Pursuing Perfection

Why not perfection? That thought didn’t merely cross the mind of American connoisseur Charles Lang Freer (1854-1919) when he was assembling his great collection of art; it took up permanent residence there. Freer was passionate about Asian art and about the art of a small number of contemporary American painters. He believed that an aesthetic spirit unconstrained by time or geography breathed over the disparate Asian and American objects and made them a whole. When Freer offered his collection to the Smithsonian in 1904, the Regents were reluctant to accept it. Was it appropriate to what was still an overwhelmingly scientific enterprise? They ended their hesitation early in 1906, after the urging of no less a figure than President Theodore Roosevelt. Some 60 years after the Smithsonian was established, it had its first art museum.

Freer spent the remaining 13 years of his life enhancing the collection. He wanted the beauty and harmony of his objects to be conveyed within a comparably harmonious physical setting, and, as if to demonstrate yet again how a common aesthetic can link diverse cultures, he asked his architect, Charles Platt, to design an Italian Renaissance-style building to house the Asian and American art. Platt conceived a magnificent granite structure on a site adjacent to the Smithsonian Castle (which he was apparently told would one day be razed). The Freer Gallery opened on the National Mall in 1923 and, after a major renovation in the 1990s, is as beautiful today as it was when new.

Freer initially imposed stern restrictions on his gift. After his death, the collection was neither to grow nor be diminished, nothing was to be lent to other museums, and objects from elsewhere were not to be shown in the museum. (Such limitations are understandable if you believe you have made something perfect.) When he was subsequently persuaded that a great deal of Asian art worthy of inclusion remained to be discovered, he allowed additions to the Asian portion. But he held the line on the American—and, for his sake, was probably wise to do so. He would have had little sympathy for the revolutionary modernist aesthetic that was already taking hold in his lifetime.

The Smithsonian opened a second museum of Asian art in 1987, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, physically linked to the Freer but with its own collections—and without the Freer’s restrictions on lending or exhibiting objects. In May we had the great good fortune to welcome a new director of the Freer and Sackler, Julian Raby, formerly a member of the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford, who brings us a remarkable range of experience as scholar, curator, teacher and publisher. He is determined to use the complementary strengths of the two museums to win new audiences for Asian art. "We must ally our traditions for research and scholarship with a dynamic policy for hosting exhibitions, even as we make our own treasures widely available to the American public," he says. "In all that we do, we must strive to live up to the responsibility of the imposing title that has been conferred on our two galleries: the national museum of Asian art."

But no matter how ambitious the national museum’s lending policy, a marvelous representation of Asian art—bronzes, jades, screens, scrolls, ceramics, paintings, metalwork and more—can never leave Freer’s ideal museum. The gallery’s Asian holdings are now three times as numerous as they were at Freer’s death, and are preeminent in the world. The additions have been chosen by curators and scholars whose meticulous research is as essential for seeing the objects clearly as is the carefully filtered light in which they are displayed. Freer died without seeing his museum completed, but he would surely have been pleased with it. Surrounded by its treasures, in a setting that envelops you in the spirit of the art, you cannot help but conclude that when he took aim at perfection, Charles Freer hit his impossible mark.

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