Friday, March 15, 2013

Visiting the Art Institute of Chicago

I took my trusty little digital camera to the Art Institute.  Here are some highlights of what I saw.  These are all my photos.

I entered through Renzo Piano's new modern wing.  I must admit that I'm a sucker for allusions to classical form in modern design, and this building is full of them.

A classical peristyle on the outside of Piano's new modern wing.

The most famous painting in Chicago, La Grande Jatte by that prophet of the pixel, Seurat.

Just like pixels on the screen you are looking at now, Seurat divides the colors into their constituent parts and lets you do the blending in.

I wonder if anyone has ever noticed the small butterfly just behind the woman seated on the right and above the dog.  There is a wry back and forth between stiff (almost robotic) 19th century bourgeois conventional formality and the more spontaneous enjoyment of a pleasant Sunday afternoon by animals, children, and folks from the lower classes on a lawn as perfect as a golf green.

This painting is full of odd details that we hardly notice in reproduction, but really stand out in the original.  One of those is on the right side; what are those 2 reddish wedges peeking out from behind the right edge?

Seurat added his own pixelated frames to many of his pictures including this one to set off the colors with their complements.  Note the red dots bordering the green area and the warm patch bordered with blue dots.  Seurat was fascinated with new developments in color theory from that time, especially Etienne Chevreul's ideas about simultaneous contrast, how colors in proximity affect each other.

Tourists look at Chicago's second most famous painting, Grant Wood's American Gothic.

And here it is.  Supposedly, this is a portrait of Wood's dentist with his  sister, Nan Wood.  The painting shows not a man and his wife, but a farmer determined to defend the virtue of his not very alluring daughter.  I wonder if that's an actual Flemmish frame, or a  replica.  Fifteenth century Flemmish painters, especially Memling, deeply influenced Wood.
I must admit that I've never been very fond of this picture.  It was flanked by 2 very fine pictures by Charles Sheeler that I wish now I had photographed.

Here is DeKooning's great Excavation at home in Chicago where I can photograph it.  I've written about it extensively before.

Chicago is famous for its Impressionist collection.  Here is a generous selection of Monet's haystacks from the 1890s.

Here is a beautiful one.  By the time these were painted, Impressionism as a movement was over.  These used to be interpreted as pure formalism, that the haystacks were nothing more than formal structures upon which to hang nuances of light and color.  Now there is a revisionist interpretation that points to Monet's political conservatism and his loyalty to the Third Republic.  This new interpretation sees French nationalism behind Monet's choice of rural motifs.

A beautiful detail from the haystack painting above showing the color division into primaries and secondaries that would influence so many artists from Seurat to Matisse.

Chicago is home to this magnificent painting by Mary Cassatt. 

To my surprise, Chicago is now home to this work by the 1960s artist Eva Hesse, Hangup.  It is one of my favorites by her.

There is a small gallery in the new modern wing devoted to the work of Gerhard Richter.  I'm not sure what I think of him.  Interesting work though.

Chicago native Ivan Albright from the 1930s is well represented in all his dark morbid fascination.

I've always been fond of this portrait by Degas of his uncle Henri Degas with his daughter Lucie

I've always been intrigued by this version of Degas' Young Spartans.  It looks like an attempt at a finished picture that was abandoned at some point.  It's interesting to compare this with the more famous version in the National Gallery in London.  This enigmatic painting supposedly shows Spartan girls taunting the boys and enticing them to wrestle.  In the painting in London, which Degas revised repeatedly throughout his life and never really finished, the girls and boys are a lot less classical looking and look much more modern, like 19th century street kids.

The big Turner show a few years ago in New York was a big hit with the public and was thoroughly drubbed by all the critics.  I've always loved Turner, and this is one of my favorites.  He pulls out all the stops, even in the title, Val d'Aosta, Snowstorm, Avalanche, and Inundation.

Chicago has this set of 4 marvelous paintings by Goya showing a once famous encounter between a Franciscan monk named Pedro and a notorious bandit called El Maragato.  Alas, my close up photos didn't come out very well.

This is the only one of my photos of each of the 4 Goyas that came out, and it is still a little out of focus.

This is a beautiful and curious unfinished painting by the brilliant and infuriating painter Jacques Louis David.  It is a portrait of one of his former students Adelaide Piscatory who married the first president of the new legislative assembly after the Revolution, Claude Pastoret.  David shows her clad in Revolutionary simplicity sewing baby clothes for her newborn son in a cradle on the lower right.

Here she is in fashionably simple and disheveled dress, a sharp departure from the rigidly elaborate Rococo dress of less than a decade earlier.

Whatever strong opinions we may have about David, he really was a very fine painter, something that we can appreciate even more in an unfinished painting such as this.

The hands in this painting are exceptionally beautiful.

The odd part is the portrait of her child.  He plays only a bit part here, and this is all we see of him.  The lack of emotional connection between mother and child in this painting is striking.

Chicago has some very fine 18th century portraits like this one by Maurice Quentin de la Tour.  I think the depth and subtlety of expression in these portraits, as well as the quality of their execution remains under appreciated.

Here is another remarkable 18th century portrait of an elderly sitter by Etienne Liotard.

Chicago has a magnificent still life by Chardin in a very strange shaped frame that I wonder if it is original to the picture.

And here is Chardin's wonderful self portrait in pastel.

I'm one of the few people I know who genuinely loves Poussin.  Chicago has a fine one, St. John on Patmos, with a fine landscape rich with beautiful details.

Chicago owns a major work by El Greco, the centerpiece of what was once a huge 8 panel altarpiece for the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo.  It shows the Assumption of the Virgin, and is a dramatic variation on Titian's great painting of the same subject which El Greco would have known while he lived in Venice.

A detail of El Greco's painting showing one of many odd details, the angel looking straight at us from under the Virgin's arm on the right.

Another odd detail that shows why the young Picasso was so fond of El Greco.  Not only do we see the strange elongated proportions and vivid emotionalism, but also a lot of weird double takes like the Apostle above who appears at first glance to have 2 heads with one looking out and the other from the back looking in.  There is also the strange inversions of foreground and background and the spatial ambiguities in the sarcophagus and the groups of apostles which Picasso so loved and admired.

Finally a guilty pleasure, Bartolomeo Manfredi's Love Punished, some rough 17th century homoeroticism barely concealed by a fig leaf of allegory.

This painting is rough fun, but it is also beautifully painted as revealed in this detail of the doves flying off at the top right.

This is only a small sample of what is there in the second largest encyclopedic museum in the United States.

I first visited the Art Institute when I was still in Art school sometime around 1979 to 1980.  I traveled to Chicago twice with my painting class from Kansas City.  We set out early in the morning and drove in 3 cars straight through Iowa and northern Illinois to Chicago arriving at night.  My painting prof at the time was a Chicago native Ron Slowinski who took us through the Art Institute and around the town to see the architecture.  I remember one year we visited Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House and then went across the street to the Oriental Institute on the campus of the University of Chicago.  We also visited Wright's home and studio out in Oak Park as well as the Field Museum.
The Art Institute has changed a lot since that time, but it brought back very fond memories of Ron Slowinski and those trips.  I saw a lot of paintings this time that I haven't seen in many years.


it's margaret said...

--and I love the crowd of men looking at the "most famous painting" --it's like they are part of it....

thanks for the tour Doug. This is great.

JCF said...

Random Thoughts---

* How do we (you) know the David picture is unfinished?

* Don't get the Hesse "Hang-Up" at all [Reminds me of the joke where, at the modern art exhibit, a guy offers to purchase the gallery's fire extinguisher off the wall]

* "The big Turner show ... thoroughly drubbed by all the critics." Why? [I swear, Wojnarowicz's little mouse serves a greater purpose than do critics!]

* "I'm one of the few people I know who genuinely loves Poussin." Oh reeeeeeeeally? Must.Not.Make.Bad.Lesbian.Joke! ;-p

* El Greco. Love, love, love, love! [Also, reminds me of my mom, who intro'd him to me.] Kinda fitting, that one of the few Western religious artists I love, is "The Greek". Just can't take the Byzantine out of JCF! ;-)

Thanks so much, Doug. [I know I have visited the AIC, but it was so many years ago, and I think I was just overwhelmed] You really brought it into, um, focus!

Counterlight said...

Well, at least my tastes are more catholic.

Unknown said...

I love the Art Institute of Chicago! And like your study of the La Grande Jatte by Seurat, I can spend hours looking and studying that painting. Pointillism fascinates me. But I absolutely love any paintings by Mary Cassatt! I enjoyed all that I saw at the institute while I was last there, but those two paintings captured my attention the longest (as well as of course the armor collection).

June Butler said...

The Art Institute is one of my favorite museums. Along with its wonderful collection, the museum is manageable and not overwhelming as are the Met, National Gallery, and the other great national museums, where I know I will miss much that I want to see.

I've always thought El Greco's paintings were quite modern and out of their time, and I can well understand Picasso's fondness for his work. I see the influence of El Greco in Picasso's paintings.