“The most beautiful view of my life”
On March 21, 1907, on his second trip throughout Asia, Charles Lang Freer penned a letter to his business partner, Frank Hecker. “There is much in Java that’s disappointing but it’s all owing to the Dutch,” he opined. Writing from Batavia (present-day Jakarta) on the island of Java, Indonesia, Freer lamented the slowness of the postal system, insufficient transportation, and other frustrations of life under the Dutch colonial government.
At the same time, Freer was bewitched by the beauty of the island. He had traveled to Indonesia in order to study the Hindu and Buddhist temples, with the goal of seeing all the ruins on Java. Intrepid as he was, it’s easy to understand why Freer did not fully meet his goal. Java is home to hundreds of sacred structures that are woven throughout the landscape. They mark the peaks and slopes of the island’s numerous volcanoes, they line the banks of rivers, and they stand in the middle of what once were vast cities. Freer found the landscape “the most beautiful,” the “ground the most fertile, the gardens most fascinating,” and the people, “excepting the foreigners, the happiest.” The temple ruins, he ascertained, were among the greatest in the world.
“Spent all day at Mendoet [Mendut] and Boro Bodoer [Borobudur] temples. Mist, showers, and amazing greys.”
Freer Diary, March 9, 1907
Although Freer did not collect art while he was in Java, he was so enamored of the monumental temples in terraced rice fields on jungle slopes that he purchased an album of sixty prints by the Armenian photographer Ohannes Kurkdjian. Kurkdjian’s photographs reveal what Java’s ancient temples looked like during the nascent stages of formal archaeological preservation in the region. The lawns were neatly manicured, yet the soaring, multi-structure complexes we encounter today were little more than loose piles of rubble at the time of Freer’s visit in 1907.
This was Freer’s first trip abroad since the Smithsonian had agreed in early 1906 to accept his personal art collections as a bequest. From that time onward, Freer’s travels became more purposeful as he devoted his time, money, and energy to life as a connoisseur.
“From the ruined temples seen I learned much more than I had expected from the entire lot, and, so, I should be content, but my nature still craves the remainder. . .”
Freer Diary, March 9, 1907
In 1912, Freer purchased a painting that depicts a relief carving from Borobudur by the American artist Joseph Lindon Smith, who was known for his representations of stone reliefs.
Then, in 1914, Freer made another purchase related to his 1907 visit to Java: he bought a ninth-century figure of the Hindu Goddess Durga from the dealer D. Komter in Amsterdam. The Goddess’s petite size, delicate face, and jewelry, as well as the composition of the volcanic stone suggest the sculpture comes from a Javanese temple on the Dieng Plateau. This was the most significant piece of Southeast Asian sculpture that Freer ever acquired.
Perhaps this Durga reminded Freer that sunset from the top of Borobudur was, as he wrote in his diary, “the most beautiful view of my life.”
—Emma Natalya Stein, Assistant Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art