Keithley Symposium presents the story behind art at CMA

Morgan McCommon, Contributing Reporter

On Sept. 28, the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) hosted The Keithley Symposium: “Life as an Object: The Thinker as a Prism.” The symposium consisted of three panels of scholars, artists, conservators, and curators as well as a series of concurrent gallery workshops. Case Western Reserve University faculty members held workshops on various works and subjects throughout the museum.

Climo Assistant Professor of Art History Erin Benay and CMA Conservator of Paintings Dean Yoder held a workshop on “The Crucifixion of Saint Andrew” by Caravaggio. They spoke about the life of the painting and how it has experienced multiple lives since its creation. The painting began as an altarpiece in Naples before being shipped to Spain to be used as an easel painting in an aristocratic collection and subsequently finding a resting place in Cleveland.

At one point, the painting was mistakenly believed to depict a different saint, so art historians did not suspect that Caravaggio was the artist. When they later discovered the painting depicted Saint Andrew, art historians realized it was a Caravaggio painting.

During the workshop, the speakers mentioned that an infrared x-ray revealed that Caravaggio would etch little incisions into the ground layer of his paintings to use as an under-drawing. Caravaggio liked to say that he never did any drawings beforehand, and none of his drawings remain in existence. Art historians have no clear understanding of his process, but it is evident from these incisions that he drew the composition directly on the canvas after he painted the ground layer.

With the discovery of the Back-Vega rendition, a debate began over the piece’s authenticity. Most experts generally agree that Caravaggio did not paint the Back-Vega because there is no etching underneath the painting. Additionally, if Caravaggio painted another version, he probably would have made revisions; the Back-Vega copy is too perfect to be a second version done by Caravaggio.

Benay and Andrea Rager, Jesse Hauk Shera Assistant Professor of Art History and Director of Undergraduate Studies, held a workshop on William Morris, a British designer, poet and socialist. His textiles are currently on view in the exhibition entitled “William Morris: Designing an Earthly Paradise.”

Rager spoke about a tapestry entitled “Kennet,” which is named after a section of the River Thames in England. She discussed William Morris’s love of indigo and the floral pattern within the tapestry, explaining that he depicted all sorts of flowers and vegetation that specifically grew near water. The tapestry is meant to symbolize an appreciation of nature due to the oppressiveness of the factories during the Industrial Revolution.

Morris made the tapestry using the process known as block-printing. This is done by completely dying the fabric dark indigo, using a bleach pen to create a white pattern, and then layering color over the white. Morris used natural dyes to create this tapestry, in contrast to the chemical dyes used by other artists of his time.

Overall, the workshops were captivating and eye-opening. There are many great works in CMA, and it is sometimes easy for people to overlook them. Rager and Benay did a wonderful job of giving engaging presentations and allowing audience members to gain insight on the history of these pieces.