By Sheila Wickouski
The Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art will celebrate its 100th anniversary in May 2023. James McNeill Whistler’s “harmony in blue and gold,” the Peacock Room, had been on display since the gallery opened and is now accessible to the public again after a renovation.
A new exhibit titled The Peacock Room Comes to America takes visitors inside the story of the iconic room, which was originally created to display a prized collection of its owner’s Chinese blue-and-white porcelain in a London townhouse. Charles Freer acquired and reassembled the room in America. Over time, he added ceramics from Syria, Iran, Japan, China, and Korea, creating unexpected resonances across cultures and eras.
The captivating environment embodied Freer’s belief that “all works of art go together, whatever their period.” His idea continues in presentations at the gallery today, including three exhibits of Japanese works created centuries apart, which are now co-located in the Freer Galleries.
Bird-and-flower themes beginning in the Heian period (794-1185) are featured in Feathered Ink, which is on view through January 29, 2023. Eagles, geese, birds of paradise, peacocks, cranes and phoenix are replicated in detail in hanging scroll paintings, folding screens, ceramics, and printed books from over several centuries with different brush techniques with different feather types and the textures of plumage and foliage along with added coloring layers. Whether in painting or clay, realistic or abstract, the artists have captured some of the playful and the predatory natures of these imaginary birds,
Visitors can fast forward in time to the 19th century in an adjacent gallery. Meeting Tessai: Modern Japanese Art from the Cowles Collection, on view through February 18, 2024, explores the significance of pan–East Asian influences, a pertinent topic in today’s interconnected world.
The avant-garde artist Tomioka Tessai (1836–1924) created nonconformist paintings in a traditional way, based on ancient Japanese art and Ming and Qing paintings imported from China. His teacher Ōtagaki Rengetsu (1791–1875) was a nun, potter, calligrapher, poet, political activist. At the vortex of immense political changes in Japan as the country’s feudal system collapsed and a constitutional monarchy was established, she drew inspiration from
twelfth century works even as she influenced modern artists.
Rinpa: Creativity Across Time and Space, on view through February 5, 2023, celebrates the Japanese artists from the early the 17th century and into the 19th century whose aesthetic came to define an almost stereotypical image of Japanese art consisting of stylized forms in bright colors.
Connected to the Freer, the National Museum of Asian Art also includes the Sackler galleries, which offer another slate of new exhibitions to visitors.
Ancient Yemen: Incense, Art, and Trade is a selection of archeological treasures displaying the skills of artists from ancient Yemen who blended local ideas and Greek and Roman inspirations into new creations. Especially delightful are the treasures of animals, like a pair of lions with erotes as riders, their faces reminiscent of Dionysius in Greek and Roman sculpture as well as cherubs in Renaissance paintings.
In adjacent galleries, in contrast to the exhibit of peaceful decorative works of animals and flowers, is a powerful depiction of revolution and violence and human destruction.
Living in Two Times, on view through January 8, 2023, is the first museum retrospective in the United States of Bahman Jalali (1944–2010) and his wife Rana Javadi (b. 1953), two of the most influential figures in the development of 20th century Iranian photography.
These photographs were created in real time as a visual record of history by both photographers in their iconic series Days of Blood, Days of Fire, capturing events in Tehran during the 1979 Iranian Revolution, as well as images from Jalali’s Khorramshahr: A City Destroyed and Abadan Fights On.
There are scenes depicting the political, human events of January 16, 1979, the day Shah left Iran, as well as timeless images like Jalali’s Fishermen, Bandar Amzali (1970) depicting the changes in fishing communities of the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea.
Connecting the past with the present are vivid photo montages in 19th century archival images which have been incorporated into contemporary works through mirrors and with splashes of red paint, arranged in layers like Jalali’s Image of Imagination. By using fragments from history with photographic images, Javadi connects the past and present in collective memory through collages in Never Ending Chaos (2013).
Across these diverse exhibits, the possibilities of connections and how the works of art “go together” as Freer believed, is here for each visitor to discover at the Smithsonian ’s National Museum of Asian Art.