the sackler & the freer: the asian arts in d.c.

One Sunday in February, before the Coronavirus lockdown, we went downtown to visit the The Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, now apparently known as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. Together, the Freer and Sackler have exceptional collections of Asian art, with more than 40,000 objects dating from the Neolithic period to today and originating from the ancient Near East to China, Japan, Korea, South and Southeast Asia, and the Islamic world.

The Freer Gallery of Art also holds a significant group of American works of art largely dating to the late 19th century. It houses the world’s largest collection of diverse works by James McNeill Whistler, including the famed Peacock Room.

Juxtaposing American and Asian art was a legacy of the founder of the Freer Gallery of Art, Detroit industrialist Charles Lang Freer. He believed in a universal language of beauty that resonated across time, space, and cultural diversity. Freer disdained the avant garde abstraction that transformed American art after World War I. He forbade additions to his American collection after his death in 1919, and it remains a time capsule of Gilded Age aestheticism. 

At the time we visited the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the special exhibits included: Age Old Cities: A Virtual Tour from Palmyra to Mosul.

The Middle East has experienced major upheavals in the recent past.  Hundreds of thousands of people have died or been displaced. Continuous turmoil has also destroyed culturally and religiously significant sites, erasing substantial portions of the region’s rich historical past in the process. After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent fall of Saddam Hussein, a series of popular uprisings across the Arab world further unsettled the region.  Civil War broke out in Syria and the Islamic State (ISIS) brought Mosul under its control.

Methodically targeting religious and ethnic minorities, ISIS vowed to eradicate cultures that had flourished in the region for centuries and erase its rich multi-ethnic, multi-religious history. 


Age Old Cities: A Virtual Tour from Palmyra to Mosul.

The three Middle Eastern cities in this virtual exhibition (organized by the Arab World Institute, Paris, and created in collaboration with UNESCO) include Palmyra and Aleppo in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. The exhibit seeks to virtually restore the rich architectural landscapes of these cities. It reconstructs in 3D the once-spectacular monuments on what is left of them today.

According to the exhibition: “These cities, among the oldest uninterrupted human settlements in the world, have recently been devastated by war. To preserve these sites for future generations, Age Old Cities offers large-scale projections and digital reconstructions (more than eleven feet tall) of iconic monuments and ancient structures rising from ruins to their former glory.” The images “underscore the critical importance of cultural heritage and architectural preservation as well as the vital role digital reconstruction can play in safeguarding the past.”

We wandered accidentally through the African Art while trying to find our way to the other exhibits we’d read about.

We also went through an exhibit on Contemporary Women Artists of Africa titled I AM… The exhibition draws its name from the 1970s song, “I Am Woman,” but highlights the vital contributions to numerous issues including the environment, identity, politics, race, sexuality, social activism, faith and more. 

We wandered outdoors to find our way to the Freer Gallery.


Smithsonian Museum

The next special exhibit we came to see was Hokusai: Mad About Painting.


Hokusai: Mad About Painting

The Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) is widely recognized for a single image—Great Wave Off the Coast of Kanagawa, an icon of global art—yet he produced thousands of works throughout his long life. In commemoration of the centennial of Charles Lang Freer’s death in 1919, and in celebration of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo in 2020, the Freer Gallery presented a yearlong exploration of the prolific career of Katsushika Hokusai.

Hokusai was born and died in Edo (modern Tokyo), where he lived and worked amid the city’s thriving artistic scene.  According to the artist, he began sketching at the age of six. He hoped to live to 110 years old, an age when he was sure he would achieve almost divine mastery of his art.  However, he only made it to age 90.

Works large and small were on view, from six-panel folding screens and hanging scrolls to paintings and drawings. Also included were rare hanshita-e, drawings for woodblock prints that were adhered to the wood and frequently destroyed in the process of carving the block prior to printing. Among the many featured works were Hokusai’s manga, his often-humorous renderings of everyday life in Japan.

Mount Fuji, the sacred mountain of Japan, and the life of common people throughout the shogun’s empire, were frequent subjects in Hokusai’s paintings. He often presented romanticized views of rural life instead of depicting the reality of daily hardships, reoccurring famines, and heavy tax duties.

Since his early days as an artist, Hokusai provided illustrations for popular printed books. These cheaply produced novels (kibyoshi, or “yellow covers”) were often bestsellers in Japan, and their popularity added to the artist’s reputation. Publishers commissioned him to illustrate their publications throughout his life.

In Dewing’s Poetic World, Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s work was showcased.  He is best known for his tonal compositions featuring a solitary female figure lost in thought. He art was influenced by his friendships with Charles Lang Freer, who encouraged him to pursue Japonisme, and with architect Stanford White, who designed the elaborate frames for many of his paintings on view in this intriguing exhibition.

From 1886 to 1905, Thomas Wilmer Dewing and his wife, fellow artist Maria Oakey Dewing, escaped the summer heat of New York City by spending months in the village of Cornish in western New Hampshire. Women were actively involved in the art colony.  While living in Cornish, Dewing painted large-scale “decorations” featuring figures in lush summer landscapes.

In The Peacock Room in Blue and White, blue-and-white Chinese porcelains once again fill the shelves, just as they did in the 1870s, when Frederick Leyland, a shipping magnate in London, dined there.

When artist James McNeill Whistler was asked to consult on colors in Leyland’s dining room, the sinuous patterns and brilliant colors of Leyland’s Kangxi ware (porcelains that are part of a 1,500-year-old tradition of making porcelains in Jingdezhen, China) on display served as inspiration.

In 1876 and 1877, Whistler enhanced Frederick Leyland’s dining room with golden peacocks. He painted every inch of the ceiling and walls to create an elegant setting in which Leyland could display his collection of Kangxi porcelain as well as Whistler’s 1864 painting The Princess from the Land of Porcelain over the mantelpiece.

Charles Lang Freer purchased the room in 1904 and installed it in his home in Detroit, Michigan. After Freer’s death in 1919, the Peacock Room was moved to Washington, DC, and put on permanent display in the Freer Gallery of Art.

(Information on all the art was taken from the museum exhibitions.)

After our Asian art outing, we went out for dinner at Circa at Clarendon.

*Saturday, February 8, 2020*