No trip to Chicago would be complete for us–or even conceivable–without a visit to the incredible Art Institute of Chicago. It has a wide range of art including impressionist, modern and asian. It is easy to spend an entire day exploring the museum.
The museum is, of course, particularly known for its unparalleled (at least outside of Paris’s Musee d’Orsay) Impressionist collection, with an especially good representation of artists including Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Toulouse-Lautrec. Although it is hard to know where to even start in selecting favorite paintings in this world-class gallery, a few of ours include those by Monet, Renoir, and Cezanne.
But no profile of this gallery would be complete without two particularly iconic works: Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte;” and the honorary Impressionist Gustave Caillebotte’s “Paris Street: Rainy Day.”
Late 19th and Early 20th Century American Art
Speaking of iconic works, two other classic paintings to see are:
- Grant Wood’s “American Gothic;” and
- Edward Hopper’s “The Nighthawks.”
These galleries, however, contain much more than these classics. These include works by artists including John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, James Whistler, and William Merritt Chase. These now also have a section devoted to Georgia O’Keefe, John Marsden, Arthur Dove, and other artists in the so-called “Alfred Stieglitz Circle.”
The museum’s beautifully designed newer Modern Wing has dramatically expanded the exhibit space dedicated to contemporary art showing off its representative selection of European and American modernists. Its European collection is highlighted by its well-represented Cubist collection–especially works by Picasso and Braque.
The museum has some good representations of a number of other leading European modernists, including Chagall, Matisse, Miro, Dali, Magritte, and Giacometti.
The Art Institute’s collection of contemporary American artists is somewhat more limited but still contains some very impressive works. While Warhol, in particular, is well represented, the gallery also provides some good examples of work by artists including de Kooning, Rothko, Pollock, Calder, Twombly, and Jasper Johns.
It also yields a few fun surprises, including Jeff Koon’s fun snorkel in a woman’s bathtub, Claus Oldenburg’s hard and soft light switches, and a number of Cindy Sherman self-photographs.
The wing also has a smaller gallery devoted to modern architecture and design (especially furniture and lighting), with a particular focus on projects intended for or built in Chicago, and on the work of architects and designers who worked in Chicago.
Other “Must” Stops
None of our visits to the Art Institute would be complete without at least some additional quick stops.
The museum’s Oriental galleries (especially Chinese and Japanese).
A walk down into the basement to see the amazingly detailed miniatures of the Thorne Rooms, period-correct representations of centuries of interior design across Europe and America, with brief nods to Japan and China.
And speaking of special stops, two other absolute “musts” for any trip to the Art Institute: The majestic Chagall windows, now displayed in a location that provides the light required to show off their brilliant colors; and the reconstructed trading room of the Chicago Stock Exchange, which Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan designed in 1893.
Special exhibits come and go. Here are some that we have enjoyed.
- Manet and Modern Beauty
- Iconic Photographers
- Connoisseurship of Japanese Prints
- Roy Lichtenstein Retrospective
This special exhibit, developed in conjunction with London’s Tate Modern, provided no subtitle to qualify or explain what you are about to see other than Cezanne. But this 120-piece retrospective covered pretty much everything about the artist. As the largest Cezanne exhibition in the U.S. in more than 25 years, it contains 80 of Cezanne’s oils, 40 of his watercolors and drawings, and two sketchbooks that encompass most of his primary subjects and series.
The exhibit traces the career of this highly disciplined artist. Unlike his Impressionist contemporaries, he could take months to complete a single piece and worked primarily indoors. He composed many of his works not from direct, immediate observation but from sketches and other art, illustrations, magazines, and from his own memory and imagination.
The exhibit is laid out largely in themes rather than chronologically. It explains the life and commitment of the artist as something of an outcast. He was:
- Unable to gain acceptance into art school;
- Unable to gain admission to Paris’s premier Salon exhibitions (except for one painting toward the end of his career);
- Fit only peripherally into the derisively named “Impressionist” fringe of the French art world; and
- Unable to develop a significant market for his works among a public that viewed his work as too avant-garde—at least during his lifetime.
It seemed that only his family and his fellow and future artists appreciated his work. His banker father effectively subsidized his entire career. In fact, virtually every leading Impressionist (especially Monet, Pissarro, and Renoir), Post-Impressionist (especially Vollard), and future genre-creating pioneers (from Picasso and Matisse to Henry Moore and Jasper Johns) were among the largest purchasers of his art. They and numerous others freely, and even proudly admit to having adapted some of Cezanne’s subjects and techniques.
Admired by Other Artists
His painstaking process of breaking objects into simplified geometric forms that he represented as dabs of color and of using precise colors and brushstrokes to capture impressions and feelings helped to make him “the artist’s artist”. Acknowledged masters including Monet, Pissaro, Picasso, and Matisse called him “the greatest of us all”.
His work provided a bridge from the modernists of the 19th century to those of the early 20th and beyond. His contemporaries once banded together to convince a leading art dealer to stage a large show of his work.
Cezanne Breaks The Rules
The exhibit begins with a work that immediately suggests the novelty of his approach to a landscape. While most impressionists favored landscapes, Cezanne’s “Undergrowth” was very different. It focuses on the trees rather than the forest.
It is oriented vertically rather than in traditionally horizontal landscape mode, is painted from the forest floor looking up rather than from a distance or from above, lacks a single point of focus to draw the viewer’s eye, and the subject matter flows off the sides of the canvas rather than being contained within the four corners. Leaves, even those viewed up close, are presented as dabs of paint almost appear to flutter. And while most noted artists of the time worked primarily in Paris (home to most of the dealers and customers), Cezanne spent the bulk of his career at his and his parent’s home of Aix-en-Provence.
Most of the exhibit is organized primarily by subject matter such as portraits of family members, still lifes, landscapes (especially of neighboring Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Bay of Marseilles), local subjects and nudes and bathers as well as a section of watercolors and end-of-life painting. He painted and presented them as a series that allowed endless opportunities for experimentation with color and technique. With them, he worked through ideas on cropping, scale, the use of different colors and brushstrokes, and even by purposely incorporating inconsistencies such as misaligned forms, a combination of flat and deep forms, and the use of illogical angles.
While the results may appear haphazard, most were meticulously planned. He arranged and rearranged items in a still life. He preliminary penciled in design elements that he may or may not end up following. He carefully thought as to where each dab of paint is placed and the depth of color as evidenced by what is claimed to be up to five minutes between the time he picked up a dab of paint on the brush to the time he placed it on the canvas.
So too with some of his still lifes, such as Apples and Oranges (1899)The unusually large assemblage of fully rendered, richly colored fruit is set on a colorfully patterned carpet and complexly folded tablecloth and against patterned drapes. The complex riot of shapes, contrasting angles, and colors required far more work and time than most artists could ever justify for such as prosaic scene.
Although Cezanne crafted numerous traditional landscapes and portraits, his subject matter and techniques were different from those of most other artists. While most contemporaries focused primarily on wealthy, fashionably dressed patrons, Cezanne focused primarily on family members, less affluent locals, and images from other media. Such subjects were less likely to complain about his often idiosyncratic and unflattering representations.
Most of his landscapes were practically in his own backyard where he placed many preferred subjects in the shadow of Mont Sainte-Victoire. Thus he had endless opportunities to experiment with ways to distill nature to its essential forms and textures and to focus on different elements in different paintings, from the mountain itself to the geometry and the color of the rocks to the scenery surrounding the mountain.
As with all his series, paintings of the same subject could appear very differently depending on how he framed and skewed the image and design elements, the details on which he chose to focus, the boldness of his lines and colors, the mix and layering of his pigments, the concentration and length of his brushstrokes, and his choice of refined or ragged brushstrokes.
This is evident in his many representations of Mont Sainte-Victoire and in some cases in a single image, such as his use of colors in his 1885 representation of the Bay of Marseilles Seen from L’Estaque—a picture that he worked on for several months. The blues, for example, range through the layers of deep, concentrated blues of the bay to the light blue zigzags of the sky.
He also used watercolors differently. A number of his colleagues used watercolors primarily to capture quick impressions of images in rapidly changing light conditions that would be more fully rendered in their studios, Cezanne was more likely to see it as an alternative media. Sometimes as alternative representations of the same subject as his oil paintings (although often with more focus on the subject’s geometry and the space than on the figure itself) and sometimes using it for totally different subjects.
By the last decade of the artist’s life, he returned to representations of bathers, in both oil and watercolor, that focused on line, color, and space with details (including faces) becoming superfluous.
The oils, however, were of a much larger scale than his previous works and the settings. Often the bathers were the products of his memory and his imagination than of reality. Much of this later work, regardless of subject, became increasingly abstract and colorful with bolder lines and colors, longer brushstrokes, and larger sections of the empty or sparsely populated canvas.
Although Cezanne was little known and his work little appreciated by dealers or the public, he and his work were widely known and appreciated by his peers and by generations of successors.
Manet and Modern Beauty
The exhibit explained and demonstrated Manet’s admiration, and support and later incorporated some techniques of the Impressionists, while simultaneously focusing his own work on the types of subjects and techniques that would gain acceptance by Paris’s conservative Salon. The exhibition focused on the last decade and a half of the artist’s career. It included a few of his more historically-focused works, portraits of friends and the Parisian elite, and gardens before a shift to a somewhat looser, more casual style and a focus on the city’s café culture. This work culminated in a couple of his most acclaimed works, portraits of the lovely and ultra-fashionable Madame Jule Guillemet. The exhibition ended with a large display from the artist’s later, infirm days when he turned to small-scale paintings of individual flowers from his garden and a lovely image of his then home.
The exhibit displayed some of the most important, impactful, and of course, iconic works of some of the world’s most important photographers including Stand, Bourge-White, and Dorthea Lang (a fascinating retrospective on whose work we caught in Nashville.
Connoisseurship of Japanese Prints
Viewers were invited to compare subtle differences in the color, intensity, and clarity of different images struck from the same woodblock.
Roy Lichtenstein Retrospective
Although Lichtenstein is not one of our favorite artists, we gained a much better appreciation for what he was trying to do, why he was trying to do it, and the broad range of his subjects and styles. We saw his initial efforts at Abstract Expressionism, the invention and evolution of his own Pop style, and his expansion into a number of more experimental modern styles.
The exhibit focused on the origination and evolution of his Pop work, which generally began with “Look Mickey”, and evolved through his signature Ben-Day dots, his reinterpretation of comics, consumer products, and romances.
It traced his forays into war scenes, his reinventing of ancient religious paintings and works by previous-generation artistic masters (from Rembrandt to Picasso), and into his own, unique portrayals of nudes and eventually even Chinese landscapes.
The exhibit included samples of his work in a range of other media, such as his fascinating experimentation with plastic that distorts images in a Rowlux plastic (which conveys the effect of motion and dimension) and a number of sculptural styles.
Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938
This exhibition covered some of Magritte’s most important years, from his time in Paris and subsequent return to his Belgian home. It explained the influence that Freud’s theory of the unconscious had on Magritte and how it prompted him to view traditional objects in such non-traditional ways—to, in the words of the commentary “make the familiar, strange.” It highlighted the roles of recurring images in the artist’s work—motives such as clouds, bells, pipes, biboquets (children’s toys) hats—and a number of his recurring themes and techniques, such as objects transforming into other objects, the misnaming of objects, the presenting of familiar objects in unfamiliar surroundings, the fusing of figures ambiguity, misdirection and his use of compartments. Although his work was presented primarily in paintings and collages, the exhibition also portrayed some of the other media in which he worked, such as advertisements (he began his career in advertising), illustrated books, and magazine covers.
Although the commentary explained some of the influences on Magritte’s view of the world, the evolution of his techniques, and recurrent motives and themes, it refrained from attempting to interpret the artist’s work. Why? Partially because nobody really knows. And partially to preserve the mystery and allow viewers to make their own interpretations—or not.
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