The Cleveland Museum of ArtBeing a native Ohioan, I'm naturally proud of our art museums. Anyone familiar with the state knows that there are actually two Ohios. There is the prosperous CCC corridor running north-east from Cincinnati along I-71 to Columbus and thence on up to Cleveland, and then there's the rest of the state. I live in the "rest" of the state, the sparsely populated, economically trivial, South-eastern region near the Ohio River from where the pioneering settlers swept north and west some two hundred years ago. Insofar as our art museums are concerned, the Columbus Museum of Art is, at best, so-so. It is modest in size and light in holdings, principally outstanding for its works by George Bellows and a few other Social Realists of his ilk. Cincinnati's Taft Museum is better, though not much larger, but with an impressive cross-section of Renaissance through Modern art. I especially recall its selection of Impressionist paintings. By contrast, in size and scope, the Cleveland Museum of Art is huge, though certainly not so in comparison to the Met or the National Gallery or the Getty. Nonetheless, situated overlooking a small lake in an isolated park among colleges and medical centres, it is an impressive temple of fine art, enlarged four times in its history and badly in need of yet another wing, if only there were room. Over the years, what has made the Cleveland Museum of Art impressive is its aggressive policy of acquisitions and the enormous endowments that make it possible. Whenever great art comes on the market, CMA is a force to be reckoned with in the art world. And it shows, not just in the breadth and depth of their holdings, but especially in their quality.
I think probably CMA's greatest strength lies in its collection of ancient works - principally Egyptian, Etruscan, Japanese, Chinese, Flemish, and Greek. I have a passing interest in most of these cultures, but I've always been most fascinated by Greek art (meaning sculpture of course), perhaps because it represents the wellspring from which all other Western art evolved. And having narrowed down CMA's more than 30,000 items this far, I have to say their early Greek Christian sculpture I find the most interesting. Yes, there is such a thing. Early? How early? Some time around the end of the third century CE. Of course, in terms of Greek sculpture, that's quite late. But in terms of Christian art, any Christian art, it's extremely early.
The pale, creamy marble came from a quarry in Turkey. The style is Hellenic. The sculptor was obviously quite adept. The grouping of four separate pieces tells the biblical story of Jonah and the whale. The pieces are modest in size, the largest being a little over 20 inches tall. The first piece depicts a serpent-like sea creature with its head and front legs resembling, somewhat, those of a wolf (its fins looking like wings). Jonah's graceful legs make it appear he has dived headfirst into the mouth of this large "fish." The second figure shows the same creature vomiting up its human prey in what may be the worst case ever of indigestion. A third unit is a standing figure of Jonah praying in the aftermath of his marine adventure while the fourth sculpture is of Jonah reclining under the shade of a gourd vine. To fill in the gaps in the story as reported in the Bible, Jonah was resting, having finished bringing the word of God to Nineveh, anticipating the spectacular destruction of the city; except that his preaching there had been more effective than he'd realised, causing the citizens to repent and God to spare the city. Deprived of a good show, Jonah became angry; which in turn angered God, who then destroyed the gourd vine instead, just to teach Jonah a lesson (as if three days in the belly of a whale hadn't made an impression).
The works were probably fashioned in Greece, then packed in a large ceramic container for shipment to Rome. For one reason or another they never made it. They were discovered hidden in an Eastern Mediterranean country some two hundred years ago. Scholars speculate that the group may have been intended to adorn a private garden fountain. Also found in the same container was a sculpted marble figure of the Good Shepherd probably by the same artist, though not intended as part of the Jonah grouping. The Cleveland Museum of Art has this one too. The CMA is not the Met, and given the meagre extent of my travels to and through the really great art museums of the world, I'm reluctant to name a favourite; but the CMA would certainly be a contender, and I am rather proud to say it's in Ohio.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
28 August 2001