Honoring James Francis Cahill

Landscape with fisherman, 1629, by Guan Si (1590-1630). Illinois. Ink and colors on paper.

Landscape with fisherman, 1629, by Guan Si (1590-1630). Illinois. Ink and colors on paper.

The Asian Art Museum displays a landscape painting in Gallery 17, dated 1629, by Guan Si in remembrance of scholar and friend, James Francis Cahill (1926–2014), who passed away on February 14, 2014 at his home in Berkeley at age eighty-seven. The painting was purchased by the Peabody Family Trust upon the advice of Cahill, and then donated to the museum in his honor. The painting will stay on view through July 13, 2014

The painter Guan Si was skillful at reinterpreting fourteenth-century masters, and his personal style evolved from complicated to simple. The subject of fisherman in landscape is a familiar theme in traditional Chinese painting, and the sparse brushwork and simple composition of this landscape exemplify Guan’s mature style. The painting was purchased by the Peabody Family Trust upon the advice of the influential art historian James Cahill, and then donated to the museum in his honor.

Cahill began collecting paintings as a Fulbright scholar in Japan during the 1950s. He served as a curator of Chinese art at the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, DC, from 1958 to 1965, and then taught at the University of California at Berkeley from 1965 to 1994, during which time he mentored many scholars of Asian art, some who worked and still work at the Asian Art Museum. Among his numerous publications, major works include his first book, Chinese Painting (1960), and a multi-volume series on later Chinese paintings, including Hills Beyond a River: Chinese Painting of the Yuan Dynasty (1976), Parting At the Shore: Chinese Painting of the Early and Middle Ming Dynasty (1978), and The Distant Mountains: Chinese Painting of the Late Ming Dynasty (1982). The College Art Association awarded him its Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art in 2007. In 2010 the Smithsonian awarded him the Charles Lang Freer Medal for his lifetime contributions to the history of Asian and Near Eastern art.

Cahill gathered his lectures and essays as well as other writings on a variety of topics at www.jamescahill.info. The Asian Art Museum also has a two of Cahill’s talks on iTunes that can be downloaded.

Cahill’s ashes will be scattered at his favorite beaches at Pt. Reyes, north of San Francisco.

Shinohara’s Boxing Painting Installation

Shinohara's boxing painting

Boxing Painting, 2009, by Ushio Shinohara (Japanese, b.1932). Acrylic on canvas.

The installation of Usion Shinohara’s Boxing Painting, 2009, now on view in the Japanese galleries, presented unique challenges.  The work is quite large (60in x 130in), and is painted on an unmounted piece of canvas. How does one convey the energy of making the piece through the presentation of the piece? The painting appears to be hanging by small wires, but that is not the case. Hidden behind the painting is an elaborate hanging mechanism, to  support the great length and weight of the canvas without a frame.

Installing the Shinohara Boxing Painting

The apparent simplicity of the mount is deceptive; its large size requires complex construction and planning. The goal of the design is to provide good support for the artwork, appear unintrusive, and install easily into the narrow glass cases.

Installing the Shinohara Boxing Painting

To ensure the safety of the piece four people were needed to support it during installation. Here, Shiho Sasaki carefully positions the rolled painting along the top of mount.

Installing the Shinohara Boxing Painting

Three assistants carefully unroll the painting as she secures it to the mount with Velcro. The work is slow and deliberate, to make sure the painting is level and secure.

Check the Asian Art Museum’s Conservation page to learn more about museum mounts.

It takes a village to create and install large paintings such as these. Shiho Sasaki (Conservator of Paintings), Marco Centin (Exhibition Designer), Evan Kierstead (Interim Head of Exhibitions), Vincent Avalos (Mountmaker), and Courtney Helion (Conservation Technician) collaborated on the concepts.  Shiho Sasaki created the final design and Courtney Helion built a series of maquette versions, as well as final design. Cathy Mano, Associate Head of Registration, assisted with the installation.

Yoga: The Art of Transformation

The Theosophical Body, from The Chakras: A Monograph, 1927, by Charles W. Leadbeater (1854–1934). Illinois. Courtesy of General Collections, Library of Congress, Washington DC, BP573.C5 L4 1972.

The Theosophical Body, from The Chakras: A Monograph, 1927, by Charles W. Leadbeater (1854–1934). Illinois. Courtesy of General Collections, Library of Congress, Washington DC, BP573.C5 L4 1972.

When the Freer Sackler first approached us with the idea of creating an exhibition of yoga-oriented art, I was intrigued, but had lots of questions. What role did art play in the formation of yoga traditions? Did art inform philosophy and practice, or vice versa? And did the imagery of the yoga tradition change over time in response to historical and social circumstances? As I have learned, the answers to these questions can be very surprising.

For example, I had wondered when the full spectrum of yoga postures, asana in Sanskrit, was first depicted. Like many other yoga enthusiasts, I had assumed that they were present “from the beginning” of the tradition. But like so many of my preconceptions, this assumption was destined to be overturned. Far from emerging fully-formed, like Athena out of Zeus’ head in the famous Greek myth , many complex postures first appear in a 16th century treatise called the Bahr al-Hayat (“Ocean of Life”) – a millennium and a half after the Indian sage Patanjali compiled the yoga sutras. And there were more surprises. As it turns out, the Bahr al-Hayat’s accompanying text is not penned in any Indian script; instead, it represents a translation from a Sanskrit original into Persian by a Sufi (Islamic mystic) scholar. In this exhibition, you’ll have a chance to examine the imagery of the Bahr al-Hayat in detail; some of the postures will be familiar, and other may present you with your own puzzles to decipher.

As the exhibition took shape, I began wondering about how traditions of yoga art would depict the invisible aspects of yoga experience. How, I wondered, might artists envision an abstract concept like the Brahman, the impersonal deity of the Hindu texts called Upanishads? I was just as curious about the tradition began to depict the so-called “subtle body,” the network of energy centers and channels that yogis manipulate. I had assumed that these key yoga ideas appeared very early in the development of the tradition – but again the art of yoga surprised me.

Three aspects of the Absolute, page 1 from a manuscript of the Nath Charit, 1823, by Bulaki. India. Opaque watercolor, gold, and tin alloy on paper. Courtesy of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, RJS 2399.

Three aspects of the Absolute, page 1 from a manuscript of the Nath Charit, 1823, by Bulaki. India. Opaque watercolor, gold, and tin alloy on paper. Courtesy of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, RJS 2399.

Several paintings from Man Singh’s Jodhpur court appear prominently in this exhibition. In the early 1800’s, the king of the Indian city of Jodhpur, Maharaja Man Singh, commissioned a large set of paintings that depict both invisible and subtle aspects of yoga; one of these paintings, Three aspects of the Absolute, depicts the Brahman directly as a shimmering field of undifferentiated gold. Another series of Jodhpur paintings reveals different configurations of the “subtle body,” the interior system of energy centers and channels that figures so prominently in contemporary hatha yoga thought. Almost life-size, these Jodhpur paintings make it easy to see how the subtle, energetic body might map onto the physical body. A third set of Jodhpur paintings show the transmission of these teachings from guru to student in the Nath order of yogis. Such teacher-student contact was essential to the continuity and thus legitimacy of a lineage of yoga practitioners.  A final set of paintings from Jodhpur reveal that Man Singh commissioned these paintings for simultaneously political and religious reasons: the king understood his seemingly miraculous ascension to the throne of Jodhpur as the direct result of Nath intervention in history. In this way, Man Singh positioned his secular as having the legitimacy of divine sanction.

Chakras of the subtle body EX-2014.2.001

The chakras of the subtle body, page 4 from a manuscript of the Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati, 1824, by Bulaki. India. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. Courtesy of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, RJS 2376.

Another question that intrigued me is how imagery focused on the “subtle body” was assimilated into Western discourse and culture. As I have learned, there are at least two ways this happened: through mysticism, and through medicine. Charles Leadbeater’s image of the chakras initially looks similar to the imagery on Man Singh’s “subtle body” paintings, but closer examination reveals that Leadbeater’s image derives from Western attempts to map the seven planets of the Ptolemaic universe onto, or perhaps into, the physical body. Perhaps because such images have a long history in European mysticism, they could serve as a bridge between two quite different kinds of mystical systems – yoga and astrology. Similarly, yoga entered western medical discourse by mapping the subtle body onto the anatomical body. One marvelous book, Chakras of the Subtle Body, contains an image that makes this equivalence explicit.

Yoga: The Art of Transformation has challenged my preconceptions about the relationship between art and yoga in many ways, but nowhere so much as regards the question of authenticity. I used to wonder: what is an authentic teaching or image, and what is spurious? Do lineages guarantee the integrity of a given teaching, or is there some other factor – maybe efficacy – at work? As with my other questions, the answer is often “yes” – in its transformations, the art of yoga can frequently be seen to occupy the middle ground between true and false, peaceful and violent, genuine and derivative. And it is that transformational zone between pairs of absolute opposites that I have come to recognize as the real homeland of this kaleidoscopic array of traditions we are pleased to call yoga.

Proximities 3 Evening Event

Proximities 3 talk

We held the last event for Proximities series on Thursday night, February 6, focusing on the last of the trilogy Proximities 3: Import/Explore. The exhibition, curated by Glen Helfand and featuring artists Leslie Shows, Rebeca Bollinger, Imin Yeh, Byron Peters, Jeffrey Augustine Songco, and Amanda Curreri, explores themes of trade, manufacturing, labor, value, and economy just to name a few. These ideas were really encapsulated in the way the curator frames the show, “that almost everyone on the planet touches something that is conceived, mined, manufactured, routed or outsourced in Asia.” This point really made me take pause and think about the work in the exhibition.

P-Play

It was a great event. Many of the artists from all three exhibitions were in attendance and there was a lot of excitement in the air. The music, provided by Jacob Sperber (P-Play), set the right atmosphere – bright, fun, and dynamic which even compelled a few visitors to even dance. Amidst the conversations, drinks, and a few funky moves, the focal point was the exhibition. Glen Helfand facilitated an in-gallery talk with exhibiting artists Imin Yeh, Rebeca Bollinger, Byron Peters, Jeffrey Augustine Songco, and Amanda Curreri. The gallery was packed intently listening to the discussion, a few attendees mentioned that hearing from the curator and the artists really opened up the exhibition for them.

Proximities 3 tea

Another important component for the night was a project by Atelier Dion. Jay and Rie Dion (the husband and wife team behind Atelier Dion), were interested in manufacturing a limited edition tea cup in conjunction with a tea tasting hosted by Song Tea & Ceramics.  Initial planning for the project took place a few weeks after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines. This deadly and heartbreaking disaster made me highly aware of my proximity to the country and the people affected, as well as how the relief effort was also dependent on the same infrastructure that built industry and trade. In light of the typhoon, Jay and Rie were interested in introducing an exchange as a mode of raising donations for the continued relief effort. It became a tea tasting/cup exchange. Proximities tea cupsFor a donation participants received a cup for the tasting and would then own. Atelier Dion worked with the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns, whose representatives were on hand to accept the donations directly and provide information about the organization. The hundred cups were sold out before the end of the event. Thanks to the efforts of Atelier Dion and Song Tea & Ceramics, over $700 dollars was raised for the typhoon relief.

Proximities 3-69

The whole evening became a real life confluence of the themes and our proximity to Asia through place and landscape (Proximities 1), people and community (Proximities 2), and trade and commerce (Proximities 3). Catch the exhibition before it closes on February 23. You will be happy you did.

Lunar New Year traditions

Lunar New Year is the most important traditional holiday in Korea. Many people return to their hometowns to visit their parents and other relatives for the holiday. Among other traditions, we perform an ancestral ritual called “charye,” preparing fine foods and honoring our ancestors. We get up earlier than usual on the Lunar New Year and dress up in colorful traditional Korean clothing called “hanbok.”
For breakfast we eat “tteokguk,” soup with sliced rice cakes. We say that once we’ve finish eating tteokguk, we have gotten a year older.

Korean Culture day food

After breakfast, children wish their elders a happy New Year by performing a traditional deep bow and saying, “Have a blessed New Year.” The elders reward this by giving the children New Year’s money in luck bags made with beautiful silk designs and offering “deokdam,” or words of wisdom and well-wishing. Parents and grandparents might say, “I wish you health and no troubles,” or “I hope you get into the college of your dreams.”

Then family members get together to play “yunnori,” a traditional board game. Usually men and boys fly rectangle kites called “yeonnalligi,” and play “jegichagi,” a game in which a light object is wrapped in paper or cloth, and then kicked in a football-like manner. Women and girls play “neolttwigi” – a game of jumping on a seesaw.

Maybe traditional Koran culture seems complicated, but whenever I recall the days of Lunar New Year in Korea, it was always fun, warm, and exciting!

Written by: Mee Ran Hong

Mochi Pounding: A Reflection

Mochi pounding 2014

I think I’ve always taken mochi for granted. Mochi: the sticky, yummy childhood treat; something that my great-aunt always has at her house for Christmas. But I’d never given much thought to actually making mochi until I heard that the museum was hosting the mochi pounding celebration to ring in the new year. When I told my parents, they started to rave about the time they pounded mochi together in Japan, so I was excited for the day. We started in Samsung Hall, Polaroid cameras ready, looking on over the crowd of people. Little children bordered the front of the crowd, eagerly straining forward towards the demonstration. The members of Kagami Kai were all dressed in colorful red and blue robes. Happy colors for a happy celebration. I felt slightly out of place in my black outfit which was too somber a color for the occasion.

The demonstration started with an artist painting an ancient character for horse in front of the crowd. Seeing this performance was fascinating as it celebrated the new year by painting an old character. At the Asian, mixing old and new seems to hold a special place.

When the members of Kagami Kai actually started pounding the mochi, the room filled with the beat of drums, the ringing of bells, the happy sounds of voices chanting along, and of course, the deliciously nutty smell of the mochi. They were so enthusiastic while pounding the mochi, it was hard not to start clapping to the beat. As audience members volunteered, I sensed such gusto in hitting a mass of glutinous rice over and over again with a wooden mallet. Kids looked hesitant when they first stepped up but soon this feeling transformed into total bliss (I guess it’s not everyday that kids actually are allowed to play with their food). At the end of the demonstration, everyone lined up to pick up some mochi to eat. I’m not sure if it was the excitement of the celebration or the mochi itself, but the result, my little mochi souvenir, tasted amazing.

Check out our video from our 2012 ceremony:

Written by Nat Gable.

Happy Lunar New Year!

Red Envelope - Year of the Horse

Happy Lunar New Year! It’s Year 4712, the Year of the Horse.

Pick up a snazzy red envelope this weekend at the Asian Art Museum during our free Target Sunday. The envelopes contain discount admission tickets good for a future visit. We’ll have a limited quantity on hand, so get them while you can! Then enjoy our day of Lunar New Year festivities, including acrobatics by Red Panda Acrobats.

Can’t make it? Keep an eye out for us at the Chinatown Community Fair or visit us at the museum on Feb 15 or 16.

Horses in Ancient China

The Year of the Horse is fast approaching. What did the horse mean to people in the old days?

In ancient China, the horse provided fast transportation for noble and high ranking families and served a military function. This may be why the horse is associated now with leadership, freedom and energy. Chinese enthusiasm for horses dates back thousands of years, and as a result the museum contains many lovely examples of horse sculptures. Here, we take a really close look at some favorites.

Horse, Tang dynasty (618-906 CE), approx. 700-800 CE. B85S1.

Glazed with amber, green and white in the sancai (three-color) tradition, Tang ceramics of this type show splattered and dripped glazes full of energy and life. Here, the different and textures are used to highlight the bridle, mane and the horse’s flesh. Sancai colors are typically achieved using a combination of copper, iron, cobalt and manganese in a lead glaze.

Horse (detail), Tang dynasty (618-906 CE), approx. 700-800 CE. B85S1.

Horse (detail), Tang dynasty (618-906 CE), approx. 700-800 CE. B85S1.

Many horse figurines have been found in Tang dynasty tombs, and they are prized by collectors all over the world today. It follows that the figures are often heavily restored, sometimes invisibly so. This radiograph of a Tang dynasty horse figurine from the museum collection shows pins from old repairs in the legs and hooves.

Horse (X-ray), Tang dynasty (618-906 CE), approx. 700-800 CE. B85S1.

Horse (X-ray), Tang dynasty (618-906 CE), approx. 700-800 CE. B85S1. Image processing by Courtney Helion

Look closely at this composite X-ray, and you can see reinforcing metal pins in each hoof, as well as major repairs in the back facing leg. This horse may look flawless on the outside, but she has seen a lot of changes!

The Blood-Sweating Horses of the Ferghana Valley

Horse heads, Western Han dynasty (206 BCE-9 CE), approx. 206-100 BCE. B76P14 and B76P15.

Horse heads, Western Han dynasty (206 BCE-9 CE), approx. 206-100 BCE. B76P14 and B76P15.

These two elegant red horse heads could be modeled after the famous Ferghana horses, sometimes called ‘blood sweating horses ‘(汗血馬) or ‘heavenly horses’ in Chinese literature. This unique breed – now extinct– is believed to come from the ancient kingdom of Dayuan in the Ferghana valley (modern day Uzbekistan). According to legend, these fast, powerful horses– whose red color was thought to be caused by sweating blood—were bred from heavenly stock and could even carry the rider to immortality.

According to some stories, in the second century BCE Han dynasty the Chinese Emperor Wudi sent an envoy and gifts westward into the Ferghana valley, hoping to acquire some of the heavenly horses. The Dayuan ruler refused, and ultimately the Chinese invaded. The Chinese defeated the Dayuan, and thus Emperor Wudi came into possession of some ‘heavenly horses’, receiving a small number each year as tribute.

What made these horses red?

There are a few theories concerning why the Ferghana horses to appeared to sweat blood. Some modern researchers believe that a parasite (the nematode, Parafilaria multipapillosaI), still common on the Central Asian steppe, is the cause. Others think that it is due to tiny blood vessels under the skin bursting after strenuous galloping and exercise. Blood would mix with the sweat around the horse’s neck, creating a pink foam.

The two horse heads from the museum’s collection do not sweat blood (so far), but owe their distinctive red color to the use of pigment made from red iron oxide (Fe2O3), also referred to as hematite. Under X-ray fluorescence analysis, both horses show very similar chemical profiles. Iron is the major element, with smaller quantities of titanium, zinc, mercury, manganese, and lead. Iron, mercury, and manganese all create reds and purples, and have been in use since ancient times. Titanium and zinc, used to make white, probably indicate later restoration.

Horse heads under ultraviolet light, Western Han dynasty (206 BCE-9 CE), approx. 206-100 BCE. B76P14 and B76P15.

Horse heads under ultraviolet light, Western Han dynasty (206 BCE-9 CE), approx. 206-100 BCE. B76P14 and B76P15. Image by Courtney Helion.

To reveal areas of previous restoration the horse heads were viewed under ultraviolet light. Restoration paints often appear as a velvety purple under ultraviolet light (as on the bridle, on the upper horse).

Read more about these horse heads at our online collection.

Bibliography:

Winter, John. East Asian Paintings: Materials, Structures and Deterioration Mechanisms. London: Archetype Publications, 2008. Print.

Imperial China: The Art of the Horse in Chinese History: Exhibition Catalog. Lexington, KY: Kentucky Horse Park, 2000. Print.

Gettens, Rutherford J., and George L. Stout. Painting Materials: A Short Encyclopedia. New York: Dover Publications, 1966. Print.

All-too familiar catastrophic art

Lower garment and shoulder cloth depicting the tsunami of 2004

Lower garment and shoulder cloth depicting the tsunami of 2004, 2006-2007, by Mila Sungkar (Javanese, born 1960). Silk. Acquisition made possible by Mr. and Mrs. M. Glenn Vinson, Jr.

Seven years ago the museum acquired a remarkable textile from the Indonesian island of Java. Made by the artist Milla Sungkar, the cloth depicted her reaction to the devastating tsunami of 2004. After seeing images of the completely inundated province of Aceh in North Sumatra, and hearing about the more than 170,000 people killed by the tsunami, she expressed her grief in a batik textile depicting the catastrophe.

Lower garment and shoulder cloth depicting the tsunami of 2004

Lower garment and shoulder cloth depicting the tsunami of 2004, 2006-2007, by Mila Sungkar (Javanese, born 1960). Silk. Acquisition made possible by Mr. and Mrs. M. Glenn Vinson, Jr.

Nine years have passed since Aceh and neighboring regions in South and Southeast Asia were ravaged by that earthquake and tsunami. Yet images like the one depicted on this textile are still familiar. In the years since Aceh, we have seen the devastation from the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011, and more recently, from typhoons in the Philippines. In November of 2013 Typhoon Haiyan (known as Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines) became the strongest cyclone ever to hit land in recorded history. Over 6000 people died in the Philippines alone, and thousands more were left injured and homeless.

As has become all too clear, global warming is a factor in the increased intensity and frequency of super storms. A few days after the typhoon, in a remarkable speech at the United Nations climate talks in Warsaw, the Philippine delegate Naderev Saño spoke for the people of his country and around the world urging global leaders to take substantive and meaningful action on global climate change. He spoke with tears streaming, still not knowing the fate of all of his own friends and relatives. Milla Sungkar conveyed her anguish through art; Naderev Saño through this speech.

Let us hope they are heard.

Bell Ringing Reflections

Another year has gone by, and as always, we (literally) rang in the New Year in style with our annual New Years Eve Bell Ringing ceremony. The event has been a member and staff favorite for 28 years.

Bell Ringing 2013

The end-of-year ceremony has its roots in a Buddhist temple practice that happens daily, each morning and evening. In present-day Japan, it is customary to ring the bell 108 times on New Years Eve to correspond with the number of evil desires we suffer from on earth. Ringing the bell 108 times rids us of our evil passions and purifies us for the upcoming year (the number differs in Korean tradition; in that ceremony, ringing 33 times symbolizes the Thirty-three Heavens, the Trâyastriṃœa, where the Buddhist guardian Indra resides).

Bell Ringing 2013

The bell we use for the ceremony was made in Japan in 1532 by Daiji Temple in Tajima province. Our current belfry was constructed in 2002. About two weeks before each ceremony, our museum prep team brings the bell and belfry up from art storage and carefully installs them in Samsung Hall, where they remain on view for about three weeks.

When I started working at the museum about six years ago, I couldn’t believe the museum allowed visitors to strike a 16th century bell. But I’ve since realized how special a moment it is to be together with friends and family (and sometimes with a complete stranger), looking back over the past year.

Bell Ringing 2013

Reverend Gengo Akiba from Soto Zen Buddhism in North America has led the ceremony for the past ten years. The ceremony includes a purification ritual and Heart Sutra chanting. It is a solemn and sincere moment, and even young children seem to understand the purity of it (and there were many young ones this year).

Bell Ringing 2013

My favorite moments are when the group meets at the bell, shares good wishes with smiles and turns to ring the bell. And of course, afterward there is the inevitable scrambling to get selfies in, posing for the perfect shot with the bell. And in the rare moments when there is no one to claim the next turn at ringing the bell, people goodheartedly step in to ring it for everyone.