Balloonists & Cherry Blossoms

Published July 5, 2017

The New Criterion - June 2017 issue

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall, the fourth-most visited museum in the world, has a slightly less well-known sibling in Chantilly, Virginia, near Dulles International Airport. The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, opened in 2003, occupies two giant hangars and an observation tower overlooking Dulles’s busy runways. Besides the Enola Gay and a Concorde, its treasures include biplanes, a World War II German Arado 234, the world’s first jet bomber, and the space shuttle Discovery, all of which one passes on the way to the museum’s gallery and its current exhibition: “Clouds in a Bag,” a fascinating glimpse of the early history of ballooning.1

This exhibition displays a small portion of objects from the Evelyn Way Kendall Ballooning and Early Aviation Collection for the first
time since they were donated to the Smithsonian. Kendall (1893–1979), a Canadian who married an American textile manufacturer in
1926, was an inveterate collector (maps, folk art, dolls, whaling equipment) with deep pockets who amassed the largest collection
of early aeronautical art in the nation. One of her children claimed she stopped collecting only because there was nothing left to buy.

The decades between the two world wars saw a craze for early aviation material. The philanthropist Harry Guggenheim, for example, bought over 170 prints of ballooning, but his collection, like those of his contemporaries, was eclipsed by the breadth and depth of Kendall’s, which includes paintings, prints, drawings, and ephemera (a vitrine at the exhibition’s entrance holds her fans, snuffboxes, plates, and other balloon-themed objects).

Deftly arranged by Dr. Tom Crouch, the senior curator of the Smithsonian Aeronautics Department (and himself an energetic flyer who’s flown some of the routes of the early balloonists), “Clouds in a Bag” focuses on manned flight from the 1780s to the late nineteenth century, just before the advent of the airplane era.

It is accompanied by a superb, fully illustrated website built by its curator. This contains much material and original research that complements and enriches the objects on display, and it’s more useful (and economical) than many standard print catalogues, which often contain essays more suitable for learned journals than for an exhibition meant for an audience of non-specialists. Moreover, you can access it with a click of a mouse from anywhere in the world. One can only hope that more museums follow Dr. Crouch’s lead.

Today, balloons are unremarkable; hundreds of them fly at various festivals nationwide, and the Goodyear Blimp is a fixture hovering over major sporting events. Occasionally they make headlines, like the Breitling Orbiter 3s did with the first non-stop circumnavigation of the world in 1999 (its gondola is in the museum), but as “Clouds in a Bag” demon strates, balloon flight has a substantial history worth knowing.

The Wright brothers and their contemporaries were pioneers of motorized flight, but a long line of European balloonists (some serious inventors and scientists, others daredevils and stuntmen) preceded them. Two of these, the brothers Joseph-Michel Montgolfier and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier, were among the first, and most celebrated, balloonists of the late eighteenth century, the childhood of flight.

In September 1783, at the royal palace at Versailles, they sent their balloon aloft dangling a wicker gondola holding a sheep, a duck, and a rooster. A vast crowd witnessed the ascent, including the ill-fated Queen Marie Antoinette (who complained of the smell of the balloon’s gases). The Montgolfier balloon soaring off into the distance with its cargo of swaying animals is pictured in a contemporary hand-colored engraving that, like others in the exhibition, was meant for a mass audience fascinated with this wondrous conquest of the air. Balloonomania was on.

Just months later, J. A. C. Charles and M. N. Robert made the first manned flight from the Tuileries in Paris to a village twenty-one miles
north of the city. Benjamin Franklin (then serving as the United States ambassador to France) witnessed this historic event seated
in his carriage (he was a “little indisposed”). A large hand-colored print in the exhibition depicts a huge crowd of onlookers, many, including Franklin, who purchased tickets for the spectacle.

Later that day, Franklin described what he had seen in a letter to Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society:

The morning was foggy, but about one o’clock the air became tolerably clear, to the great satisfaction of the spectators, who were infinite, notice having been given of the intended experiment several days before in the papers, so that all Paris was out, either about the Tuileries, on the quays and bridges, in the fields, the streets, at the windows, or on the tops of houses, besides the inhabitants of all the towns and villages of the environs. Never before was a philosophical experiment so magnificently attended.

Although Franklin’s interest in the flight was piqued by science and the utility of the balloon, many others were drawn there simply to marvel at the courageous, death-defying pilots of these highly decorated, fragile silk-and-paper gas-filled contraptions. They might well have felt about them and the other first balloonists as many in the twentieth century did about the pioneering astronaut John Glenn or the crew of Project Mercury, the first manned space flight.

In fact, some of the first balloonists were as celebrated as their flights, and as dashing, too. A section of “Clouds in a Bag” is devoted to images of these men—and a few brave women—who, as Dr. Crouch writes, were “a new breed of aerial showmen,” capturing “headlines with spectacular ascents and long distance voyages.”

One of the most recognized was Vincenzo Lunardi, the young and glamorous secretary to Prince Caramancio, the Neapolitan ambassador in London. His etched portrait, found in several of the prints in the exhibition, was circulated widely, while his fame inspired a large balloon-shaped hat called the Lunardi Bonnet, and earned him a mention in one of Robert Burns’s poems.

In September 1784, “the Daredevil Aeronaut” made the first hot air balloon ascent from English soil in front of a throng (estimated at 200,000) gathered at London’s Artillery Ground. But not everyone was swept up by the fad. In a letter written just days after the flight,
the illustrious lexicographer Samuel Johnson dissented, calling ballooning a “mere amusement” with no future.

In the next year, Lunardi invited three guests (including the popular actress Mrs. Letitia Ann Sage) to join him in a flight from London. Their combined weight was too great for the balloon to fly (Letitia was reputed to be over 200 pounds), so Lunardi and another guest exited the gondola, leaving the actress and one Colonel George Biggin to man the craft, although once it was aloft some spectators claimed the two were up to something other than navigation. This was especially hazardous because neither had piloted a balloon before. An amusing engraving entitled “The Three Favorite Aerial Travellers” shows the corpulent Mrs. Sage, Biggin, and Lunardi waving cheerfully from a balloon basket.

The flight brought the actress more lasting fame than any of her roles: history records her as the first woman to fly in a balloon. As a contemporary London publication put it: “Mrs. Sage at first seemed a little agitated . . . but collecting herself, she bid adieu to her earthly friends, and mounted on a pinnacle of height which no woman ever before visited.” It’s worth remembering that early flyers, like Mrs. Sage, were the first humans ever to see the earth from high above.

The ability to rise to this “pinnacle of height” made the balloon a valuable new tool of war, something Benjamin Franklin envisaged. From the French Revolution through the American Civil War to World War I (the apex of their development), balloons served as aerial observation posts. From them, as one sees in several prints, movements and numbers of troops could be observed, something impossible to see from the ground. Before airplanes and orbiting satellites, balloonists were the first spies in the sky.

The exhibition also traces the technical development of the balloon, its role in scientific experimentation and polar exploration, and its appearance in social and political prints.

“Clouds in a Bag” is instructive, enlightening, and entertaining (no mean feat), and, as a bonus, visitors get to see the Smithsonian’s impressive compendium of flight from its infancy to the space shuttle. This span of aeronautical history, as the exhibition reminds us, owes a debt to the long-ago pioneers of ballooning.

Another Smithsonian institution, the Freer Gallery of Art, is dwarfed by neighboring museums on Washington’s National Mall, but it equals them in the distinction of its collection and the quality of its exhibitions, including the current “Inventing Utamaro: A Japanese
Masterpiece Rediscovered.”2

Founded by Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919) and opened in 1923, it occupies a handsome neo-Renaissance building designed by the Beaux-Arts architect Charles Platt. In 1987 it was physically connected to the then-new, unpleasant, and mostly subterranean Arthur M. Sackler Gallery building, also dedicated to Asian art.

Charles Freer’s was a rags-to-riches story. He began as a teenage laborer in a Detroit cement factory, worked his way up to become a
railroad executive, and died a wealthy Gilded Age millionaire.

He was already collecting art before he met James McNeil Whistler in London in 1890, but, wowed by the artist and his art, he became a major client, buying over a thousand works by Whistler alone. Like Whistler, Freer was captivated by Asian art. He amassed a distinguished, and vast, collection of Chinese and Japanese ceramics, woodblock prints, and paintings that now form the core of the Gallery’s holdings.

Under the supervision of Julian Raby, an accomplished scholar who is retiring after fifteen years at its helm, the Gallery has mounted a series of accessible exhibitions based on solid research. Its important research library is open to the public daily without appointment, and
it co-publishes a learned journal.

In an age when so many museums (including some of the Freer’s Smithsonian brethren) seek to dumb down content to increase their gate, Raby and his curators have done the opposite with a series of exhibitions that challenge visitors, rather than pander to them.

“Inventing Utamaro: A Japanese Masterpiece Rediscovered” is a case in point. It’s handsomely designed, has instructive labels and wall texts, makes judicious use of video, and is accompanied by a substantial, well-illustrated handout.

Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806) was a major figure of the Edo period (1603–1868). Little is known about his life, even though he was a renowned and prolific producer of woodblock book illustrations and paintings made for both publishers and private patrons. A room in the exhibition displays a number of these works.

“Inventing Utamaro” focuses on just three paintings by the artist (dated by their style between late 1788 and 1806): Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara, Moon at Shinagawa, and Snow at Fukagawa. All are made in ink and pigment on paper, and all are extraordinarily big for paintings of the Edo period: Moon at Shinagawa measures 147 x 321 cm. Their themes of flowers, the moon, and snow derive from a couplet by the Chinese poet Bai Juyi (d. 846) that evokes a fleeting sense of yearning for a beloved one: “Snow, moon, and flowers—in these moments I think longingly of you.”

All the paintings (which may have been commissioned by Zenno Ihei, a wealthy merchant from Tochigi whose crest appears on each) depict
what the Freer delicately calls “the famous pleasure districts in Edo” (present-day Tokyo). These were licensed areas where stylish courtesans, some of them celebrities, skillfully entertained their clients for a fee. Utamaro was legendary for his elegant depictions (the exhibition’s curators call it a “brand”) of these beautifully clad
denizens of the demi-monde. In a sense, all three paintings are portraits of the world in which they lived and worked. The squalid side of the contractual servitude and mistreatment of these women, who started work in their early teens, is briefly surveyed at the end of the exhibition.

In 1887, the three paintings arrived in Paris during the craze for Japanese craft and art that so influenced writers like Edmond de Goncourt (who authored the first monograph on Utamaro), collectors like Freer, the artists Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Whistler, and the
musical duo Gilbert and Sullivan, whose The Mikado is one of the most amusing examples of Japonism for the stage.

Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara and Moon at Shinagawa eventually entered the collections of the Wadsworth Athenaeum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut and the Freer Gallery. Snow at Fukagawa returned to Japan (the date is uncertain), was seen in a department store exhibition in 1948, and then vanished again for nearly seventy years. In 2014, it caused a sensation when it reappeared in the Okada
Museum of Art in Hakone.

Now, after 130 years, the paintings have been reunited in Washington, allowing scholars to compare them side by side.

In Moon at Shinagawa, possibly the earliest of the three, courtesans serve food, make music, and gossip in a pavilion with the Bay of Edo and a vista of distant mountains in the background. The moon of the title appears in the far distance as a pale orb close to the horizon.

Utamaro employs a gray color for the floors, piers, and sky, and a light blue for the watery background. The courtesans’ brilliantly patterned, sprightly blue, green, and red kimonos stand out sharply from this neutral background, although their elongated, elegantly
rendered forms are flattened, like the figures from a woodcut.

Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara is much less coherent. It’s a busy scene filled with courtesans in a two-story pavilion fronted by cherry trees in their springtime bloom. But unlike the serene space and comely figures of the Moon at Shinagawa, the painting is unfocused, crowded, flat, and almost tapestry-like.

Snow at Fukagawa is even less accomplished. Large swaths of its color are flat and lifeless; some parts of the interior space are confusing, and its figures are less elegant than those in Moon at Shinagawa.

The reuniting of the three paintings raises perplexing questions about their original function, their chronology, their size, their relation to each other, their provenance, and, because they vary so widely in style, even their attribution to Utamaro.

James Ulak, the show’s co-curator, says “there are no easy answers” to these questions, and that the exercise has made him realize that “the accepted Utamaro painting canon is remarkably facile and underdeveloped.” So, it’s safe to say, that the exhibition will cause a rethinking of a major figure in Japanese art, no small thing.

“Inventing Utamaro: A Japanese Masterpiece Rediscovered” is an exemplary exhibition that engages the visitor in the exciting scholarly
process of answering these questions. It’s what the Freer does so well.

Bruce Cole is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

1 “Clouds in a Bag: The Evelyn Way Kendall Ballooning and Early Aviation Collection” opened at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Chantilly, on January 30 and remains on view through December 31, 2018.

2 “Inventing Utamaro: A Japanese Masterpiece Rediscovered” opened at the Freer Gallery of Art / Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, D.C., on April 8 and remains on view through July 9, 2017.

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