A creative response to the Covid-19 pandemic from the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) has allowed curators to discuss some of their favourite objects that are not normally on view to create Stories From Storage.
When the pandemic upended our normal lives across the world, it also temporarily delayed, possibly for years, projects that had been in development in many museums and institutions. It was a perfect moment for the CMA to reconsider their schedule of exhibitions by drawing on its own resources. So they went off to explore the vault. While the CMA has more than 63,000 objects in its permanent collection, only about 4,600 are on view in the galleries. Works remain in storage for various reasons: some are light sensitive, some have condition issues, some have contested attributions and others simply do not fit into the narratives or finite spaces of the galleries.
Twenty Personal Stories
Twenty personal stories have been recorded by curators that discuss and reflect living through these strange times. Some curators designed a story about their experience during quarantine and living through a global pandemic, others delved deep into the vault to share art that has not ever been on view before. Four of the stories, which involve Asian art, are explored below.
The Curator of Korean Art at Cleveland
A Playbook for Solitude by Sooa Im McCormick, curator of Korean art, creates a moment of solace and inspires a dialogue about resilience, empathy, and social justice during the forced solitude caused by the global pandemic by juxtaposing historical and contemporary Korean works of art made in different periods and mediums.
‘I owe much of my inspiration for this story to Art as Therapy (Phaidon Press, 2013), by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong. This book proposes looking at works of art as insightful advisers as we experience a time of tension and confusion. In the book, an 18th-century Korean moon jar was presented as an example that expresses moral decency (Art as Therapy, p 42). Aside from being a useful receptacle, it is also a superlative homage to the virtue of modesty. It stresses this quality by allowing minor blemishes to remain on its surface, by being full of variations of colour and having an imperfect glaze and an outline that does not follow an ideal oval trajectory. The jar is modest because it seems not to mind about any of this. Its flaws merely concede its disinterest in the race for status. It has the wisdom not to ask to be thought too special. It is not humble, just content with what it is.
Korean Moon Jar
By juxtaposing historical and contemporary Korean works of art made in different periods and media, I hope not only to create a moment of solace, but also to inspire a dialogue about resilience, empathy, and social justice. The minimalistic aesthetics of the CMA’s white vase nicknamed “moon jar” is more than a statement of philosophy. It is about artistic sustainability. The absence of cobalt blue underglaze reveals the socioeconomic crisis in late 17th-century Korea, when the government enforced strict sumptuary laws that banned luxuries, including cobalt blue, to reserve the state’s financial resources.
In fact, the connection that ties the selected works together is the human creative resilience that triumphed over challenging times. Kim Beom’s A Rock That Was Taught It Was a Bird is a political satire about military dictatorship in South Korea during the late 1970s and 1980s, when both news media and education were deployed as tools of manipulation. I hope these works of art together serve as a play-book to encourage us to shine our better selves and to stay resilient during this time of forced solitude.’
The Curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art at Cleveland
Sonya Rhie Mace, George P Bickford Curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art, offers a tribute to a parent who passed away in 2020. Ten rarely seen objects from India and Nepal, dating from about the 700s to the 1600s, explain and illuminate the elements of the visually complex 13th-century Tibetan thangka of Green Tara on display. ‘On 26 January, 2020, my mother, Marylin Martin Rhie, Professor Emerita of Art and East Asian Studies at Smith College, passed away in Springfield, Massachusetts. My father, my son, my husband, and I were all at her side, while I recited the Green Tara mantra: om tare tuttare ture svaha. For followers of Tibetan Buddhism, these powerful syllables remove fear, especially at the time of death. Steeped as she was for decades in the art and thought of Buddhism, she understood their meaning.
The Green Tara
My mother was a pioneering historian of Tibetan art, and she was my first teacher. An artist herself, she was gifted with extraordinary visual acuity and could see and explain which aspects of a work of art yield its beauty and purpose. Nearly three decades ago, she turned her inimitable powers of description to the CMA’s Green Tara in Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet (Abrams, 1991). The iconic beauty of this style is nowhere more masterfully portrayed than in the Cleveland Green Tara. She sits within a temple-like jewelled shrine reminiscent of Indian architectural modes and with finely detailed décor as seen in the 12th- and 13th-century Orissan and Hoysalan temples. The interior glows a brilliant crimson red, startlingly offsetting the olive green colouring of her firm, graciously bending body. Green Tara, the compassionate female Bodhisattva, is a little mysterious, which is implied here by the forest setting and night-time sky, charmingly sprinkled with flowers. The style has a gem-like colour, precise and even line, and fascinating detail. The jewels and textiles have a precision and clarity that make the image seem real.
Despite the strongly two-dimensional aspect of the painting, it appears utterly realistic and immediately apprehendable, approachable, and present. It seems as though we could touch the image with no barrier between us, even as we realise her iconic, perfect nature. (Green Tara in Widsom, p. 51).
My selection of Green Tara for this project is a tribute to my mother, her life, and her scholarship. Although now in another realm, she left us with words that guide us ever deeper into wonder and understanding.’
The Curator of Japanese Art at Cleveland
Protection and Preservation of the Word is the theme considered by Sinéad Vilbar, curator of Japanese art. The recently restored Shakyamuni with the Sixteen Benevolent Deities presents an opportunity to display the painting likely for the first time in a generation. The story explores the painstaking conservation process, as well as its relationship to the Repository for the Great Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, a rarely exhibited object also on view with rediscovered sacred texts it once housed.
Sinéad Viber explains, ‘We recently completed conservation and research of Shakyamuni with the Sixteen Benevolent Deities, and this exhibition presented an opportunity to display the newly restored painting. Mary Louisa Upson (née Southworth) (1859-1944) gifted the painting in 1941 to celebrate the museum’s 25th anniversary.
Shakyamuni with the Sixteen Benevolent Deities
The painting arrived mounted on a panel and framed. However, it had brocade border silks, indicating that it was once mounted as a hanging scroll. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was popular to convert hanging scroll paintings to framed ones. This not only made them suitable for display in Western architectural settings, but also was a more effective method of preserving the paintings than keeping them rolled up in a box when not on view.
As late as 2014, Shakyamuni with the Sixteen Benevolent Deities was catalogued as an ‘Amida Triad’, a shorthand way of referring to the Buddha Amida flanked by two bodhisattvas (enlightened beings who work for the enlightenment of all) called Kannon and Seishi in Japan.
As part of the CMA’s institutional goals to provide Open Access images of the entire collection and to create digital didactics, we researched and reidentified the painting. Based on its iconography, we discovered that it was an image of a different Buddha, Shakyamuni, flanked by two bodhisattvas called Monju and Fugen, and surrounded by 16 deities who protect an important religious text called the Great Perfection of Wisdom Sutra.
In Japan, Buddhists of many different schools display a painting with this iconography for services at which monks read the Great Perfection of Wisdom Sutra. Sometimes the paintings are mounted as panels, but most of the time they are hanging scrolls. It is convenient to store these occasional-use paintings rolled up in a box to save space and to protect them from insects.
Conservationn of the Japanese Painting
Re-cataloguing the painting and now understanding its use spurred us to take action to make it ready for exhibition. The original painting was a skilful, detailed work of the mid- to late 1300s, but it had been through centuries of temple use, as well as at least one previous remounting campaign with some negative consequences. In fact, its wanting state of preservation was likely a major contributing factor to its being overlooked in previous curatorial research.
One of the main problems was cosmetic. Previous mounters had applied some visually distracting in-painting on Shakyamuni’s robe. It may have been the same colour as the original when they first added it, but over time it began to stand out as different. Another major problem was that the mounters lined the entire painting with silk. A Buddhist painting specialist created the work using a technique that involves painting on both the front and the back of the silk. The technique allows the painter to create luminosity, intensity, and other effects, but it also means that it is dangerous to remove backings for fear of taking off pigments along with the lining. On top of that, the mounters cooked a recipe for instability into their mounting: silk does not adhere well to silk, so the lining was coming away, causing further losses where the original silk of the painting was missing.
Finally, the mounting silks were frayed and filthy, so they needed to be replaced as part of the remounting process. Since our goal is to show our visitors the painting as close to the way it would have originally been experienced by the community for whom it was created, we decided to restore it to its original hanging scroll format. In the process, we addressed the attendant problems.
The Curator of Chinese Art at Cleveland
Have a Seat! From Floor Culture to Furniture of Ming and Qing Dynasty China reflects the choice of Clarissa von Spee, James and Donna Reid Curator of Chinese Art. ‘China is the only culture in East Asia that moved entirely from an original “floor culture”, as still practised in Japan and Korea, to high seats and tables, developing a unique tradition of craftsmanship in furniture. By about the 800s, chairs had been introduced from Central Asia to China. Chinese furniture makers did not use glue, nails, or screws, components adopted from traditional architecture made of wood.
Chinese Furniture at Cleveland Museum of Art
Restrained Chinese hardwood furniture of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, with its characteristic simple square forms, elegance, and “modern” proportions, has fascinated Western collectors and designers, including those of the Bauhaus and Wiener Werkstätte movements, since the early 1900s. Traditional Chinese furniture expresses modern Western design principles such as “less is more” and “form follows function”, as seen in chairs, cupboards, and tables designed by Marcel Breuer, Henry van der Velde, Josef Hoffmann and Mies van der Rohe.
‘Since Chinese furniture requires a large foot- print for display, this story of Chinese culture is often not told in our limited gallery space. Stories from Storage offers a unique opportunity to present a selection of the CMA’s Chinese furniture, some of which has remained in storage since being acquired more than 60 years ago.’
Until 16 May, Stories from Storage, Cleveland Museum of Art, Clevelandart.org. The CMA’s ArtLens app allows you to listen to each curator talk about their choice. ArtLens App is available to download for free for iOS9 or higher and to Android devices (5.0+).