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Virtual Tour with Nana

Next in our series of virtual tours from Suzanne Ragen, aka Nana, we’ll be looking at an ancient Hindu sculpture and a Chinese sculpture from the 14th century. A SAM docent since 1965, Ragen began writing what she calls Nana’s Art History 101 for her grandchildren when the Asian Art Museum had to close for the safety of the public in March 2020. She recently started to share these virtual tours of SAM’s original home with us and we hope you enjoy them!

Ganesh, Remover of Obstacles and Lord of Auspicious Beginnings

Do you remember our first object, the Indian Story Scroll Cloth that featured the Hindu god Ganesh? He starts the story on that scroll because he is the God of Auspicious Beginnings, which means the story gets off to a good start. 

This stone sculpture of Ganesh was located in a niche of a Hindu temple wall. In Hinduism, there are three main gods: Brahma has four heads and is the creator of pretty much everything; Vishnu often wears a top hat and is blue and comes to earth to help when needed in the form of nine different avatars; and Shiva who is the destroyer and can end the world and then you start all over again.     

This Ganesh is connected to Shiva, we know that because the snake across his round belly is Shiva’s snake. When you look at Ganesh, what’s the first thing you notice? For me, his most striking feature is his elephant head. He also has four arms, a big belly, wears jewelry, and a crown. You might notice his candy dish in his left hand (he loves candy). What do you see near his right foot? That’s Mooshika, his rat sidekick who helps Ganesh trample down or wiggle through obstacles.

Why do you think he has an elephant head? The reason starts with Shiva and his wife Parvati, who live in a big, fancy house. Shiva is gone a lot, destroying things and Parvati misses him. One day when Shiva is gone Parvati makes a child out of clay to keep her company and breathes life into him. Once she goes to take a bath and tells her child, “Don’t let anyone in the house!” But Shiva comes home unexpectedly. Ganesh stops him and says “You can’t come in!” This makes Shiva so angry that he takes his sword and cuts off Ganesh’s head.

Parvati comes out and says, “How terrible! You have cut off the head of our child!” Shiva realizes the situation and tells his servant to go to the market and bring back the first head he sees. It is an elephant. Shiva places the elephant head on his child’s body. Ganesh comes back to life and in Hindu mythology, stays as a helper to his father and a good son to his mother.

 Many Hindus pray to Ganesh for good luck when they set a new goal. After hearing this story, what do you think is lucky about Ganesh?

Dragon Tamer Luohan

This Chinese wood sculpture from the 14th century came to the Seattle Art Museum soon after it opened its doors in 1933. How do I know this information? I looked at the label! If you look at the last numbers on any label (no matter what museum you go to), you’ll see there are a series of numbers. The numbers before the first period tell you what year the museum acquired the work, after the period is the number in which the object came into the collection that year. This is called the accession number. The accession number for this object is 36.13. This means that the object was acquired in 1936 and it was the 13th object acquired that year.

For the past 84 years this object was titled Monk at the Moment of Enlightenment. While the museum was closed for a recent renovation and expansion, our Chinese curator was able to examine it very carefully, using medical equipment like x-rays and CT scans, as well as looking closely. We can do that, too.

What we discovered from the scans is that the figure is hollow, made up of five different pieces of wood, held together with long iron pins, and was painted in reds and greens with a topcoat of gold, most of which has worn off. The curator was able to remove a panel in his back and found a single Chinese character inscribed inside that the museum had never seen before! It is part of the name for the Dragon Tamer Luohan. Luohans are Buddhist monks and this one’s particular job was to control the Dragon King. The Chinese believed that rainfall was controlled from the clouds by the Dragon King, so farmers would pray to this Luohan for the right amount of rain for their crops. Because of his size  (more than three feet) and quality, it is thought that he was originally in a temple in Beijing.

The other big surprise that was found inside him was a mud wasp nest in his head! It must have been there for 800 years. A fragment of a wasp was sent to a UW entomologist, who was able to determine its species. 

He is sitting on a tree stump, his body is twisted, legs with one foot touching the ground and the other crossed over that knee. He is grasping his robe in one hand and probably held a pail or a pearl in his other hand.  He is looking upward at the sky, communicating with the Dragon King for more or less rain to fall. He seems totally animated with his swirling robes and vigorous body language. Notice his elongated pierced ear lobes, a symbol of the Buddha, who began life so wealthy that he wore heavy gold earring which stretched his ears.

Many years ago I was leading a high school group on a tour and we were talking about enlightenment and what it is? (This was when he had his first title). I suggested that it might be what happens when you are puzzling over a math problem and the symbols and numbers are just making no sense. You keep looking at them and suddenly they fall into place. Eureka! Enlightenment! When I said that, I snapped my fingers, and at that moment there was a minor Seattle earthquake. The guards came and rushed us into a doorway. I did feel a certain odd sense of power.

– Suzanne Regan, SAM Docent

Image: Dragon Tamer Luohan, ca. 14th century, Chinese, wood with polychrome decoration, 41 x 30 x 22 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 36.13. Ganesh, Remover of Obstacles and Lord of Auspicious Beginnings, ca. late 10th to early 11th century, Indian , Odisha, possibly Bhubanesvara, sandstone, 18 1/4 x 9 1/2 x 5 1/2 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 39.33.

SAM Creates: Rubbings Revealed from Wu Liang Shrine

Located in present-day Jiaxiang in Shandong province, the Wu Family Ancestral Shrine built during the 2nd century in the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220) is among the best-known works in Chinese art history. Take a virtual tour of the shrine.

The simple graphic images you see from the Wu Liang Shrine were made from laying paper against the stone carvings that are inside the shrine and rubbing with ink to transfer the images onto paper. Learn more about this rubbing in our Object of the Week series.

The center line in this image depicts the story of a failed assassination attempt on Emperor Qin Shi Huang by Jing Ke. The figures, mostly in silhouette, move across the page presenting many parts of the story in one frame. This is an example of simultaneous illustration. Listen to a lecture on Telling a Story with Pictures to learn more about the differences between Eastern and Western visual narratives.

Create your own rubbing!

What you will need

  • Paper: A few sheets of lighter weight paper, along with some heavier paper or light cardboard (think drawing paper or cereal box).
  • Scissors or exacto knife
  • Pencil, crayon, chalk, or pastel

Warm up: Layer a small piece of the heavier paper under your lightweight paper. Take your pencil or crayon and rub over it, where the edges of the heavy paper sit, the crayon will be darker revealing the shape. Keep this in mind as you make a larger work. 

Next, start with something easy as you consider what story you want to tell with your rubbing. What are you currently watching or reading? Who is the main character? Follow the lead of the artists who carved the stone of the Wu family shrines and use simple shapes to depict your protagonist on the heavier paper. Draw each limb or clothing article as a separate shape, and draw their head in profile. You don’t need any detail, just flat non-dimensional shapes, like a paper doll.

Once you have these basic shapes, cut them out of your paper, and layer them together to make your character. Lay the thinner paper over them and rub with your pencil. You can add interesting textures by adding cuts to your figure’s shapes or by layering materials around the house like bubble wrap, or sandpaper.

Reuse the cutouts to animate your character across the page. What is your character doing? Think about an action that helps tell a story. For each move your character makes rearrange the paper cut outs and lay the lighter weight paper on top. Rub your crayon or pencil over the paper to make an impression, then move the cut outs for the next action and rub again.

We’d love to see your artwork—share it with us while #StayHomeWithSAM.

– Lynda Harwood-Swenson, SAM Assistant Manager for Studio Programs  

We are humbled by the generosity of our donors during this unique time. Your financial support powers SAM Blog and also sustains us until we can come together as a community and enjoy art in the galleries again. Thanks to a generous group of SAM trustees, all membership and gifts to SAM Fund will be matched up to $500,000 through June 30!

Wu Liang Shrine: Chinese History and Mythology, ca. 1920s, Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, ink rubbing on paper, 35.587.2

Muse/News: Chiyo’s goodbye, the art of hom bows, and Earth’s mini moon

SAM News

Last week, we announced that Chiyo Ishikawa, SAM’s Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture, will retire this summer after 30 years with the museum. The Seattle Times, KUOW, Artforum, Artnet, ARTnews, Artdaily, and Hyperallergic all shared the news. In Crosscut’s Arts & Culture newsletter, Brangien Davis spoke for everyone when she wrote, “Beloved in the Seattle arts community for her insight, approachability and très chic personal style, Ishikawa will be missed.”

“A Place for Meaningful Cultural Conversations” declared the headline for art critic Lee Lawrence’s thoughtful review of the reimagined Asian Art Museum, which appeared in the February 25 print edition of the Wall Street Journal.

“These 19th-century bululs, or rice deities, from the Philippines once watched over terraced paddies, and they’re among the museum’s most modest yet most powerful works. Given the nature and small size of its Philippine holdings, the Seattle Asian Art Museum probably would have kept them in storage had it opted for a traditional installation. But in another benefit of thematic groupings, they—and other long-warehoused treasures in the museum’s collection—now have a role, enriching the new installation not just with their stories but with their spirit.”

Local News

Seattle-based artist Susie J. Lee is making a short video about what makes a museum “interesting and cool.” The Seattle Times’ Alan Berner captured photos of the recent shoot at the Asian Art Museum.

Crosscut’s new video series, Art Seen, explores “the hidden art of the everyday”; they recently showed us how Mee Sum Pastry makes all those hom bows, day in and day out.

The Seattle Times’ Crystal Paul reviews the new collection of stories by Zora Neale Hurston, Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick.

“As a trained anthropologist, Hurston traveled down the East Coast and sat on stoops and corners, the storytelling stages and communal gathering spaces of Black communities, where, with academic rigor and a loving gaze, she listened, studied and collected the stories Black folk tell.”

Inter/National News

Tara Bahrampour for the Washington Post on the Phillips Collection’s Creative Aging program, which helps seniors connect and make art.

Holland Cotter of the New York Times on MoMA’s Donald Judd survey that opens on Sunday, noting that his work “can now be seen to offer pleasures, visual and conceptual, that any audience with open eyes, can relate to.”

Hyperallergic’s Kealey Boyd reviews the exhibition of Chinese contemporary art, The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China; its national tour has now brought it to the Smart Museum of Art and Wrightwood 659 in Chicago, before it heads to SAM this summer.

“It is not often a new category of art historical research is proposed as a solution to these persistent problems, but The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China makes a compelling case for the usefulness of a new analytical structure around Chinese art.” 

And Finally

Earth can have a mini moon (as a treat).

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Photo: Scott Areman

Object of the Week: Rat water dropper

Made from ceramic, bronze, copper, or even jade, water droppers are small vessels used in calligraphy and brush painting. Designed with two small holes, one for adding water and one for dispensing water, only a few drops fall out at a time—a crucial feature when preparing liquid ink, which involves grinding a stick of ink against an inkstone with water.

Though an unassuming instrument, water droppers have a long history. The earliest known examples of Chinese water droppers can be dated to the 5th and 6th centuries, while Japanese water droppers date to the 8th century. Centuries later, during the Edo period (1603-1868) and into the Meiji period (1868-1912), Japan saw the emergence of more complicated water droppers in various shapes and sizes, ranging from plants and deities to animals and fruits.

Such decorative droppers became popular accessories for the nobility and literati, and were often inscribed or made in auspicious forms. The zodiac animals are a set of calendar symbols that came to Japan from ancient China, and their representation served to invoke good luck and prosperity. This 19th-century dropper in SAM’s collection, modeled in the shape of an undeniably expressive and charming rat (the first animal in the zodiac), was likely intended to symbolize success, creativity, and intelligence.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate

Image: Water dropper modeled as a rat, 19th century, Japanese, bronze, 1 5/8 x 3 1/2 x 1 7/8 in., Gift of Frank D. Stout, 92.47.119

Object of the Week: Couplet

Oracle-bone script (jiaguwen) is a form of Chinese writing that emerged during the Shang Dynasty—dating from the 14th–11th century BCE—and is considered the earliest known form of systematic Chinese script.

Some of the oldest oracle-bone inscriptions were short texts inscribed on the flat shoulder blade bones of oxen and shells of tortoises. Such bones were used for divination, a process which involved the inscription of a question with a bronze pin—lending the script its characteristic angularity—and then heating the bone to reveal cracks, which would be divined for answers.

The symbols used eventually became words, which were later developed into a Chinese script that is recognized today as part of China’s long tradition of calligraphic arts. This work by Rao Zongyi, titled Couplet, utilizes the ancient script, brought to life for a contemporary audience.

Rao—a poet, calligrapher, painter, and scholar of the humanities—produced the couplet in 1971 while a visiting professor at Yale University. Composed by Rao, the poem describes in red ink a kun-style operatic performance by Chang Ch’ung. Together the two scrolls read: The wind makes the snow dance amidst the sunlight, the music hangs like clouds on her garments.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate

Couplet, 1971, Rao Zongyi, red ink on paper, 74 5/16 x 14 3/16 in., Gift of Chang Ch’ung-ho and Hans Frankel from their collection, 2010.9.6.1-.2 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: Birdcage

In a scene from the 2008 Disney animated movie, Mulan, Mulan’s grandmother holds a caged cricket, closes her eyes, and crosses a bustling street in China. Like the pet cricket in Mulan, the practice of domesticating and keeping animals in cages such as crickets and birds traces back to China’s earliest records.

This birdcage in SAM’s collection, pictured here, was likely created during the late Qing dynasty (1644-1911) or Republican period (1850-1920). In China, a pronounced appreciation for bird keeping arose during the Qing dynasty. During this period, the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) particularly enjoyed raising pet birds, and the emperor’s fascination subsequently permeated China. As aviculture spread throughout the country, many men would stroll through the early morning streets, swinging their birdcages back and forth like a pendulum. To this day, Chinese bird keepers swing cages to encourage birds to grip to their perch, an exercise which prevents birds’ feathers from falling off.

As much as aviculturists value their birds, they equally value the craftsmanship of the birdcages. The maker of this birdcage remains unknown. Crafted from hardwood, ivory, and metal, intricate carvings and patterns are etched into the wood. Ivory insets depict beautiful landscapes, evoking scenes of the world where the bird once flew free. Also notable is the cage’s design, which reflects recognizable architectural features of a pagoda, such as steps trailing up to the door and the two-storied structure. Pagodas originated as sacred places to preserve Buddhist relics, and this distinct structure can be found throughout China’s built environment.

While intricately handcrafted birdcages have diminished recently due to industrialization, the cage markets in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong continue to thrive, allowing this rich artistic tradition to live on. See this work on view at SAM in Pure Amusements: Wealth, Leisure, and Culture in Late Imperial China.

Lauren Farris, SAM Emerging Arts Leader Intern

Image: Birdcage, 1850-1920, Chinese, wood, metal, ivory, 26 x 12 1/2 x 12 1/2in., Gift of Henry and Mary Ann James, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2007.11.

Object of the Week: Disc with dragon motif

From some of the first recorded dragons found in Mesopotamian art, to the dragons found snarling onscreen and in books, numerous cultures have fostered their own myths and beliefs about dragons. Still, most of the dragons we encounter today are the fearsome fire-breathing creatures of the European tradition who lay waste to cities and hoard mounds of gold.

In Chinese culture, however, the dragon is highly revered and a symbol of good fortune. Originally associated with the stars and constellations that appear in the spring, dragons began to represent the seasons of rain and the coming of summer.1 Instead of bringing fire and destruction, Chinese dragons brought rain for crops and livestock.

In many areas of China, the dragon symbolizes harmony and prosperity. The number nine has long been associated with heaven and dragons have often been described in nines—leading to this number being deemed particularly auspicious. Later, dragons even began to be equated to the imperial throne and the reigning emperor through architecture and garments.

Far more sinuous and twisting than their Western European counterparts, Chinese dragons had bird-like wings with long plumes and whiskers. In this jade disc from the 8th century B.C., two dragons intertwine and almost chase each other across the mossy green stone. Each deeply abstracted line flows through one another. If one looks close enough, one can glimpse the dragon’s long coiling snout, the orb-like eye, and the curving jaw. Tangled with their bodies and tails, these two creatures’ plumes function as the outer ring of the disk.

These stone rings, or bi disks, were often carved with sky imagery and buried with the dead. There, dragons signified heaven, harmony, and balance within the natural order of life.2 Rather than functioning as harbingers of doom and destruction, the dragon in Chinese culture and mythology continues to be a symbol of luck and prosperity, hoping to bring balance to many.

  – Emma Ming Wahl, SAM Curatorial Intern

1 Wilson, J. Keith. “Powerful Form and Potent Symbol: The Dragon in Asia.” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 77, no. 8 (1990): 286-323. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25161297.

2 Lopes, Rui Oliveira. “Securing the Harmony between the High and the Low: Power Animals and Symbols of Political Authority in Ancient Chinese Jades and Bronzes.” Asian Perspectives 53, no. 2 (2014): 195-225. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24569921.

Image: Disc with dragon motif, 10th  – 8th century B.C., Chinese, Nephrite, Diameter: 9 5/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 39.11.

Object of the Week: A Feast

As we continue through summer, a season known for family dinners, picnics, and midnight feasts, food becomes a large figure in our lives. Many are connected to it on an intimate level through memories and desires. Painted on a massive sixty-foot scroll, A Feast (2001) by Li Jin dramatizes this deeply important role that food plays in everyday life, specifically in Chinese life and culture. The scroll begins and ends with an essay in light ink calligraphy, written by the artist’s friend, detailing the cultural significance of food. He bookends both essay halves with the declaration that you must “eat as much as you can.”

Juxtaposing this essay, Li Jin offers a sumptuous feast for the eyes with many paintings of dishes and ingredients. He not only gives us plates of steamed crab, sandwiches, and hotpot, but he also presents pig and chicken heads with whole onions and skewers of radish. Combining raw ingredients with more gourmet dishes, he fashions a work that at once showcases the relationship between the Chinese people and food alongside a dazzling display of the consumption of food.

Surrounding these loosely painted images in bold colors, simplified Chinese characters march through the space detailing many different recipes of foods not depicted. Through this unconstrained method of painting, paired with calligraphy, the scroll becomes more alive with action and realism. In the words of the artist, “the scroll could have been lengthened indefinitely. The continuous presentation of food simulates a real feast, where tables can be added to accommodate more dishes.”[1]

Born in 1958 in Tianjin, China, Li Jin’s work has continually evolved as he reflects upon the ways in which people connect to nature and his attempts to represent life in an honest and lifelike manner.[2] His work in A Feast capitalizes upon these enthusiastic and unapologetic qualities as he crafts a world where everyone is invited to the table to join together and eat as much as they can, a philosophy fitting for the possibilities and simple joys of summertime.

Emma Ming Wahl, SAM Curatorial Intern

[1] “A Feast,” SAM Collection Online, last updated December 2012, http://art.seattleartmuseum.org/objects/30404/a-feast?ctx=a1efcea2-91cb-470f-a4a4-d9d18c33d912&idx=0
[2] “Li Jin,” Inkstudio, last updated 2019, https://www.inkstudio.com.cn/artists/63-li-jin/overview/
Image: A Feast, 2001, Li Jin, ink on Xuan paper, 33 x 708 5/8 in., Partial gift of Meg Maggio and the Courtyard Gallery, Beijing and partial purchase with funds from Rebecca and Alexander Stewart, John and Shari Behnke, and the Modern Art Acquisition Fund, 2003.119 © Li Jin

Object of the Week: Xing ware-type

Sometimes I find myself struck by the contemporaneity of ancient objects, how something made hundreds or thousands of years ago can embody an aesthetic or message relevant to today. Take this Chinese Xing ware-type ewer, for example. Created during the 10th century, the porcelain vessel—with its white glaze and spontaneously placed markings—feels, to me at least, like it could have been made this past century, alongside works by artists such as Lucy Rie or Mary Heilmann.

Ceramics have no doubt made a comeback in the art world, a trend which suggests that the once rigid division between art and craft (and therefore ceramics) is no more. As art critic Roberta Smith rightly articulated in 2009, “It can’t be said enough that the art-craft divide is a bogus concept regularly obliterated by the undeniable originality of individuals who may call themselves artists, designers, or artisans.”[1]

Though today we might be less inclined to differentiate between artists and artisans, in 10th-century China there would have certainly been a distinction between makers commissioned by imperial courts and those who produced commercially. Xing ware, produced in what would today be China’s Hebei province, caught the attention of the Tang imperial court and epitomizes Tang-era porcelain: the purity of its clay was unusually low in iron and titanium oxides (contaminants) and very fine grained. Fired in the kiln at 1250 degrees Celsius or higher, this porcelain was unparalleled in its sturdiness, translucence, and pure white color.

Similar in form to late Tang dynasty ceramic ware, this ewer is especially unique due to the greenish-brown splashes of glaze on its porcelain-white body. Used as a wine bottle, this vessel bears similarities to many late Tang wares, though it was unlikely to have been produced in a Xing kiln.[2] Perhaps it is the simplicity of form and coloration that makes this work feel so modern, or, conversely, that so many contemporary ceramicists find (for good reason) inspiration in the rich ceramic traditions of China, where porcelain was perfected and produced exclusively for centuries.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

[1] Roberta Smith, “Crucible of Creativity, Stoking Earth Into Art,” New York Times, March 19, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/20/arts/design/20dirt.html.
[2] The shape and glaze of this ewer is similar to Xing porcelain, but the clay texture is not nearly as fine. For more on this work and Chinese porcelain more broadly, see Julie Emerson, Jennifer Chen, and Mimi Gardner Gates (Porcelain Stories: From China to Europe, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000), 38.
Image: Xing ware-type, 10th century, Chinese, porcelain with white glaze on white slip, green-brown stripes, 5 1/2 x 2 13/16 in., Thomas D. Stimson Memorial Collection, 51.122