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The Art Institute of Chicago

November 20, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

This is the fourth post in my account of our recent visit to Chicago. In it, I describe our visit to the Art Institute of Chicago last Sunday afternoon.

Georges Seurat, Art Institute of Chicago

Georges Seurat, Art Institute of Chicago

Sunday was our last day in the Loop and downtown Chicago, before heading out to O’Hare in the late afternoon to stay over at the O’Hare Hilton for dinner at Andiamo that evening and a meeting the next day. After breakfast in the Fairmont Chicago’s gold floors lounge, we packed up, checked out, and headed out at about noon to walk over to The Art Institute of Chicago.

The Art Institute is one of my favorite museums in the world, and we hadn’t been there in eight years, not since one of our family baseball trips, this one to Milwaukee to see the Brewers play in County Stadium in its final year and then down to Chicago to see the White Sox in Comiskey Park, or whatever telecommunications company name it had at the time. The Institute sits in Grant Park facing Michigan Avenue, with Adams Street running right into the steps of its grand entrance. One wing is to the front, or west. Another lies to the east, on the other side of the railroad tracks, with a massive bridge crossing the tracks. The bridge is itself an exhibition space, now being readied for a permanent installation of Asian art. As we walked south through Millennium Park towards the museum, its new, nearly completed Modern Wing rose to the north. It sits on the east side of the railroad tracks, just north of the old eastern wing. An elegant bridge rises southwards from Millennium Park, crosses Monroe Street, and in its current state abuts against the south side of the Modern Wing, with no clear way in. But according to the on-site description of the new wing, the bridge will land in the new sculpture garden, beckoning Millennium Park strollers over the bridge, into the sculpture garden, and from there into the museum. Many thousands of new visitors, it was suggested, would find their way into the museum this way.

In any case, the bridge (to nowhere, for now) wasn’t open yet, so we crossed Monroe Street and wound our way around the side of the main building to its entrance at Michigan. Once in and unburdened of our coats (it was in the low 30s and a little breezy outside), we took the clearest path to art, the stairway to the basement, stumbling on one of the temporary exhibits, Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Art and Photography of Paris. Once we adjusted to the over-heated space — it must have been close to 80 degrees — we quite enjoyed the show. As explained on-line:

To celebrate the centenary of the birth of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the Art Institute will present, for the first time, a comparison of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs to the modern drawings, etchings, and paintings of his contemporaries—works that would otherwise be in storage in preparation for their installation in the Modern Wing. …

[T]his exhibition provides a rare glimpse into the early stages of Cartier-Bresson’s career. Work by his painting instructor André Lhote parallels Cartier-Bresson’s early photographs, as does that of Salvador Dalí. Also included will be work by Giorgio de Chirico, Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian, and Pablo Picasso that relates to photographs by Brassaï, André Kertész, and other photographers active in Paris between the World Wars.

Some of the juxtapositions were fascinating. I wish I took notes so I could describe a few of these — a painting or sketch with a figure placed just so and, next to it, a photograph from the same year or a year later with the very same placement. (Go to the link above and you’ll see one example of such a juxtaposition.)

Next down the hall was another photography exhibit, Of National Interest: Photographs from the Collection. This was an unexpected pleasure, a fabulous show, featuring just a few artists, eight or so, and a handful of photographs by each depicting a particular country at a particular time, ranging from the Civil War US military and post-Crimean War French military to Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s and contemporary India. Here’s the on-line description:

Whether commissioned by others or individually inspired, photographers have consistently been interested in documenting political and social subjects that bolster, record, or even critique a nation’s identity. Commissioned by Napoleon III, Gustave Le Gray photographed French military exercises in order to boost pride in the government’s defenses, whereas August Sander, under his own impetus, set out to catalog a cross section of German society. Robert Frank took a critical perspective in The Americans, which presented life in the United States as conformist, shallow, and divided. These and other projects, aiming to picture and thereby understand a nation, have inspired this exhibition, which is drawn entirely from the museum’s collection.

Here’s one photo from the exhibit, Gustave Le Gray’s Preparation of the Emperor’s Table, Camp de Châlons, 1857.

Gustave Gray, Art Institute of Chicago

Gustave Le Gray, Art Institute of Chicago

On the other side of the Bresson exhibit was a very small exhibit, Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago, part of a rotating series celebrating the 100th anniversary of that plan. Especially interesting was an immense drawing of a street plan for Chicago, with parks running along the lake. The drawing must have been almost 20 feet wide. Read more at the website.

Then we headed two floors up the Grand Staircase to the second floor, home of the permanent installation of European Painting and Sculpture. The gallery rooms wrap clockwise around the Grand Staircase, starting just north of the west side with early northern European paintings of the Crucifixion, the Annunciation, and so on. Signs warn that because of the construction of the New Wing and renovation of other spaces, the display includes only a handful of Impressionist paintings. In other words, if you’re here to see the Monets, wait ’til next year. We were perfectly happy to stop in the mid 1800s, and were in fact surprised to discover that we didn’t have to stop there. In the penultimate gallery room, there actually was a Monet, and in the hallway some works by Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, and the rest of the crowd. And then, in the final gallery room — how could they take this off display? — was everyone’s favorite, Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte. There were, of course, many many treasures before this. I won’t even try to describe them. If you haven’t seen their permanent collection, you simply must. And if you want an idea of what you’ve missed, you can go to the on-line catalogue of 1235 objects. Two examples: Sandro Botticelli’s Virgin and Child with an Angel

Sandro Botticelli, Art Institute of Chicago

Sandro Botticelli, Art Institute of Chicago

and El Greco’s The Assumption of the Virgin. (In an earlier room, one wall had four magnificent El Greco’s side by side.)

El Greco, Art Institute of Chicago

El Greco, Art Institute of Chicago

Time for lunch. We headed over the railroad tracks to the east wing and down to the cafe. Interesting place, but maybe not sufficiently interesting to write about, so I’ll move on. We left it around 3:00 and went to the American collection, which is housed in the east wing. One has a choice on entering it: a half stairway down to the early years or a half stairway up to the later years. We were nearing our time limit and could visit only one. We went up, entering the America of the late 1800s and ultimately ending in the 1940s.

The American collection has its own share of treasures, which I couldn’t begin to describe, and a handy on-line catalogue of 911 works that you can explore at your leisure. Or view 50 featured works, ranging from Mary Cassatt’s The Child’s Bath of 1893

Mary Cassatt, Art Institute of Chicago

Mary Cassatt, Art Institute of Chicago

to Georgia O’Keeffe’s Black Cross, New Mexico of 1929,

Georgia O'Keeffe, Art Institute of Chicago

Georgia O'Keeffe, Art Institute of Chicago

as well as Homer and Sargent and Whistler and Albright and the two icons of the collection, Grant Wood’s American Gothic and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. These last two draw in the crowds, Mona Lisa style, with people surrounding them and taking photos. I should add, regarding Georgia O’Keeffe, that the museum has a large collection of her work. She had studied there in the early 1900s. After the death of her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, she donated part of his collection to the museum, and continued to make gifts through the rest of her life. (Seeing her work at the Art Institute was partial compensation for our incompetence last April, when we showed up at Santa Fe’s Georgia O’Keeffe Museum on our last morning in town, only to find that it was closed that day. We had plenty of time to see it two afternoons earlier, on our arrival, but were unaware of the urgency.)

That was it. Time to go. The sun was out on our stroll south at noon, but now it was cloudy, windy, cold, with a hint of snow in the air. We walked back to the Fairmont Chicago, re-claimed our bags, and took a taxi to O’Hare. By the time we got to our room on the top floor of the O’Hare Hilton, with a magnificent view of the parking garage and the end portions of United’s Terminals B and C, snow had begun to fall. But no matter. For the last 24 hours of our trip, we would not need to go outside.

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