A ‘refreshed’ Freer Gallery of Art coming in October

Freer Gallery of Art Director Julian Raby discusses renovations. The Gallery re-opens Oct. 14.

Those into Asian and Middle Eastern art know all about the currently-closed Freer Gallery of Art and its partner, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C.

During a tour of the Freer’s renovations, Director Julian Raby spoke about many changes for the classic Italian-Renaissance building on the National Mall. The museum will re-open with a bang on October 14.

He spoke of taking it in a new direction and refreshing “what we offer in the building.” Raby emphasized that they were eager to “bring back the original aesthetic of the building. This is about taking it back.”

Charles Lang Freer was a Detroit magnate who, in 1905, proposed donating his Asia and South Asia collection to  the Smithsonian, which initially rejected it since they were concentrating on science. Despite this, the Freer Gallery became the first building of the Smithsonian system for fine art opening in 1923. The white-stone building is built around an open-air courtyard which include sculptures and a fountain. The museum houses Freer’s collections including screens, scrolls, jade and his extensive collection of artist James McNeill Whistler paintings, letters and drawings, and the very popular “Peacock Room.

One of the Freer’s new directions is the use of the museum’s display space. Instead of long-standing exhibits, “every single one of these galleries…will be treated like a mini-exhibition; what’s the big idea, what’s the hook title, what are the highlight objects, and how do we talk about these objects for a relevance for today,” says Raby.

Cleaners at work at the Freer Gallery of Art

The original terrazzo floors from 1923 have been “revealed” and cleaned. Raby said, “The (Eugene and Agnes E.) Meyer auditorium is historical… and (has gone) from analog age” to the “digital age. We can simulcast. We can beam into other institutions.” He has kept the original seats to “insure the almost perfect sound quality” of the auditorium the same.

Some members of the Freer have already moved back in. “The conservation department is now in their digs,” said Raby as a woman with a cart holding a mother-of-pearl Asian box moved through the crowd.

While the walls are repainted, the new slate baseboards are still missing since they are “stuck in Customs,” says Raby.

It’s is not only the galleries that will be overhauled. Lee Glazer, Associate Curator of American Art, spoke about the “most popular, the most visited” gallery.

The green and gold-gilt Peacock Room with its extensive collection of pottery is “installed exactly the way he installed them in 1908.” Freer loved things with iridescence on them, and acquired one of the most extensive collections of ceramics in 1907. One is “so covered with iridescent it’s difficult to see.”

An iridescent bowl in the Freer Gallery of Art’s Peacock Room

Interestingly enough, in light of contemporary events, some of the antique ceramics comes from Raqqa in Syria, the self-styled capital of the Islamic State.

Glazer also spoke of a new acquisition drive to buy more blue and white porcelain of the period to “recreate the chock-a-block massing of the Victorian original” display. If they can’t get contemporary pieces, they may do “3-d” clones of objects in the collection, in the hope that someone might donate an original to replace the clone. Raby joked it was part of the “adopt a pot” campaign.

Two small bronze statures, by August Saint-Gaudens, better known from the monument to the Civil War’s 54th Regiment in Boston and the Henry Adams’ funeral homage to his wife, will be reinstalled in the courtyard after being cleaned using new techniques. Using dry ice blasting to take off the aged wax coatings, Labor Supported by Science and Art, and its partner, Law Supported by Power and Love, will be re-coated with thin layers of wax, gently buffed, and then re-installed.

Finally, the two massive 14th century wooden Guardians will return to guard the corridors. Raby said that he’d always wanted to have a kids sleepover Night at the Museum-style “with the Guardians coming to light at midnight. ” He added with a smile, “Spooky.”

Before being taken down during the renovations, a Guardian loomed outside the Peacock Room


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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Updated to remove spoiler warnings.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales will make a lot of money but would have made more with a coherent story. The film’s  promise is lost amid various conflicting competing plot lines. It has all the feeling of being written by committee with a checklist of “scenes you must have,” “expensive special effects,” and include all the minor characters as well as the major cash cow – Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp.)

It starts with young Henry Turner (Brandon Thwaites) wanting to save his father, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), a.k.a the Captain of the haunted ship, the Flying Dutchman, from eternal death. Henry can do this by finding the Trident of Poseidon which breaks all marine spells.

Over the next couple of hours, Henry works towards this goal. Along the way, he’s tripped up by run-ins with several British officers (all of whom look alike and all want to hang him,) the pirate Jack Sparrow (who is stealing gold and a building, in that order) and Sparrow’s nemesis, Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), an undead Spaniard.

Salazar had wanted, when alive, to rid the Caribbean of all pirates. He dies facing off against a young Sparrow, but lives on magically through the power of the magic compass. Now, through a clumsy plot point,  he’s freed from the watery depths and wants his revenge.

The many plots then descend into an endless tangle of “you must have this scene,” include “these characters,” and have a chase scene (or three), and, don’t forget to include  Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) who was Sparrow’s enemy, then friend, then enemy. Yes, he’s here too, and the opening plot? Oh, that sunk somewhere about the half-hour mark.

The young beautiful heroine, astronomer Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) is a top graduate of the Caribbean’s 1800s-STEM courses. She’s about to be hanged (probably for spurning the advances of the British officer but that’s unclear) but she escapes the prison and ends up with Sparrow, then is nearly hanged again, and rescued again… She’s around to move things along and be a love interest for Henry as the free-spirited, intelligent Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightly) was for Will Turner in the first 4 films.

I came away with the definite impression that the writers are going for what they think is the “new spunky young woman” ideal but not making it really work.

All of this decorated with fabulous special effects. The pirate ships are beautiful. When Salazar’s ghostly pirate-hunter smashes down on his enemies crushing them it mind-blowing. The drowned Salazar himself is gruesome. The costumes are good for upcoming Halloween stores including Carina’s corseted gowns (of no particular period.)

So the main story is to find the Trident to save Will Turner? Or is it saving Jack Sparrow from Salazar’s revenge? Or is it making sure Henry and Carina get to get together? Or is it… well, what is it?

Now for the Biggest Fattest Spoiler and Irritation: both the friend who accompanied me and I were waiting for a showdown between the Flying Dutchman and Salazar — two lost ships full of magical dead men with competing purposes – the saving or killing Henry, Carina and Jack Sparrow. Now THAT would have made sense.

Nope. Nada.

Disney had the ingredients and could have made it a worthy next film in the series.  Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a disappointing, frustrating mess.

Come on folks, get it together!

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Forget lovingly handmade gifts – Amazon wins

This is not a nastygram towards Amazon.com or the USPS. Not at all. It’s is a realization. Only big business can afford to mail stuff, so buy from them.

I just spent $20 to send a package across the U.S. via Priority Mail. The contents are a gift which I hope the recipients will enjoy greatly.

However, if I wanted to have it tracked, that would be extra cash. The cardboard box itself was an extra cost. Insurance would have been even more.

For business, the ultimate lure is no mailing costs and only big business can afford to do that. The rest of us just pay cash or give up.

Frankly, it would have been much cheaper to find it on Amazon, and send it.

I run into this every time I send something larger than a letter, or send a package abroad. Why bother mailing things abroad when I can go to Amazon.com in that country, and just order it up?

The answer to the latter is that sometimes you want to give something that’s unusual. Something not off-the-rack. Something that will be perfect for that birthday boy or girl selected from a small business. In which case,  be prepared to spend as much mailing via UPSP, FedX, UPS (choose your poison) as you would buying that gift.

In the old days (when dinosaurs roamed) there was USPS sea mail. You sent it months ahead of time, and it arrived in time at a reasonable rate. That doesn’t seem to exist any longer.

I wish there was a solution. Why bother thinking ahead to a present that matters if you have to budget in twice the cost?

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Utamaro-A glimpse into Japan’s sexual ‘floating world’ of yesteryear

Thank goodness for sex, otherwise humanity would miss so out on so much great art.

A one-of-a-kind exhibit, Inventing Utamaro, opens at the Arthur M. Sackler museum in Washington D.C. April 9th. Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro’s large painting, Moon at Shinagawa, owned by the Freer Gallery of Art, has been joined by two other related paintings, Fukagawa in the Snow and Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara. 

Don’t let the prim-and-proper names scare you off.

Utamaro, born in 1753, specialized in paintings and wood block prints about the ukiyo or “floating world” – the ‘entertainment’ area of Edo (now known as Tokyo) that included the well-organized and legal brothels.

Yes. We’re back to sex. But, non-explicit, so don’t be scared to bring children to the exhibit of a stunning triptych of Asian art.

Guest curator Julie Nelson Davis of the University of Pennsylvania  teamed up with the Freer Gallery of Art’s senior curator of Japanese art James Ulak for the exhibit.

This is the world of elegant, educated seduction for profit. The paintings are  inhabited by exquisite women clad in vibrantly colorful kimonos, some holding children, all happy. Cherished pets run about.  The painted cherry blossoms flutter like the real ones on the trees outside the museum.

The three oversized paintings – one scroll, the others, screens — are an idealized, artistic  view of the world of the sex workers of Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868). Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara is likely set in the quarter where thousands of prostitutes entertained their clients. The Moon at Shinagawa is set an ‘entertainment’ house. In the Fukagawa in the Snow, the women were entertainers. Davis pointed out that the women’s kimono bows tied in the front, signified they were prostitutes.

This was not the reality of the sex trade in that world. The Sackler includes an accompanying exhibit points out that in reality,  “many women died during their time of service” with the “average age of death was twenty-one.”

Utamaro was a popular commercial artist also who produced wood block prints, and folded illustrated books. The Sackler has one of the carved wood blocks on display.

It’s worth picking up the small pamphlet put out by the museum to understand why the topics were chosen by the printers. In line with the censorship of the period,  prints  could only “represent approved subjects” such as “beautiful people” and “famous places.” No politics.

Who the triptych of scrolls were made for is uncertain but research suggests they may have been created for Zenno Ihei of Tochigi in the late 1780s. The trio were apparently painted at different times over fifteen years. They were first exhibited together at the Joganji Temple in Tochigi in Japan in 1879. The noted collector Charles Lang Freer bought “Moon at Shinagawa” in 1903.

Viewers are unlikely to ever see them together again because paintings of the Freer Gallery are not loaned. “Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara” came from the Okada Museum of Art in Hakone, Japan, and “Snow at Fukagawa” is from the Wadsworth Atheneum Musem of Art in Connecticut for this singular exhibit.

The exhibit runs from April 8th to July 9th, 2017 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C.


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Intense and Powerful – ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’

Every life is precious in The Zookeeper’s Wife whether it is animal or human. In the face of the harsh brutality of the occupation of Poland, the casual cruelty of everyday life and the Holocaust, this film reminds us that courage comes in all forms and resistance always has a price — sometimes very, very high.

Based on a best-selling book, it belongs to the class of war movies (Enemy at the Gates, (2001), Defiance (2008)) that stay with you long after you leave the theater. It is beautifully acted, well-filmed and powerful  but have graphic scenes of execution and rape. You are now warned.

It’s 1939 and the Warsaw Zoo basks in the sunshine. Innocent families visit the elephants, walk past the tigers, the cheetahs, and the bald eagle. A baby camel follows Antonina Zabinski, (Jessica Chasten) the wife of zoologist and Director Jan Zabinski (Johan Huldenberg) through the happy place. Later that night a the dinner party, the Zabinskis host the head of the Berlin Zoo, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl). He’s attracted to Antonina, a fellow animal lover – and as a woman.

Then Germany invades Poland, and reality bites. The zoo is bombed. People watch from their windows as the confused freed big cats walk by. Some are re-captured, some are killed by troops. Lutz comes to the Zoo’s rescue  but at a price: he wants to take their prized animals to Berlin.  Some of the animals aren’t prized enough to the Germans to be saved and are executed.

On the human side, the Germans herd the Polish Jews into the Ghetto where they are abused with beatings, rape, and starvation.

Early in the movie, the Zabinskis decide to protect and shelter Jews even though German troops come and go from the zoo every day. To keep the zoo going, it becomes a pig farm to feed the occupiers. Jan offers to take food scrapes from the Ghetto to feed the pigs. It gets him through the gates – and he brings some Jews out.

Then the Germans deport the Jews to the camps, and burn the Ghetto. Ashes float over Warsaw like snow. Most of the modern audience will make the connection to the death camps.

From there on it’s a matter of what will happen, who will live, who will die, and what will survive the occupation, and the conquering Russians. The fate of Heck and the Zabinskis are intertwined as is the fate of their Zoo, and that of hundreds of Jews.

The Zookeeper’s Wife isn’t an easy movie to enjoy — but it’s so worthwhile to see.

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Why all the kudos for ‘Logan?’

The first time I saw Logan, I was appalled by the violence and turned off by the story. I decided to give it another chance, see it a second time to see if I had the same reaction. So several weeks later, I went back.

Nope, same response. I don’t understand all the praise given to this nihilistically grim film.

Okay, before I get mugged by the fans, let me say I collected X-Men comics until the costs started to significantly cut into my income. I enjoyed the other X-Men films. I have seen the movie Unforgiven which was said to be an inspiration for this. I know people will say, “It’s just a comic book movie miniseries “Old Man Logan” so who cares about the death count?”

Logan is a very well done film, made with a sense of modern realism that makes its brutality more believable. It’s a road movie with bullet-riddled transport and a death mark on every character.

The plot is based on the need for Laura (Dafne Keen), Logan’s clone via the bad guys genetic manipulation, to get to a place called Eden, an alleged refuge for mutants. Her nurse tries to get Logan (Hugh Jackman), formerly an X-Man called Wolverine now a used-up limo driver, to take her there. Logan rejects the job but circumstances force him take it.

So what makes Logan difficult to watch?

Maybe it’s a lack of hope that permeates every digital second of film.

There is only one hero in Logan — Logan himself. He struggles against a merciless, grim world to take the elderly Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) to a permanent refuge.

That’s the most powerful relationship in the movie and the source of its greatest tragedy. Xavier, the most powerful mutant on Earth, has now been reduced to a resentful senior citizen who hates the pills that deaden his powers but controls the destructive seizures which destroys the world around him. It’s Logan’s love – and hate – that keeps him with Xavier.

It’s that duty that keeps Logan alive.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t help keep anyone else alive. The body count would rival a battle, and all the deaths are personalized. Logan slashes and stabs his way through most of them, spurting blood along the way.

The nurse who helps Laura escape is murdered. The normal family who gives an escaping Logan, Xavier and Laura a meal are murdered. The store clerk who almost gets gutted by Laura, is then tortured (and probably murdered) shortly after by bad guy Piece (Boyd Holbrook). Logan’s fellow mutant Caliban, (Stephen Merchant) the voice of reason, blows himself up. Xavier dies (non-heroically). Logan dies. Only Laura, a survivor like her “father,” lives to go with her fellow young mutants to Eden.

Both times I saw Logan the audience left silently, not a single positive comment or a smile. I can’t imagine why some parents brought their 8 year olds. What were they thinking? Maybe that Logan was just a comic book movie with meaningless CGI deaths?

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April 1917 the U.S. enters WWI

2017  is a commerative year. A century ago the U.S. entered “The War To End All Wars” on April 6, 1917.

A hundred years later it’s a mostly forgotten war.

World War I monument at Arlington Cemetery

World War I monument at Arlington Cemetery

While the United States World War One Centennial Commission was established  by Congress in 2015, it wasn’t funded. On the anniversary  PBS’ American Experience will start a six-hour documentary over three nights. The Library of Congress had a small poster exhibit “World War I: American Artists view the Great War.” 

In popular culture, World War I never died. Charles Schultz’ Charlie Brown cartoon had Snoopy, the popular dog who thought he was a fighter pilot against the German “Red Baron” von Richthofen.

Filmmaker George Lucas gave us the Indiana Jones series of movies but also the television series, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Jones served under an alias in the trenches, and later as an intelligence agent. Circling back to reality, Lucasfilm provided documentaries on the DVDs along with the fictional episodes. Speaking personally, I shared them with my young nephew and niece at Xmas and they were fascinated by the fiction and reality.

In the real world, the declaration of war by a reluctant President Woodrow Wilson swept  up young American men and send them to the muddy battlefields of Europe. Over 4 million served; 53,402 soldiers died in battle.

Our involvement in World War I went from April 1917 to November 1918 – a year and a half. US troops participated in major battles such as Chateau-Thierry and the Marne.

Contemporary poster celebrating the Third  Division actions in World War I

Contemporary poster celebrating the Third Division actions in World War I

As shown by an earlier posting on Norman Prince, Americans were headed “Over There” earlier than April 1917. The Lafayette Escadrille consisted mostly of American volunteers.

Even before 1917 there had been a consideration of a “draft” or what it became known as, the “Selective Service Act of 1917.” Wilson may have wanted a volunteer force but reality bites: not enough men signed up. So the draft went into effect in May of 1917 with the registration of young men. Many would not return to the until 1919 or later.

On the Commission’s website is a register of events for World War I commemorations.

A memorable part of World War I were the poppies that flourished in “Flanders fields” . The Centennial Commission created “WWI Poppy kits” to raise funds to build the planned  National WWI Memorial in Pershing Park in Washington D.C. General John J. Pershing was the WWI commander, only the second “General of the Armies,” a six-star general, in U.S. history.

The other one? George Washington.


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