithograph on paper (transfer lithograph); F1903.82

In his marriage to Beatrix, Whistler seems to have attained the harmony that he had been courting in his watercolors. The wistful depictions of Maud in solitude are replaced by accounts of Beatrix and her sisters delighting in domestic bliss, though it would not last long. Hints of Beatrix’s terminal cancer surface in lithographs such as The Sisters—all would be well in this interior if it were not for Beatrix’s languishing posture. She appears weak beside her upright sister, and there is an air of concern polluting the peaceful scene.

The tables turned in Whistler’s art: in the watercolors, he altered Maud to satisfy his desire to change reality, but in later depictions of his ailing wife Beatrix, his art became an outlet for his grief. This time, it was an inescapable sickness that snapped Whistler from his reverie.

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Eels in July

Ascending Eels by Kimura Buzan; early 20th century; F2008.2a-c

Ascending Eels by Kimura Buzan; early 20th century; F2008.2a-c

The Japanese words for the subject of this painting, unagi nobori, mean “a fast, rocket-like rise.” Eels have been an important delicacy in Japan since the Edo period (1615–1868). Eating eel during the hot, humid summer was believed to increase stamina. It is still customary to consume the fish on a certain midsummer day on the lunar calendar that usually falls in late July.

Confident sweeps of the brush define with utmost simplicity the forms of two eels and ashrimp; gold pigment highlights the edges of their bodies. The artist’s elegant, hand-painted design of maples and grasses serves as a harmonious silk mounting for the painting. Kimura Buzan studied painting under Kawabata Gyokusho (1842–1913), an artist who knew both European and Japanese painting methods. Kimura also studied at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts (founded 1876) and was active in exhibitions of the Nihon Bijutsuin, an association of artists founded in 1898.

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On Rina Banerjee’s “A World Lost”

Rina Banerjee installing "A World Lost" in the Sackler Paviion.

Rina Banerjee installing A World Lost in the Sackler Pavilion.

Hetty Lipscomb is development writer and stewardship manager at Freer|Sackler.

“Hospitality starts with a glass of water”
Artist talk with Rina Banerjee

Scientist and artist Rina Banerjee has created a site-specific work in the Sackler Pavilion as part of the Perspectives series of contemporary art, called A World Lost, referencing the major rivers of Asia. Actually, the full title is: A World Lost: after the original island, single land mass fractured, after populations migrated, after pollution revealed itself and as cultural locations once separated merged, after the splitting of Adam and Eve, Shiva and Shakti, of race black and white, of culture East and West, after animals diminished, after the seas’ corals did exterminate, after this and at last imagine all water evaporated…this after Columbus found it we lost it imagine this. It’s a wonderfully organic work, “growing” like a sea creature with tentacles and debris spilling all over the gallery’s stone floor. For Banerjee—and for all of us—the river is a metaphor for life and what we value, and an actual source of survival for many people around the world.

An experience with her mother a few years ago spurred Banerjee to think about the importance of water and inspired the sculpture. Her mother wanted to sell some property in Bangladesh, and Banerjee traveled with her from New York to help with the transaction. After they signed various papers in the local magistrate’s office, her mother wanted to to see who was living at the site. Property rights allow for squatters if the land is not occupied; whoever needs it can use it.

Detail of plastic cups from Rina Banerjee's "A World Lost."

Detail of plastic cups from Rina Banerjee’s A World Lost.

When they arrived, they saw a small house next to a pond. Inside the house, two little girls were digging in the dirt floor to reach the water table. Actually, one was digging, and the other was straining the water through an old cloth to make it drinkable, evidently a daily task. Tradition requires that when a visitor comes to your home, the first thing you do is offer her a glass of water. When one of the little girls spotted Banerjee and her mother, she immediately poured the water into a plastic cup and handed it to them. To be given something so valuable and so hard earned is an honor. In turn, Banerjee honors the young girls’ generosity and the vital importance of water by incorporating plastic cups in the Sackler installation.

Rina Banerjee’s A World Lost will be on view through June 2014.

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Happy Birthday, Jimmy Whistler!

Whistler in his studio in Paris.

James McNeill Whistler in his Paris studio at 86 rue Notre Dame des Champs, 1890s. Photograph
by M. Dornac. Charles Lang Freer Papers, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Archives.
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Lee Glazer is associate curator of American art at Freer|Sackler.

Today marks the 179th anniversary of the birth of James McNeill Whistler, the expatriate American artist who played a key role in the aesthetic education of museum founder and Detroit industrialist Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919). It was Whistler who encouraged Freer to travel to Asia and seek out rare and ancient works of art to juxtapose with his own paintings and prints. Whistler envisioned art as a “story of the beautiful” that transcended time, space, and cultural circumstances. “The story of the beautiful is already complete,” he famously declared in his Ten O’Clock Lecture of 1885, “hewn in the marbles of the Parthenon and ‘broidered, with the birds, upon the fan of Hokusai.”

Despite these lofty aesthetic pronouncements, Whistler was also very much a man of his time—a trendsetter, even. He took up residence in London’s Chelsea neighborhood while it was still “transitional,” contributing to the area’s soon-to-be-gentrified character, and his taste for Chinese blue-and-white porcelain launched the Victorian decorating craze known as Chinamania. He understood the expressive potential of fashion, too. Whistler was known for his carefully coiffed head of big hair, his monocle, and his patent leather dancing shoes, which he wore both for work in the studio and a night on the town. And he discerned the value of social networking and publicity in a way that now seems almost prescient. He wrote countless letters to editors, delivered dramatic public performances, hosted talked-about parties, and staged elaborately orchestrated exhibitions. It’s safe to say that if Whistler were alive today, he would embrace social media (at least, if he was the one deciding how and when to tweet or update his status) and interactive technology.

So, it is fitting that the Freer launches The Peacock Room Comes to America mobile app this month, which brings the gorgeous harmonies and dynamic history of Whistler’s famed decorative interior to anyone with an iPad or iPhone. Soon available for free download from the iTunes Store, the app includes an interactive panorama of the Peacock Room, lavish illustrations, and multimedia content, including a behind-the-scenes video of the room’s recent reinstallation. There’s also a chance to play curator by dropping and dragging digital ceramics onto a Whistler-decorated sideboard. Beginning this fall, visitors to the museum will be able to borrow iPads from the Freer information desk for use in the gallery.

Happy birthday, Jimmy! And welcome to the twenty-first century.

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Fireworks!

Fireworks at Ryōgoku, 1880, Kobayashi Kiyochika, S2003.8.1195

Fireworks at Ryōgoku, 1880, Kobayashi Kiyochika, Robert O. Muller Collection; S2003.8.1195

Kobayashi Kiyochika is known for his night scenes in much the same way that James McNeill Whistler is renowned for his Nocturnes. Both men were poets of the night, and will be featured in related exhibitions at the Freer|Sackler in 2014.

In Kiyochika’s Fireworks at Ryōgoku, two boats converge for Kawabiraki, a fireworks display held in mid-July to open the river to summer pleasure boats. In earlier times, fireworks had been used as part of a purification ritual to ward off summer illness. By Kiyochika’s time, the display had lost that earlier meaning and was more of a spectacle.

Kiyochika is not the first artist to depict this scene, but his novel use of light to illuminate the foreground adds a cinematic touch to the print. The members of both boating parties—traveling in a palace boat (yakatabune) on the right and a roof boat (yanebune) at left—cast silhouettes that make the revelers look as if they were sailing across a movie screen.

Happy July 4 from the Freer|Sackler!

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Danielle Probst: From Child’s Pose to Yoga Messenger

Danielle Probst

Danielle Probst

Danielle Probst is marketing manager for River’s Edge Yoga studio in Alexandria and Virginia Yoga Week. In her role as Yoga Messenger, Danielle is helping to get the word out about our upcoming exhibition, Yoga: Art of Transformation.

As a native Washingtonian, I’ve spent many hours in museums, first as a child with the ubiquitous school tour, then, more memorably, as a teen. Back in the days before teens lived on their cell phones, I was a museum hound. My mother, a single parent, was more than willing to send me to this “Mall” to wander for hours. With a Metro farecard and a sandwich in my bag, the Freer|Sackler was among my favorite haunts. I recall stepping into the cool, quiet galleries, a refuge from the jungle-grade humidity of a Washington August.

What drew me in first was an interest in India. Small paintings, like pages from fantastic, magical books, lay upright in glass cases. These exquisite pictures amazed me with their vibrant colors, gold leaf, and miniature brushstrokes a hair’s breadth wide, bringing to life sari-garbed girls by the river being wooed by a playful young man with blue skin. These tiny worlds frozen on paper sucked me in and I was transported, and hooked.

The terrifying faces of wrathful deities on giant thangkas held me in awe. Gnashing teeth, blood dripping from swords, eyes rolling in wrath—I could almost feel the hellfire they walked in. From the secret mathematics of Durga’s Triangle to Lakshmi’s glittering coins, each room held objects of wonder. Every Buddha and yogini thrilled me.

Not surprisingly, I ended up in art school. In my years of traveling and study I spent many hours visiting Asian art in cities such as Chicago, London, and Berlin. As the wheel of my life spun, I returned again and again to read Buddhist texts, groove to the sounds of Karsh Kale and Midival Punditz, and learn how to make my own paneer and naan.

When I heard about the exhibition Yoga: The Art of Transformation, I knew I’d be back to visit my friends—those magical manuscript pages at the Freer|Sackler—that to this day can whisper their secrets to me.

Art in its many forms is, to my mind, the purest expression of the divine. Whether it is a simple rangoli created by a housewife on her front steps or the purest tone of voices joined in chant, we can’t help but express our connection with the universe.
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Today is the last day to contribute to the crowdfunding campaign for Yoga: The Art of Transformation. Donate to “Together We’re One” or email us at yoga@si.edu to see how you can get involved.

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Heels Over Head: When Charles Lang Freer Met Swami Vivekananda

Poster (color lithograph), copy of original from Goes Lithograph Company, Chicago Vedanta Society of Northern California, Harrison series, 1893, V22

Poster (color lithograph), copy of original from Goes Lithograph Company, Chicago
Vedanta Society of Northern California, Harrison series, 1893, V22


Yoga: The Art of Transformation, the world’s first exhibition on the art of yoga, will open at the Freer|Sackler in October. Bento had a chance to speak to exhibition curator Debra Diamond about an 1894 meeting between museum founder Charles Lang Freer and Swami Vivekananda, a key figure in bringing Indian philosophies about yoga to the West.

Bento: Did Charles Lang Freer know about yoga?

Debra Diamond: Probably. Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902), the first truly influential teacher of yoga to come to the United States, arrived in Detroit in 1894 to give talks at local churches and a synagogue. Freer hosted a dinner for him at his home on Ferry Street.

Bento: Why was Swami Vivekananda in the United States?

DD: He came to participate in the World’s Parliament of Religions that was part of the Chicago World’s Fair—the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Well spoken, charismatic, and exotic in his orange robes, Swami Vivekananda was a huge hit. He introduced a rational and ecumenical Hinduism that was very appealing to Westerners interested in Eastern spiritual and religious traditions. His talks were so popular that the organizers scheduled them for the end of the day, so the auditorium wouldn’t empty out in the afternoons. Although Emerson knew of Indian philosophy and Thoreau had said, “At times, even I am a yogi,” it was really Swami Vivekananda who made yoga well known in the United States.

Bento: Why do you think Freer was intrigued?

DD: Freer had a cosmopolitan worldview, and he was part of a social and intellectual sphere that was interested in spirituality and Asian cultures. Senator Thomas W. Palmer, who would become the first president of the Detroit Museum of the Arts [now the Detroit Institute of the Arts], lived down the street from Freer. Palmer served as president of the Fair and had Swami Vivekananda stay with him in his home.

Bento: What did Freer think of Swami Vivekananda?

DD: We don’t have any records of Freer’s response; his terse diary entries don’t mention the event. However, his papers include a receipt for a donation of $250. This suggests Freer may have found Swami Vivekananda’s message of a universal spirit that transcends religious differences compatible with his conception of art. Freer believed that modern and ancient masterpieces of art were “harmonious in spiritual suggestion,” “universal,” and had the power “to elevate the human mind.”

Bento: Could Swami Vivekananda have inspired Freer’s trip to India the following year?

DD: Maybe he was inspired. Maybe he got travel tips! But we really don’t know if there is a connection. Freer’s diaries are pretty sparse at this time.

Bento: Are there principles in Swami Vivekananda’s teachings that we would recognize today?

DD: Swami Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga is a foundational work in the dissemination of yoga across the world. In the book, Vivekananda writes that “Raga Yoga…never asks the question of what our religion is. We are human beings, that is sufficient” (Raja Yoga, 1896). His commentary on (and translation of) the aṣṭāṅga (eight-limb) yoga section of Patañjali’s Yogasūtras focuses on its potential for spiritual growth. All of these things color modern discourses about yoga. Swami Vivekananda was probably the first to really convey the message that yoga was something that Americans could do. We recognize that today, and it’s taken for granted, but it was not previously. For more on Swami Vivekananda’s role in yoga history—including why he wasn’t interested in the postures of hatha yoga that we know so well today—come see the exhibition in October!

Want to contribute to the Yoga exhibition? Donate to our “Together We’re One” crowdfunding campaign or email us at yoga@si.edu to see how you can get involved.

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