Smithsonian Collections Blog

Highlighting the hidden treasures from over 2 million collections

Collections Search Center

Friday, February 25, 2011

Happy 157th Birthday Charles Lang Freer!

Small temple compound directly in front of the Bingyang cave complex, Charles Lang Freer papers. Freer|Sackler ArchivesIn celebration of Charles Lang Freer's 157th Birthday (or is it 155th?), I want to take the opportunity to highlight some of the amazing materials he left us in his papers. Many who are familiar with Charles Lang Freer know that he was an avid art collector, a philosopher on aesthetics, and a major player in the art exchange between east and west at the turn of the twentieth century.  Did you also know that Freer undertook an expedition to China to explore the Buddhist cave temples in Longmen?  This was the last of five trips Freer made to Asia before he suffered a stroke in 1911.  The materials we have that document his trip reveal an adventurer, a poet, and a rock collector!  Please read on to see what Head of Archives, David Hogge, has uncovered:

Small temple compound directly in front of the Bingyang cave complex, Charles Lang Freer papers. Freer|Sackler ArchivesOver the last several months I’ve been cataloging the photographs of Charles Freer’s 1910 expedition to the Chinese cave temples in Longmen, an important site for early Buddhist sculpture.  In addition to the 160 photographic negatives taken by his photographer YĆ¼ Tai, Freer himself took a handful of snapshots.   The photograph to the right is Freer’s own photograph of the small temple compound in which he stayed, directly in front of the Bingyang cave complex.  

As I read through Freer’s travel journals, I discovered that in addition to the photographs and rubbings , he also brought back a load of stone objects from the site.  This concerned me, considering the appalling history of pillaging of Chinese cave sites in the 20th century.  Fortunately, Tim Kirk in Collections showed me Freer Gallery accessions F1911.551 through  F1911.589, image left; 40 smooth stones that Charles Freer apparently selected from the riverbed in front of the caves.  Not shown are the 40 custom wooden stands Freer ordered made in Beijing.

Why would Freer, a level-headed, no-nonsense businessman attach such importance to a box of nondescript river stones from such a remote location?  Reading through his journals, one is struck by how emotionally affected he was by his two weeks of isolation in the presence of the magnificent caves:

“Wild flowers and grasses sprout in crevices, water trickles down through the rock ceilings.  The fascination of being alone is ever present - no lying guides, no nosey tourists, no guide books, no legends, but the spirit of asceticism everywhere.” 

“The strange stillness and peace of Buddha makes itself felt.  Here there is no ostentation, there are no iron railings, no fences, no interference, not even a priest, for the one who belongs here is away on some personal business. ”

I have to assume that Freer was so moved by his two weeks of quiet tranquility at Longmen that he felt compelled to gather the stones as mementos of the experience.   Thanks to the folks in Freer|Sackler Collections Management for showing me these humble treasures. 

David Hogge | Head of Archives


To see more materials in the collection, please view the below introduction to the Charles Lang Freer papers.  Watch the video for collection highlights, including news clippings on the Peacock Room, photographs of Freer's travels, and correspondence with President Theodore Roosevelt.

Rachael Cristine Woody | Archivist
Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

No comments:

Post a Comment