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Cleveland Museum of Art: My Museum Was Gone

Like most places, Cleveland is a blend of the delightful and the infuriating. One of the the most profound delights is the ineffable Cleveland Museum of Art, which is currently shut down for a $258 million renovation and expansion, and is therefore also presently somewhat infuriating. Closed since January, beginning in July the museum will reopen in dribs and drabs until construction is finished in 2011 – permanent collection galleries won’t reopen until late ’07 at the earliest.

CMA On the other hand, our temporary loss is the world’s gain: if the people can’t come to you, you go to the people, and the Museum is doing just that with a series of traveling exhibits expected to draw more than 2 million total visitors, acording to Charles Venable, the museum’s deputy director of collections and programs.

Among the major shows are “Monet to Picasso: Modern Masters,” encompassing 60 paintings and sculptures ranging from French Impressionism to Cubism and Surrealism, which will open at the Beijing World Art Museum May 26; and explorations of the museum’s collections of Japanese, Chinese, and Medieval art.

Monet

Cities to share in this bounty include Tokyo, Seoul, Vancouver, Munich, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Kansas City, and Nashville. CMA will also loan a dozen of its greatest old master paintings to the Frick Collection in New York next fall.

Accordingly, it will be a while before I can return to the Museum for a comprehensive immersion tour with my older daughter, who is a fine arts and art history major in college. Annually — until now, of course — we walk out that front door crushed under the load of sensory stimulus, eyes stinging from the concentration, minds numb, breath shallow after taking in the whole museum in a single sweep.

We blow through Asian art, visiting our wise friend, 13th-century Japanese Zen Master Hotto Kokushi, taking a blustery sail on a 15th-century Japanese scroll, wrapping ourselves in a 13th-century Chinese Cloth of Gold, marveling at the strength of the 6th-century Cambodian Krishna god in the act of lifting Mount Govardhana, and reveling in the thick legs and impish personality of the 12th-century Indian elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha.

We barge through ancient Egypt, captured by the immediacy of an encaustic-on-wood Funerary Portrait of a Young Girl; a girl ever alive but dead for 1,800 years, in awe at a civilization that 2,300 years ago had the sophistication and leisure to make bronze coffins for cats, and silenced by the creepy ways people seek to conquer death.

Then we are surrounded by the swirling delicacy of a 15th-century Iranian “mihrab” (the focal point of the interior of a mosque), a riot of color and pattern.

We are almost afraid of the overwhelming physicality Rodin imparts to his sculptures, unconsciously stepping back from the muscular expression of “The Age of Bronze,” smiling nervously at the shared feeling of being keenly observed by “The Thinker.”

Gray We follow reverently in the footsteps of England’s “Art Nun,” Sister Wendy, whose radiantly gap-toothed smile shines like a benediction upon her favorites from the museum, including John Rogers Cox’s 1942 heartland hymn, “Gray and Gold”; Albert Bierstadt’s 1866 wondrous “Yosemite Valley”; Church’s electrifying sunset in 1860’s “Twilight In the Wilderness”; Rousseau’s hothouse exoticism in “Fight Between a Tiger and a Buffalo” (1908); Bellows’ classic American dynamism in “Stag at Sharkey’s” (1909).

There is so much more, much of it a blur in flavors of Meso-American, Early Christian and Byzantine, African, Medieval (with the ever-popular armor, and sharp, pointy things), before we work our way up to our personal core: European and American painting of the last 150 years.

We smile in recognition at the addled, searing logic of the Van Goghs; the limpid water of Monet; the short-hand tour-o-the-periods of Picasso; and lastly, the rush of Contemporary art, where all of art history slams up against the present in an effulgence of odd shapes, angles, colors, and attitudes.

On the way to the car after our last visit I had a weird vision: all the artworks we had just encountered gathered together in the private museum gloom of midnight to laugh and sing and dance together, each in their own way, in celebration of the human creative spark that was common mother and father to them all.

It’s great to be able to see these works online, and I am pleased people throughout the world will be able to share in CMA’s bounty, but it will be a long time before we get our museum back.

About Eric Olsen

  • http://desicritics.org Aaman

    My word, one would never have imagined this from EO, the addled, searing logic of the Van Goghs; the limpid water of Monet; the short-hand tour-o-the-periods of Picasso; and lastly, the rush of Contemporary art, where all of art history slams up against the present in an effulgence of odd shapes, angles, colors, and attitudes

  • http://blogs.epicindia.com/leapinthedark Richard Marcus

    What a great piece Eric, I know just how you feel to be deprived of a museum which you have long viewed as a personal hangout. What I miss most about leaving a major metropolis, Toronto, for the so called bucolic splendours of small city life, are the lack of museums of any significant sort.

    To go from a display of some of the treasures of antiquity to a display of steam engines being considerded foder for the talents of a curator was a shock to my system. While Clevland’s permanent collection sounds much more elaborate than any gallery in Canada, at least in the major centres there is the opportunity of your city being included in the itinerary of such tours as you describe.

    I wrote somewhere else in this space about the joys of spending time as a kid amongst dinasours and the like in the Royal Ontario Museum, and I now realize how much I took that for granted.

    I know from my mother who still lives in Toronto that they are experiencing the same furstration that you are, both their major art gallery and the aforementioned museum are undergoing fullscale retro fits and have closed most of their galleries to the public.

    The last time my wife and I visited Toronto, we spent a glorious afternoon getting lost in the museum. Being able to wander through the wonders of nature, the history of man, and everything else under the sun, remains one of the pleasures that will never be replaced completly by the Internet.

    I feel your pain :)

    Richard Marcus

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks Richard – I think culture in general (including major league sports) is what we miss most away from big cities, and as an “old” city, Cleveland does have culture (museums, Cleveland Orchestra, teams). I think Cleveland is my favorite American art museum outside of NYC and Chicago.

    Why do I surprise you Aaman? Don’t I come across as an aesthete? I really love art museums – that’s something my family has always done

  • http://desicritics.org Aaman

    I didn’t mean that disparagingly, but admiringly.

    I’ve been fortunate to view most of the best collections in the world – left on the list are really the Tate, the Armitage and the Boston Museum of Art – at least one of those shall be remedied soon.

  • Eric Olsen

    I know Aaman, I was just teasing – I’ve been to quite a few, but still have a lot to get to! I’ve been to Boston of those three. It’ll be time for world travel again when the kids get a little bigger and Blogcritics is (I hope) less demanding

  • Eric Olsen

    btw, philosophy was one of my majors and I did quite a bit of study on aesthetics and art history – would love to get back to it one of these days. I’m very excited about how well my daughter is doing with her art so far.

  • http://www.thewriterspath.com vikk Simmons

    Hey, I want the museum open, too. I wanna go.

    That said, what a great piece on the museum and a wonderful writing ride.

    Thank you.

  • http://chantalstone.blogspot.com chantal stone

    Too bad the CMA will be under construction for so long. I’ve been wanting to take a drive up to Cleveland to check it out, now I’ll have to wait….and settle for the less adequate Columbus Museum of Art. It’s not horrible, but I grew up on the east coast, visiting the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT and of course the Boston Museum of Art and MOMA in NY. Columbus has a way to go, but they try.

    Great article.

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks so much Vikk and Chantal – it really is a special place – of course part of it is sharing it with my daughter

  • Dawn

    After reading your masterful prose and thoughtful imagery, I almost feel like I took a sweet stroll through the museum myself.

    That really was a great piece. Luckily for you Eric, if you truly thirst for great artistic masterpieces, you need look no further than your refridgerator for the various works of none other than the future art great, Lily Olsen.

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks Dawn, and yes, we are blessed with a refrigerator museum

  • SonnyD

    Ah, Eric, if I were the weepy type, you would have brought tears to my eyes. Not kidding! I majored in the Fine Arts. That was the only thing I’ve ever done that I truly loved. Now, here I am in the redneck hills of SW Oregon, not a museum in sight. Beautiful country, but a cultural desert.

    Oh well, at least your museum will be back, bigger and better than ever. Maybe you can give us another tour when it reopens.

    One little picky point though. Next to the painting of the wheat fields you name the artist as John Rogers Clark and the picture says John Rogers Cox.

  • Eric Olsen

    great eye Sonny, thanks! And your kind words are much appreciated – and I’ll be delighted to do a tour once it’s up and running again.

  • chris olsen

    Why need the cleveland art museum when you have the natural history museum right down the road and see “Lucy.” A lot more exciting than any painting, because not only is it 3.2 million years old it is the most complete (40% complete)Australopithicus afarensis found. You can also bypass the rock and roll hall of fame, because the name “Lucy” came from the popular Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.”

  • Eric Olsen

    that is all true Chris – a different kind of awe, though. I miss you guys more than the museum

  • Kristen Olsen

    Dad, What a great article! You probably didn’t even have to do any research as to the pieces we would see, due to the fact we must have the entire layout memorized! It put a smile on my face and a tear in my eye remembering how much fun we had there. When it re-opens, we are just going to have to go enough to memorize the new layout all over again!

    The CMA is extremely blessed with a historically rich collection. I didn’t realize how many significant pieces we were privelaged to until I found myself looking at the all-too familiar images on a projection screen in my lectures.

    And as for you Pher-man, I don’t want to hear it; you would go crazy over the medieval armor and weaponry and have pretend sword fights in the middle of the gallery (ok that part is an exaggeration…) Love you Dad!!