Friday Fave: March MADness

Mask; Japan, Edo period, 1615–1868; wood with paint and hair; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.314

Mask; Japan, Edo period, 1615–1868; wood with paint and hair; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.314

 

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

Not only is it Friday the 13th, but it’s also just days until the year’s scariest, most cutthroat contest: March MADness. While the rest of America roots for their favorite men’s basketball teams, we at the museums will pit sixteen intimidating objects against one another for the coveted title of Freer|Sackler’s Fiercest. Pictured is last year’s winner (after edging out the Maiden of Dojoji), a Japanese mask that represents a demon (oni). It probably was used in a ritual exorcism performed the night before the New Year, and its eyes may once have been coated with gilt metal for extra glaring power.

On Tuesday, as the NCAA kicks off its tournament, head to the F|S Facebook page to vote for the maddest, baddest objects in our collection. Then, follow along with our bracket to see if your picks make it to the final rounds. As head of our social media team, it would be biased of me to name a top choice in this sure-to-be-contentious battle—but I can divulge that this year’s group ups the ante in pure nightmare fuel.

Visit our Connect page to find more ways to follow the Freer|Sackler on social media.

Friday Fave: Nasta‘liq

Folios of calligraphy, signed by Mir Imad al-Hasani (d. 1615); Iran, probably Isfahan, Safavid period, dated 1611–12 (1020 AH); borders signed by Muhammad Hadi, Iran, Safavid period, dated 1755–56 (1169 AH); ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art, F1931.20 and F1942.15b

Folios of calligraphy, signed by Mir Imad al-Hasani (d. 1615); Iran, probably Isfahan, Safavid period, dated 1611–12 (1020 AH); borders signed by Muhammad Hadi, Iran, Safavid period, dated 1755–56 (1169 AH); ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art, F1931.20 and F1942.15b

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

To prepare for the exhibition Nasta‘liq: The Genius of Persian Calligraphy, I pored over the Freer|Sackler’s large collection of related calligraphy, searching for the one piece that would embody the main idea I wanted to convey: that the visual aspects of the nasta’liq script are equal to, if not more important than, its meaning. After a long search, it was actually two pieces that caught my attention—two folios mounted together as a pair, in an album made in mid-eighteenth-century Iran and acquired in 1909 by Tsar Nicholas II. This impressive volume is now known as the St. Petersburg Album.

It doesn’t matter whether you can read the poetic verses or not. The contrast between the deep black, graceful lines of calligraphy and the shimmering illuminations and margins is dazzling. Both pages present the same quatrain and both were copied by the same calligrapher, the celebrated Mir Imad al-Hasani, in 1611, four years before his death. Penned on exquisite paper—marbled in pink or decorated with gold floral designs—these two folios represent the ultimate examples of a series exercise: the calligrapher practiced copying a verse until he created an example that he considered perfect. The two calligraphies may look identical at first glance, but there is one subtle difference. In fact, the shape of a single word distinguishes them. On the third line, hich (“nothing”) is compressed in the folio on the right, whereas it shows an elongated ligature between the ha and ya letters in the folio at left.

This minor distinction, which a viewer can only identify through long and sedulous contemplation, embodies what I consider to be the quintessence of the visual power of nasta’liq. This feature certainly did not escape the illuminator, Muhammad Hadi. In 1755, more than 140 years after Mir Imad completed these calligraphies, Muhammad Hadi mounted them as a facing pair—though they were not initially supposed to be shown and seen together—and adorned them with lavish gilding. For me, this decorative element simply underscores the perfect beauty of the written lines.

See the Nasta’liq exhibition and learn about Persian art and culture at our Nowruz celebration this Saturday, March 7.

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.

Valentine’s Day Cards: Be(ad) Mine?

Heart-shaped bead; Egypt, New Kingdom, 1550–1197 BCE; glass; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1909.1462

Heart-shaped bead; Egypt, New Kingdom, 1550–1197 BCE; glass; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1909.1462

Forget something? I’ll wait.

Yes, that’s right. It’s Valentine’s Day. If panic is setting in because you forgot to send your loved one a card, fear not (or Freer not, as we like to say around here), we’re here for you. Choose an e-card specially selected from the Freer|Sackler collections and all will be right with your valentine. And thanks to our recent digitization effort, Open F|S, the images will not only fill a screen, but a heart as well.

You’re welcome.

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.

Discovering Georgian Cinema

Film still from "Eliso" (Courtesy of National Archives of Georgia)

Film still from “Eliso” (Courtesy of National Archives of Georgia)

The cinema of the Republic of Georgia is as varied as its landscape and the many cultures that have inhabited it over the centuries. This month, the Freer|Sackler teams up with the National Gallery of Art, the Embassy of France, the AFI Silver Theatre, and the Goethe-Institut Washington to present a landmark survey of Georgian cinema—from the silent era through last year’s Oscar-nominated Tangerines. Cocurated by Susan Oxtoby of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and Jytte Jensen of the Museum of Modern Art, this is the largest retrospective of Georgian cinema ever presented in the United States, and it includes rare 35mm prints from archives all over the world.

“This retrospective concentrates on three main periods of production,” Oxtoby wrote in the retrospective booklet. “The wonderfully creative films of the silent era; the flowering of narrative filmmaking that began in the mid-fifties … and is well represented here by a concentration of films from the 1960s and 1980s; and the new wave of Georgian cinema, which demonstrates the talents of the young filmmaking community today.”

We open the retrospective in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium on Friday, February 13, with a screening of the silent classic Eliso, with live accompaniment by Trio Kavkasia and members of the Supruli Choir, performing a score by Carl Linich commissioned for the event. The composition is adapted from Georgia’s unique polyphonic folk singing tradition, a style admired by the likes of Igor Stravinsky, Billy Joel, and the Coen brothers (who used it in The Big Lebowski, believe it or not). If that’s not enough to tempt you, the screening will be followed by a reception featuring Georgian wine, which has developed a devoted following of its own in recent years.

There are other special events planned as well. The silent double feature of Salt for Svanetia and Nail in the Boot on February 15 will be introduced by Georgia expert Peter Rollberg of George Washington University and accompanied by keyboardist Burnett Thompson. On February 22, Dr. Julie Christenson, an expert in Soviet and post-Soviet cinema at George Mason University, will introduce Tengiz Abuladze’s once-banned Repentance, one of the first films to address the terrors of the Stalin era. It remains a fine example of Georgian filmmakers’ subtle rebellious character during the Soviet era, which some have compared to the similarly poetic strategies of Iranian filmmakers from the 1990s through today.

I’m grateful to my colleague Peggy Parsons at the National Gallery of Art for offering us this rare opportunity to explore the cinema of this unique region. You can find the full schedule on the NGA’s website.

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.