Media only: Rebecca Fahy, 202.633.0521
Public only: 202.633.1000
Exhibition dates: September 10, 2005–February 19, 2006
August 16, 2005
Rare, lustrous and enduring, gold has a deep history in Asia. The earliest evidence of worked gold—translating its natural beauty into human adornment—comes from Mesopotamia in the sixth millennium B.C.E. The oldest extant geological map depicts a gold mine in Egypt circa 1320 B.C.E. Even the English word “gold” originates from the Sanskrit term meaning “to shine.” This fall, the Sackler Gallery brings together golden Asian treasures from the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery collections to show the many ways in which artisans have worked this precious substance and to illuminate the diverse meanings and roles of gold in different Asian cultures. “Gold: The Asian Touch” closes on Feb. 19.
The exhibition’s 47 luxurious objects are grouped according to the methods used to make and embellish them, including hammering into sheets, foil or leaf; striking, chasing and engraving; cutting, joining and soldering; forming into wire or grinding into powder to make paint. This enables visitors to compare golden objects from many contexts and times and learn about the roles and meanings of gold in different cultures.
One grouping of objects made from gold sheet juxtaposes a Chinese plaque from the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770–476 B.C.E) and a gem-studded jar from 15th-century China. In early China, gold was so highly valued that anyone caught trying to obtain it without state permission could be executed. A stunning pair of gold sheet earrings from late 19th to early 20th-century India echoes the forms of snakes—honored as protectors of deities and guardians of treasures there. Since ancient times, gold in India has been understood to have a positive and purifying effect on its wearer. More gold circulates annually in India than in any other nation in the world.
A tapestry of a poetry couplet from 18th-century Qing Dynasty China demonstrates the use of gold thread. A costume worn by “No” actors in Japan also glimmers with golden threads. A 19th-century Chinese birdcage, ear pendants from fifth-seventh century Korea and an 18th-century Chinese scepter—a symbol of good wishes—also exemplify creative uses of gold wire.
Gold objects were uncommon and restricted to the uppermost social classes in Edo-period Japan (1615–1868). However, gold powder sprinkled on lacquer was used to embellish objects of cultural importance, such as the early 17th-century Momoyama-period inkstone writing box and the Seto or Mino ware tea bowl on view. Japanese paintings mounted on sliding door panels and folding screens were often embellished with gold leaf or pigment. Japanese master potter Ogata Kenzan (1663–1743) used gold paint to decorate a box for incense or seal paste on view. Gold paint was also used to brush the gold calligraphy against a blue ground in a 17th-century Japanese lotus sutra on view. Seventeenth-century Ottoman Turkish artisans used gold leaf to embellish a book cover on view, which probably protected a copy of the Koran. The 20th-century Japanese artist Yoshida Minori used gold leaf to decorate a dazzling enameled porcelain bowl on view.
Sixteenth and 17th-century Iranian Korans, like the one on view, frequently begin and end with a double-folio of intricate designs rendered with paints made from gold and lapis lazuli. Iranian artists also used gold paint to embellish secular texts, like the late 16th-century folio from the Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Firdawsi on view. The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (reigned 1627–1650), whose great grandfather first introduced Iranian calligraphers to northern India, commissioned the intricate and luminous sunburst medallion, or “khamsa,” on view, for an imperial album of painting and calligraphy. Mughal Dynasty artisans used gold foil inlay to enrich the scabbard and chape on view, and seventh-century Sasanian-period artisans worked silver and gold to gild the banqueting plate on view.
Leaf gilding was used to decorate an Iranian vessel of the second century B.C.E. to first century C.E., while fire gilding added a golden glow to a cloisonné vase in a form of a beaker from mid 17th-to late 18th-century China. An elegant Indian box with pierced openwork and floral motifs and a Japanese, Kamakura-period (1185–1333) Buddhist altar pendant display the glow of fire gilding.
A bejeweled braid ornament and a marriage necklace, both made in India about a century ago, demonstrate the repoussé technique by which a hammer is used to raise a relief design from a gold sheet. A rare surviving 10th-century gold Iranian or Iraqi jug demonstrates the use of repoussé and chasing to create rich texture.
Small but significant gold coins from 12th- to 13th-century Iran, 13th- to 14th century India, and 16th-century Mughal India show how rulers in these different areas struck golden coins bearing their names in order to confirm their power and status.
The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th- and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Dec. 25, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily except Wednesdays and public holidays and are subject to docent availability. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call (202) 633-1000 or TTY (202) 357-1729, or visit the special exhibition-related section of the galleries’ Web site at asia.si.edu.