The Freer Gallery of Art was the Smithsonian’s first museum devoted just to art, and it remains among the most modest and handsome buildings on the Mall. Opened in 1923, it was a perfect addition to the growing reorganization of the capital’s monumental core, a light-colored stone building that recalled Renaissance architecture.The Detroit industrialist who created the museum, Charles Lang Freer, said his goal was to display work with “the power to broaden aesthetic culture and the grace to elevate the human mind.”
After more than a year and a half of renovation work, the Freer reopened to the public over the weekend, along with a raft of new exhibitions at its partner institution, the subterranean Sackler Gallery to which it is connected by an underground tunnel. With the director of the Freer/Sackler, Julian Raby, set to retire early next year, this project serves as a summation of his tenure: Sensible, accessible and stylish in a low-key way.
The old Freer galleries are looking handsome. New case work and more thematic display of material makes the classical galleries clustered around the Freer’s central courtyard feel both elegant and fresh. Historic images of these rooms show display cases pushed up against the walls. Now they are spread throughout the rooms, and glowing with light. Each room takes up a basic theme, or subject, including Chinese jade, body image in Indian art, or cultural exchange between Islam and the East. The galleries have been painted different colors to reflect the diverse range of Freer’s collecting interests. The American rooms, full of paintings by Whistler and his contemporaries, are now a kind of light purple or thin eggplant color.
New works are on view (including a moody and abstract “red cow” by Albert Pinkham Ryder), and old works, including the beloved “Peacock Room,” are still there (now featuring objects, including ceramics, likely to have graced the room when it was installed in Freer’s Detroit mansion). There is also better signage and new wall text, sometimes with a lighter and even cheeky sense of humor.
But perhaps the most salient change is how the Freer confronts the problem of Freer, which for modern visitors includes the curious range of his collection, from ancient Egyptian statues to Cambodian temple sculpture, plus all those watery American impressionist images by Whistler. The general aesthetic sensibility of Freer — for whom an interest in Asian art grew out of his passion for American painting — is now a historical curiosity, and a bit confusing to audiences who expect more consistency, categorical clarity and chronological continuity in a museum.
So, the curators have done the only thing they could do, short of suppress and deny the problem. They confront it head on, with small exhibitions devoted to Freer, an extended timeline that charts the growth of this early exercise in American museum-building, and a video wall (which wasn’t working when this critic visited) that is meant to gather together the museum’s aesthetic diversity into a meaningful whole.
The biggest problem, of course, is the question of beauty, whether it is a category that crosses cultural lines, if it can encompass both objects made for daily use on one continent, and those made for spiritual practice on another. And, even more problematic, whether all of this can be gathered together, and then repurposed as a national civic institution meant to “broaden aesthetic culture” and “elevate the human mind.”
The Freer/Sackler isn’t new to confronting this problem, and for years the institution has mounted compelling exhibitions that either sidestep Freer’s broad-minded but culturally determined aestheticism by keeping a tight focus on a single subject, or explore the fashionable idea of “connection” or “exchange,” which avoids the idea of universal standards of beauty in favor of practical, material interactions between cultures.
Among the new exhibitions that opened, “Encountering the Buddha” shows the museum staff grappling successfully with these core challenges. The exhibition covers some 2,000 years of cultural and religious history, spread across a vast and diverse expanse of the globe, with myriad local and regional permutations and syncretic evolutions. For those who are deeply familiar with the history and religious practice of Buddhism, this may seem a rather elementary introduction. But better than many exhibits at the museum in the past, “Encountering the Buddha” makes an almost infinitely complicated subject manageable to a literate, engaged audience.
Four Buddha heads, from a range of cultures and spanning more than 1,500 years, open the exhibition, allowing for general comment on the depiction of the enlightened teacher. But these are all heads severed from larger statues, and the curators use that fact to insist on an essential idea: “Broken Buddhas like these have no religious use in Buddhist communities. In museums, however, fragments are considered art, appreciated for their beauty and historical importance.”
Another display includes a 4th-century bodhisattva sculpture from what is now Afghanistan to explore the sometimes-astonishing breadth of cultural exchange during the age. The sculpted head has thick, wavy hair and sensual lips, and recalls ancient Greek images. Centuries after Alexander the Great’s attempts to push his empire east, this style remained in currency, informing depictions of bodhisattvas — those who aspire to Buddhahood and seek to bring this enlightenment to others.
The exhibition also features video of religious practice at the Great Stupas, giant domed temples in Sri Lanka, and a room that recalls a Tibetan Buddhist shrine, with dozens of objects arrayed in a dizzying display of color and texture, metalwork, tapestry, furniture and painted materials. A touch screen outside the temple space explains much of what is on view.
One wonders what Freer might make of all of this. He’d probably find it a tad unpoetical, and even jarring, and perhaps he’d balk at the juxtaposition of an elegantly made bronze Buddha from Thailand or Cambodia, crowned and regal, with a small figure of a rather sad and tattered bodhisattva from the 7th century. Neither conforms to the usual expectations of how these figures would be represented, and from a purely visual point of view, they aren’t happy in proximity. But the point is deftly made: The Buddhist tradition is so rich and manifold that for every rule there is an almost inevitable exception.
If that is the only axiom gleaned from a visit to this exhibition, then the visit wasn’t in waste. But audiences will probably come away with a lot more, and perhaps a more firm and navigable mental map of the Buddhist world. The exhibition, like other installations at the refurbished Freer, give one both a sense of the world, and permission to find it more than a little confusing. That’s a good first step for further exploration.
The Freer and Sackler Galleries For more information about visiting the reopened Freer/Sackler galleries, visit freersackler.si.edu.