Saturday, May 3, 2008
In keeping with our Route 66 theme, I have a less than highbrow goal in visiting the Art Institute of Chicago: I’m here to see that creepy icon of nostalgic Americana known as American Gothic. So I figure hitting the museum an hour before closing will give Steph and me plenty of time. We lose 15 minutes buying our tickets and navigating a vast maze brimming with more classic enticements. No problem. I do what I always do at museums: head straight to my must-see choices first, and don’t deviate until that task is finished.
I’m amused to learn that the artist’s models were his sister and his dentist.
American Gothic is more interesting than I expected. I planned to stand here, tongue firmly planted in cheek, and chuckle to myself while adding one more bit of kitsch to our Route 66 checklist. But in truth, Grant Wood’s painting is a work of real skill. Seeing the actual paint, I find myself appreciating the crease in the old man’s brow, the lock of hair slipping from his spinster daughter’s severe bun, the folds of his sleeve, the cameo at her throat. The description educates me to notice the houseplants arranged in the window behind the daughter as a symbol of her feminine domesticity, and to recognize the father’s pitchfork as a symbol of his masculine role as a worker of the field. I’m amused to learn that the artist’s models were his sister and his dentist.
I still have half an hour to kill, so I decide to check out the works of Van Gogh. Along the way, two paintings I’ve never heard of arrest my attention.
“The Earth as a Man,” by Roberto Matta stops me in my tracks.
In The Earth as a Man, Robero Matta’s vivid colors stir up bursts of inexplicable meaning. Nearby is Salvador Dali’s Visions of Eternity, in which a man with a hole in his center leans over a bridge, dripping bits of himself onto the earth below. The bridge has an arch that could also be interpreted as a hole in its center.
In Salvador Dali’s Visions of Eternity, a man with a hole in his center leans over a bridge, dripping bits of himself onto the earth below.
After that unsettling image, I feel peace settling into me among my favorite artists, the Impressionists. Van Gogh isn’t all tranquility: Vincent’s Bedroom in Arles exudes loneliness. But maybe that’s fitting as we prepare to hit the the road tomorrow. There’s something lonely about traveling American highways, even when you’re not alone.
Vincent’s Bedroom in Arles exudes loneliness.
I’m increasingly soothed as Van Gogh gives way to Renoir and Seurat. In Renoir’s Woman at the Piano, the play of light on the young woman’s dress and the soft features of her face evoke such serenity that I can almost hear her fingertips coaxing wistful music from the keys.
In Renoir’s Woman at the Piano, I can almost hear her fingertips coaxing wistful music from the keys.
Georges Seurat’s masterpiece of pointillism, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, calls up silly memories of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: the wide-eyed stare of a ditching senior standing astonished before this vast canvas of dots.
Ferris Bueller aside, I’ve long wanted to see this painting, and this is no anticlimax. I’m mesmerized. I sit back on a bench to take in the park and its picnickers and strollers. Then I step close and lean in to pick out the individual dots – enough to blow my mind! The artist spent nearly three years dabbing and dabbing and dabbing, to create the illusion of solid forms from some three-million tiny points of color.
The artist spent nearly three years dabbing and dabbing and dabbing, to create the illusion of solid forms.
I can’t pin down any one color, so that the hues all seem to move, yet the resulting figures seem more completely frozen in time than figures in other paintings – suspended, formal, idealized versions of Sunday ease. I’m enchanted by the tiny girl who manages to be the center of attention without boasting a single detail to bring her into focus. She charms with a blur of blue eyes, rosy wonder, and white Sunday-best, stunned in the center of a halted moment.
I’m enchanted by the tiny girl who manages to be the center of attention without boasting a single detail to bring her into focus.
I’m still staring at her when the docent calls out that the museum is closing. But wait, I still haven’t seen the Monets! An hour is not enough. I’ll have to come back tomorrow, even if it means starting down Route 66 later than we planned.
After all, 66 isn’t just a Route, it’s a frame of mind. To me, that frame is the American journey to tomorrow. And I want to start my tomorrow with Monet’s water lilies. Hey, if Jack Kerouac were with us, he probably would’ve been too hung over in the morning to hit the road early anyway.