Aside from great art, the two qualities most essential to a great gallery are light and space. The Cleveland Museum of Art’s new baroque gallery has lots of all three. An essentially new space carved out of the Cleveland Museum’s original 1916 Benjamin S. Hubbell and W. Dominick Benes Beaux Arts building by architect Rafael Vinoly, it’s immediately one of the best galleries in America.
To enter the gallery you emerge out of the museum’s entrance hall and provide yourself with a theatrical entrance by walking down a small set of stairs. To your left: Caravaggio, Ribera, de La Tour. To your right: Reni, Tintoretto, del Sarto, and a super painting by an unknown Italian. From above, lots of natural light. The space is huge, so large that at one point I felt like I was alone with a Gentileschi Danae, but turned around and counted 31 other people in the space.
It’s hard to believe that a few years ago this was a fuddy ‘garden court,’ complete with brick walls and slightly cheesy potted plants.(The space was so forgettable that I’d, uh, forgotten it.) Today it’s a model of how an art museum can carve out grand new spaces inside its own building and how curators should install art by just hanging paintings and leaving well enough alone. It’s also a perfect example of a museum devoting attention and resources to the installation and display of its permanent collection, of creating its best spaces around the art that means the most to a museum and a city. Museums that are building splashy new capstones for temporary shows, for mostly office-space or for other purposes would do well to take note.
The focus of the gallery is Caravaggio’s late The Crucifixion of St. Andrew, a martyr painting of a missionary who wanted to die on the cross like Christ. From Caravaggio’s realism-as-stage-set radiates dramatic painting after dramatic painting. There’s a Ribera Jerome, in which the penitent saint doesn’t beat his chest with a rock, but instead cradles it. Nearby a ter Brugghen focuses on Jerome the scholar.
At the end of this line of staggering, emotional Baroque paintings, under the covered space shown in the photograph above, is a quiet de la Tour, a thoughtful Peter in which the saint resembles nothing so much as the rooster (his attribute). In fact, Peter and the rooster look so much alike I couldn’t help but wonder if Georges was having a little fun. Incidentally: The art historical assumption is that de la Tour was a Caravaggisti, but no one really knows. His near-exclusion from Cleveland’s wall of Carravaggisti is a clever expression of that uncertainty.
While there are plenty of saints here, there’s action too. Across the gallery Venus Discovering the Dead Adonis, by an unidentified Neapolitan painter is a soap opera, 1650-style. Del Sarto’s unfinished Sacrifice of Isaac connotes action in progress and stopped, but in an unusual way: The action in progress is the unfinished painting; the halt comes in God’s sparing of Abraham’s son. And then there’s the Tintoretto, a Baptism of Christ that quickly brought to mind the centuries of bathers paintings that followed.
More next week.
Related: You can see a panoramic Flash animation of this space (and others) at the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s web site. Also there: Steven Litt stories on the museum’s re-emergence.