A visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Asian collection

The Cleveland Museum of Art recently rotated its vast Asian collection, which I happily discovered during Friday’s visit.

After a Caesar salad in the Atrium cafeteria–‘extra anchovies, please’–I started my weekly ramble in the galleries above the cafeteria where the Asian collection is housed. Major museums, like Cleveland,  rotate parts of their collection all the time. I point this out to those who ask me why I visit museums so frequently. Of course, I’d visit the museum every week even if it didn’t rotate its collection.

Cleveland Museum of Art's New Atrium

I was especially struck by the large and gloomy Looking for a Monastery in the Misty Mountains. It held me fast for several minutes even though I was impatient to see the other new pieces. I came back to it twice. I plan to write about it after a few more visits.

I love Asian art–always have. When I was in grad school at City College in New York, the art department was awash with students from The People’s Republic. In some classes I was the only native-English speaker besides the professor. Surprisingly, few of the Chinese students spoke English and interpreters had to be present during class hours.

Eager to learn about Chinese art, I was disappointed to discover that the classical tradition was completely dead in China. Many students complained bitterly to me about that. The students knew little more about it than I did. The Chinese students were interested in Western art–all of them worked in the Western style (as they saw it)–but resented the government for destroying their heritage.

Some took advantage of their ethnicity and sold ‘genuine Chinese paintings in the traditional style.’ They learned the style the same way you or I would today, from books and museum visits.  They produced poor-quality knockoffs but did a brisk business. They took their wares to the tourist-crowded areas around Times Square and sold them on street corners. Like me, they were desperately poor and the money was a godsend.

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