Whistler and the British Music Hall

The Manager's Window, Gaiety Theatre; James McNeill Whistler; 1896; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.76

The Manager’s Window, Gaiety Theatre; James McNeill Whistler; 1896; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.76

Michael Wilpers is public programs coordinator at Freer|Sackler.

Musical ideas abound in the work of American expatriate artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), whose art is more abundantly represented in the Freer|Sackler’s collections than at any other museum in the world. Rather than use conventional labels for his works (such as “portraits” or “landscapes”), Whistler instead called them “harmonies,” “symphonies,” “nocturnes,” “variations,” and “arrangements.” But the connections between Whistler and music extend beyond these labels and their associated aesthetic concepts.

The London of Whistler’s time was virtually consumed with the burgeoning form of entertainment called “music hall,” a variety-show genre comparable to American vaudeville and French cabaret. When Whistler arrived in London in 1859, the Canterbury Music Hall had just been converted from a 700-seat establishment to one that held 1,500 guests, featuring tables and chairs for dining, ornate chandeliers, and a capacious mezzanine. By 1875, more than 375 music halls were open in greater London, ranging from modest taverns to massive entertainment centers, all with music and comedy to accompany their beer and food. Perhaps it is not unreasonable to wonder if Whistler’s famous night scenes (nocturnes) were so lacking in people because they were all at the music halls!

Along with sentimental and patriotic tunes, music hall’s trademark and biggest draw were its comic songs, replete with double entendre, tongue-twisters, and other risqué wordplay evidenced in such classics as “Pheasant Plucker” and the later “You’ve Got the Right Key but the Wrong Key Hole.” Such lyrics contributed to a culture of wit and conversational cleverness—of which Whistler was a proud champion. His playful, public conversations with Oscar Wilde were the talk of the town; he once famously claimed to have perfected the “gentle art of making enemies.” In addition, one might be remiss in considering Whistler’s relationship to music hall without factoring in his many romantic liaisons, which were certainly not inconsistent with the genre’s bawdy themes.

Whistler also represented music hall directly in his artwork. The Freer collection includes several of his lithographs showing the exterior of the Gaiety Theater (pictured above), which opened in 1868 with a seating capacity of 2,000. In 1877, Whistler executed a portrait of one of the Gaiety’s child-stars, Connie Gilchrist, who was just twelve at the time. She became famous for her jump-rope dance routine, “taking the fashionable frequenters of the place by storm,” the Times noted, “her ingenuousness capturing all hearts, especially in contrast to the precocious cynicism of her stage dialogue.” Many artists and photographers created portraits of Gilchrist, who married well above her station, like so many of the “Gaiety Girls.” Of course, Whistler gave his portrait a musical name—Harmony in Yellow and Gold—with the overarching colors punctuated in three spots by the red of her lips and the two jump-rope handles.

The Freer Gallery celebrated the venerable music hall tradition this summer with a performance by the British Players, a revival troupe based in the Washington area. In a nod to Whistler’s nocturnes, the troupe included its own arrangement of “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’,” a big hit of the very early 1900s. The Washington Post called the Freer show “a bawdy good time … full of bad jokes, genuinely funny acts, and naughty songs.” The critic continued, “The show went off with enormous good humor and energy, suggesting that the dark and somewhat spooky London that Whistler dwelt on must have had its lighthearted music-hall moments.”

The British Players performing at the Freer Gallery of Art.

The British Players performing at the Freer Gallery of Art.

The British Players give a series of charity performances every December and June at Kensington Town Hall in Maryland, under the patronage of Lady Kensington herself. Their shows come complete with the requisite “chairman” (a wise-cracking master of ceremonies), bow-belles, the Chord Busters vocal quartet, the Edwardians (ensemble choir), can-can, and plenty of food and drink.

For excellent material about music hall—its history, theaters, entrepreneurs, star performers, and sheet music covers—visit the Victoria and Albert Museum’s web feature and be sure to check out the related content.

A look at Whistler’s ode to a rapidly changing London, An American in London: Whistler and the Thames, remains on view in the Sackler through August 17. #americaninlondon

Can Your Tea Jar Do This?

The Art of Tea

Meet Chigusa, the Chinese tea jar that earned a dedicated following in Japan. It’s the star of the exhibition Chigusa and the Art of Tea, on view in the Sackler to July 27Diaries of tea events reveal what the writers admired about Chigusa, which appears alongside other cherished objects—Chinese calligraphy, Chinese and Korean tea bowls, Japanese stoneware jars and wooden vessels—used during a formative era of Japanese tea culture.

This gif shows Chigusa with and without its accessories, which include a mouth cover made of antique Chinese fabric, a net bag that enclosed the jar’s body, and sets of thick silk cords. All were chosen to honor Chigusa’s prominent status.

Hong Kong Films: The Vampire Strikes Back

Twin ghosts from the movie "Rigor Mortis"

Twin ghosts from the movie “Rigor Mortis”

Molly Thanrongvoraporn is an intern in the Department of Public Affairs and Marketing at the Freer|Sackler.

They jump. They bite. They’re scary and hilarious at the same time. The Jiangshi, or hopping vampires, seen in Mr. Vampire are always up for some brutally comical blood-sucking. The success of this film, directed by Ricky Lau in 1985, made Jiangshi (Goeng-si in Cantonese) a popular sub-genre of horror films in the following decade.

Of all the qualities that go into making a Jiangshi movie, humor is number one. Jiangshi films employ slapstick physical comedy, especially when the vampires hop into kung fu moves. When I was younger, I played Jiangshi vampire with other kids back home in Bangkok, Thailand. The one who was “it” jumped around with his or her arms raised zombie style to catch the fleeing humans. In our children’s game, the humans tended to outrun the vampires, but not so in the Jiangshi movies. If onscreen characters aren’t speedy, they need one of the following: kung fu skills, a Taoist protective tag, or the ability to hold their breath for a long time—the Jiangshi vampire can’t see prey that’s not breathing. This contributed to many funny scenes in the films, and my friends and I would hold our own breath while we sat in the audience. Jiangshi took the scary out of horror films and replaced it with a physical comedy that younger audiences appreciated.

After the 1990s, Jiangshi movies disappeared from the cinema marquees in Asia. Finally, in 2013, Juno Mak decided to bring the hopping vampire back to the silver screen, this time darker and scarier than before. His film Rigor Mortis is a story of a bankrupted actor who moves into a rundown apartment, only to find himself in terrifying circumstances. A critical and commercial success, Rigor Mortis won Best Supporting Actress (Kara Hui) and Best Visual Effects at the 33rd Hong Kong Film Awards, while Juno Mak was nominated for Best New Director. Earning more than ten million Hong Kong dollars, Rigor Mortis is proof that the Jiangshi vampire never really fades away for East Asian audiences. Newer trends of horror films may come and go, but the Jiangshi vampire sleeps quietly, waiting to return and shake us all again with its hopping.

See Mr. Vampire and Rigor Mortis back to back on Sunday, July 27, as part of our Made in Hong Kong Film Festival, cosponsored by the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office.

You Ask, We Answer: Why is American art in the Freer|Sackler?

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, 1864, James McNeill Whistler, F1904.75a

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen; James McNeill Whistler; 1864; F1904.75a

Howard Kaplan is museum writer at Freer|Sackler.

This is a question we are often asked, and it makes perfect sense. We’re the Smithsonian’s museums of Asian art—yet we have important holdings of American art from the late 19th century, including the world’s greatest collection of works by James McNeill Whistler, along with works by his compatriots Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Abbott Handerson Thayer, and Dwight William Tryon. In the Freer, you can move from a gallery that features Japanese screens and enter a room that displays Whistler’s poetic Nocturnes, while the Sackler currently features a landmark exhibition of Whistler’s works alongside its many galleries of Asian art. How can that be?

For the answer, I have to take you back to 1890, when Detroit businessman Charles Lang Freer paid an unannounced call to Whistler’s London studio. The two men became friends and over the next thirteen years, Whistler helped Freer amass what the artist called “a fine collection of Whistlers!!—perhaps The collection.” When Freer observed similarities between Whistler’s art and Japanese prints, the artist encouraged him to visit Asia, where, he explained, Freer would find artistic treasures—early chapters in what Whistler called “the story of the beautiful“—from which his own work was descended. Freer thus conceived of his museum in large part as a monument to Whistler and the “points of contact” between East and West and ancient and modern that he believed the artist’s work embodied.

Freer ultimately would collect more than one thousand works by Whistler, including Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, an opulent dining room painted by Whistler in 1876–77, and others displayed in the Sackler exhibition An American in London: Whistler and the Thames. By 1906, Freer also had amassed a considerable amount of paintings and ceramics from Japan and China and artifacts from the ancient Near East, selections of which can now be viewed near the Peacock Room in the Freer Gallery of Art.

Learn more about American art in our collections and An American in London, on view through August 17. You can also explore the Peacock Room in our free iPad and iPhone app. On Thursday, July 17, the Peacock Room shutters will be open from 12–5:30 pm. Come experience this extraordinary room in a new light!

X-Ray Visions

Fused mosaic plaque; Ptolemaic dynasty to Roman period; 100 BCE–100 CE; Egypt; F1909.506

Fused mosaic plaque; Ptolemaic dynasty to Roman period; 100 BCE–100 CE; Egypt; F1909.506

Ellen M. Nigro is an intern in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research at Freer|Sackler.

In 1909, Charles Lang Freer made his third trip to Egypt and bought a collection of nearly 1,400 ancient glass beads, vessels, and mosaic fragments in Cairo. The objects are mainly XVIII dynasty, Ptolemaic, and Roman period Egyptian pieces, but include some later Islamic fragments. Although the collection varies a bit in geographic origin and time period, all the pieces are colorful examples of fine craftsmanship, from intricate millefiori inlays to cast amulets. Freer shipped the collection straight to the Smithsonian in 1910; since then, some of it has been exhibited, but the vast majority was left unstudied. However, the current installation The Nile and Ancient Egypt features selected glass vessels from this collection. Concurrently, a scientific study of the glass collection using x-ray fluorescence (XRF) is helping researchers at Freer|Sackler understand better the elemental composition of the objects.

This image was taken with the XRF spectrometer camera of the glass object at top.  The instrument allows us to focus the x-ray beam using a laser and video camera.

This image was taken with the XRF spectrometer camera of the glass object at top.

XRF is a non-destructive, scientific, analytical method that is capable of detecting inorganic elements with certain atomic weights. The colorants in glass are mainly transition metals (those found in the middle of the periodic table such as manganese, iron, cobalt, and copper); therefore, XRF is a good way to learn about what materials the ancient glassmakers used to make the vibrant colors in this collection. (It is not able to determine chemical structures or detect organic compounds, chemicals mainly composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.) XRF uses an x-ray beam generated inside the instrument to displace inner shell electrons in the elements of the analyzed material. Higher energy electrons then cascade down to lower energy levels and release energy in the form of fluorescence. As this fluorescence is released, the instrument detects the signals and creates a line graph on a computer program, where the analyst can see the results. The x-axis represents the energy of each signal in kiloelectronvolts (keV), while the y-axis represents the intensity in number of pulses. Since each element produces a characteristic set of peaks at specific energies, the scientists can determine what elements are present in the material.

The graph gathered from the blue area in the fused mosaic. The cobalt peak is highlighted because it is likely the main colorant.

The graph gathered from the blue area in the fused mosaic. The cobalt peak is highlighted because
it is likely the main colorant.

Knowing the colorant can also provide clues about the time and culture in which a piece originated. For example, if a white glass produces strong antimony and calcium peaks, it could be colored with calcium antimonate, a common white colorant in XVIII dynasty Egypt. But if a white glass sample produces prominent tin peaks, the results suggest the colorant could be tin oxide, a material used starting around the fifth century CE. At the end of this XRF survey, the scientists at Freer|Sackler will have a much better understanding of the elemental composition of these glass objects. Although the results from XRF alone only give a small glimpse into the history of these objects, this study can help guide further scientific and art historical research.

Learn more about Conservation and Scientific Research at Freer|Sackler and check out another blog post on x-ray art.

Meteor Spotted in Freer Gallery!

Knife made for Jahangir, partially of meteoric iron; 1621 1621 Mughal dynasty  Meteoric iron, with gold inlay H: 26.1 cm  India  F1955.27a-b

Knife made for Jahangir, partially of meteoric iron; Mughal dynasty, 1621, India, F1955.27a-b 

Howard Kaplan is museum writer at Freer|Sackler.

No, it’s true! One of the prized objects in the Freer collection, and perfect for celebrating Meteor Day, is a knife made from a meteor that fell into Emperor Jahangir’s kingdom in the early 17th century. In his memoir, The Jahangirnama, Emperor Jahangir described the scene:

“At dawn a tremendous noise arose in the east. It was so terrifying that it nearly frightened the inhabitants out of their skins. Then, in the midst of tumultuous noise, something bright fell to the earth from above….”

Jahangir’s fascination with unusual natural events—and his power to harness their aura—is revealed by this dagger’s blade, forged from the glittering meteorite. Jahangir further noted that the blade “cut beautifully, as well as the very best swords.”

Happy Meteor Day!

Learn more about South Asian and Himalayan Art in the Freer|Sackler collections.

Zooming In: Geometric Patterns in Islamic Paintings

Magnification reveals geometric patterns in a detail of a painting of a stained glass window from
the Haft Awrang by Jami. F1946.12.147

Amanda Malkin is the Hagop Kevorkian Fund Fellow Paper Conservator at the Freer|Sackler. This is the first in a series of blog posts that explores geometric patterns in Islamic paintings.

While viewing Islamic paintings under the microscope, I developed a great interest in the tiny geometric patterns I observed throughout the folios and set out to learn more about them. Prior to my research, I had not studied the history of Islamic culture and was completely unaware of the Islamic Golden Age, an innovative, experimental, and forward-thinking time in early Islam, which spanned from the ninth to the thirteenth century. During this time, there was a boom in the study of mathematics, physics, geometry, optics, vision, astrology, and many related disciplines. This efflorescence of discovery resulted in the development of new concepts and an expansion of ideas first posited in ancient Greece and Rome.

I began to examine how artisans and manuscript illustrators interacted with mathematicians, and if the techniques used to create geometric patterns in manuscript paintings were a result of those connections. It’s clear from several scholarly articles and publications written on this productive era in Islamic history that artisans and mathematicians were in contact with one another. One treatise, written by the Persian mathematician and astronomer Abul Wafa al-Buzjani (940–998) during the Golden Age, has been used by many scholars to provide evidence of this exposure of artists to mathematicians and those studying geometry. The title of his work, On those Parts of Geometry Needed by Craftsmen, alludes to this interaction. He describes many instances in which he had observed craftsmen practicing geometric constructions and ornamental patterns with mathematicians.

It is also clear from the scholarly literature on this subject that not all artisans were invited to join in these gatherings. The math and scientific communities held those artisans of scientific equipment in much higher regard than artists of other trades, who were considered a lower class. This bias likely excluded many artisans from working directly with mathematicians. The collective ingenuity of the time, however, leads one to assume that they must have discovered many other avenues to acquire and piece together the basic concepts of geometric design and pattern construction.

It’s amazing what an image under a microscope can reveal. In the next post in the series, I’ll take a closer look at the tools and techniques used to create miniature geometric designs.

Learn more about Conservation and Scientific Research and the Islamic art collections at the Freer|Sackler.

Happy International Sushi Day!

Aji (horse mackerel) with Kuruma ebi (prawn); Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858); Japan, Edo period, ca. 1832–34; Gift of John Fuegi and Jo Francis, F1995.16.10

Aji (horse mackerel) with Kuruma ebi (prawn); Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858); Japan, Edo period, ca. 1832–34; Gift of John Fuegi and Jo Francis, F1995.16.10

Ann Yonemura is senior associate curator of Japanese art at the Freer|Sackler.

Summer may find you yearning for a Japanese meal of cool, uncooked, fresh fish or shellfish prepared simply sliced as sashimi or with vinegared rice as sushi. Both methods of preparing fish have their roots in medieval Japan and have now gone global.

Whether you are new to the delicate flavors, colors, and textures of various fishes or a connoisseur who has mastered the Japanese names for your favorite selections, you will want to treat yourself to a visit to the Freer Gallery to see two galleries of paintings, ceramics, woodblock prints, and books illustrating Japanese fish (plus crabs and lobsters). Bountiful Waters: Aquatic Life in Japanese Art offers a rare opportunity to see all twenty of Utagawa Hiroshige’s famous series of fish prints, a best-seller when it was published in the 1830s and 1840s.

Among the 51 works of art on view are paintings and prints by Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), including a rare handscroll of miscellaneous color paintings and a masterly painting of crustaceans from Charles Lang Freer’s renowned collection. See if you can recognize fish from which your sushi is prepared, or compare the images of swimming and leaping carp by different artists. Learn about the importance of fish from the abundant fresh waters and seas of the Japanese islands and the cultural meanings of carp, eels, and sea bream—the fish served for holidays and celebrations.

Celebrate International Sushi Day and Go Fishing Day, both celebrated on June 18, with a visit to Bountiful Waters at the Freer. Curator Ann Yonemura will provide a short tour of the exhibition, which is on view through September 14, at 2 pm today.

#internationalsushiday

The Littlest Tea Man

Chigusa, "with and without clothes," by Leo.

“Chigusa, with and without clothes,” by Leo.

Allison Peck is head of public affairs and marketing at Freer|Sackler.

The renowned ceramic known as Chigusa recently added another chapter to its long and storied history, and the drawings of a six-year-old boy entered the permanent record of the Smithsonian Institution. Chigusa, a 700-year-old tea-leaf storage jar, is one of the most important objects in chanoyu, the Japanese art of tea. Acquired by the museums in 2009, the jar currently is making its U.S. debut in Chigusa and the Art of Tea, an exhibition that Leo, age six, visited with his mom earlier this year.

As beautiful as Chigusa is, with its weighty simplicity and mottled brown glaze, what truly brings it to life and creates its legacy is the tradition of documentation and decoration that surrounds it: the 500 years of tea diaries, poems, records, and luxury adornments created by generations of Chigusa fans. The men who have paid homage to the jar and form the most human—and, some would argue, the most interesting—part of its story are called, aptly, “tea men.”

Chigusa and the Art of Tea wasn’t designed as an exhibition to appeal to younger audiences, so we were astonished and a little bemused to receive an email (with the charming subject line of “Chigusa, with and without clothes”) containing Leo’s accurate crayon drawings of the tea jar in various states of ceremonial display. His mom, Amy, reported a similar feeling.

“I was surprised by his drawings of Chigusa because he is the kind of boy who usually draws countless pictures of Angry Birds,” Amy wrote. “It was my idea to go see Chigusa with the family, and I wasn’t sure how Leo would respond to it at first. But he seemed to enjoy the exhibit very much. I suspect that the reasons for that include the fact that it is a jar with a name, which gives it a different kind of status among objects, for kids and grown-ups alike.”

In honor of the tradition of documenting encounters with Chigusa, Amy thought we might like to see the drawings and learn how they came to be. (Actually, she sent them twice: the first time, they had been scanned out of order, and Leo—with a rigid attention to detail worthy of both a true tea man and an art historian—requested they be re-sent in the “correct” sequence that he had intended!)

“I asked Leo why he drew the pictures of Chigusa and what gave him the idea, and he said, ‘Love!'” Amy wrote. “He said that he knew that I liked Chigusa a lot, and so he drew the pictures, so that I could remember it. Chigusa obviously made an impression on him.”

Chigusa, dressed in its new mouth cover, secured with an ornamental knot.

Chigusa, dressed in its new mouth cover, secured with an ornamental knot.

“As Leo gets older with a better sense of time,” Amy went on, “he’s interested—just like we are—in old things that have interesting stories.”

With that last sentence in particular, she unknowingly captured one of the Freer|Sackler’s most essential missions—to bring old things that have interesting stories to light, and then to step back and allow them to speak to visitors of all ages.

Andy Watsky, professor of Japanese art history at Princeton University, responded to Amy and Leo with a thank-you note. “My co-curator of the exhibition, Louise Cort, and I, and many other people at the Sackler and in Japan worked long and hard on this exhibition; we all hoped that the results would be meaningful to those who visited,” he wrote. “But I can tell you that I have never seen as fine a response as your son’s drawings. We have the records of how Chigusa has kept people interested over many centuries, including the tea diaries—in fact, sometimes the diarists included drawings of objects they saw. How wonderful that your son’s drawings now join that history as one such personal memory of Chigusa.”

He and Cort, curator of ceramics at Freer|Sackler, are requesting that Leo’s drawings and the story surrounding his trip and inspiration be entered into Chigusa’s permanent record in the Smithsonian database, making them accessible to future generations of researchers and curators. They’ve become the latest entry in that centuries-long tradition of Chigusa fandom, and Leo has become the littlest tea man.

Chigusa and the Art of Tea remains on view in the Sackler through July 27. On October 11, the exhibition will open at the Princeton University Art Museum.

World Cup!

Cup with lions and trees, S1987.147; Gift of Arthur M. Sackler

Cup with lions and trees; Western Iran, 1st millennium BCE; gold; S1987.147

After qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 2006, the Iranian national soccer team, known as Team Melli, plays Nigeria today. Team Melli ranks first in Asia and 43rd in the world, according to the June 2014 FIFA world rankings. In honor of Iran’s participation, we present an exquisite Iranian cup with a pattern of lions and trees that dates back to the first millennium BCE. Perfect for celebrations … especially when going for the gold!