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Charles Lang Freer: A Wild and Crazy Guy?

Charles Lang Freer ca. 1905, Charles Lang Freer Papers, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Archives.

Charles Lang Freer ca. 1905, Charles Lang Freer papers, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives

Lee Glazer, associate curator of American art at Freer|Sackler, takes a closer look at American art this month in honor of the 90th anniversary of the Freer Gallery of Art, which opened its doors to the public on May 2, 1923.

It may come as a surprise to learn that Charles Lang Freer, captain of industry, connoisseur of fine art, and, eventually, founder of the Freer Gallery, was also a fan of banjo music. In 1897, he arranged for a famous banjo trio, the Doré Brothers, to travel from New York City to Detroit, where they performed at a formal dinner at the exclusive Detroit Club in honor of club-member Russell Alger’s appointment as Secretary of War under President McKinley. (Alger, a Civil War veteran, had made a fortune in the lumber business and was a major shareholder in Freer’s Peninsular Car Company.) On the evening of January 20, the Doré Brothers played a specially commissioned piece, “The Detroit Club March.” Freer, writing to American artist Thomas Wilmer Dewing (another Doré Brothers fan), praised their performance as a great success.

Was there a wild and crazy guy behind that pince-nez and starched collar? Maybe … but then again, maybe not. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, there was a movement among some musicians to “elevate” the banjo, distancing it from its African origins and subsequent association with minstrel shows. By the 1880s, the banjo had become nearly as popular as the piano among wealthy, novelty-seeking young women. It was a full-blown fad on college campuses, whose banjo clubs typically performed orchestra-fashion, with guitars and mandolins. Professionals, among them the Doré Brothers, appeared in tuxedos and played serious European music arranged for banjo: well-known works by Wagner, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Chopin were all part of the banjo repertoire in the 1890s. “The Detroit Club March” wasn’t exactly high art, though, and it’s nice to think of what one Gilded Age critic called the banjo’s “half-barbaric twang … in harmony with the unmechanical melodies of the birds” enlivening a winter gathering of capitalists in black tie.

[Sources: Philadelphia Music and Drama, 1891; Thomas Wilmer to Charles Lang Freer, February 16, [1897] and March 2, [1897], Charles Lang Freer papers, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Archives]

Posted by in A Closer Look, American Art | No Comments

Nomads and Networks: Archaeologists Between Digs

Rebecca Beardmore taking phytolith soil samples at Tuzusai in 2011, photo by Perry A. Tourtellotte

Rebecca Beardmore taking phytolith soil samples at Tuzusai in 2011, photo by Perry A. Tourtellotte

Claudia Chang, professor of archaeology at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, is director of an international field research project on the archaeology of the Iron Age in the Republic of Kazakhstan. Claudia blogged for Bento from Kazakhstan during the exhibition Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan at the Sackler last fall.

My friends and even a former professor used to joke that archaeologists have a kind of schizophrenic life. We have lovely summers working in the field, doing surveys and excavations. During the winter months, we find ourselves in the laboratory, counting sherds, transposing field notes, and waiting for all the specialists’ reports to be completed, from the radiometric dates of ancient hearths to the metallurgical studies of ancient bronzes. In fact, this charmed existence of field archaeology usually means that you pay for all those good times in the field; for every week of fieldwork you need about three times that for laboratory cataloging, cleaning and processing artifacts, counting, creating statistics and spreadsheets, writing up reports, and interpreting the data. Most of us have learned to make our “deal with the devil.” Since January 1, 2013, I have been holed up in my attic office in Virginia, overlooking the foothills of the Blue Ridge, surrounded by books, papers, and articles, writing the early chapters of a book on Iron Age research on the Talgar fan

The view out my window is lovely this afternoon, as the sun sets on Paul’s Mountain. I am surrounded by books that range from the philosophy of science to Bronze Age Eurasia. Right now it seems impossible to condense 18 years of fieldwork, let alone the past five months of research on the Talgar fan, into any kind of readable narrative, either for an academic audience or myself.

Recently, Rebecca Beardmore, a PhD student in archaeology at University College, London, called me by Skype from Birmingham, England, where she had just finished graphing all the phytolith counts she made during the 2011 field season at Tuzusai, our Iron Age settlement site. Phytoliths, or plant stones, are the silicate cells of ancient plant remains that can be trapped in archaeological soils, such as ancient mudbricks. Rebecca’s analysis, conducted with a scanning electron microscope, has shown that the reddish-yellow and yellow mudbrick samples have lower densities of ancient plant materials than the brown-red and greenish mudbricks. All four samples of mudbrick seem to have some remnants of wheat plants, as well as wild grass parts, both husks and leaves. This means that the Iron Age builders at Tuzusai probably dumped a bunch of plant material into pits where they mixed the mudbricks, which then formed the walls, floors, and ramps of the adobe architecture we have discovered. But why do some bricks have higher densities of plant material than others?

That question sent me back to my field notes from 2011, which include chicken-scratch drawings of the red-brown and green mudbricks. Those mudbricks appear on my sketches to be large wall or foundation features, while the yellow or reddish-yellow ones are usually the tops of the platform or just beneath the plastered floors. Could it be that the ancient inhabitants of Tuzusai put more straw and debris into the foundation walls and less in the floor bricks? I told Rebecca that she should rename her thesis, “The Unseen Archaeological Record.” She says maybe she’ll title the thesis, “Down and Dirty, Mudbrick and Animal Dung.” Good thing I have those sketches of mudbricks in my notebook.

After we left Tuzusai last fall, the archaeological facts come now from the laboratory, the field notebooks, and an occasional inspiration I might have while staring out the window at the mocking bird perched on the crab apple tree. Central Virginia and the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains seem faraway from the Tian Shan Mountains of Kazakhstan, but lest I forget, a large map of the Upper Asi Valley is pinned to the wall by my desk.

Posted by in Ancient Near East, Exhibitions | No Comments

The Art of the Book

Case Study: Japanese books from the Gerhard Pulverer Collection

Case study: Japanese books from the Gerhard Pulverer collection

On Saturday, April 6, Hand-Held: Gerhard Pulverer’s Japanese Illustrated Books opens in the Sackler. In honor of the exhibition, we’re hosting a weekend celebrating Japanese arts and design. Check our calendar to learn more about the events that include tours, talks, hands-on activities, and music.

Posted by in Exhibitions, Family Day, Japanese Art | No Comments

Kilnsites and Campsites in Cambodia

My tent, below the kiln mound, Cambodia.

My tent, below the kiln mound, Cambodia.

Louise Cort is curator of ceramics at Freer|Sackler.

Plop! … Plop! Oh dear, are those fat raindrops striking my ultralight tent? And is there a crowd of people outside the tent speaking French? Those were among the confused thoughts of my first night camping in Cambodia. I awoke to realize: No, not raindrops but large, glossy, oval leaves from the trees above our forest campsite. And, not French but Khmer, as people from the nearby village arrived before daybreak to cook breakfast for the members of our kilnsite excavation workshop.

Some twenty of us were camped at the foot of a mound concealing a kilnsite that had last been seen by the potters who operated the kiln in the twelfth or thirteenth century, using it to make large brown-glazed stoneware storage jars. (We knew that much from fragments of jars scattered over the mound.) Our job was to excavate the kiln, exposing it once again in order to understand the technology that made it work. Like a fingerprint, the kiln’s distinctive structure would offer clues to its place in the chronology of ceramics production during the centuries when the great urban complex of Angkor was capitol of much of mainland Southeast Asia.

Asleep beneath thatched roofs and mosquito nets elsewhere in the camp were seventeen young archaeologists from Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Yunnan (China), and Germany. Also out there were Australian archaeologist Don Hein and Cambodian archaeologist Ea Darith, who would share their knowledge and experience with us. A grant awarded to the Freer|Sackler by the Henry Luce Foundation made our gathering possible.

I’m writing this while temporarily back at the museum, but I’m acutely aware of activities at the campsite, twelve hours ahead around the globe. The daily schedule there: wake-up, breakfast, morning briefing, work, lunch and rest, afternoon briefing, work, bath, dinner, sleep. In a few days, I’ll return to Cambodia, and to my tent, and to the kiln. Can’t wait.

Learn more about Southeast Asian art in our collections.

Posted by in Ceramics | 2 Comments

Stars above Pasargadae: Ernst Herzfeld and the Legacies of Cyrus

Pasargadae Palace

One of the palaces at Pasargadae, photo by Alex Nagel

Alex Nagel, assistant curator of ancient Near Eastern art at Freer|Sackler, is the in-house cocurator of the exhibition The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning, opening at the Sackler on March 9. Check out our calendar for exhibition-related events.

Pasargadae, located in Morghab (“Plain of the Waterbird”) in Iran, was the first capital of the ancient Achaemenid Empire, founded by Cyrus the Great, and the famed leader’s final resting place. When the German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld (1879-1948) visited the region in 1905, he was impressed by its ruins. Revisiting Pasargadae in November 1923, Herzfeld gave the following account:

“… The morning was just gorgeous: the plain glittered as if it had been filled with millions of stars; everywhere was a hoar-frost of crystals. After last night’s marvelous sunset, I spent the moonlit night by the Tomb of Cyrus (minus 4 degree Celsius). The whole day just beautiful: the narrow valley of the Pulvar River … By the water there were willows, reeds, oleander …. The colors of the Fall: the trees yellow–orange to carmine-red, the sky in bright turquoise, the mountains violet, blue, red, yellow. Just gorgeous! I only wish I could send something of the beauty of these days back home.” (Ernst Herzfeld’s diary, November 19, 1923, Freer|Sackler Archives; translation by Alex Nagel).

While more recent fieldwork on the site has been conducted by Iranian, British, French, and Italian archaeologists, much valuable documentation can be gained from Herzfeld’s many early visits to the plain. There are more than 250 documents in the Freer|Sackler Archives referring to his fieldwork at Pasargadae, including large-scale maps, drawings, photographs, and squeezes. Pasargadae was the topic of Herzfeld’s dissertation, written for the Friedrich-Wilhelm Universitaet in Berlin (today’s Humboldt Universitaet), and a lifelong interest.

Photograph of the tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae with remains of a more recent cemetery, probably taken in 1923 © Photograph by Ernst Herzfeld, Freer|Sackler Archives

Photograph of the tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae with remains of a more recent
cemetery, probably taken in 1923, © Photograph by Ernst Herzfeld, Freer|Sackler Archives

The structure that draws the most attention at Pasargadae is the monumental tomb of Cyrus the Great, which Herzfeld documented in great detail. Inscribed clay tablets that Herzfeld excavated further south at Persepolis exactly eighty years ago, in March 1933, refer to cult activities at Pasargadae. Greek sources mention animal sacrifices at the tomb of Cyrus. According to the Roman author Strabo (64 BCE–24 CE), “Cyrus held Pasargadae in honor, because he there conquered Astyages [the last Median king] … in his last battle, transferred to himself the empire of Asia, founded a city, and constructed a palace as a memorial of his victory” (Strabo 15.3.8).

The Tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae in 1928; Drawing by Herzfeld in the Freer|Sackler Archives

The Tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae in 1928; © Drawing by Ernst Herzfeld, Freer|Sackler Archives

The tomb of Cyrus is empty today, but was full of items when Alexander the Macedon visited it. A later description states that “in the tomb … was placed a golden coffin, a couch, and a table … and in the middle of the couch was placed the coffin which held the body of Cyrus … the magi guarded the tomb of Cyrus.” One of the tablets Herzfeld excavated at Persepolis contains a seal impression of the name of “Cyrus, the Anshanite, son of Teispes.” This Cyrus might well have been a predecessor of our famous Cyrus the Great, whose father is referred to in other inscriptions as Cambyses, king of Anshan.

Posted by in Ancient Near East, Exhibitions | 1 Comment

Cyrus in Times Square

Cyrus Cylinder announcement in Times Square

Cyrus Cylinder announcement in Times Square

The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning opens at the Sackler Gallery on March 9, and the exhibition is already generating buzz on a mega-size scale. One of history’s most iconic objects and one of the British Museum’s most celebrated artifacts, the Cyrus Cylinder has never before been on view in the United States. In cuneiform writing, the object’s inscription proclaims Cyrus’s victory over Babylon in 539 BCE. It also decrees religious freedom for his newly conquered people—a statement that has inspired generations of philosophers, rulers, and statesmen.

While it’s pictured in Times Square, we hope the Cylinder inspires visitors and passersby. It’s interesting to see a 2,600-year-old object depicted on an electronic screen in one of the busiest cities in the modern world. I like how it finds itself situated between contemporary words and signs, caught between “Engage Opportunity” and a Europa Cafe.

To learn more about the Cyrus Cylinder and its historic importance, view the TED talk by Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum. Then, visit the Freer on Thursday, March 7, to see him discuss “The Many Meanings of the Cyrus Cylinder.”

Posted by in A Closer Look, Ancient Near East, Exhibitions | No Comments

Going Green

Folio from a Khamsa by Nizami, Bahram Gur in the turquoise-blue pavilion on Wednesday; Safavid period Iran, 1548

Folio from a Khamsa by Nizami, Bahram Gur in the turquoise-blue pavilion on Wednesday;
Safavid Iran, 1548, F1908.275

Those fine folks at Pantone, “the world’s experts on color,” have selected the color of the year for 2013. And the winner is … emerald green, or, as it’s known by designers all over the world, 17-5641.

There are so many shades of green and each one would be welcome today, on a drizzly, gray afternoon in DC. Rather than wait for spring, I decided to search the collections and look for some of my favorite green objects. The range is vast: from the robe of a sixteenth-century Persian youth to the grass and trees in a Thomas Dewing landscape to the aged patina of a bronze Chinese vessel, and, of course, the folio above from the Khamsa (or Quintet), a collection of five poems by the poet Nizami.

The Khamsa ranks among the great masterpieces of Persian literature. It tells the story of a prince and seven princesses, each from a different land, and each depicted in a colored pavilion. The turquoise pavilion is the setting for Wednesday’s tale, a romantic poem recited by the princess from Magrib. But delving deeper, the poem offers a glimpse into Islamic mysticism (Sufism), with each day of the week representing the journey of the soul. Here, at stage five, the soul is satisfied, on its journey to become wholly purified and at one with god.

Check out other scenes from this tale, including a visit from the Indian princess in the black pavilion.

Posted by in From the Collections, Islamic Art | No Comments

Mei-ling Hom on Contemporary Korean Ceramics

Inside Lee Inchin's studio  (photo by David McClelland)

Inside Lee Inchin’s studio (photo by David McClelland)

Bento had a chance to touch base with artist Mei-ling Hom in advance of the talk on contemporary Korean ceramics that she and independent scholar David McClelland will present this Saturday, February 9, at 2 pm in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium.

Bento: We know you as a sculptor and installation artist, but what is your relationship to ceramics?

Mei-ling Hom: As an undergraduate at Kirkland College my major was ceramic sculpture. After Kirkland I moved to Philadelphia and worked solely in clay for 15 years until I entered the graduate program at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University in 1985. That’s when I started working in installation and exploring the nuanced understanding of spatial perception in varying cultural contexts. After graduate school, I returned to my teaching position in Philadelphia, where I taught ceramics and three-dimensional design for 26 years.

B: What inspired you to focus on contemporary Korean ceramics?

MH: While I was teaching at the community college, the NEH sponsored the Asian Studies Development Program (ASDP) to infuse Asian content into existing curricula, thereby bringing diversity to American educational systems. I knew that Korea had a lively art scene but I knew very little about it, so I applied to ASDP. I was one of twelve teachers accepted into this program nationwide. We were flown to Hawaii, where we had three weeks of academic lectures, and then onto Korea for another three-week lecture program with field trips and official government luncheons. To my dismay, there was nothing addressing contemporary art in the six-week course. So I applied for a Fulbright grant to return to Korea and conducted the research myself.

B: Tell me about the year you and David spent in South Korea on a Fulbright.

MH: To work successfully in Asia it is important to have the right contacts. When we arrived we had two: Lee Inchin, the director of the Ceramic Research Institute at Hongik University, and Cho Chung Hyun, an emerita professor of ceramics at Ewha University. We had studied with her 26 years earlier in Edwardsville, Illinois, when she was a graduate student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

Our first line of business was to define a list of candidates to interview. We spent days at the Ceramic Research Institute poring over exhibition catalogs to compile our “artists of interest” list. We also had to prove our credibility to the ceramic community, so we enrolled in intensive Korean language study, attended every weekly gallery opening, and introduced ourselves. As Korean artists learned of our project, they suggested ceramic artists we should contact.

About three months into the Fulbright, we started interviewing artists. Our Korean language skills were very sketchy so we usually traveled with a translator if the artist did not speak English. David would usually photograph the studio and the artist while I conducted the interview. In the beginning we had one interview per day, but as artists learned of our project we sometimes had to schedule five or six per day. We tried to spend a lot of time with each artist so we could really develop a sense of his or her work and process.

The majority of our interviewed artists live in Seoul, where one-fourth of Korea’s population resides. By the end of the summer we were traveling outside of Seoul to visit pottery studios and conduct interviews. For the appointments in the southern tip of the peninsula we took an extended journey and found lodging along the way. The artists were extremely generous. Often they would take us to meet other potters in out-of-the way locales, and of course they shared their delicious local cuisines with us.

An unexpected side benefit to our stay in Korea was learning about Korean classical music and the new compositions being produced for classical instruments. One of the potters we stayed with in Kwangju played the Korean bamboo flute. He would wake us in the mornings with the lilting notes of his flute and in the evenings local musicians would gather at his studio to jam together. For the our CD on Contemporary Korean Ceramic Artists, we used Hwang Byungki‘s music on the kayageum, a zither-like string instrument, in the background.

B: What defines contemporary Korean ceramics? How have time-honored traditions changed in the hands of the artists you met?

MH: Ceramic artists in Korea draw on their thousand-year history of working with high-fire stoneware and porcelain. But porcelain can be used in ways far removed from Chinese prototypes. Yoon Sol has forms and a size range that clearly are influenced by his youthful obsession with putting together plastic fantasy models. Now he has translated his “hand thought” (a delightful West African term for craftwork) into a rather severe, Northern European-influenced precisionist model—which is really Korean, because it echoes a cultural preoccupation with the clarity and beauty of high-fire porcelain (itself an echo of the purity and hardness of jade).

Other artists, such as Lee Kang Hyo, Yoon Kwang Cho, and Cho Chung Hyun, draw directly on the form and surface decoration of historical pots. Their works are not recreations of any specific era but sit comfortably with their predecessors while pointing in a new direction. Shin Sang Ho is sui generis. His work can not be easily inserted into the flow of art history and perhaps we shouldn’t try. I’m sure he would quote Popeye: “I yam what I yam.”

B: For your 2005 installation at the Sackler, “Floating Mountains, Singing Clouds,” you said that you were drawn to clouds because “they travel everywhere and are perceived by different cultures in different ways.” Can a similar statement be applied to clay?

MH: The cloud is different because you cannot touch and manipulate it—it is an experienced phenomenon we understand through a mental and emotional process. Clay is utterly responsive to every nudge, squeeze, and pull of the hand. So in touching clay, a very personal and direct impulse can be conveyed.

B: How has your time in Korea influenced your own work?

MH: When I returned from Korea I was anxious to touch clay again. At the time I was involved in two large public art commissions, one for the Philadelphia International Airport and the other for the Raleigh Durham International Airport. I was, however, able to work with a country potter in North Carolina for two months. There I produced a body of wood-fired ceramic clouds, which were exhibited at the Fleisher Ollman Gallery in 2010.

Posted by in Contemporary Art, Interviews, Korean Art, Talks and Lectures | 1 Comment

Demons Out! Luck In!

Throwing Beans by Kawanabe Kyosai, Japan, 1889, Robert O. Muller Collection, S2003.8.496

Throwing Beans by Kawanabe Kyosai, Japan, 1889, Robert O. Muller Collection, S2003.8.496

New Year’s resolutions not quite working out for you? Winter sleet and dark skies have you down? I have one word to offer: beans. Yep, beans. February 3 marks the start of Setsubun, the Japanese festival where you drive out bad demons (oni) to bring in good fortune. After the beans are tossed, gather up as many beans as years you are old (but not one bean more!) in order to ensure good luck. So, on Sunday, pick up a handful of beans (any kind will do, though traditionally roasted soybeans are the weapon of choice), and join our Japanese friends in the Setsubun festival.

In Kyosai’s print, the woman on the left holds the tray of beans, but she seems to have the mumps. This full-cheeked woman is an Edo-period rendering of the goddess Otafaku, who, according to legend, performed an erotic dance that lured the sun goddess from a cave in which she had hidden, thus filling the world with light. Without demons hanging around your house, the world is a much brighter place.

Ready. Set. Toss.

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

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.

Posted by in A Closer Look, Japanese Art | No Comments