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SAM Art: Shining, shimmering gold

Gold has been a shimmering presence in art across cultures and time. When the first metals were unearthed by humans around 5000 b.c., gold was valued for its rarity and lustrous color. Ancient Egyptians believed that gold was the skin of the gods, and for Greeks, gold was a mixture of water and sunlight. Gold is mentioned in the Bible as one of the gifts from the Magi to an infant Jesus. The Peruvian Incas referred to gold as “tears of the Sun.” In China, gold was the color of emperors and today is a symbol of good luck. In Japan, gold was associated with the ruling class and represented the color of the heavens.

A new group of textiles, including in this Japanese brocade kimono, has been installed in Going for Gold this week. This focused show, drawn from the museum’s collections, looks at gold’s use and significance across cultures.

Ceremonial wedding kimono, 3rd quarter 20th century, Japanese, silk brocade with gold thread embroidery (couching), overall 73 ½ x 51 ¼ in., Gift of Jon and Mary Shirley, 95.77. Currently on view in Going for Gold, third floor, SAM Downtown.

SAM Art 50+: The World’s Fair + SAM

This year, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Seattle’s World’s Fair. As part of the ongoing commemorations, through the month of September SAM looks back at arts at the Fair, as well as the legacy of those projects.

1,350,000 people visited the Fine Arts Pavilion at the Seattle World’s Fair, where six wide-ranging exhibitions held visitors’ attention for hours. Of these exhibitions, “Masterpieces of Art” was the most ambitious—Time magazine deemed it “well worth an hour off from the geewhizzery of space and the girlie shows of the Gayway.” Selected by the directors of North American museums, this show still betrayed a perspective unique to Seattle. In addition to works by Rembrandt, Copley, Monet, Eakins, and Picasso, several Asian masterpieces were also included. Among the latter was SAM’s submission: An ancient Japanese tomb figure.

The catalogue for “Masterpieces of Art” called this sculpture, “a simplified, almost abstract interpretation of a helmeted and armored warrior,” one who once guarded a tomb in Japan’s Gunma prefecture. This monumentally scaled terra cotta was concrete recognition that a “Masterpiece” could, indeed, hail from a region other than Europe or America. This willingness to acknowledge the artistic achievements of non-European-extracted cultures extended geographically as far as Asia, and philosophically as far as the native cultures of North America.

In 2012, our conception of the world has expanded even further. In addition to all of the geographies represented at the Fine Arts Pavilion of the Fair, this year SAM has shown art from Polynesia, Brazil, Australia, and Central Asia in dedicated exhibitions; as well as permanent collection objects hailing from Africa, the Middle East, and Central America. The world has grown over the past 50 years, and now more than ever before it has come to Seattle.

Haniwa warrior figure (detail), 6th-7th century, Japanese, Kofun period (3rd-7th century C.E.), ceramic with polychrome, 53 ¼ x 16 ½ x 10 ¾ in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 62.44. Currently viewable online.

SAM Art: Farewell to LUMINOUS

For her final entry, Hattie Branch, Blakemore Intern, looks at a seemingly fearsome figure.

Although this mask now appears to be a piece of static sculpture, when it was in use the effect was the reverse. The mask originally had a back half, and tied together covered the entire head of the wearer. With the wearer’s costume pulled up high on the neck, the head-concealing mask gave the impression that the sculptures within the temple had descended from their pedestals to stride forth amidst the devotees. Masked processions very literally brought religious belief to life in a thrilling way.

Masked dance was introduced to Japan during the Nara Period (710-794 CE) as part of a massive importation of Korean and Chinese political and religious culture. Initially only used in court rituals, by the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), when this mask was made, masked dance had taken on many different forms. The Dragon King was used in Buddhist gyodo performances, processions of masked figures embodying divine being.

Sagara the Dragon King stylistically blends two characters from different schools of masked performance. In Buddhist gyodo, the character Sagara is one of the Eight Great Dragon Kings, part of the retinue of Amida Buddha. In bugaku, a type of popular non-religious masked drama, the same features are shared by the character of a Dragon King, a prince so handsome that he wore a fearsome mask in battle to frighten his enemies, and so that his beauty would not distract his allies. Over time, the two characters came to share the distinctive green skin, ferociously contorted face, bulging eyes, and the dragon rearing back atop his head. Sagara’s role as a religious guardian, here, is emphasized by his golden lotus crown, a symbol of purity in Buddhism. Sagara’s formidable visage gave the faithful confidence in his ability as a protector.

Gyodo mask of Dragon King, early 13th century, Japanese, Kamakura period (1185-1333), wood with lacquer, polychrome and gilt, 15 9/16 x 8 1/8 x 5 15/16 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 68.110. On view in LUMINOUS: The Art of Asia, through Sunday 8 January.

Not Your Ordinary Screen Savers

Apropos the fabulous Golden “Bamboo and Poppies” Kanō school screens, and the other famous and beloved screens currently displayed in Luminous: The Art of Asia, the Seattle Art Museum’s collection of approximately 70 Asian screens, has been recently rehoused in the best state-of-the-art storage cabinets available thanks to a generous federal grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

SAM’s significant collection of Asian screens includes paintings of singular artistic and cultural importance. The screens range in date from the sixteenth century to the twentieth century. Together with our collection of hanging scrolls, they convey to visitors an experience of splendid art and vivid impressions of the story of painting in Japan, China and Korea.

Although SAM’s collection has a handful of Chinese wood, lacquered and cinnabar panel screens, the bulk of the collection is comprised of Japanese and Korean painted screens. The Japanese screens at SAM fall into two categories, the byōbu, or folding screens (from two up to eight panels) and the fusuma, or sliding screens, typical partitions used to divide large rooms in temples or castles. Both of these styles are represented in Luminous.

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SAM Art: Golden Screens of the Kanō School

Hattie Branch, Blakemore Intern, returns to SAMart with an entry on the golden screens of the Kanō School.

During the Momoyama Period (1573-1603), drastic change came to Japanese art from an unusual source: Western firearms. As warlords vied for control of the country, Portuguese traders introduced Western guns and cannons to Japan.

For centuries, Japanese palaces had been built as sprawling, single-story complexes, with wooden floors and roofs, and paper walls. Sliding doors allowed rooms to open easily to the surrounding gardens, and even when shut, light permeated the thin paper. With the advent of firearms, by necessity, the Japanese rapidly designed towering fortress palaces. Walls thick enough to withstand cannon fire suddenly plunged the world of the elites into darkness.

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SAM Art: A Luminous Dragon King

The stern eyes and open mouth of this fearsome mask are attributes of the Dragon King, one of the Eight Buddhist Guardians. It is thought that this mask somehow came to be separated from a valuable set of eight masks, the seven remaining of which are still housed at Toji temple in Kyoto. The mask is splendidly carved and colored, and its interior is finished with a coating of expensive black lacquer, signaling this object’s high importance.

Assembled in the twenty-first century, in a museum gallery in Seattle, this mask and the 160 other objects in LUMINOUS: The Art of Asia are radically displaced from their original sites of production. Their significance has shifted from sacred to secular as they have moved from temple hall to treasure house. Here, it is their aesthetic beauty that is being celebrated, not their ritual use. The museum viewer encounters these objects with very different expectations than a thirteenth-century worshipper might have held. We expect to be educated, or even awed, but we do not—in most cases—anticipate spiritual salvation.

LUMINOUS opens to the public on Thursday, 13 October, and remains on view through 8 January 2012.

Gyodo mask of Dragon King, early 13th century, Japanese, Kamakura period, wood with lacquer, polychrome and gilt, 15 9/16 x 8 1/8 x 5 15/16 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 68.110. On view in the special exhibition LUMINOUS: The Art of Asia, fourth floor, SAM downtown, starting Thursday, 13 October.

SAM Art: Bagley Wright, in memoriam

Symbolizing longevity, the traditional motifs of cranes in flight and pine trees are interpreted in an innovative manner on this child’s kimono. Set against a turquoise background, pine trees appear above and below the waves as silhouettes created by the playful use of color and negative space. Against the pine tree border, brightly-colored cranes soar above the swelling wave pattern. Delicate, calligraphic lines of ink emphasize the graceful bodies of the flying cranes.

On Monday, July 18, Bagley Wright passed away. Among his many acts of generosity for the Seattle arts community, Mr. Wright and his wife Virginia have donated hundreds of works of art to the museum’s permanent collection over the past six decades, including this kimono. We mourn the passing of this great friend.

Child’s ceremonial kimono, late 19th century, Japanese, Meiji period, bast fiber (asa) cloth with freehand paste-resist decoration (tsutsugaki) and handpainted pigments and ink decoration, 45 x 40 in., Gift of Virginia and Bagley Wright, 89.103. On view starting next week, Seattle Asian Art Museum, Volunteer Park.