At the Freer Gallery of Art on some mornings, the staff members find flowers, and even pennies, left as offerings to the Buddha statues.
"We are so accustomed to thinking of the Buddhas as objects of art," said Freer Director Thomas Lawton, "that we sometimes forget they were made as religious symbols to be venerated. Looking at the best of the Buddhas, you can begin to see why they evoke strong feelings."
Lawton, a Chinese art expert, talked as he walked through the new Freer show, "A Decade of Discovery: Selected Acquisitions 1970-1980." The exhibit opens to the public today and continues through next May.
Included are 114 objects, covering a wide range geographically and artistically: Buddhas from various parts of China and Japan; a pottery jar from a 3000-2500 B.C. Neolithic culture; magnificant Japanese screens; Turkish and Chinese blue and white porcelain; a Chinese jade ring-shaped ax; and a Namban Japanese 17th-century lacquer chest.
"We wanted the show and the catalogue to help explain how the Freer goes about acquiring objects," Lawton siad. "At cocktail parties, people are always coming up to me and asking if it's true that the Freer doesn't buy art."
In the catalogue, Lawton writes that Charles Lang Freer's bequest included a specification on how the standards of the collection would be maintained: "He stipulated that any additions to the collections should be approved by the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, by the members of the National Commission of Fine Arts and, during their lifetimes, by four personal friends [now all dead] whose names were included in his bequest.
"Throughout the more than 50 years since the gallery opened to the public, the acquisition policy has remained the same, with the result that more than 2,000 objects now complement the original Freer bequest."
Lawton noted that among the most important gifts was a bequest from Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer. Mrs. Meyer was one of the four Freer friends. One of her gifts, from China's Shang dynasty, is a jade ring shaped ax.
In the last few years, attendence at the gallery has greatly increased, reflecting American involvement with Asia. Freer objects are usually organized into galleries of particular cultures and periods. But this show allowed its organizer, Julia Murray, who also wrote most of the catalogue, to make less formal groupings, linking works from different times and places.
Thus in one room there are several manifestations of Buddha. An exquisite stone Bodhisattva was cut from the wall of a cave near Honan, Japan, where it had stood since the 6th century. The smiling face and gentle hand promises peace and contentment. Another standing Bodhisattva from 12th-13th-century China is carved of wood, once polychromed. This image is far more worldly, plump and prosperous. A head of Buddha from Java is carved of gray volcanic stone. The result is a powerful face that seems well able to command.
A scroll portrait of the TenDai patriarch Chigi Daishi in meditation gives a sense of quiet thought. But the artist added a human comic touch: The patriarch's shoes are shown neatly tucked under the chair.
The Japanese screens and the Chinese scrolls are facinating, revealing the architecture and activities of their cultures. One amusing pair of small screens shows children's games reminiscent of Pieter Brueghel's painting.
The Freer show is a series of treasure chambers. But plan to take plenty of time when you go to see it: Each object is worth a day, or perhaps a lifetime, of comtemplation.