He might have been a student under the charm of a museum – which was exactly what, in a foreign town, in the afternoon of life, he would have liked to be free to be. (Henry James, The Ambassadors, Ch. 7)
Chicago was not exactly foreign, given how long I lived there, although it is becoming increasingly so, given how long I have been away. That’s why I spent as much of the weekend as I could stand – museums are exhausting – in the Art Institute of Chicago, reminding myself of what was in it, learning what was new, and more than anything re-reading the story – stories – the museum was telling. I treated myself to several hours of intense reading, where the words were art objects and the pages were galleries. Let’s say. To keep the metaphor going. That's a 1925 print by Picasso, "Reading," not on display.
The primary story is the Chicago version of the conventional story of Western art history, beginning in Italy and northern Europe as the High Middle Ages turn into the Renaissance and painting becomes the prestige form and a series of rapid innovations in materials (e.g., oil paints), technique (e.g., sweet perspective), and subject (e.g., landscape) are launched. Each successive gallery is a new adventure. A secondary form, sculpture, is apparently used to provide obstacles that keep museum-goers alert – careful backing up when looking at a painting – might be a sculpture behind you.
The Chicago collection of early modern art is relatively minor, and getting more so. How sad to see my favorite Rembrandt of theirs be demoted to “Workshop of.” Well, the man ran a good workshop. But the modern collection – the modern French collection – is so good that it shapes the entire story, which becomes not the Whig version of history but the Impressionist version of art history. Everything before is a step toward Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street, Rainy Day and Gallery 201, which is presented by the march of art and the design of the building as an apotheosis.
I have to literally change directions to see what happens next, or I am back in the Middle Ages. Take the correct exit, and I get late Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, the invention of abstract painting in a perfect sequence of Kandinsky paintings, Surrealism and its fragments (sculpture finally becomes a major form), much of this on the magnificent third floor of the new – to me! – Modern wing, full of old favorites surrounded by new company. Abandon hope and descend a floor to see the end of civilization – certainly the end of beauty – in the nightmarish Contemporary galleries. Enormously instructive. And the story – how did we get here – makes sense.
Long ago I was able to visit the Art Institute frequently, and for brief periods. Fifteen minutes. I would look at a single gallery, or a single painting. I visited the exquisite Japanese print gallery every month. I loved the many ways curators pushed against the overreaching story told by the great French collection (e.g., the 18th century weirdness gallery; the 19th century bad taste gallery). I learned to read lots of different stories.
The first texts I read this time, actually, were on the museum door – “A Best Museum in the World,” per TripAdvisor – “The Best Museum in the World” in 2014! Deluded! Ignorant! Hilarious! But moving from the Claude Monet gallery through the Vincent van Gogh gallery to the Paul Cézanne gallery, or standing before the giant wall of Joseph Cornells, a cabinet full of smaller cabinets – yes, “A Best.” I didn’t see anyone struck down by Stendhal’s Syndrome, but the guards are likely on high alert for the symptoms of beauty poisoning.
I propose that once a year – perhaps on income tax day – the curators add to the description of each artwork its estimated value. That’s another story about art. How much is that Monet gallery worth? $500 million? A billion? Last year a grainstack painting sold for over $80 million, and that room has four of those, plus three prime water lilies and so on. And they let me – anyone – come in to stick my nose close and examine the brushwork. Crazy.