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Rarely Seen Chinese Paintings Unfurl at the Cleveland Museum of Art

WKSU public radio

Ten Chinese paintings now on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art are seldom seen. They're so old, so fragile and so sensitive to light that they can’t easily be shown.

And as WKSU’s Vivian Goodman reports, their monumental size also makes them difficult to display.

The paintings in the exhibition “Silent Poetry” depict a series of scenes laid out in segments, horizontally. They tell stories that progress through time and space on narrow, continuous rolls of silk and paper, some more than 20-feet long. 


We’re touring the exhibition with its curator, Marjorie Williams, senior director for endowment development at the Cleveland Museum of Art.” 

Designed to be studied
Williams says that unlike western paintings this art was never meant to be hung on walls, but rather to be unrolled for occasional viewing in intimate settings by artists, scholars, and collectors, "So that you would sit at a table with friends, and look at the scroll, talk about it, exchange ideas.” 

The exhibition’s title, “Silent Poetry,” is also that of a new 500-page book presenting new research on the museum’s Chinese art collection. It refers to the fact that these painters were not graphic artists alone.

Poetry enhances the imagery
 “Chinese painters were poets, great calligraphers, and painters, and to them there was a unity of expression when they brought them together in their paintings.”  

Covering the gallery’s entire back wall is a blown-up graphic of one of the art works, an ink- on- paper scroll believed to be from the 1530s titled Old Pine Tree. The undulating tree branches are meant to suggest the arms of a dragon.

“You view first the scenery, the subject, but then at the very end there’s a poem, and I think reading that gives you a deeper understanding.”

Williams reads the translation:  “The force of change beyond restraint. The dragons whiskers are likened to a forest of spears.”  

The exhibition closes Sunday. The book, "Silent Poetry: Chinese Paintings from the Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art," is available at the museum store.

Williams chose these 10 works from the museum’s vast collection of Chinese art.  “It’s a unique opportunity to see a hand scroll unrolled almost in its entirety. Generally when we show them upstairs in our galleries we can only show one section.” 

Seldom seen
Museum visitor Megan Humphrey came twice from Ashtabula to see the paintings, many of them so old and light-sensitive that they only rarely  come out of storage.

“Actually I’m thrilled that they’re on display because I know how fragile they are.”  

The works in the exhibition span from the 11th to the 18th centuries.

One 20-foot scroll from the late 16th Century titled “The Five Hundred Arhats” shows smiling, bald, apparently gregarious disciples of the Buddha. 

"We begin the scroll with a very magical moment. One of the disciples has unleashed a dragon out of a beautiful flask. And as you move further down into the scroll we see here’s a group that are chatting among themselves. They have their shoes off. They’re sitting up on a rock. An attendant is bringing a tiger over to greet them.” 

The legacy of Sherman Lee
Williams says masterpieces of Asian art have long contributed to the Cleveland museum’s international prestige.  “And the Chinese painting collection in particular is one of the top four  in the United States.” 

It was built almost single-handedly by her former colleague Sherman Lee. He was director of the Cleveland Museum of Art from 1958 to 1983. But Lee was still a curator when he began purchasing hand scrolls in the early 1950s.

Williams says Lee seized the moment when China was just starting to part with its treasures. 

“He was known for buying ahead of the curve. He recognized incredible quality in Chinese painting and purchased very, very well.”

One of Lee’s earliest acquisitions was the monumental landscape “Streams and Mountains without End.”

 “People fishing by the water, little huts beautifully painted with layers of ink. It’s all monochromatic, no color, but you can see the infinite variety of brush work that give us the illusion of a mountain landscape.”  

One of the later works in the exhibition, “Portraits of Emperor Qianlong, the Empress, and Eleven Imperial Consorts,” was actually painted by a western artist.  “It’s probably our most well-known painting because it’s asked for frequently. It’s very well-known internationally.”

East meets West
Guiseppe Castiglione was a Jesuit priest who arrived in China in 1751. 

“His mission in going to China was to paint altar pieces at the churches the Jesuits had hoped to build and establish. He was so talented that he was recognized by the empress of the court, and he was invited to become a court painter.” 

Centuries later museum visitor Garrett Bacon also appreciates the priest’s talent.

“For me it’s just the detail. I could stare at this for hours. It’s amazing stuff, and the fact that it’s so old, and it’s been here for so long, and it still looks amazing.”