Thursday, January 16, 2014

Chicago's Art Institute - Eating Egyptians at Christmas

As I have mentioned before, I am in retail. The Christmas season is my most hectic time of the year. So, when I found myself with a weekday off in late November with nothing pressing to accomplish I took the bus to the Art Institute to catch several exhibitions that would not be up after the holidays.

Sometimes special exhibitions seem to grasp at straws for a connecting thread to tie seemingly random pieces together. "Art and Appetite" was one of these. It is billed as a celebration of American art involving food, a rather broad and general theme. Despite this the modest exhibition's 100 items on display were well curated and easy to go through.

It opened with Norman Rockwell's "Freedom From Want", the iconic portrait of a multigenerational family about to enjoy a holiday feast. A Lichtenstein dot painting of a turkey, from a private collection,  provided a  modern and amusing counterpoint to the more traditional Rockwell work in the opening gallery. I always enjoy viewing pieces that are held in private collections as to see them can be a truly "once in a lifetime" opportunity.

Throughout the rest of the exhibition the pieces are set up in chronological order beginning with the 18th century and culminating with pop art. The final gallery included works by modern masters Andy Warhol and Claus Oldenburg.

The 18th century is represented by still lifes of food by James and his nephew Raphaelle Peale mixed with showcases of serving pieces from the same period culled from the Art Institutes vast holdings. Period pieces were utilized throughout the exhibition as sidebars to the artwork on display.

The next area focused on the Antebellum era. Here a large carved wood sideboard was on display amid the paintings. A rising middle class provided more demand for art and finer goods and the dining room became an important part of American homes.  Again, still lifes dominate the art. One piece by Severia Roesen, on loan from the Brooklyn Museum, of various fruits set among draped bunches of grapes created an especially lush tableau.

An unusual Sargent depicting a dining room after a midday meal; I am more accustomed to his work as a portrait artist; shared space with 2 William Merritt Chase works featuring fish, gutted, scaled and ready to fillet. The stark realism of the Chase works created an interesting juxtaposition with Sargent's soft impressionist eye.

The area focused on the 30's and 40's was anchored by Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks", returned to it's Art Institute home after, once again, being lent out to another institution. It is among my favorite works of art in the museum's holdings. It is interesting however, for an exhibition centering on works about food, that even though the painting is set in a diner, there is no food depicted in it. This omission was something I had not noticed until I overheard a mother pointing this out to her two young children as they moved through the exhibition.

The final gallery focused on Pop Art. It included one of Andy Warhol's iconic soup can paintings, an obvious choice for a celebration of American art involving food. Displayed on the floor is one of Oldenburg's trademark soft sculptures depicting an oversized fried egg. Unfortunately the white fabric surrounding the yolk has somewhat yellowed with age.

There were two other areas I visited on this trip. One, "When the Greeks Ruled Egypt" focused on the 300 years, between 332 and 30 B.C., of Egyptian occupation by the Greeks. It seemed to be an excuse to show some of the Art Institute's ancient Egyptian holdings as some of the pieces on view pre or post date this period. Several of the artifacts were on loan from Chicago's Oriental Institute's extensive collection.

My last destination was a new addition to the museum. In a gallery of it's own, necessary for it's size and appropriate for it's importance, is an 18th century Neapolitan creche, one of the few outside Naples. Due to it's fragile nature it will be displayed for only 5 weeks each year during the Christmas season. Collectors and the art world became interested in this rare art form after the creche at the Royal Palace of Caserta was destroyed by bombing during the second world war. There are 200 figures in the tableau, many, remarkably due to their age, retaining their original silk costumes. As angels fly overhead the holy family is shown in the center of the piece, attended by the three Magi. On one side are the shepards and their flocks, on the other is, oddly, as I don't remember this being mentioned in the gospels, a tavern scene. This is apparently traditional in these tableaus. The influence of the cultural and ethnic mix of Naples during this period is evidenced by the varied races and nationalities represented. The Magi and their servants range from African to Middle Eastern to European. Two figures in the foreground are wearing wooden clogs, typical of The Netherlands. The piece is so detailed it is difficult to fully appreciate in one's first viewing. I look forward to making a visit to it a part of my holiday tradition, making new discoveries from year to year. 

1 comment:

  1. I recall a teacher talking about the lack of food in Nighthawks when I visited on a school field trip. He said the lack of food is what gave the painting its feel of loneliness. If they were eating it would would make their presence in the dinner transaction or even communal. Without food it is just people seeking the protection of the only spot of light in an otherwise dark night.

    Not sure whether that is all true but it made sense to me...and I have remembered it since the 6th grade