Saturday, March 26, 2011

Cleveland Museum of Art: The Lure of Painted Poetry (Member's Reception)

Based on my preference to walk to the roughly 2.5 miles to the Cleveland Museum of Art rather than drive, the colder temperatures mark a significant decrease from my weekly visits the other three seasons of the year. So it's been a few weeks since I've made it to the museum.

My excuse to visit tonight -- not that anyone should ever need an excuse to visit one of America's great (and permanent-exhibits-free) art museums -- was the Member's Reception for the exhibition The Lure of Painted Poetry: Japanese and Korean Art, a free exhibition opening tomorrow and running through August 28th. Driving to the museum this evening the timing of this exhibition in relation to the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami struck me as either very fortuitous or very ominous.

The exhibition introduction was given by Seunghye Sun, the Associate Curator of Japanese and Korean Art after a introduction by Director David Franklin. You could tell that both were quite excited about the exhibition, but Ms. Sun's comments in particular were invigorating: Having joined the museum's staff within the past year, she commented that her ability to organize the exhibition in such a short time--using objects predominantly, if not exclusively, from the museum's permanent collection--comes from the renown of Cleveland's Asian Art collection as "the best in the United States" and already being quite familiar with the collection by reputation from her previous posts.

Ms. Sun's comments were brief, but insightful. In describing the screens on an island in the exhibition space she remarked that they were like characters on a stage and it was up to the viewer to understand their story. And entering the exhibition hall, that's precisely the feeling that struck me: Characters forever frozen in time, waiting for you to understand their story. That's actually the attitude by with I approach most art but something about the screens at the visual centerpiece of the exhibition makes it particularly worthy of asking and introspection.

Backing up a few steps, as I approached the exhibition hall I wasn't sure what to expect as Asian Art is far from the top of my "favorite types of art" list, but I tried to keep an open mind. And that openness was rewarded. While my previous Asian art experiences* were earthenware heavy, and earthenware just isn't my thing -- though there is some pottery, this exhibition predominantly is screens and scrolls which I find much more visually interesting.

And I was impressed both by the artistry and the variety. Some pieces are explicitly detailed, while others provide only general shapes or movements and leave much to be filled in by the imagination. Some are monochromatic making extensive use of shading to create depth while others are monochromatic and flat; still others use varying amounts of color. One interesting thing that registered early on is that even where the central art was monochromatic the scrolls on which they were placed were often brightly colored.

The exhibition ends, of course, in the gift shop. But before you get to the gift shop the exhibition concludes with a wall full of beautiful but large Japanese characters. The philosophy of one, that people are drawn to those with warm personalities like "Clouds Chasing Dragons" was particularly memorable; as was the beautiful assortment of cast glass pieces to the right of that wall.

One of the claims of the exhibition is to explore the relationship between Chinese poetry and Korean and Japanese art, which is intriguing, but based on how crowded the galleries were and how wantonly some were disregarding what I consider to be basic tenants of museum etiquette** (wow, am I sounding curmudgeonly tonight or what?) I didn't really explore this on this visit; perhaps in a future visit. Ms. Sun, during her opening remarks, also encouraged a visit to the Museum's Ingalls Library for anyone interested in further research. For those who don't know the library -- with its beautiful reading room -- is located on the 2.5 (yes, second-and-a-half) floor of the Breuer building,


* See the bottom of here for my visit to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, or here for my visit to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts which has a rather extensive Asian collection.
** - They may not be official tenets, but among things that I consider sacred: Do not walk in front of someone who is taking in a piece or its label copy, rather pass behind so as not to disrupt their concentration; the taller should allow the shorter space to view; do not position yourself so close to a piece [for an extended period of time] such that others can not view the art-- particularly if those people were there before you; if you are going to engage a group of people in conversation not related to a piece, do not do so in close proximity to art, lest ye prevent people from actually seeing the art.

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