In the Swim: Dolphins in Ancient Egypt

Photograph of the Nile River with the Pyramids of Giza in the background, taken by Ernst Herzfeld in 1908, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, FSA A.6 04.GN.3241

The Nile River with the Pyramids of Giza in the background, photo by Ernst Herzfeld, 1908,
Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, FSA A.6 04.GN.3241

Alex Nagel is assistant curator of ancient Near Eastern art at the Freer|Sackler.

For every modern traveler to the southern Mediterranean, dolphins are a familiar image along the coast of North Africa. The ancients also loved dolphins, and dolphins, it seemed, loved them. The Roman author Pliny the Elder described how a dolphin at the settlement of Hippo Diarrhytos on the North African shore ate from people’s hands. The dolphin also offered himself to their touch, played as they swam, and often gave people a ride on its back. The Roman author Claudius Aelianus (ca. 175–235) described the dolphin as the king of sea animals. In ancient Greece, dolphins were prominently featured on coins, while in Hindu mythology the dolphin is associated with Ganga, the deity of the Ganges River.

Glass Dolphin, Egypt, Roman period, 1st-2nd century CE, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1909.855

Glass dolphin, Egypt, Roman period, 1st-2nd century CE, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1909.855

A year after the German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld (1879–1948) traveled the Nile River in 1909, Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919), while on a trip to Egypt, acquired a collection of more than one thousand ancient Egyptian glass objects from the dealer Giovanni Dattari (1858–1923). Among them were two glass objects in the shape of a dolphin. Their original function is unknown, and today we can only guess what they might have meant to their original owners. Dattari, whom Freer had first met on a trip to Cairo in 1907, was an employee of a travel agency and also worked as a purveyor to the British Army in Egypt. His villa in Cairo was a welcoming meeting place for foreign archaeologists, Egyptologists, and businessmen. Dattari was well connected to excavations in Egypt and knew the English Egyptologist Flinders Petrie (1853–1942), who excavated at the extensive archaeological site of Amarna on the east bank of the Nile River. Today, almost every major museum on the eastern coast of the United States is a proud holder of materials from Dattari’s collections.

Look for dolphins and other creatures in the exhibition The Nile and Ancient Egypt, opening at the Freer Gallery on December 7 and remaining on view indefinitely.


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.


Abbas Kiarostami’s Landscapes in Motion

Landscape by Abbas Kiarostami, S1999.124

Untitled by Abbas Kiarostami (b. 1940, Tehran, Iran), color print, 1997, anonymous gift in memory of
Philip L. Ravenhill, S1999.124

Tom Vick is curator of film at Freer|Sackler.

No filmmaker did more than Abbas Kiarostami to bring the world’s attention to Iranian cinema in the 1990s. With their spare, humanist, and philosophically rich stories imbued with poetic imagery, films like Through the Olive Trees, Taste of Cherry, and The Wind Will Carry Us won awards at major film festivals. They also played to critical raves in North America and Europe, influenced a generation of Iranian filmmakers, and established Kiarostami as a major figure in world cinema.

But in the early 2000s, Kiarostami grew restless and—at the height of his worldwide popularity—embarked on a daringly experimental phase. He challenged traditional notions of film narrative and even the role and function of the filmmaker. In his 2002 film Ten, the master auteur, whose directorial achievements had been recognized with awards from Cannes and Venice, attempted to absent himself from the artistic process: he had his actors perform for cameras mounted inside a car as they drove around Tehran.

Five: Dedicated to Ozu, showing this Sunday at 2:45 pm in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium, is an even more radical departure. Presented in conjunction with the Sackler exhibition Sense of Place: Landscape Photographs from Asia, it is a film constructed of five landscapes, each of which tells its own subtle story. Its stars are dogs, ducks, pieces of driftwood, and the moon. Landscape has always been important to Kiarostami; two of his landscape photographs appear in Sense of Place. It plays a major role even in his narrative films, and in Roads of Kiarostami, which precedes Five at 2 pm, he discusses landscape’s place in his artistic process. But in Five it is the sole subject—which isn’t to say that the film is dry or difficult. Several years ago I heard Kiarostami speak about his work. During his opening remarks he chose to show a humorous clip from Five involving ducks running back and forth on a beach. It was a real crowd-pleaser: comedy constructed purely from movement, timing, and ingenious framing.

If Kiarostami had continued to work in this vein he might have been seen, like Marcel Duchamp or Philip Guston, as an artist who abandoned the gifts that made him famous to deliberately explore more difficult aesthetic terrain. But in recent years he has returned to narrative filmmaking with Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love. Though they were made in Italy and Japan, respectively, these films are as mysterious and beguiling as his earlier work in Iran. So maybe Kiarostami is more like Kim Ki-duk, a filmmaker whose foray into the unfamiliar enriched and refreshed his approach to what we knew and appreciated in the first place.


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


X-Ray Art: The Conservator Will See You Now

An x-ray of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin) in the guise of a Buddha reveals three wood support screws; China; F1957.25

An x-ray of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin) in the guise of a Buddha reveals three wood support screws. F1957.25

Eve Rosekind, an art history major at Johns Hopkins University, was a summer intern in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research at Freer|Sackler.

For the past sixty-two years, the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research has used x-radiography in its study and treatment of Freer|Sackler objects. The department houses approximately 4,170 x-rays of paintings, sculptures, ceramics, and prints that have been examined by the museums’ conservators and curators.

To preserve these images, the Smithsonian’s Office of the Chief Information Officer funded a project to digitize all of the department’s x-ray films. Digitization also makes the images more accessible and easier to use in studying the collection. My summer efforts focused on cataloguing and organizing the x-ray films and their corresponding digital images.

In x-radiography, film is placed beneath a work of art, which is exposed to x-rays in order to create an image on the film. A visual record of the condition of the piece at the time it was taken, an x-ray can reveal how an object was constructed, as well as any subsequent treatments or changes.

X-ray: Dagger-axe, China, bronze with iron ore, F1934.11

An x-ray of a dagger-axe from China showing signs of “channeling.” F1934.11

A number of our x-rays are on a cellulose acetate film-base and are now deteriorating. The deterioration is characterized by three main symptoms:

1. The film becomes brittle and small parts begin to break off.
2. Known as “channeling,” the different layers of the x-ray shrink at different rates, causing air pockets in the film. In the image above, the lines on the film are examples of channels on the surface of the x-ray.
3. The “vinegar syndrome.” The deterioration of acetate film is due to chemical decomposition that produces acids—in this case, acetic acid—that escape from the film in the form of a gas, causing a vinegar-like smell.

One example of how an x-ray can show the construction of an object is the image of a Chinese ivory standing Buddha (pictured at top and digitized so that it could be included in this blog post!). The x-ray is a close-up of the Buddha’s head and upper torso. In the middle of the head, the large wooden screw that attaches the head to the rest of the body can be seen along with two other wooden screws in the shoulder. These wooden screws are part of the original construction of the ivory statue and are used to hold the multiple pieces together.

X-ray of  Long Lagoon by James McNeill Whistler, F1887.10

The x-ray of “Long Lagoon” by James McNeill Whistler reveals the watermark. F1887.10

The x-ray pictured above is of a Whistler etching on paper. In this image, the paper’s watermark is visible. A watermark is made by impressing a thin wire design into the paper when it is being constructed. The wire thins the paper, and when light passes through the design is visible. This specific mark, containing a fleur-de-lis beneath a crown, is known as the Strasburg Lily, which was used on paper throughout Europe from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. The letters LVG, seen below the lily, most likely refer to Lubbertus van Gerrevinck, a paper manufacturer in Holland and possibly in England. Revealing the watermark can help determine who made the paper, as well as when and where it was made.

We can learn a lot from a work of art, and some of what we learn lies beneath the surface. Each x-ray image is unique and shows the object in a new light. Now that the films are digitized, it will be easier to share these images with researchers and the public. This summer, my project gave me an incredible perspective on an aspect of the museums’ collections rarely accessible to others.


Readers and Movie Lovers: You Have Homework

Scene from Perfect Number.

Scene from “Perfect Number,” screening October 13 at the Freer

Tom Vick is curator of film at Freer|Sackler.

Our current film series Pages of Beauty and Madness: Japanese Writers Onscreen not only includes classics from such famous Japanese filmmakers as Hiroshi Teshigahara, Mikio Naruse, and Kon Ichikawa. We also go beyond Japan’s borders to bring you international film versions of Japanese literature. For example, Gibier d’Elevage (October 11) sets Kenzaburo Oe’s World War II-era novella The Catch in Vietnam War-era Cambodia. The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea (September 27), a notoriously racy ’70s cult film, stars Kris Kristofferson in its adaptation of a seriously disturbing Yukio Mishima novel.

But this series has more than just movies to offer. On September 20, Chicago-based jazz musician Tatsu Aoki brings his MIYUMI Quartet to provide live musical accompaniment for the avant-garde silent film A Page of Madness (cowritten by famed novelist Yasunori Kawabata). Yale professor Aaron Gerow, author of A Page of Madness: Cinema and Modernity in 1920s Japan, also will be on hand to introduce the film and sign copies of his book.

So what’s your homework assignment? On September 29 and October 13 and 20, the film screenings will be followed by book club gatherings, giving you the chance to discuss the movies and the works that inspired them. The September 29 book club will look at the Ryunosuke Akutagawa tales that inspired both Rashomon and that day’s film, The Outrage (starring F|S September calendar coverboy William Shatner). On October 13 we’ll discuss Keigo Higashino’s eerie murder mystery The Devotion of Suspect X and its Korean film version, Perfect Number, and on October 20 we explore the world of manga and anime after the screening of 5 Centimeters per Second, which Makoto Shinkai adapted from his own manga comic book.

Visit the special Pages of Beauty and Madness display in the Sackler shop to pick up these books, and get reading!


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.


The Clay’s the Thing: Claymation at ImaginAsia

Making claymation at ImaginAsia

Producing a claymation short at ImaginAsia

Siobhan Donnelly, a summer intern in the department of public affairs and marketing, is currently a student at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.

In August a group of students from the ages of nine to eighteen had the opportunity to study the art of claymation at ImaginAsia’s Young Artists Residency. The program combined discovery in the galleries with a chance for students to create their own claymation videos, with help from Erik Swanson, an instructor from the Corcoran School of Art and Design. As ImaginAsia coordinator Stephen Eckerd explained, the residency aims to give students the “technical skills to actualize their vision, because they always have a vision.” The program teaches them “techniques that have been handed down through the centuries” as they learn about the rich historical tradition of making art move.

First, the students explored the Sackler galleries to find works of art that piqued their interest. After some research on their chosen pieces, they then created a storyboard detailing what would happen if their selected works suddenly sprang into action. They imagined their characters had lived for centuries before being confined to the museum. What would happen if these figures were suddenly brought back to life? Finally, students built their own clay figures and sets, and worked with Erik to animate the characters.

Claymation close-up: a detail from one student's project.

Claymation close-up: a detail of one student’s project.

I had a chance to walk around on the final day of the residency and speak to a few students as they completed their projects. Two students were there for their fourth year in a row! Madeleine, 16, and Ray, 12, bounced ideas back and forth to achieve their final product. Ray said his favorite part of the process was “fleshing out the characters, especially when you don’t know what they are going to look like.” They both agreed that they can see a lot of improvement in their work each year.

At the opposite end of the spectrum was Arjit, 11, a newcomer to the claymation residency. He said that the idea of learning to make his own video was what first drew him to the program. He and his friends were unanimous in wanting to come back next year! Each student will be invited to a “grand premiere” at the Sackler, where they will see a compilation of the videos made in their class—and take home a copy for themselves!


Busted! The Secret Lives of Agnes Meyer and Charles Lang Freer

Head of Agnes Meyer by Charles Despiau; Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Ruth Meyer Epstein; FSC-M-69

“Head of Agnes Meyer” by Charles Despiau; Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Ruth Meyer Epstein; FSC-M-69

Claire Douglas, a student of American studies and studio art at Occidental College, was a summer intern in the American art department at Freer|Sackler.

It’s easy to walk into the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Auditorium in the Freer Gallery without giving the bronze bust of Mrs. Meyer in the entryway a second thought. Head of Agnes Meyer, which was sculpted by Charles Despiau (1874–1946) in 1928 and installed in the Freer Gallery in 1992, is just what one might expect to find in a theater named after an old-money family—a conservative portrait in a traditional medium of a beautiful woman with downcast eyes, betraying little in her expression.

Meyer’s name may ring a bell with Washingtonians—she was the mother of Katharine Graham, the legendary publisher of the Washington Post, and wrote for the Post herself. She spent the later part of her life as an activist for labor, civil, and women’s rights, earning her a spot on President John F. Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women. She was also passionate about Asian art, which inevitably led to a great friendship with Detroit industrialist and museum founder Charles Lang Freer. Agnes Meyer’s contributions to the founding and early history of the Freer Gallery were vast. She bequeathed pieces from her own priceless collection of Asian art to the museum and worked with curators and directors to ensure that the museum reflected Freer’s original vision. Significantly, only she and Freer’s secretary, Katharine Nash Rhoades, had carte-blanche in making new acquisitions for the museum after Freer’s death. Mrs. Meyer’s official legacy as an accomplished and influential woman, whose public persona is embodied in Despiau’s bust, lives on after her death in 1970.

Yet the story that Despiau’s portrait conceals in its conventional form is equally as interesting. Agnes Meyer, or Agnes Ernst as she was known before her marriage to multimillionaire banker Eugene Meyer, was not quite the circumspect matronly type that her bronze statue suggests. During her youth, she actually had a notorious reputation among art and society circles as a social butterfly, a shameless gossip, and a flirt. Her radiant personality earned her the nickname “Sun Girl” in Alfred Stieglitz’s circle of avant-garde artists, and a spot as one of the most coveted subjects for painters, sculptors, photographers, and poets. Even after her marriage in 1910, she maintained scandalously passionate and intimate friendships with such powerful men as photographer Edward Steichen, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and, of course, Charles Lang Freer.

Agnes Meyer first met Freer at an exhibition of Chinese paintings in a New York City gallery in 1913, and later recalled an intense connection from the moment they shook hands. She quickly nicknamed Freer, who was 59 to her 26, “Prince Charming.” Freer’s health was seriously failing by 1913, but Meyer nevertheless portrayed the seemingly staid connoisseur as a longtime ladies’ man. As reticent as Meyer was flamboyant, Freer rarely divulged details about his personal life—including his sexuality. She later recalled “His numerous relationships with the opposite sex, which were no secret from his many friends.” When she visited Freer in Detroit, her husband insisted that she bring along a friend to accompany her “into the dangerous lair of Prince Charming.” She and her beautiful young friends Marion Beckett and Katharine Rhoades all began to pay Freer visits. He called the group of young ladies the “Three Graces” and they affectionately called him “The General.”

But Agnes’ carefree and punchy personality also made her a magnet for controversy. In 1970, more than fifty years after Freer’s death and shortly before her own, she published a memoir about their unique relationship entitled Charles Lang Freer and His Gallery. Told through the filter of memory and filled with previously unknown accounts of Freer’s personal life, this short pamphlet stirred up so much controversy that for a time it was banned from the Freer Gallery’s library. Full of tales of Freer’s philandering in Europe with Stanford White, his fiery temper later in life, and the “exquisite” quality of their personal relationship, Charles Lang Freer and His Gallery says as much about Mrs. Meyer as it does about Mr. Freer.

Agnes E. Meyer by Constantin Brancusi, marble, National Gallery of Art, Gift of Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer; F1967.13.4

“Agnes E. Meyer” by Constantin Brancusi, marble, National Gallery of Art, Gift of Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer; 1967.13.4

Even the bronze bust itself, so modest and unassuming in appearance, stirred up controversy in the art world. Upon hearing that his rival Charles Despiau had created a likeness of Mrs. Meyer, modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi is said to have declared to her, “[I will show you] what a portrait of you is really like!” Three years later, in 1929, he finished a sleek, monumental black marble sculpture entitled Agnes E. Meyer: La Reine pas Dedaigneuse (the Not-Disdainful Queen), which towers seven-and-a-half feet tall. Even though it is hardly recognizable as a human figure, lacking the detail of Despiau’s bust, Brancusi’s work manages to evoke Meyer’s naturally intense and mesmerizing presence. Brancusi’s larger-than-life stylistic challenge to Despiau is now housed at the National Gallery of Art.

So the next time you attend an event at the Meyer Auditorium, take a moment to consider the demure bronze bust that greets you on your way to your foreign film screening or scholarly lecture. If Agnes Meyer, for all her eccentricities, her love of gossip and mischief, and her affinity for controversy, could be immortalized as this proper and staid-faced woman, what other wild stories may lurk behind the manicured façade of the Freer Gallery?


Asia After Dark in 3D

3-D scan image of Buddha probably Vairochana (Piluzhena) with the Realms of Existence and other Buddhist scenes.

3D scan image of the Cosmic Buddha with the Realms of Existence and other Buddhist scenes.

Allison Tyra is an intern in the F|S Public Affairs and Marketing Department.

On Saturday, Asia After Dark welcomes a special guest. He has no hands, and no head, but the Cosmic Buddha has plenty to tell us. This desktop version of a stone sculpture on view in the exhibition Promise of Paradise: Early Chinese Buddhist Sculpture was made using a 3D printer. The incredibly detailed depictions on the deity’s robe tell stories of the Buddhist Realms of Existence, from the heavenly devas to the hells of the less fortunate—fascinating to small children and PhD-wielding scholars alike.

Just as fascinating are the technological advances that allow engineers such as Vince Rossi, 3D Digitization Coordinator at the Smithsonian, to create exact replicas of ancient artifacts out of paper and other materials. Rossi can make small, lightweight versions or large, sturdy copies that could be easier to examine with incredible precision.

“Our focus is on 3D scanning of collection objects and archaeological sites, not just 3D printing replicas,” Rossi says. “With the 3D data itself, we are able to do many things that we cannot do with the real object or 3D printed replica—providing new analysis tools for research, for example. Since 3D scanning is nothing more than millions of measurement points describing an object’s surface, we can offer a researcher many more ways to virtually investigate an object. For example, a conservator can look at two 3D scans of an object taken from one year to the next to see exactly how the object is changing over time.”

Once all of the original item’s data has been uploaded, people around the world can view these details, as well as use a 3D printer to produce their own versions of the object. In other words, a schoolteacher in Oklahoma or a researcher in Shanghai can use the Smithsonian’s information to create interactive tools for learning at all levels.

See how it works and talk with Rossi in person on Saturday, August 17, 7–11 pm, by attending Asia After Dark: Chinese Martial Arts at the Freer. Other highlights of the evening will include the DJs of Hop Fu providing a live score to classic kung fu films, tai chi in the galleries, a DIY crafty teacup sleeve art activity, Tsingtao Chinese beer, kung fu martial performances, and more. Tickets are $25 in advance and $30 at the door; Silk Road Society members pay $15 in advance and $20 at the door. The ticket price includes one free drink. Guests must be 21 years old with valid photo ID to attend.