4 Pandemic-Inspired 'Stories From Storage' At Cleveland Museum of Art

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Curators dug into the Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection for its latest exhibition. “Stories from Storage” features a range of works, some rarely displayed, as well as details behind the selections.

When choosing what to highlight, several curators drew inspiration from the pandemic.

Art in the Time of the Black Death

Looking back at works from the 14th century, when the Black Death struck Europe, it’s not necessarily obvious how that plague affected artists.

“We have to really dig deeply and think intensively about what these changes could be,” said Gerhard Lutz, curator of medieval art. The connection’s probably that people reacted in a different way than we would expect.”

For “Stories from Storage,” Lutz selected a delicate sculpture, likely from France, depicting the Virgin Mary and Jesus. When considering this sculpture and other works from the 1300s, he said artists stayed with tradition.

“They were interested in beautiful forms, in some way as an answer to the catastrophe which happened in Europe at the time,” Lutz said.

Virgin Nursing The Christ Child, c.1380 [Cleveland Museum of Art]

Virgin Nursing The Christ Child, c. 1380, France [Cleveland Museum of Art]

Religious art was also popular to finance at the time.

“Because everything was centered around that final judgment and doing something about your position in this final judgment,” he said. “So, the more… pious donations you give and the more people pray for you, the better position you have at the end of time. And so that dominated society, people in a way that is hardly imaginable today.”

Green Tara and the Art of Protection

For people feeling particularly anxious about pandemic living today, Sonya Rhie Mace, curator of Indian and Southeast Asian art, may have just the antidote. She brought out of storage a painting of the Buddhist goddess Green Tara.

Green Tara art

Green Tara, c. 1260s, Central Tibet [Cleveland Museum of Art]

“She has a fabulous hairstyle. She's got the perfect figure. She looks like perfection incarnate,” she said.

In all of her beauty and splendor, Green Tara is a Tibetan devotional fitting for an uncertain time.

“Green Tara is one of these images created purposefully for the eradication of fear,” Mace said. “In her perfection, in her perfect form, she stands for the wisdom of the enlightened mind... that has reached full knowledge of the true nature of things, about what reality is. And knowledge is an antidote to fear.”

Green Tara is a popular part of the museum’s collection, but only goes on view every five years for preservation.

Urban Isolation

A contemporary painting selected for “Stories from Storage” centers on a closed laundry business, something that struck as familiar to associate curator Nadiah Rivera Fellah.

“I had this ‘aha’ moment of thinking, you know, cities, here’s this storefront on Fifth Avenue in Chinatown, in New York City… and it's empty,” Rivera Fellah said. “Isn't this so similar to the images of cities that we're seeing now because of the pandemic?”

Martin Wong painting

Chinese Hand Laundry by Martin Wong (American, 1946–1999), courtesy of the Estate of Martin Wong / P.P.O.W Gallery, New York [Cleveland Musuem of Art]

In the painting by artist Martin Wong, the laundry shop has closed and viewers are left with the imagery of what remains.

For the exhibit, the painting pairs with other images depicting urban isolation in one way or another.

“So just kind of conjuring, in almost a theatrical sense, this scene of being alone in a city and tying it, you know, to recent events of the pandemic and the images that we've all been witness to,” she said.

Playbook for Solitude

In isolation, many people seek comfort. Curator of Korean Art Sooa McCormick considers how art can heal with one of her selections: a white, round jar from the 1700s.

“There is no decoration, just white. But when you look at it, it's not symmetrically round, it is asymmetrical,” McCormick said.

Moon jar from Korea 1700s

Jar, 1700s, Korea [Cleveland Museum of Art]

The jar’s imperfections may just be its virtue.

“Sometimes when I look at the ceramics in other collections, it's like, ‘Who made this? A human being really made this?’ But this is, truly a human being made this jar,” she said.

The modest jar also has a nickname: Moon Jar.

Like a bright moon guiding travelers, McCormick said she hopes the jar might help people through the current dark and challenging time.

The jar and other selected works are on view in person as well as through the museum’s ArtLens app.

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