When I hit Cleveland for a 10-day reunion trip, first thing I did, after getting situated and touching base with my brother, who still lives here, was visit the Cleveland Museum of Art.
I will always have happy associations with the place. When I was a boy, I had painting and drawing classes there.
One of my teachers castigated me for a lazy effort. I showed her my fighting spirit by trying again. I would take five years of art in secondary school, but I don’t possess a drawing or painting from the oeuvre I thus compiled which I like more than the chalk fruit bowl that took shape under the stern gaze of Mrs. Wike when I was nine. How I kvelled when she championed me upon its completion! To this day, I marvel at the sensuality of those well-rubbed, shimmering grapes. The other teacher I had, a nice man, led us kids on little tours of the museum. I still remember terms like “egg tempera” from his explanation of old paintings. I wonder if people paint with egg yolk today.
Driving to the museum, I shuffled through memories. I remembered, not only from my childhood art classes but my own subsequent unaided visits, the armored chain-mailed soldier on a horse, a vision out of Arthurian legend, bedazzling in that airy courtyard. I remembered Renaissance Italian paintings, evocative of scenes whose symbolic value was alien to me yet ached with a palpable universal pathos. I remembered brooding Rembrandts that would later remind me of how Coppola and Gordon Willis lit The Godfather. I remembered the Flemish chronicler of peasant life whom I would recall to mind when a writer called R. Crumb “the Breughel of our day.” The Cleveland Museum of Art brims with remarkable, and iconic, cultural artifacts.
A renovation and expansion project opened closed spaces, even in what I remember as an airy, cool clime. You now walk past the friendly greeters into a vast sky-lit atrium, frond rimmed, huge posters hanging from up high. The atrium is arrayed with the museum’s accommodating wrought-metal tables and chairs to let patrons sit and enjoy the offerings of the adjacent cafeteria.
I let my feet take me where they would.
MY TOUR BEGAN with Asian art. My eyes bathed themselves in these sculptures, from the fierce Japanese warrior-guardian with his sword to the round-breasted Hindu goddess (like Renoir, the Indians rendered women in a way that anticipated today’s version of pulchritude) to depictions of Hanuman the Monkey God (I remember him from being on the Ram Dass mailing list) and the protector/destroyer god Shiva. I felt myself evolving as I gazed. A lifelong fixation on women’s body parts became a natural appreciation of life, no more a reason for shame than the need to eat and drink. An engrained sense of divinity as residing within a personal and monomaniacal god yielded to a worldview that incorporates many gods, making of the divine energy something all-around and immanent rather than some bearded grandfather astride the clouds, issuing directives from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Maybe God is a concept by which we measure our pain. But some of the greatest, most emotionally resonant art available anywhere in the world comes out of people’s attempts to understand what God is.
From there I ventured into a display of Contemporary Art. Picasso’s horrified meditation on war broke through my old incomprehension of his abstract art. Warhol’s silkscreen Marilyns, arrayed like a page of stamps, proved as vivid and instructive as ever; we have only to reflect back what media and Hollywood and advertising machines are pouring into us to understand how the world makes art. Abstract Expressionists, even de Kooning, never hit me as vividly as when, now, I encountered one of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, which theretofore had done naught for me but inflict damage on the eyes. The painting that hit me the hardest, though, by German artist Anselm Kiefer, was Lot’s Wife, which shows railroad tracks (ostensibly leading to a concentration camp) in a way that reminds us that if we look back on history we might turn into a pillar of salt. There is no god in this world other than the god of creativity that dwells within us, exploding outward in the existential torment and ecstasy that accompany our ugly, hard-learned experience.
I left the place refreshed yet dazed. I’d told myself I’d take pictures. I had a dozen or so on my iPhone, blogward bound.
I’m meeting with family to laugh and reminiscence and talk about family business; seeing my old friend Roger to share thoughts and crack up about the absurdities of life; heading to some of the old AA meetings that established me in the Program (if I can fucking find them), meeting with Cleveland friends who go to meetings too.
And meditating on the crazy perfect mess that is my life. Sometimes it seems like your whole life is an artwork if you can back up from it far enough to discern the lines and shapes. Memory and contemplation take that bowl of fruit and rub it to fruition … full breasted and shimmering, like clusters of grapes.