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Spring blooms (indoors) at D.C. Freer Gallery of Art

If you can’t wait for spring, head down to the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington DC, to the new exhibit on season.

The Freer, one of the premier U.S. art museums for Asian Art, has dug into their collections for screens tied to the upcoming cherry blossom festival. On display are vibrant gold-painted screens filled with blooming peonies and irises, quail, singing birds, and white pheasants nurturing their scampering offspring.

Two of the screens date back to an artistic period when cherry blossoms made of ground shells, mixed with glue and water, were painted in thick layers, giving a three-dimensional feel like those of the real flowers.

Ann Yonemura, senior associate curator of Japanese art, says the style of the flowers “were in vogue in the early 17th century.”

“It was used for very, very fancy works because it takes so much time. The earliest examples were from the late 15th century.”

Yonemura says, “In Japanese art, it’s really about special occasional viewing. It’s not about leaving things out for long period of time. When you had special guests, coming, you’d put them out, otherwise the room might be” empty.

The crusted blossoms can lead to conservation problems. One of the screens came from a private collection with “some damage and condition issues.”

“So what happened in this case, because it was subjected to some dry temperatures, dry conditions (they) had lost a lot of the petals,” she says. The conservators, even when they opened the screen to examine it, a few more fell. They had to find where each falling petal had come from and re-attach it.”

The Freer rotates its collections, showing the art once every five years. Yonemura says that “resting (the art) does not restore them and deterioration is not reversible.” The proper humidity levels are critical for conservation and the museum keeps its collections around 55 degrees year round.

One of the screens dates back to the Edo period (1603-1868) and was likely on display in a room with oil lamps, and consequently is darker.

The screens go on display from March 7 to September 7 pre-and-post dating the actual blossoms. The National Park Service estimates the cherry blossoms on the National Mall are expected to peak between April 11-14. The museum plans a celebration on March 28th with films, family activities and the publication of a new book, Cherry Blossoms, with reproductions of paintings from the Freer-Sackler collection.

The Spring screens show a moment in time when “the cherry blossom leaves gather and are coming out are exactly like you see them in nature; they're coming out a little bit reddish, and then they go to green, and then they open up.”

The matching Fall screens have the fading beauty of the Japanese maples turning color and daylilies in blooms.

Yonemura says, “That sort of sense of transient beauty, of capturing a season in transition is so important in Japanese art.”

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