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Xanthe Gresham: Telling Tales from the Shahnama

Arash Moradi and Xanthe Greshem

Arash Moradi and Xanthe Greshem

London-based storyteller Xanthe Gresham returns to the Freer|Sackler for Nowruz on March 8.

Arash Moradi and I are delighted to be returning to the Freer|Sackler with tales from the Shahnama (the Persian Book of Kings) for family audiences. It’s always a joy to be part of the museums’ annual Nowruz celebration. Revisiting these stories is like the deepening of a longstanding friendship: Each time we discover something new.

An epic poem consisting of some 50,000 verses, the Shahnama took its author, Firdawsi, more than thirty years to complete. It is the longest poem to have been written by a single person.

According to legend, Firdawsi was supposed to be paid his weight in gold on the poem’s completion. While he was writing, however, a new shah was enthroned, and the poet was only offered his weight in silver. When the new shah finally read the magnificent poem, he was so overwhelmed by its skill and beauty that he rushed to bestow Firdawsi with the riches he was due. The shah was too late and only met the great poet’s hearse.

A heady mixture of tragedy and romance, the Shahnama piles up exquisite images and striking moments of truth and humanity. We can only scratch at the surface of this remarkable narrative, but what a rich surface it is!

On Saturday, March 8, Arash and I will perform three sets of tales:

12 pm: the story of Creation and the Demons, followed by the stories of Jamshed and Zahak

2 pm: the stories of Sam, Zal, and Rustam

4 pm: the tale of Sohrab, Rustam, Bizan, and Manijer

We hope to see you there!

See the day’s schedule of events. Follow the conversation at hashtag #nowruz.


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“The Bad Sleep Well”: How “Hamlet” Is It?

The Bad Sleep Well by Akira Kurosawa

“The Bad Sleep Well” by Akira Kurosawa

Tom Vick is curator of film at the Freer|Sackler.

In his 1965 book The Films of Akira Kurosawa, Donald Richie claimed that the director’s 1960 film The Bad Sleep Well was based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The similarities, after all, are clear. Both feature an ambivalent hero on a quest for revenge. Kurosawa himself named Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare his favorite authors, and Hamlet and Macbeth (which he adapted in 1959 as Throne of Blood) his favorite plays. In addition, Richie’s deep knowledge of Japanese culture and personal friendship with Kurosawa made his book the authoritative guide to the filmmaker’s work.

Thirty years later, Japanese Shakespeare scholar Kaori Ashizu questioned Richie’s theory. In her 1995 essay “Kurosawa’s Hamlet?” Ashizu suggests that Richie’s rarely questioned interpretation detracts from The Bad Sleep Well’s importance as a daring attack on the corrupt corporate culture of the time. While acknowledging similarities in plot, she points out that the true parallels don’t emerge until halfway through the film, so those going into it primed for a modern-day Japanese Hamlet adaptation will be disappointed. She further argues that previous scholars worked a bit too hard to find Hamlet-like qualities in the film’s hero, Nishi (played by the great Toshiro Mifune), and bent over backwards to find exact counterparts in the play for other characters in the film.

Still, she does see a distinct parallel between the venal business executives the film assails and Denmark’s rotten court. This intrigues me because it indicates just how deeply ingrained Hamlet is in both Western and Japanese culture. In another essay, Ashizu sketches a history of the play’s influence in Japan, from its first mention in 1841 through kabuki versions, modern stage adaptations, and various translations and interpretations of the play within a Japanese context.

For Harold Bloom, author of Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Hamlet is that rare character who transcends his own play, possessing an intelligence, wit, and depth beyond not only his fellow characters, but us as readers and playgoers, and perhaps even Shakespeare himself. He’s not so much a fictional character as he is a mythological figure (Bloom compares Hamlet’s status to that of Helen of Troy, Odysseus, and Achilles), deeply entwined with our development as a culture.

Ashizu notes “the long-lasting idolatry” of Hamlet “among young men of letters” in Japan. The intellectual Kurosawa certainly absorbed some of him. How much Hamlet is there in The Bad Sleep Well, and how much Hamlet is there in its hero, Nishi? You can judge for yourself when the film screens this Sunday.

The Bad Sleep Well will be shown on Sunday, March 9, at 2 pm in the Meyer Auditorium.
Throne of Blood will be shown on Friday, March 14, at 7 pm in the Meyer Auditorium.


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And the Academy Award for Best Actor Goes To …

The Actor Nakamura Utaemon III as Kato Masakiyo, Edo period, The Anne van Biema Collection, S2004.3.122

The Actor Nakamura Utaemon III as Kato Masakiyo, 1822, The Anne van Biema Collection, S2004.3.259

… the Actor Nakamura Utaemon III as Kato Masakiyo, of course! Utaemon was a major star of the Osaka kabuki stage, but he also performed in Edo. His visits to both cities created great excitement and intensified his rivalries with other star actors, notably Arashi Kichisaburo in Osaka and Bando Mitsugoro III in Edo. Here, a close-up portrait by the Osaka artist Hokushu conveys Utaemon’s projection of strength and determination as the character Kato Masakiyo, also known as Kato Kiyomasa, a symbol of loyalty in the face of lethal treachery. The print commemorates a performance at the Kado Theater in Osaka in 1820. A poem, a common feature of Osaka prints, is inscribed above the actor’s head. It reads: Kiyomasa is the moon shining on the world at midday: an art of piercing insight. Translation of poem by Roger S. Keyes (Roger S. Keyes and Keiko Mizushima, The Theatrical World of Osaka Prints, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973)


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Happy Birthday, Charles Lang Freer!

Portrait of Charles Lang Freer by Edward Steichen, 1916, F|S Archives, A1993.05

Portrait of Charles Lang Freer by Edward Steichen, 1916, F|S Archives, A1993.05

Museum founder Charles Lang Freer was born on February 25, 1854, in Kingston, New York. Freer made his fortune in the railroad car manufacturing industry in the mid- to late nineteenth century. His interest in the Aesthetic Movement helped shape his tastes in art, and in the late 1880s Freer began to actively collect paintings and works on paper by James McNeill Whistler. Freer would collect more than one thousand works by Whistler, who, through his own interest in the arts and cultures of Asia, turned Freer’s attention East. Whistler introduced Freer to the arts of Asia, and by 1906, Freer had amassed a considerable amount of paintings and ceramics from Japan and China, as well as artifacts from the ancient Near East.

Charles Lang Freer knew exactly what the art gallery that would someday hold his collections should look like. In a meeting with architect Charles Platt at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, Freer jotted down his ideas for a classical, well-proportioned building on a napkin. An Italianate structure with a porticoed courtyard would reflect his ideas about art and aesthetics, including scale, proportion, harmony, and repose. From the day that the Freer Gallery of Art opened to the public in 1923 until the 1970s, live peacocks roamed the courtyard, creating, in effect, a living peacock room to rival the painted masterpiece by James McNeill Whistler.


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Valentine’s Day: Writing a Poem on a Crimson Leaf

Writing a Poem on a Crimson Leaf by Tang Yin; 16th century; Ink and color on silk, F1917.335; gift of Charles Lang Freer

Writing a Poem on a Crimson Leaf,” Tang Yin; China, Ming dynasty, 16th century; ink and color on silk; gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1917.335

In order to ensure an excellent Valentine’s Day, you’ll need a few supplies: a red (crimson) leaf, a pen, and preferably, a palace with its own stream. Compose a love poem on the leaf and let the world know your feelings. Place the leaf in the stream and watch as it flows out of sight. It will be picked up by somebody who will write a similar poem of longing next to yours and place the leaf back in the water (pay no attention to the whole upstream/downstream thing; in this scenario, water flows to the lover), on which it will return to you. Neither of you will know who wrote the other poem—but in time, the two of you will meet, fall in love, and find out, on your wedding night, that you two penned those love poems on the same crimson leaf. Bliss is guaranteed.

Though this story originated during the Tang dynasty (618–907), “writing a poem on a crimson leaf” became a metaphor in Chinese literature to describe a happy marriage destined by fate.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Learn more about Chinese art in our collections.


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Whistler Gone Wilde

James McNeill Whistler, 1885, Photogravure attributed to Mortimer Menpes (1859-1938). Signed with the butterfly and inscribed by Whistler, probably in 1899, "To Charles L. Freer—à un de ces jours!" Charles Lang Freer Papers, Freer|Sackler Archives

James McNeill Whistler, 1885, Photogravure attributed to Mortimer Menpes (1859-1938). Signed with the butterfly and inscribed by Whistler, probably in 1899, “To Charles L. Freer—à un de ces jours!” Charles Lang Freer Papers, Freer|Sackler Archives

I can only imagine the sparks that flew when artist James McNeill Whistler met writer Oscar Wilde, a meeting of great minds and superb wits. Both were associated with the Aesthetic movement that blossomed in England in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Wilde, who was twenty years younger than Whistler, fashioned himself as the artist’s disciple. They traveled in the same artistic circles in London, and both had a way with words. In fact, when Whistler delivered a particularly delicious bon mot, Wilde remarked, “I wish I had said that.” “You will, Oscar; you will,” was Whistler’s enviable reply.

Oscar Wilde, 1882, Sarony, (from John Cooper's Oscar Wilde in America)

Oscar Wilde, 1882, Sarony (from John Cooper’s “Oscar Wilde in America”)

Renowned for his works of art, whose decorative, nearly abstract qualities puzzled Victorian viewers accustomed to moralizing narrative, Whistler was a self-proclaimed elitist in spite of his penchant for self-promotion. Wilde, on the other hand, was a popularizer, happily lecturing audiences from London to San Francisco on the quintessentially Aesthetic topic “the House Beautiful.” Whistler ultimately tired of Wilde, who he felt was encroaching on his turf. He publicly detached himself from the writer on the evening of February 20, 1885, at Prince’s Hall, London, when Whistler delivered his Ten O’Clock Lecture. Appearing in full evening dress, Whistler intended the event as a public manifesto, in which he challenged the conventional aesthetics of the day. Breaking with the long tradition of artists creating realist works that imitated nature, Whistler argued that nature could use a little help from the artist:

“Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful as the musician gathers his notes. And forms his chords, until he brings forth from chaos glorious harmony.”

While presenting himself as a rare genius, Whistler cast Wilde as an “amateur” and a stalking “Dilettante.” Though Whistler did not use Wilde’s name in his speech, his description of the author was clearly recognizable to the audience.

In his review of the event, Wilde responded with this playful praise for the Ten O’Clock:

“Not merely for its clever nature and amusing jests … but for the pure and perfect beauty of many of its passages … for that he is indeed one of the very greatest masters of painting, in my opinion. And I may add that in this opinion Mr. Whistler entirely concurs.”

More verbal sparring ensued (a kind of war between the aesthetes), and the Whistler-Wilde friendship dissolved entirely. Always one to get the last word, Wilde would later base the murdered artist in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray after Whistler.

***

With Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest on stage at the nearby Shakespeare Theatre, Lee Glazer, associate curator of American art at the Freer|Sackler, will speak about the complicated relationship between Whistler and Wilde at Harman Hall on Saturday, March 1, at 5:30 pm (rescheduled due to weather). Tickets are free, but reservations are required. More information is available at shakespearetheatre.org.


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Super Bowl Sunday

Bowl, possibly Han dynasty, bronze, F1946.18a-b

Bowl, possibly Han dynasty, bronze, F1946.18a-b

We’ve already picked a winner for Super Bowl Sunday. This wonderful bronze bowl from Inner Mongolia was created between 206 BCE and 220 CE. It is approximately seven inches in height and features a Mongolian horse lowering its head to drink from the bowl. Amazing and cute at the same time. Take that Puppy Bowl!

With thousands of bowls and other vessels to choose from in the Freer|Sackler collections, picking a favorite is never easy. To learn more about our collections, begin here.

#superbowlsunday


Posted by in A Closer Look | No Comments

Happy New Year of the Horse!

Horse and Groom, after Li Gonglin, 1347, Zhao Yong , (Chinese, 1291-1361), Ink and color on paper, F1945.32

Horse and Groom, after Li Gonglin, 1347,
Zhao Yong , (Chinese, 1291-1361), Ink and color on paper, F1945.32

The lunar new year begins today and celebrates the year of the horse, one of the twelve-year cycle of animals that appear in the Chinese zodiac. Dating from as early as 1000 BCE, the traditional Chinese method of counting years is based on the sixty-year rotation of the planet Jupiter (known as the “year star”) around the sun. Each sixty-year period is divided into five cycles of twelve years, and each of the twelve years is associated with a particular animal. In general, each year contains twelve lunar months of twenty-eight or twenty-nine days. As a result, lunar years vary in length and do not start or end at the same time each year. The current Year of the Horse begins today, and is observed through February 18, 2015.

According to archaeological discoveries, the character for “horse” (ma) appears in the most ancient form of Chinese writing, which dates from the fourteenth to eleventh century BCE. Surviving painted images of horses date from around the fourth century BCE. Since the species of horse native to China were not as large or strong as those from Central Asia, traders during the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) imported the highly coveted “heavenly horses” (tianma) from the Central Asian kingdom of Ferghana.

Horses did not emerge as a prominent independent category in the Chinese painting tradition until the Tang dynasty (618–907). From that time on, horses appear as a recurring theme, especially in depictions of travel, trade, hunting, and military exercises and in genre paintings showing the nomadic tribes that lived to the north and west of China.

One more thing: Those born in the Year of the Horse (1930, 1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, and 2014) are said to be intelligent, strong, and energetic with an outgoing nature. They enjoy interacting with others and are good at multi-tasking, although they rarely finish projects because they’re off to the next one before they finish the last. Typically they have money issues, and when it comes to matters of the heart, they fall hard and fast.


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Yoga: A Transforming Exhibition

Crowds gathered for one last look at Yoga: The Art of Transformation during closing weekend.

Crowds gathered for one last look at Yoga: The Art of Transformation during closing weekend (photos by Neil Greentree).

We said goodbye to Yoga: The Art of Transformation over the weekend with tours and talks and ImaginAsia programs for young visitors (where else could you make your own chakra?). More than ten thousand people visited the exhibition on Saturday and Sunday to take one last look at stunning paintings and sculptures that brought to life the strong visual history of an ancient practice. Yoga newbies as well as longtime practitioners offered praise for the exhibition, as they patiently waited on lines to enter the galleries.

Taking a close look at yoginis during closing weekend.

Taking a close look at yoginis during closing weekend.

For those of you who missed the exhibition, or want to see it again, start packing your bags! Yoga: The Art of Transformation will be on view at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (February 21–May 25) and at the Cleveland Museum of Art (June 22–September 7).

#artofyoga


Posted by in South Asian and Himalayan Art | No Comments

Ara Güler and the Lost City of Aphrodisias

Aphrodisias by Ara Güler

The “Aphrodisias of Life,” photographed by Ara Güler

Johns Hopkins University students Christie YoungSmith and Gracie Golden helped curate the exhibition In Focus: Ara Güler’s Anatolia.

In 1958, Hayat magazine sent Turkish photojournalist Ara Güler to document the opening of the Kemer Dam in Aydin, Turkey. On the way back, his taxi driver got lost, resulting in the discovery of the ancient city of Aphrodisias, a cult center devoted to the goddess Aphrodite.

Because they could not find their way, Güler and his driver decided to spend the night in Geyre, a remote mountain village. While inquiring in the local coffeehouse about a place to stay, Güler noticed men playing card games on top of an ancient Roman column capital. Realizing that the town was built atop ruins, Güler awoke early the next morning and was led by children around the site, photographing the temple of Aphrodite, a hippodrome, and many sarcophagi. When he returned to Istanbul, he sent the images to the Architectural Review, and soon received a telegram from Horizon magazine requesting color photos and an article to go alongside the photo essay. Güler suggested Professor Kenan T. Erim as the author for this article. The New York University professor accepted the job and went on to devote his life to excavating Aphrodisias.

Aphrodisias by Ara Güler

The ruins of Aphrodisias, photographed by Ara Güler

When Erim began his excavations, archaeologists requested that the town of Geyre move two kilometers away. Güler has commented that the Aphrodisias he first visited was one of life: the people of Geyre put the relics to practical use in their daily lives. Now that the town has moved and Aphrodisias serves as a tourist attraction and excavation site, this “Aphrodisias of life” is gone. Güler says the site is now just history.

When he captured the vanishing town of Geyre, Güler accomplished one of his main photographic goals: to document change. Speaking about his images, Güler has said, “I have attempted to collect images of a vanished or vanishing way of life.”

Learn more about Aphrodisias and Güler’s effort to capture change in the exhibition In Focus: Ara Güler’s Anatolia, on view at the Sackler through May 4, 2014.

Next up in this blog series, we’ll take a look at Ara Güler’s work in the Freer|Sackler Archives. Follow the conversation using hashtag #AraGuler.


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