August 1, 2012
As Akbar, one of the greatest Mughal emperors and patron of the arts, once said, “There are many that hate painting; but such men I dislike.”
Curator Debra Diamond would tend to agree. She is a driving force in gathering together the lavish Mughal paintings on display in the new exhibition, “Worlds Within Worlds: Imperial Paintings from India and Iran” that opened July 28 at the Sackler Gallery of Art. The exhibition features intricate paintings rich with color from the Mughal empire, dating from 1556 to 1657, and commissioned by the three greatest art patrons of the era—the emperors Akbar (1542-1605), Jahangir (1569-1627), and Shah Jahan (1592-1666). The Mughal empire extended across India and Persia, today’s Iran, and was led by Muslim rulers descended from Genghis Khan. Their rule linked Persia with India’s Hindu Rajput kingdoms.
“We wanted to show something fabulous and the interconnections between worlds,” Diamond states. The exhibition is among a number of events and shows this year to mark the Sackler Gallery’s 25th anniversary, and is the first to highlight the museum’s Persian art collection.
To showcase their power, influence and wealth, emperors from the 1500s hired painters and writers to make lavish books, known as folios. The works took years to complete and could consume every hour of the artists’ life and served to define the ruler’s legacy as world leaders. The exhibit brings together 50 such works.
Each emperor had a unique aesthetic. Diamond points to the “dynamism” of Akbar, the “refinement” of Jahangir and the “opulent formality” of Shah Jahan.
Shah Jahan, whose name in Persian signifies “King of the World,” ruled from 1628 to 1658. Famously known for commissioning the Taj Mahal, his portraits depict him as the very embodiment of wealth and power, with border imagery laced in exquisite goldleaf detail. As with his most famous building project, Jahan looked to the finest of details to convey his message. He wrote, “beautiful things. . . create esteem for the ruler in the eyes of [his subjects] and augments [their] dignity.”
Powerful and wealthy as the ruler proclaimed, in the folio entitled, Late Shah Jahan Album, a sad story emerges. There, Jahan’s son, Shah Shuja is depicted (left). Shah Shuja, a boy of just two or three years, is seen on a single page of the folio looking away from the viewer. Diamond discovered that the boy had contracted a serious disease and was gravely ill. “The family unit prayed to God to save him,” she says. “In the portrait he is a sweet and loving baby and exquisitely painted.”
Jahan’s artists used an unusual technique of tightly piecing together cut and fitted, highly polished colored stones, otherwise known as pietra dura, in a gorgeous mosaic. Radiant borders specked with gold leaf reflect Jahan’s love for jewels, gems and flowers.
Emperors prided themselves not just on their own artistic legacy, but also on their mastery of the art history of the period. Shah Jahan’s predecessor Jahangir, who ruled from 1605 to 1628 said, “No work of past or present masters can be shown to be that I do not instantly recognize who did it.” In his portraits, Jahangir was depicted “taller and more slender” than previous emperors, Diamond says, in a display of arrogance and prestige. “He sees himself as a cosmopolitan ruler,” she says, and not just a fearfully strong leader, an important distinction for someone presiding over a culturally heterogeneous territory.
In conjunction with the opening of the exhibit, the film series “Indian Visions at the Freer” begins this month and features the Alms of a Blind Horse on July 14 and the Mughal-e-Azam on August 11. For family entertainment, “Inspired by India: A Family Celebration” on Saturday, August 11, celebrates Indian subcontinent cultures. The exhibition will be on view through September 17, 2012.
July 20, 2012
Most art exhibits begin with a theme and then seek out works that fit under that unifying umbrella. At first glance, “40 Under 40,” the new Renwick Gallery exhibition, opening Friday, July 20, to commemorate the museum’s 40th anniversary, seems to defy that convention. Exhibit director Nicholas R. Bell says, “No themes were planned. Instead, themes emerged organically.”
The exhibition seeks to demonstrate the ways in which craft has changed in the past 40 years, and how young artists have interpreted those changes. “We are trying to create a visceral feel in these works,” Bell continues, “So that you can walk into Nick Dong’s Enlightenment Room, and you can touch Christy Matson’s Sonic Structure [II].”
The featured artisans were all born between 1972, when the gallery was founded, and 1984. The works experiment with new and traditional media, and many re-purpose materials with an eye to conservation and sustainability.
Brooklyn-based artists William Hilgendorf and Jason Horvath recycled the wood from the Coney Island boardwalk into their piece
“Uhuru,” “Cyclone Lounger,” a long, curvy chair that is both beautiful and practical. “We’re interested in the dying art of storytelling,” says Hilgendorf. “When objects have stories behind them, that makes them more valuable to you, because you want to tell those stories. You want to keep the objects for a long time, so they don’t just end up in a landfill.”
The artists are joined together by age, a unifier that means a great deal in the post-9/ll world of financial crises, environmental fears and global security woes. There is an air of caution and irony that tinges even the most delightful pieces (a teapot, for example, that is really a gun), just as there is an air of playfulness that reigns in the most caustic.
Artist Mia Pearlman walked into the Renwick’s gallery space last year and knew exactly what she would create for the exhibit. “Normally,” she says, “you walk into a square, white room. But here, there are tiled floors and arching windows.” Her piece features two entire walls in the museum. On one side, gray and white paper rains down from ceiling to floor. On the other, white, airy paper floats upwards from floor to ceiling. “In this age of uncertainty, we try to put order to chaos. We have wonderful things and we have tragic things and we are trying to have a conversation with both. We are caught in this larger thing that is both light and dark,” she says.
This dichotomy of light and dark, pretty yet painful, is consistent throughout the various media the exhibit highlights. Jeffrey Clancy’s Collection of Curious Spoons reminds us of the delicate, aristocratic silver spoon held by the most fortunate. But these silver spoons are large and unruly. They are clunky, and, in the words of the artist, “look like something was just dug up.” They are beautiful in their grotesqueness, and mock the dainty, traditional silver spoons that inspired them. One particularly jarring piece, Lauren Kalman’s Hard Wear, displays pearls on a thin gold wire, wrapped around each tooth of the photographed woman. The pearls are exquisite, yet the sight of wire in between a woman’s teeth is disturbing and unnatural.
Although a general sense of unease sneaks into many of the pieces featured in “40 Under 40,” many of the works also share the mere love of craft. Gabriel Craig, an artist based in Detroit, Michigan, sets up “The Pro-Bono Jeweler” in cities around the country, allowing passersby to make whatever their hearts desire out of colorful clays. “The important thing is the outreach,” he says. “I like to remind people that things can be made by hand.”
Join the curator for a discussion at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, followed by an open house in which you can speak with many of the artists, July 20 12:00-2:30 p.m.
By Jeanie Riess
July 5, 2012
In A Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare wrote one of the strangest stage directions ever given in the history of theater: “exit, pursued by bear.” This order is difficult to follow in modern-day productions of the comedy, but in the 17th century, bears and other animals we now call exotic were, for better or worse, often assimilated into daily life. Many of the images in Zoos: A Historical Perspective, a collection of pamphlets, photos, maps and guidebooks beautifully displayed by the Smithsonian Libraries, reflect a similar sentiment. Bears can be seen climbing poles, elephants in Australia carry elegantly clad school children, and tigers stare lazily at humans inches away from their cages.
The collection features pamphlets, sketches and photos from not only the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, but from zoos across 30 states and 40 countries, making it the largest project of its kind, and providing a valuable perspective on the changing relationship between animals and humans throughout history. The photographs demonstrate, for example, how zoos were once places frequented for the sake of spectacle, and the evolution of the zoo into what it is today: an educational and conservation-minded institution.
Head of Information Services Alvin Hutchinson hopes that the online collection will give visitors “an appreciation of the history of zoos and the fact that they’ve been around for more than 300 years. They were once a place for oddballs and curiosities, but they’ve evolved into much more than that.”
The current collection is just one example of a larger effort by the Institution to digitize a host of print documents. “This collection was sitting in boxes and folders,” says Hutchinson, “and we put out a call for things not easily findable, and discovered these pamphlets.”
Hutchinson hopes to digitize the entire collection one day (the current exhibit features about 80 images), based on the feedback he’s received from those already on display. “I’ve gotten many calls,” he explains. “Mostly out of curiosity, but some have been very personal. One guy called and told me that his relative in England had done the stonework photographed in one of the zoos. The feedback has been great.”
Some of the images—lions sitting behind heavy metal bars, monkeys in cages too small—may seem a bit disturbing, but they serve as a reminder of how our understanding of animals and animal intelligence has changed over the years. Whereas once we poked fun at how easily chimps could look like humans (a photograph in the collection shows a family of chimps sitting down to dinner, complete with china tea cups and a tablecloth), we now view these similarities in the context of scientific understanding.
At once contemplative and whimsical, the collection is a valuable lesson in how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go.
View it here, along with an introduction from the curator.
By Jeanie Riess