Posts Tagged ‘Art Institute of Chicago’

Some years ago at the Art Institute of Chicago I was walking towards gallery 240, just behind a woman and two well-dressed, well-behaved children who were about six and eight years old.  The woman might have been their mom or an aunt.  She bent down to them and said, “And now we’re going to look at Pointillism.”

I was immediately upset and wanted to say something to the woman. But I didn’t know what to say and lingered in that gallery hoping I could handle this gracefully.

Next time I’ll just say discretely but firmly, “Don’t say that to a child.”

Or anybody.

When you go to a gallery or art museum allow yourself to be ignorant.  Ok, how about unknowing.

Even if you go twice a month, enter the building with no expectations. Wander around as if you were illiterate and had never heard of any ism in art history. Let your jaw drop and your mind go non-verbal.

This takes practice.  It’s not easy to be…ignorant…unknowing.

Ignorance is the precondition for astonishment.

Please, let’s all be erudite, elegant and articulate.  But not so fast.  Not when we’re six. Or even sixteen.  Or however old you are when you start looking at art.  You should be allowed, or allow yourself, to look and react with your gut feeling.  Ooh, ahh, yukk, eech, meh, whatever.

But you keep going back and keep looking.  You will inevitably learn a few things about art history. But what’s most fascinating is that you learn something about yourself:  how you react, how you see, how you think and feel.

I pulled the above photo from the internet.  I love it because it shows people really looking.  Whether they’re seeing this for the first time or coming back every week to study Seurat’s technique, they are astonished.

There’s a lot of self-knowledge in the capacity to be astonished.

Georges Seurat, 1859-1891

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,  painted 1884–1886


All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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You won’t learn anything about existentialism in this post, existentialism being the de rigueur ism to bring up when you need to sound smart in a conversation about modern art.

Instead of being smart, let’s play a game.  Let’s imagine you stumbled upon an exhibit at, say, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, where the paintings of Lionel Feininger (1871-1956) and Edward Hopper (1882-1967) were shown side by side. (That’s a game good museums actually like to play, which is what makes them so exiting to go to.  At the Art Institute of Chicago, for example, paintings are moved around frequently so that you can see a familiar painting next to new neighbors and therefore gain new insights without anyone lecturing you about anything.)


Feininger was a prolific artist, who early in his career worked figuratively, even as a caricaturist and cartoonist,  and later tended to work with linear forms in his compositions.  In the 1920’s, when Hopper was visiting Europe, Feininger was teaching at the Bauhaus, first in Weimar and then in Dessau.  There’s no chance that they met, given Hopper’s disinterest in modern art.

No matter.  They were contemporaries, working with architectural forms in their paintings. It’s only fair to put them side by side.

The first thing you notice is the figure in the Hopper painting.  Now try to imagine the painting without the figure.


It doesn’t hold your attention, does it?

Look at some Feininger compositions.  Do they need a human figure to grab you?  No. These compositions are engaging and absorbing as they are.


Hopper seems to be primarily interested in geometrical patterns, but because what he comes up with is flat, hard-edged and obvious, he adds a figure to focus your attention.  The figure inevitably looks isolated and alienated, which makes for a facile match with existentialist jargon.

new-york-office copy


All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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Film noir is defined as “a style or genre of cinematographic film marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace.”

The central characters in film noir are often gangsters, detectives and a femme fatale.

Hopper’s paintings are also characterized by “a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace.”

Nighthawks, 1942, is his most famous painting.  (The Art Institute of Chicago snatched it up as soon as its paint was dry and it is, along with Grant Wood’s American Gothic, one of the reasons people go to the AI.)

It’s not a Norman Rockwell family scene, is it?  Two guys in fedoras and a skinny redhead in a red dress, smokin’ and drinkin’ coffee way past midnight.  What kind of characters are these?  A gangster, a gum shoe and a dame?  Sounds about right to me.

Film noir drew them in from the late 20’ to the 50’s.  The look of the genre became stylized and predictable. When any art is worked out according to a formula, it can only crank out material for so long before it invites satire and parody.

As does Hopper:





Ten years after Nighthawk, Edward Hopper was still working with his wooden, predictable formula.  Here’s Morning Sun from 1952 and a parody I gleaned from the internet.






All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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Oh, trees!

If you’re a Mondrian-lover you stand in front of one of his paintings, like the one above, and exclaim, “I just love the way he painted trees!”  Right?

You have a friend who doesn’t understand Mondrian, so you volunteer to give her a tour of the moderns at the Art Institute of Chicago or the MoMa.  You position yourselves in front of the Mondrians, and you learnedly explain that here we have the essence of tree-ness.  Right?

Mondrian was painting simplified trees.  Right?

Mondrian drew diagrams of trees. Right?

Abstract trees. Right?

Oh, please!

No one has ever looked at a Mondrian and seen trees. Right?


Then why do we constantly get the evolution of his paintings—The Mondrians—from trees.



[The] process of simplification and reduction would continue until he wasn’t even painting from nature at all.

The rise of Cubism also gave Mondrian a means to segment and reduce objects to their most basic forms.


Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) lived in Paris when he was in his early 40’s.  There he met Braque and other Cubists.

To interpret Cubism as “reducing objects to their most basic forms”  is as blatantly ridiculous as the other cliché about cubism, namely that a cubist painting shows us an object from all four sides.  I’ll post just one example here, Picasso’s “Portrait of D.H. Kahnweiler,” 1910. Have a good look. You are seeing Mr. Kahnweiler’s “basic forms” and you’re seeing him from all “four sides.” Correct?




Cubism is so scary to think about that people, even otherwise intelligent people, repeat these absurdities about “basic forms” and “four sides.”  You’ll find this sort of thing not only on internet pages but, with more academic circumlocutions, in serious publications. The Cubists—Picasso and Braque–are scary to think about because they made a clean break with the past.  Naughty, naughty. Thou shalt honor thy father and mother…  The only father the Cubists honored was Cézanne and he, in Robert Hughes’ words, painted DOUBT.

Let’s see now, we don’t have any commandments honoring doubt.

In 1910, art that threw out all previous assumptions was difficult to take.  Still is.  But doubt is so much more invigorating than having answers without first having questions.  Medieval certainties and Renaissance illustrations of mythological characters are not invigorating, are they?!

The Cubists—and they didn’t call themselves that—came up with something new.  The painting is now not an illustration but a work in its own right.

You must be kidding?  In its own right?  The audacity!

That’s right.  Audacity.

So, are Mondrian’s paintings abstractions or essences or diagrams of trees?  No.  They are something completely new.  They stand in their own right as objects.  Something to contemplate.

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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This is a good time to visit the Art Institute of Chicago because you won’t have to even glance at Renoir’s “Woman at the Piano” as you pass through the Impressionist Gallery just off the staircase.  Lifeless, insipid.  Notice the pink hands on the piano keys, no energy there at all.  They look wilted and dead, like something shredded and overcooked. Flounder?  Flop, drip, melt.  I can’t relate to this tired image at all, except to learn from it’s failure.

I’ve made an effort to see it as a plea on Renoir’s part to let women out of the house once in a while—it was painted in 1875, when respectable women, the kind who would have a piano in the house, were actually encouraged to stay inside as much as possible and if they had to leave, to take a parasol as protection against the sun, that awful bright daylight.

This is the first post on the topic of taking time to look at art you don’t like, first mentioned in post 2.23.13.

Next, I’ll flip this boring and bored woman left-right in the hope of finding something there.

This painting in now on loan at the Met for the exhibit “Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity,” which will be there til May 27.   http://www.metmuseum.org/en/exhibitions/listings/2013/impressionism-fashion-modernity

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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