Chicago museum stirs memories. Art Institute makes changes, but its masterpieces remain

THE first time I saw Seurat's ``Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte'' at the Art Institute of Chicago, actor Charles Laughton was blocking a considerable portion of it, and I had to wait a good five minutes before he moved on and I could see it in its entirety. That was in 1942, and I was in the Windy City on the first of several annual visits to its major art museum. I remember the occasion very clearly, for it not only provided me with my first glimpse of a real, live movie star, but also introduced me to a number of works (including Picasso's ``The Old Guitarist''), that made modern art, for the first time, truly alive and real for me.

I was reminded of that day recently as I climbed the Institute's grand staircase, entered its newly renovated galleries of European art, and caught sight of Seurat's masterpiece framed by the doorway of a distant room. It looked as impressive as ever, as indeed did El Greco's great altarpiece ``The Assumption of the Virgin,'' which had always filled me with awe as a teen-ager, and which now dominated a large wall at the opposite end of the galleries.

It was very much like coming home, but to a more attractive and inviting home than the one I remembered. And several hours spent roaming around the museum's 31 renovated and just reopened galleries only reinforced that original impression.

For one thing, there is better light, thanks to a newly devised system of blending natural light, entering through the skylight, with carefully controlled artificial light when the occasion demands it. This not only makes each room appear more open and spacious; it also unifies the entire suite of galleries as never before.

In addition, these larger spaces are now flanked by a continuous, artificially lit corridor gallery in which works on paper - prints, drawings, watercolors, etc. - that relate to the paintings and sculptures in the galleries next to them, can be viewed. Thus, pastels by the Impressionists can be referred to while studying that movement's oils, or northern European graphic works can be examined immediately before or after viewing the paintings of early Dutch or Germany masters.

Of particular interest to students and art professionals is the Institute's new study-storage gallery, which has facilities for viewing art either in the original (there are racks for roughly 200 paintings), or by means of slides or film. This room is accessible by appointment.

What matters most, of course, is the art, and it, quite simply, looks superb in its new quarters. It's a distinct pleasure to walk through these renovated galleries and to see old favorites looking so fresh, and newcomers (especially Dierick Bouts's important 1460 panel ``Mater Dolorosa'') fitting in so beautifully.

There's no getting around it, the Institute has an outstanding collection, and this new installation will only make it more attractive and accessible than ever to the public.

This is especially true of the 13 new Pritzker Galleries, which house the museum's truly knockout collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works. Seurat's masterpiece may dominate here, but it is by no means the only major late-19th-century painting on view. Everyone from Monet, Manet, Renoir, and Pissarro to Lautrec, Van Gogh, C'ezanne, and Gauguin is included - often by first-rate examples - and Caillebotte's superb ``Rainy Day in Paris'' beautifully holds its own in plain sight of Seurat's mammoth canvas.

The new European Galleries, however, represent only a portion of the Institute's renovation program. The grand staircase and entrance area have already been restored to bring them into greater harmony with the rest of the interior of the museum's 1893 building. And construction is well underway for the Institute's nearly 68,000-square-foot South Building, which will house its collections of American arts, European decorative arts and sculpture, and 20th-century American art through 1960. It is scheduled to open in the fall of 1988.

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