Chicago's Art Institute Turns an Anniversary Into a Reassessment

An exhibition turns a spotlight back on the museum's own colorful history.

FROM out of an endless black passage, hovering in shimmering silver brilliance, strollers on a warm Sunday linger by a lake in a park's shady green verdure and gaze at pure water and light.

``A Sunday on La Grande Jatte'' is the cynosure for ``Chicago's Dream, A World's Treasure: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1893-1993,'' an exhibition that marks the move by the museum into its stolid, Beaux-Arts building on Michigan Avenue 100 years ago.

As the title of the exhibition suggests, the institute's display of 350 of its most significant works is an act of self-congratulation. But it is also an opportunity for self-examination. ``Chicago's Dream'' reviews how the museum has collected and displayed its works since 1893, and it shows how one of America's most important museums has refined its tastes and those of its patrons.

``The museum is an active participant with the viewer in discussing, displaying, and understanding the works of art,'' says Teri Edelstein, deputy director of the Art Institute and organizer of the exhibit.

The ``Palace on the Prairie,'' as the museum has been called, was built alongside the din and coal-smoke pall of an Illinois Central freight yard, a begrimed cultural pearl at the city's core. It included a backward-looking school and staid venue for plaster casts of ancient sculpture. ``Chicago's Dream'' illustrates how the Art Institute evolved in this century from a tradition-bound center for the imitation of classical works to a forward-looking museum.

In its early years, the identity of the museum was closely tied to the flamboyance and boldness of its donors. None were more lavish and extravagant than Bertha Honore Palmer, Chicago's glittering turn-of-the-century socialite.

With the help of her friend, the artist Mary Cassatt, Mrs. Palmer began in 1898 to collect the works of Pierre Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and other Impressionists.

The exhibition features many of these works in a room painted a dark shade of pink that matches the color of the velvet walls in the Paris gallery of Paul Durand-Ruel, the art dealer who sold many of the paintings to Palmer.

After returning to Chicago, Palmer showed off her acquisitions in a room in her home painted the same color.

Palmer's bequest of 52 paintings to the Art Institute in 1922 includes nine of Monet's ``grainstack'' series. Among the paintings on display in the ``Chicago's Dream'' exhibition, the pink walls most vividly draw out the shades of red in four of the grainstack paintings and accentuate the flesh tones and small flower bursts in ``On the Stage,'' the pastel by Degas.

Georges Seurat's definitive masterpiece of Pointillism, ``A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,'' was donated in 1926 by Frederic Clay Bartlett. The story of how the painting actually came into the museum's collection is a tale of curatorial courage.

The painting is the best-known of the Art Institute's holdings (there is even an archival photograph in the commemorative booklet showing actor Charles Laughton admiring the painting in 1935), although in the '20s the artist was not popular in Europe nor understood in the United States.

Robert Harshe, the director of the museum at the time, had to implore the trustees to accept the giant mural-like painting.

``The arrival of `Grand Jatte' was like throwing a rock in the pond. It was such a bold gesture, such a revolutionary work of art,'' Ms. Edelstein says.

``If you were to pick one picture in this museum that we are most known for, if you were to pick one work of art that really almost represents the city of Chicago and our importance as a cultural center, it would be this,'' she adds.

Architect Stanley Tigerman, the designer of the exhibit, has brightly lit ``La Grand Jatte'' in a pitch-black, semi-circular gallery that allows visitors to view the painting from all angles.

Another risky move, this time initiated by the museum itself, was the decision in 1913 to host the ``Armory Show,'' which featured avant-garde works by Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and Georges Braque.

The Armory Show was displayed out of a sense of obligation to expose Chicagoans to the newest ventures in art. But it came to be viewed as a bold exhibition that demonstrated an openness on the part of Chicago and the two other cities that also hosted it - New York and Boston.

For the current exhibition, the museum has taken a page out of the Armory Show by hanging together (on a pea-green wall) such works as Andre Derain's ``Forest at Martigues'' and many other works, just as they were displayed 80 years ago.

After the resounding popular success of ``La Grand Jatte,'' institute directors approached their work differently. They began to take a more active role in bringing art to public notice, and the museum gradually began to take on prominence in the art world.

Most notably, Daniel Catton Rich, director from 1938 until 1958, formed a long association with Georgia O'Keeffe and organized in 1943 the first major museum exhibition of her work.

``Chicago's Dream'' features some of the paintings from that exhibition, including the stark ``Cow's Skull with Calico Roses.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.