Sunday, June 1, 2008

Freer Gallery - American and Chinese collections

Freer Gallery

I thought I had spent a long time in the Freer Gallery but now that I think about it, I didn't get there until 2 so I only had three hours until closing. Charles Freer made his fortune in the late 19th century in, I think, the railroad industry. But that's not the focus of my visit today. His business success is only what enabled him to spend the time and resources for his legacy that is the Freer Gallery, both the building and collection inside it.

The American Collection

Because I had heard of the Freer as a collection of Asian art, I was initially disappointed when I learned that the tour I was going on explained the American art collection. (And I was very irritated that a little girl of about 6 or 7 was on the tour only because she and her family used the Freer as a shelter to wait out the thunderstorm.) But then our docent began to talk about the collection. It consists mostly of Whistler paintings (and a few Dewing and Sargent) because Freer was a major patron of Whistler.

The crown jewel of the American collection, and perhaps of the whole museum if American art is your forte, is the Peacock Room. Since Whistler believed his art as studies of form and color more so than depictions of actual things and following Whistler's naming convention, I think this room should be called Composition in Teal and Gold. Every inch of the room is richly painted teal or gilded in gold. When I first walked into the room, it looked almost too busy. At one end of the room is a large gold painting of a pair of peacocks and three large panels along the adjacent wall also of peacocks. The wall color is a rich teal covered with a peacock feather motif, as is the ceiling. Built into the walls are also wooden shelves now also gilt to cover up the brown wood where porcelain plates and vases are displayed.

Only one or two galleries held American art. Freer had commissioned John Dewing to decorate the parlor of his home and those paintings are on display here now. The main colors are misty greens and the chief subject ethereal women and Dewing was like Whistler in wanting to create atmosphere more than object. "The fact that there are women in the painting is beside the point", said the docent. The focus of the series of Dewings was a four-panel folding screen. On each panel was a woman seated among green grasses. I thought it seemed familiar when I first saw it. The docent said that it was inspired by a Whistler screen now on owned by the DIA so maybe I had seen it there, or perhaps just something similar in a photo. The problem with the Dewing was that the gauzy effect made me feel like I was straining to see through a fog or that I needed new glasses.

I was not surprised that Leyland, the English businessman who commissioned the room to be decorated, was appalled by the final product. Leyland wanted a room to show off two things: A Japanese inspired Whistler painting of a white woman in a kimono and Leyland's collection of blue and white Ming porcelain but the painting and the porcelain are overpowered by the peacock motif and peacocks. In fact, teal and gold aren't present in either of those things. So Leyland refused to pay Whistler for the room and so here Whistler left his only narrative painting, since he cared about color and form only. It was inconsequential that his paintings showed people or identifiable "things". The painting of two peacocks shows one peacock with a ruffled neck and a wing outstretched pointing at the other peacock: the angry patron is dissatisfied with Whistler's work.

Incredibly and fortunately for us, the decorations on the walls of the room were never done on the actual masonry of the building but on wood panels basically stuck on to the stone so that it could have been removed from Leyland's house in London, installed in an addition to Freer's Detroit home especially built for it, then after Freer died, it dismantled again and finally reassembled in the Freer Gallery.

Interesting note: The courtyard of the Freer Gallery at some point held live peacocks too for visitors to see, but as the docent said, "They bit people, so they [the museum] had to get rid of them."

The Chinese Ceramics Collection

What to me, and I think most people, is so typical of "Chinese porcelain" was originally not from China at all. Blue and white porcelain became prize in China because it was exotic. China did not yet make blue glaze because it had not yet discovered cobalt. But artisans in the Middle East had blue glaze and Chinese traders brought back their work. So at first cobalt was imported to make blue glaze and after China excavated its own cobalt and production of blue and white porcelain began in earnest in the Ming dynasty(14th - 17th century), peaking in early Qing.

This visit changed the way I thought about Chinese porcelain. I was very surprised that not all fine porcelain is the blue and white variety popular since the Ming dynasty. There are few blue and white porcelains on display at Freer and the ones in the Peacock Room and those pieces weren't the focus. Porcelain making had been perfected since the Song dynasty (10th - 13th c) and through the Jin and Yuan dynasties as well during which pieces were white, black, or black and white.

Northern China doesn't seem to get the glam and glitz of the South. Silk, tea, and trade are all concentrated in the South and because of trade, southern coastal cities have always been, and still are, richer than the inland North. I had thought that porcelain production followed these lines because most people who know of only one porcelain kiln knows the name Jingdezhen, the city in Jiangxi province where this blue and white ware kiln is located. But the white Ding-ware was made in Hebei province.What I love about these pieces, besides their pure white color, is that they have finely carved and molded detail. (These pieces were fitted with a metal rim because the pieces were fired upside down, resting on their rims, to prevent sagging and distortion.)

My two favorites from the whole collection of Chinese porcelain are a bowl with thin molded lines radiating from the center and a plate with a lively scene of mandarin ducks and lily pads. I've completely fallen for white porcelain now for its understated beauty. Blue and white seems too loud.

Dish with Molded Decoration of Mandarin Ducks
China, Hebei Province, Ding ware
Jin Dynasty, 12th - 13th century
Porcelain with transparent ivory-toned glaze; metal rim
(click to enlarge)

China, Hebei Province, Ding ware
Northern Song dynasty, 11th - early 12th century

Porcelain with transparent ivory-toned glaze
(click to enlarge)

Other than white clay with white glaze, southern China also made black porcelainware, though the dark glaze can actually range from dark brown to a shimmery iridescent black. The most prized Jian-ware, as they are called, has mottled or blossom-like patterns in the glaze.

Freer Gallery website:

Other things I saw but I didn't get a chance to talk about: Amazing Chinese calligraphy and brush paintings, Maxine Hong Kingston's inspiration for "Song of the Barbarian Reed Pipe", Japanese vs. Chinese tea bowls.

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