The Freer-Sackler, Reinvented — Part 1: The Freer

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Charles Lang Freer (second from left) and colleagues at a photography studio in Cairo, 1909. Courtesy Freer Gallery.

After nearly two years of renovations, the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery reopened their doors Oct. 14, introducing four new exhibitions and a complete overhaul of the permanent galleries. Our coverage is in two parts, with Part 2: The Sackler in an upcoming issue.

There is something inexpressibly palpable about the raw attraction of certain works of art — visual rhythms, harmonies, contours, colors and textures. Characteristics inherent to all great art, they forge connections across any contextual or historical divide.

When a craze for Japonisme and Chinese porcelain swept Europe in the 19th century, Western collectors hardly knew anything about these exotic objects. They just loved the way they looked.

Charles Lang Freer was one of these collectors. But Freer realized something that few understood at that time. This attraction, he believed, should be honored, fostered, promoted, honed and better understood.

For all the obvious scholarly erudition contained within the Freer Gallery of Art, there is an ether of pure allure that radiates from its stone walls like something out of a storybook.

Founded in 1923, the Freer is the Smithsonian’s first art museum, which joined with the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in 1987 to create the Freer-Sackler. Together they contain one of the most important collections of Asian art in the world, as well as Freer’s collection of turn-of-the-century American paintings (notably those by James McNeill Whistler and his Peacock Room).

The foundational and rather groundbreaking principle of Freer’s vision as a collector was the universality of beauty, a belief that art from all periods and places can fit together based solely on aesthetic values. Toward the end of his life, Freer embarked on a remarkable journey across the East, amassing what remains one of the greatest collections of historic Eastern and Asian art in the world.

When the Freer Gallery closed for renovations in January 2016, the world was a different place. It has reopened into a new world fraught with cultural and political friction, with open displays of xenophobia and bigotry on a level that would have been inconceivable to most of us just 21 months ago. The Freer closed its doors in a moment of national promise and reopened them to find itself almost literally positioned in the backyard of a cultural battlefield.

Mandalas — iconographic compositions of concentric patterns used by Japanese Buddhists in the 13th and 14th centuries — are described in one of the Freer’s Japanese galleries as diagrams that depict an invisible yet fundamental spiritual order, offering a sense of structure amid chaos.

There could not be a better description for the Freer’s renewed presence on the National Mall in 2017, nor is this idea lost on the museum.

Morbidly or not, the walls of this gallery are emblazoned with the words: “In the Shadow of the Apocalypse.” The focus here is the Mongolian siege of Japan that began in the late 1200s, when Japanese artists sought to reassure believers with visions of compassionate protectors and fierce guardians.

Carved from wood and elaborately painted, these guardian figures are startling, ferocious and rather cinematic. Like ornate samurai gods with studded armor, flowing robes and brandished weapons, they stand atop writhing demons as one would a pedestal.

The galleries of the Islamic world are designed around an Arab philosophy that the five outer senses are directly connected to the inner senses that define us as people: understanding, imagination and memory.

A large brass canteen inlaid with silver from 1240s Mosul is devastating in its beauty — and made all the more heartbreaking considering Mosul today. Along the geographic planes of the canteen, centered on an image of the Virgin and Child, priests dance with birds, cats and dogs, ride on horseback and sacrifice calves in a web of calligraphy, geometric designs and figural compositions. Its rounded form, intricate surface design and original fragrant oils (probably precious church oils) would have transformed it into a multisensory masterpiece.

Until recently, Mosul was home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. In its workshops, Muslim, Christian and Jewish artists collaborated on countless artistic and architectural endeavors, flourishing from reciprocal respect and tolerance. That community now exists only through surviving works like this one.

If the beauty of the human spirit is on display in the Islamic galleries, the galleries of the Indian subcontinent rejoice in the human form. The beauty of the human body is central to artistic expression throughout South Asia, and sculptors from the Chola dynasty were masters of figural expression.

Bronze castings of Shiva and his wife Uma contain a radiant and poetic energy, with the simultaneous composure and wildness of dance. The joyous sense of movement and anatomy that pulse through these galleries is exotic, intoxicating and divine.

The formative influence on Charles Lang Freer’s career as a collector can be found in the two small galleries of turn-of-the-century American paintings. Freer championed American art of his day, which strove toward ideals of divine natural beauty that transcended intellectual knowledge. He enjoyed comparing his American paintings to foreign ceramics

and other objects, even using these comparisons as a means of training visitors how to look at his collection.

A landscape by Dwight Tryon, “Twilight: Early Spring,” recalls a Korean celadon vase, with its soft, deep, terrestrial green tones, which exude an atmospheric wonder.

These two small galleries are in some ways what make the Freer so wonderfully quirky and unique.

The newly renovated galleries breathe. Sunlight moves through the frosted skylights as if through a cloud. As the light changes, so does the art. Shadows shift around sculptural forms; paintings and textiles reveal new colors and then recede into cloistered dimness in an instant. It always feels like dawn in the galleries, with all the sense of reflection, simmering quietude and luminous secrecy of those moments just before the world wakes up.

Walking into the Freer, a museum of Asian and Middle Eastern art, and seeing it mobbed during its reopening celebrations was an unexpectedly emotional experience. Forty thousand people showed up for Iraqi ceramics, Chinese jade sculptures, Korean textiles. I saw in these moments what is so precious about art and history, and why the Freer, though fundamentally unchanging, will stand the test of time.

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