Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Washington: Freer Gallery

Washington DC is a great place for those who love museums, not only because they are free, but also because they display some of the most exquisite collections in the world.

Today we first checked out the Smithsonian "Castle", which is actually a visitors centre. It is the original site of the Smithsonian, but obviously the massive size of the collections led to the expansion to so many other museums along the mall.

The castle is a gorgeous building with a beautiful garden out front. We saw a couple of bumblebees doing their thing, while there's a fountain garden off to the side, inspired by the trickling water found in Alhambra in southern Spain.

Next door is the Freer/Sackler Gallery. The Freer Gallery opened to the public in 1923 and was the Smithsonian's first art museum. The gallery is named after Charles Lang Freer (1854-1919), who was a Detroit businessman who began collecting American art in the 1880s and then started looking eastward for more works from China, Egypt, Japan, Korea, South and Southeast Asia, and Middle East.

He amassed an amazing collection and while we didn't see all of it, we were impressed by the ancient Chinese jades he collected. We'd never seen bi, or round discs so large before, as well as jade blades and axes.

Sackler is the name of Dr Arthur M Sackler (1913-1987), a psychiatrist and medical publisher. He also had an amazing collection of Chinese bronzes, many of which we've never seen before, such as large bronze vessels with spikes on them. He donated many pieces to the gallery or they are on loan from his foundation.

Persian art is not often on show in galleries but here there's many pieces, gorgeous silver and gold plates, drinking vessels and sculptures.

There's also some Chinese paintings, a room full of Buddha sculptures and Japanese paintings... the list goes on and on.

One of the exhibitions on show is Chinese artist Xu Bing, called 9 Deaths 2 Births. It chronicles Xu's Phoenix Project, when he was commissioned in 2008 to create is largest public art project that would be installed in Beijing's Central Business District.

He was particularly inspired by migrant workers who contribute so much to the development and financial success of China. And so Xu began collecting debris from construction sites in a bid to "reclaim" waste generated by extraordinary financial growth and call attention to the human effort.

Xu saw the plans for the atrium on the building that looked to him like a cage. And so the artist decided the best thing to do was create a bird that was flying out out of the cage, and so he thought of the phoenix.

According to Xu, it is a mythical bird that, as folklore goes, helped put out a fire on a mountain by sacrificing itself. As a result its feathers were burned away and in gratitude, each of the birds on the mountain donated a feather to the phoenix, making it the most magnificent creature.

Hence the phoenixes -- in fact there is a pair of them -- are made of bits and pieces of left over steel bars, blue, white and red plastic sheeting, pipes and such.

However, after the economic downturn, the developer had second thoughts about Xu's work, claiming it looked unfinished, and suggested it should have crystals around it. Obviously Xu and his client had very different ideas of what art should be.

For Xu this was a major setback and seeing his phoenixes wither in the studio untouched made them look like they were dying a slow death. Luckily Taiwanese art collector Barry Lam agreed to fund the completion of the project and the birds were finally installed in a Beijing gallery and later travelled to the United States to be on display.

We didn't see the final product, but some clay models and lots of drawings as well as a documentary made for the Freer Gallery. Incidentally Xu is a friend of the gallery, having one of his works called Monkeys Grasping for the Moon hanging from the atrium.

Another highlight of the Freer Gallery is the Peacock Room. It was originally one of the rooms of British shipping magnate Frederick Leyland. It was redecorated by American expatriate artist James McNeill Whistler, featuring Leyland's collection of blue and white Chinese porcelain.

After Leyland died, Freer purchased the room and had it shipped to the United States in a series of crates. However, he wasn't interested in the blue and white porcelain and instead wanted to furnish it with his own collection of Chinese porcelains of various colours, thus proving an eclectic assemblage of pieces worked just as well.

The room was then installed in the Freer Gallery and is now pretty much the way Freer had it in his Detroit home. Inside it's very lavish, with paintings of peacocks in gold leaf against a dark green background, and the high-ceiling room is filled with antique ceramic pieces on gold ornate shelving.

This room is the pride of the gallery, but really there are so many other gorgeous pieces in the museum, that one can't help but be in awe of the collections thanks to the financial means and foresight of these collectors.

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