Cleveland Gives Asia Its Due
Posted January 23, 2014 in Articles
Author: Lee Lawrence
The eight-year, $350 million renovation and expansion of the Cleveland Museum of Art has had its ups and downs. But with the Jan. 1 opening of its west wing, it has indisputably fulfilled a century-old dream. In January 1914, founding director Frederic Allen Whiting detailed in a memo to the board his wish to develop a first-rate collection of "Oriental Art" and exhibit it in a way that would draw crowds.
The museum long ago fulfilled the first part of his dream: Immediately, Whiting attracted and educated powerful donors like Worcester Reed Warner and John Huntington. Aided by collector Charles Lang Freer and Harvard professor Langdon Warner, the museum had, within a couple of decades of its opening in 1916, built the foundation of a major collection focused on masterly works in highly prized styles and genres. It then consistently added to it, most notably under the direction of Sherman E. Lee, who joined the museum as curator in 1952 and went on to serve as director for 25 years until his retirement in 1983.
Its reputation for having one of the country's finest Asian collections was thus assured early on, but works were squeezed into basement rooms and passageways. The art now has the crowd-attracting galleries it deserves. Taking up the entire west and half of the north wings, a suite of large, airy galleries accommodates close to 600 treasures, some 10% of the museum's Asian holdings. Individually and in concert, they tell stories, evoke emotion and draw us in with their beauty.
Every object appears at home here, whether it is a larger-than-life 12th-century Chinese statue of the bodhisattva Guanyin—crowned and bejeweled, with ribbons encircling his torso and a skirt whose hem ripples at his ankles—or a 6-inch-tall 10th-century statuette showing Guanyin in a relaxed seated pose. The former sculpture inhabits its own niche; the latter sits with prized objects an artist-scholar would collect. Equally at home are displays of Korean celadons and Chinese porcelains, stone carvings of Hindu deities set against deep-red walls, and newly acquired Mughal miniatures shimmering with color in a pale-yellow space.
The Cleveland Museum has never been about building encyclopedic collections, and the Asian wing is no exception. There are, for example, no folk or tribal Indian pieces nor any works from Myanmar on view. Also in keeping with museum policy, the installation keeps most wall texts and labels brief so as to foster an engagement with the objects themselves. There is a lot to be said for this. A 4,500-year-old Japanese vessel appeals through the strength and vitality of its flame- and wave-like forms. Similarly, the slender figure of "Monkey General Hanuman" (cast in bronze in South India c. 1000) is charm itself as he leans slightly forward, a hand covering his mouth as though in apology.
Many of the works are devotional in nature, and it is worth pausing to view them from several angles. At eye-level, we are immediately drawn to the round face and slight smile of a Chinese Buddha carved in marble in the 570s. But peering up at him from below (the museum's folding chairs come in handy here), our eye registers first the fleshy, large palms of his hands, held toward us in a gesture that promises to dispel fear and offers us protection and grace.
Any number of paintings, too, invite careful contemplation. Among the collections' most famous are the Chinese scrolls, largely the legacy of Lee, who was also a renowned connoisseur of Chinese and Japanese art. There are about 200 in all, and the inaugural display chosen by Anita Chung, curator of Chinese art, includes nine of Lee's acquisitions. They range from an unusual 18th-century handscroll with serial portraits of the emperor, his wife and 11 consorts to five hanging scrolls, each iconic in the history of Chinese art.
In Wen Zhengming's 1548 "Playing the Qin (Zither) in a Secluded Valley"—to pick just one—rocks, trees and waterfalls jostle against one another in a composition so dense it takes time to ferret out the two musicians facing one another across the long, oval body of a zither. One cannot help but feel that they are playing supporting roles and that the main actors are the short, staccato brushstrokes that make the landscape vibrate. As we feel that reverberation, it suddenly seems clear: This painting depicts music. "May the harmonies of my red-stringed tune / Be the humble servant to the pine wind's ancient song," read the last verses of the poem penned in the top left corner.
Thanks to thoughtful installations, there is also much gained from eavesdropping on conversations among artworks. Of course, the more we know their language and history, the more we are likely to hear (additional information curators are developing for the museum's ArtLens app will, one hopes, raise the decibel level for everyone).
In curator Sinéad Vilbar's gallery, devoted to Korean and Japanese Buddhist works, for example, one small bronze of the Buddha shows him standing, another depicts him seated. The former, from Korea's first unified kingdom (668-935), is gilded and shiny; the latter, from late seventh-century Japan, is matte and dark. But their slightly oversized heads and similarly draped robes whisper tales of monks traveling from Korea to Japan to spread their faith.
In the Indian section, curator Sonya Quintanilla orchestrates an equally revealing confrontation between reddish sandstone carvings from first to fifth-century Mathura (North India) and contemporaneous gray-schist statuary from Gandhara (present-day Pakistan). The soft, rounded torso of a Mathura Buddha faces the crisp, Greco-Roman treatment of its Gandhara counterpart. But they are not just showing off different styles; one can hear them arguing about which artists first depicted the Buddha. Like scholarship on the subject, they seem to be in a standoff.
Acquiring Indian art was one of Whiting's primary objectives in 1914, and he proposed a garden court filled with statuary and architectural fragments. Although a shortage of funds quashed that vision, one imagines he would smile walking into the glassed-in gallery that caps the new wing. In the daytime, it offers the chance to examine the similarities and distinctions among Southeast Asian and Indian works. But the museum stays open until 9 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays and, after dark, art history yields to magic. Ghostly reflections of gods extend into the night like blessings, and a bronze Shiva seems to float in outer space as he dances the world in and out of existence.