Friday, May 2, 2014

Afternoon Delight - Part one - The Art Institute

I had just worked a long, grueling stretch of days. With a day off and being caught up with chores and errands I decided I had earned some "me time". The Art Institute had just installed three new exhibits. Two I was interested in, the third not so much. Also the historic Macy's, nee Marshall Field, store on State Street, just a few blocks from the museum, was hosting it's annual spring flower show. I donned a new sweater I had not had the opportunity to wear yet. I had bought it on impulse. It had been marked down repeatedly and a special, generous employee discount had been added making it remarkably affordable. I made a present of one to my partner as well, albeit in a different color. It was the perfect weight for the cool, early spring day.

The late morning bus traffic seemed exceptionally heavy. One of the few remaining seats was a bench running sideways to the one which runs along the rear of the bus. The back bench is raised slightly above the level of the other seats to accommodate the buses engine, an integral part of the vehicle. On this day it was populated by a line of exceptionally tall people exacerbating my somewhat Lilliputian dimensions as I perched on my seat near them. We whizzed by lakefront parkland. My mind wandered as I thought of the bike rides I hoped to enjoy there in the coming months as the weather warmed. Our country's economic woes were evidenced by the number of large empty storefronts along Chicago's renown Michigan Avenue. Once hailed as one of the nations premier shopping destinations it's high end stores are now clogged with tourists from surrounding states visiting every one of the venues yet ultimately purchasing nothing.

I got off the bus and peered across the street at my "safe zone", my Xanadu, the classical facade of the Chicago Art Institute, one of the world's greatest repositories of art, historic furnishings and historical and artistic artifacts. I have spent many hours over the course of my life in Chicago exploring the corridors , galleries and hidden corners of this artistic treasure trove. I have my favorite spots which I visit and revisit, each time I seem to regain a portion of my soul, each time I experience something different and new.

I did not have a great interest in seeing the current exhibition, a retrospect of the contemporary, abstract artist Christopher Wool. As I moved through the galleries looking at the large scale paintings I found his work, like that of a number of his contemporaries, callus and cynical. Many pieces were black and white, some mere squiggles of paint on a bare white background resembling a building side tagged by vandals. Some graffiti does rise to the level of art, this did not. One canvas had the word FOOL  stenciled on it. The curators called it a melancholy self portrait. It seemed to me to be a comment on those who would spend grotesque amounts of money on these works. Many of the paintings are untitled. Perhaps Mr. Wool was laughing too hard as he attempted to pull his name over our eyes to come up with one.

Next on my agenda was a visit to a Renoir, a permanent piece of the museum's massive collection of Impressionist artworks. During a recent conservation project they discovered, upon removing the frame, remnants of bright red pigment that had been completely shielded from light. Further research revealed that the background of the portrait had been much more vivid than the muted shade which appears today. Apparently Renoir had used a pigment that was unstable and faded easily, not uncommon with red tones. A digital recreation of the portrait as it looked when it was new reveals a crisper image of the subject compared to the works present day state. The back of the painting is visible providing a rare view of the work's history. During previous conservation work in 1939 the canvas was mounted on a hardboard panel. After this work the original stretcher was reused but, somehow, reinstalled upside down. There is a paper label on the back identifying the work and artist. The canvas merchant's stamp is also visible on the stretcher. One can imagine Renoir visiting the merchant, selecting the right size canvas for the work. X ray images reveal the changes Renoir made as his work on the painting progressed.

This exhibit shares a gallery with 2 Degas', including one of my favorites by the artist "The Milliner's Shop", also in the museums permanent collection. The character of the figure in the painting has always been questioned. She appears to be holing pins in her mouth, suggesting that she is a shopgirl, yet the richness of her costume, her kid gloves and fur color, seem to belie this humble profession.   X rays reveal that originally the figure was unmistakably a customer before Degas gave her the more ambiguous nature seen in the finished work.

Across from the Oriental collection is a warren of galleries which are devoted to works on paper. These are rotated due to the fragile nature of the artworks displayed. Sometimes the exhibitions are from the Institutes's permanent collection, some are borrowed, some are still in private hands but promised to the museum. A collector recently donated hundreds of works on paper, one of the largest bequests in the Institutes's history. A portion of these new acquisitions were on view. The collection of works was astonishing. The exhibition opened with a water color by Mondrian of the Amsterdam skyline. It is always interesting to see his more realistic work which preceded the abstract geometric style he adopted later and is primarily known for. There are drawings by Picasso and Matisse. A chalk portrait by Modigliani features his trademark representation of the sitter with an elongated face. Further on one encounters a whimsical Tischbein watercolor depicting 3 beavers building a dam entitled "Three Beavers Building A Dam".

The unclothed human form is in abundance in this exhibition. There is a Romney illustration of a scene from the first act of "Twelfth Night". It indicates, judging from the well muscled forms of the nude men depicted, that gym rats and protein supplements existed as far back as the work's date of 1776. One wall consists of nudes by Klimt, Renoir and Degas. There is a spellbinding male nude by Cezanne which depicts the innocent beauty of youth in a strangely sad, haunting manner.

Landscapes by John Constable and Gainsborough share one wall. Gainsborough's work, a humble pencil sketch, shows the remarkable attention to detail evidenced in his more well known portraits. The viewer can imagine the water rippling and the leaves of the trees rustling in the breeze.

Chalk haystacks by Monet add to the appreciation of the Haystack series housed in the Institutes's Impressionist galleries.

I left the museum enroute to Macy's where I hoped to "stop and smell the roses".

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