Skip to Page Content

16 December 2011

Next Meeting Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Japanese porcelain incense burner, potted 2000 by Fukami Sueharu
Freer|Sackler: Reinventing the Wheel: Japanese Ceramics 1930-2000

The next meeting of the Washington Oriental Ceramic Group will take place on Wednesday, 11 January 2012 at 3pm in the third level (the lowest level) of Sackler Gallery and in Sackler storage. The topic will be post-WWII Japanese ceramics. Led by Curator Louise Cort we will view the Sackler’s current show “Reinventing the Wheel: Japanese Ceramics 1930–2000” in Sackler’s third level. Then we will move to Sackler storage to view some of the 90 + other examples of these wonderful and often amazing wares in the F|S collection. For those interested, after the Sackler we will proceed to Old Ebbitt’s Grill for fresh oysters, or whatever tickles your taste buds.

Please note that only 15 members can do this tour, because of space constraints. It’s first come first serve. RSVP by responding to this email announcement, or, or calling 703-503-3195. When you RSVP let me know whether you plan to do Old Ebbitt’s. Those coming for the meeting please assemble in the above-ground Sackler Pavilion by NLT 2:50pm on that Wednesday.

Old Ebbitt’s Grill is located on 675 15th Street, NW, across from the Treasury building. The nearest subway station is Metro Center.

Synopsis of last meeting

Our hosts the Raymonds have a sizeable and attractive collection of 18th and 19th century Chinese blue and white porcelain which they displayed and discussed at their Potomac home in September. Qing dynasty (1644-1911) porcelain became wildly popular in Europe and later in the US. Large collections were assembled by kings, princes, merchants and anyone who could afford this luxurious pastime. This “China mania” reached its height in England in the late 19th century popularized by the American painter James Whistler. The Peacock Room, painted by Whistler for an English merchant’s London townhouse, was originally outfitted completely with this later Chinese porcelain.

Other news:

The Tea-leaf Storage Jar Chigusa Webinar

Chigusa is the name of a 700-year old southern Chinese storage jar that became a famous and much admired container for tea leaves in Japan. It was probably shipped to Japan when it was new. The Freer recently acquired this jar at a Sotheby’s auction. This was first time the 20 inch/50 cm stoneware jar had left Japan since in arrived in there the 13th or 14th century.

The November 2 webinar was heard and seen by tea and ceramic aficionados in at least three continents. What follows are some of the highlights of the nearly two hour broadcast. The four American and Japanese scholars who discussed the storage jar and took questions included Ceramic Curator Louise Cort.

Sometime in the late Southern Song or Yuan dynasties (c.1160-1368) this handsome stoneware jar landed in Japan. It could have been an ordinary commercial container of Chinese commodities like pickles, or even water. Or it could have arrived empty, a special order to ensure that the tender tea leaves it would hold could not absorb residues from material carried to Japan, according to Cort. By the 16th century Chigusa appears in Japanese tea masters’ diaries. These diaries recorded who participated in such elitist happenings and described the tea ceremony utensils used. The first record we have of Chigusa is in a 1586 diary.

Tea masters' diaries and connoisseurs' handbooks described and ranked jars in terms of shape, size and/or overall description. For Chigusa, the preponderance of the comments discuss its overall impression. Successive owners endowed it with Chinese brocades, silk cords, inscriptions, documents, and multiple boxes. Chigusa is a "time capsule", an embodiment of the fascinating and complex process by which tea-related objects accrued meaning and value. Only several hundred such jars with comparable pedigrees survive in Japan, and few are as extensively documented.

The name Chigusa is linked to classical Japanese poetry; it could mean a thousand plants, a thousand flowers or a thousand things, that is to say, an image of nature. Chigusa’s first owner that we know of was a merchant in the seaport of Sakai on Honshū, the main island of Japan. It makes sense that a Sakai trader would have owned Chigusa as they were involved in foreign trade including with the China coast. Other rich merchants owned Chigusa and it was associated with the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868).

The F|S paid over $600,000 for Chigusa, but what was it worth in medieval Japan? The extensive written record that came with Chigusa mentioned it had been collateral for a ¥30 million loan and was sold for 40 barrels of rice, that makes it a very valuable pot.

Ancient Iranian Ceramics

On 19 October, F|S Curator for Ancient Middle East Art Dr. Alex Nagel discussed the new show of ancient Iranian pottery at the Sackler. On display are very elegant, fragile bird-shaped ewers came from the area south of the Caspian Sea. They date to ca 1900-800 BCE, according to TLS tests. Their simple pleasing shapes were inspired by local long-beaked birds. Official excavations of graves in the area as recently as 2010 have unearthed identical vessels.

Such burial pottery is very common and large mounds of shards exist where graves have been excavated. Many examples have been reconstructed from shards. These recent excations also to brought light long-beaked bird vessels in bronze, similar to the one on display in the Sackler. There are many forgeries.

Their original use remains unclear. One could speculate that these pottery ewers imitate precious metals such as gold and silver. But we cannot be sure. To date there has been no residue analysis of these pots. They presumably originally held water. The October 2011 issue of Archaeology magazine has a number of articles on recent digs in Iran. It includes photos of ancient graves with skeletons with similar bird ewers beside them.

Ongoing Freer|Sackler staff research projects

In November, the F|S held an in-house review of ongoing research projects being carried out by staff. The short presentations described the projects, their technical aspects, target audience and funding. The array of topics covered most of the museum’s departments and underscored the strength of the F|S commitment to its core values of education and the expansion of understanding of Asian art and culture. The projects follow.

  1. Ceramics in Southeast Asia. The oldest project is Louise Cort’s online catalogue of ceramics found in SE Asia ( This data-rich, popular website faces the tasks of remaining current and staying connected with the dynamic archaeological developments in the region.
  2. The “Song and Yuan Dynasty Painting and Calligraphy” website went live in 2010 after years of preparation ( The 85 paintings and calligraphy from the renowned F|S collection are covered in depth and two languages. Like the F|S’ ceramics catalogue, this scholarly online catalogue means that the audience is vastly greater than those who could visit the F|S to view the works. A point made by several presenters is that while a traditional printed catalogue is dated as soon as it’s published, web catalogues are dynamic and expandable.
  3. Imaging of the Gerhard Pulverer Japanese illustrated book collection. Several years ago the Freer purchased the large and important Pulverer collection of Edo period (1815-1868) wood block illustrated books. The collection is comprised of some 2000 volumes with thousands of images. Under Curator Jim Ulak volunteers spent months photographing the books’ pages. Major funding came from the Getty Foundation. Eight other institutions here and abroad are interested with the project’s goal of establishing a digital standard for such collections.
  4. Korean ceramics website. With the support of the Korean National Museum Louise Cort is coordinating the development of an updateable website and, eventually, a printed catalogue of the Freer’s important collection of Korean ceramics. This project supports the recent re-installation of Korean celadons in the Freer. The center pieces of the Freer’s Korean treasures are two – the collection of the American missionary and diplomat Horace Allen, purchased in 1907, and its extensive collection of Korean ceramics used in the Japanese tea ceremony.
  5. Early Chinese Jades online catalogue. The F|S has some 800 early Chinese Jades, an area rife with excellent copies and one which is rapidly changing with the increasing tempo of Chinese archaeology. Like the online catalogues for ceramics and for paintings this Jade project will publish online the F|S’ noted collection for the use of researchers and scholars. The Carpenter Foundation has provided major financial support.
  6. Historical Middle Eastern archaeological documents on line. Ernst Herzfeld, “Father of Middle Eastern archaeology”, did important archaeology work in Iran in the first half of the 20th century. The lion’s share of his notes, drawings, etc. is in Freer archives. This project will put the Herzfeld’s papers online.
  7. Persian photography in the Freer archives. The Freer has one of the largest holdings outside of Iran of photography by Antoin Sevruguin, an official photographer of the Imperial Court of Iran in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. The project will catalogue the collection to provide an important resource for examining the Iranian cultural histories and assisting scholars in studying architectural sites that may have been damaged or destroyed, or are unavailable for first-hand investigation. Increasingly, the prints are valued for their artistic elements.

Back to Top