Kiyochika: Master of the Night

Cherry blossoms in D.C. usually herald phenomenal Japanese art exhibits. The Sackler Gallery takes the lead this year with Kiyochika: Master of the Night, a gorgeous series of woodblock prints made during the 1880s, when Tokyo was young.

This print, “Fireflies at Ochanomizu,” is my favorite, for its moodiness and glow. Its expectant summer evening vibe reminds me of John Singer Sargent’s “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,” which I saw at the Tate Britain last summer. The two works are of the same era.

Kiyochika: Master of the Night continues through July 27, 2014.

Japan Spring: A Diplomatic Coup

Score one for Japan; this is cultural diplomacy at its finest.

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Japan’s gift of cherry trees to Washington, D.C., two of the city’s most prominent museums have organized once-in-a-lifetime exhibits of Japanese art, one with heavy involvement from the Japanese government.

Both exhibits succeed wildly; you know you’re looking at some of the finest Asian art ever created.

In partnership with the Japanese Imperial Household Agency, the National Gallery of Art presents “Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird and Flower Paintings“, a collection of 30 painted silk panels by Ito Jakuchu, the son of a wealthy merchant who retired early to paint and study Buddhism. His birds and flowers are fantastical and heavy with Buddhist meaning; the peacock pictured here represents culture and virtue, for example, while crowing roosters represent spiritual awakening.

Though the exhibit was crowded on a Saturday morning (it’s only on for one month, through April 29), the paintings positively glowed–a testament to the artist’s technique of painting both the front and back of the panels.

They’re rich and lustrous and made me want to go on a meditation retreat in Nara — precisely the effect the Imperial Japanese Household was hoping for when they agreed to let the paintings travel, I’m sure.

(On a side note, it’s great to see the National Gallery do something creative online, as they have with this haiku-writing activity.)

At the Sackler Gallery, Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji brings perennial dorm-room favorite Hokusai into fuller view, with the artist’s series of woodblock prints showing Mt. Fuji, near and far, as Japan’s True North.

Hokusai pioneered a new art form, introducing landscapes in print instead of painting, and showing the daily life of commoners around Tokyo (Edo) at a time when the country was on the brink of opening to the West.

There are beautiful landscapes here, but the prints depicting travelers and pilgrims in the foreground resonated with me the most. For them, Hokusai makes clear, Mt. Fuji is part-spirit guide, part-patriarch, and ever-present reminder of man’s place in the natural world.

Living in a city with no dominant natural features, I wonder if I’d feel a mythic connection to a Mt. Fuji in my midst.

Cherry Blossoms 2012: Samurai and Hokusai

Though this year’s cherry blossoms are officially predicted to peak the week of March 24, a number of trees have already popped in my neighborhood. It’s been a warm winter.

Aside from lifting the city’s mood, the blossoms bring a constellation of Japanese art exhibits to DC. A few I intend to check out this month:

> Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji (Freer/Sackler)

> Samurai: The Warrior Transformed (National Geographic Museum)

> Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird and Flower Prints (National Gallery of Art)

Consider these a Tidal Basin alternative. They’ll be a lot less crowded.

China’s Empress, Kicking Back

Here’s what constituted public diplomacy in 1903: taking a photo of the Chinese empress with her legs crossed, leaning on one elbow–in what was considered an informal, “Western” pose–the better to appeal to foreign statesmen for whom the photo was intended.

For the Forbidden City, a public relations master stroke !

I badly needed a laugh today, and this was it. Someone should have told her Americans better relate to empresses when they don’t look so dubious. And less menacing fingernails would have helped.

Check out the full series of photos of Empress Dowager Cixi, developed as part of a Qing court campaign to improve her image abroad, at the Freer Sackler’s Power/Play exhibit, through January 29, 2012.

Qing Dynasty Political Wives: Silda or Huma?

Washington loves nothing better than a good summer sex scandal. Thanks to Anthony Weiner, this year’s came early and was more salacious than usual. Thanks to Nancy Pelosi, it had a remarkably short lifespan.

Still, it led to lots of media navel-gazing about the fraught role of political wives. While Silda Spitzer seemed a pained, mute appendage at her husband’s confessional press conference three years ago, Huma Abedin has shown no such willingness to play to expectations. Good for her.

The Sackler’s latest exhibit, Family Matters, presents political wives of 18th century China–empresses, noblewomen, consorts–as cipher-like Sildas. The series of intricate portraits on silk shows the women laden with gold, pearls, and embroidered robes, each element of their dress a clue not to their individual fashion sense, but to their husband’s rank.

And while the men in this collection were painted from life, the women were painted unseen by the artists. Some were painted posthumously, commissioned by relatives for the purposes of ancestor worship; others were simply hidden from public view, so the painter conjured them up.

What are we to make of these ghostly women? One can only hope, from the beleaguered expression of some of the men, that a Huma lurked among them and kept her partner guessing.

Family Matters: Portraits from the Qing Court runs through January 16, 2012.

D.C. Museums: Three Zen Moments

My colleagues and I are contending with high stress levels lately, in advance of big meetings in mid-April. Long hours have fragmented my attention span. To force myself not to think about work on my free Saturday, I found three places to exhale, in and around the Mall.

Highly recommended:

Rothko room at the National Gallery of Art’s East Wing.

Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden, this week framed by cherry blossoms.

Sackler Gallery’s Echoes of the Past: Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan.

DC Museums: Top Five for 2010

Time for a look back at what inspired me in DC’s museums this year. These are the exhibits that lingered in my mind weeks after I saw them.

1. Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor: This one’s a holdover from last year, but bears repeating because those faces are unforgettable. I first saw the warriors when I lived in Taiwan three years ago, then saw them twice again during their run at National Geographic headquarters this year. They speak from another time, and they have no equal. A trip to Xi’an, China, is on my life list.

The warriors ended their U.S. tour in March. Catch up with them down under, at Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales, through March 13, 2011.

2. From Impressionism to Modernism: The Chester Dale Collection: Each time I stopped by the National Gallery of Art this year, I took a few moments to admire Modigliani’s Nude on a Blue Cushion–one of many stellar portraits of women in this wide-ranging exhibit. See it through July 30, 2011.

3. Gods of Angkor: Bronzes from the National Museum of Cambodia: A small exhibit, but one that stoked my love of Asia, thirst for travel and interest in history. Honestly, I could look at Buddha statues for hours. Angkor Wat? Up there with Xi’an on my must-see list. Catch this one before it closes Jan. 3, 2011, at the Freer-Sackler.

4. Guillermo Kuitca: Everything–Paintings and Works on Paper, 1980-2008: This one surprised me. I’d never heard of Kuitca before but found his approach to art original, inventive and charming. His exploding opera house seating charts are nightmarish and beautiful all at once. See them through Jan. 16, 2011 at the Hirshhorn.

5. Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration: A peek into the mind of a master, this exhibit ended a 16-year-run at the Corcoran this summer. It gave me new appreciation for Close’s genius and, through portraits of his friends and family members, a fuller picture of the man. For more Close, check out Fanny/Fingerpainting at the National Gallery of Art. It’s one of my favorites.

Hai Bo: The Way Home

This photo by Chinese artist Hai Bo has been hanging in the Sackler Gallery lobby for several months now, and it stops me in my tracks every time I visit.

Titled “The Northern No. 29,” it shows the road the artist’s mother used to walk to and from school as a child, the only link to life outside her rural village in northeastern China.

In this back-to-school month, I’ve been thinking about how few American kids walk home from school these days, a freedom we took for granted in the 70s. It’s sad. Parents seem gripped by fear at the expense of their kids’ independence.

My nine-year-old niece convinced my sister to let her walk this year, but she’s in the minority among her peers.

The first week of school, she stopped off at a friend’s house–halfway home–to ask for a glass of water, like she was hiking the Annapurna Circuit.

In her mind, a journey worth savoring.

Perspectives: Hai Bo runs through February 27, 2011 at the Sackler Gallery.

Museumgoer, Meet Armchair Traveler

In today’s New York Times, art critic Holland Cotter commends several U.S. museums for going global this year via blockbuster exhibits of non-Western art, starting with a major Chinese show at the Met this fall.

He writes:

“In the most culturally interconnected time ever, familiarity with the art of the rest of the world, which means exposure to other ideas and values, just makes practical sense: it keeps us in the cosmopolitan loop, makes us full citizens.”

Yes and yes.

I work in international development. Learning about other cultures is what gets me out of bed every morning, and DC’s museums are an excellent venue for this. But there’s another benefit: communing with foreign art also slakes wanderlust for those of us tied to the 9-to-5. In fact, Cotter’s observation forced me to admit I spend many hours in the Freer-Sackler galleries plotting my next trip to Asia, and/or missing the Asia I left three years ago.

On the flip side, I always find it enlightening to visit a U.S.-themed exhibit while traveling out of the country. I had this experience last spring at the Musee des Beaux Arts in Montreal, where I saw the fabulous “We Want Miles,” about the life and music of Miles Davis. Yeah, sure, Canada is only one step removed. But in that setting, while watching Montrealers sit, absorbed, in the sound booths, grooving to “All Blues,” I saw the American jazz tradition with new eyes.

I’m lucky I live in a city where global and local commingle effortlessly on the arts scene. I can get my faux-travel fix pretty much any weekend, and the choices are often far-reaching.

My favorite local-global exhibits of this year? I’ve blogged about them here, channeling Siem Reap and Kabul:

1. Gods of Angkor, Sackler Gallery of Art
2. The Art of Gaman, Renwick Gallery
3. The Healing Power of Art: Works of Art by Haitian Children After the Earthquake, National Museum of African Art
4. Artful Animals, National Museum of African Art
5. Voices from Afghanistan, Library of Congress

Whispering to the Gods of Angkor

Ah, Angkor Wat.

I’ve read all the stories about how over-touristed and threatened it is, but still I’d like to see it.

I’ve had an emotional attachment to the place since my first viewing of what would become my favorite movie ever, Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love. In the final scene, the impossibly debonair Tony Leung whispers the secret of his lost love into the doorway of one of the complex’s crumbling temples.

So iconic. I hold my breath every time I watch it.

For now, I’ll have to be satisfied with the pieces of Angkor represented at the Sackler Gallery’s entrancing Gods of Angkor: Bronzes from the National Museum of Cambodia. The show’s 36 bronzes represent Khmer culture’s crossroads mix of Buddhism and Brahmanism from prehistory through the 15th century, including a number of seated Buddha figures as well as sculptures of Hindu gods Vishnu and Ganesha.

I always find Buddha figures calming; these did not disappoint. They’re really quite beautiful, and I liked the fact that Khmer bronze casters made their statues at small scale so people could carry them to religious festivals or install them in their homes. Buddha-on-the-go, so to speak.

I’ll admit I found more spiritual sustenance here than at the Sackler’s Tibetan shrine next door, in part because I was thinking of love and loss and Tony Leung.

There you have it: my own secret’s out.

Gods of Angkor runs through January 3, 2011 at the Sackler Gallery.