Mar 15, 2013

Spring Break in Chicago - Day 1

The first stop for my spring break is Chicago. On a gloomy and overcast morning, I arrived at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was 10:40, ten minutes after the museum opened, and a crowd of people was already waiting in line. I intentionally picked a weekday to visit, hoping that I would not encounter a flood of people. On second thought, people coming here are all art-lovers and what could be better than sharing masterpieces with these people?
            After twenty-minutes wait, I entered the museum and walked right up to find Picasso's works and get ready to be enlightened. I first entered Gallery 246, Picasso and Cézanne. This exhibition is part of the nine special installations around the museum that explore sources of inspiration for Picasso and works by those he inspires. Luckily, I ran into a group of students who were having an Art History class. They settled at a corner, around the professor and in front of the famous painting: Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair. I sat near them and "audited" the lecture with delight.
            The teacher, an elegant lady in a neutral-color outfit, started the lecture by asking the students' understanding of the Madame Cézanne painting. The students provided various answers and finally approached an answer that lies at the heart of Cubism painting – multiple perspectives. The teacher said that Cubism, rather than being awkward, accords with the way human perceive the world. When looking at an object in detail, people keep changing focusing point so that they can best understand the object. Similarly, Cubists create images from different directions and present several aspects of a subject all at once. Cubism paintings puzzle viewers because of the media limit. From the traditional western painting theory, a good painting should represent the subject as realistic as possible; therefore it provides a one-perspective angle in order to make sense of the space. The Cubism, seeking to represent the real experience of the viewer, breaks down the subject to different components and deal with them separately. This expression fails to make sense of the space when presenting on paper – a flat medium. 
One cannot be too conscience, too sincere, or too submissive to nature. ---House on a River
At noon, I went to the Modern Wing to attend a public talk. The lady who gave the talk had a deep understanding of Picasso's works as well as other contemporary art. She led the listeners, a group of twenty people, to the third floor where some masterpieces from the Philadelphia Museum of Art were located. She first gave a brief introduction of Cubism.
The main subject matters of Cubism are ordinary subjects such as portraits, still lives and landscapes. It was developed after the Rose Period of Picasso, and contradicts with Impressionism which mostly used pleasing colors. Cubists believe that art cannot only be beautiful, and therefore their works challenge the traditional aesthetic. We started from the emblematic Self-Portrait with Palette, a painting by the French artist Édouard Manet. This painting resembles Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906) done by Picasso in the same year. This painting suggests the nature of Picasso’s work by showing a mixture of the subject and the background. There is no glorifying of human. Instead, human recedes to the background and makes patterns more important.
Then we moved on to Guitar and Glass, a painting by Juan Gris. Gris teraveled to Paris in 1906, and soon moved to the neighborhood of Montmartre. He met Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque and eventually joined their artistic circle and participated in the development of Cubism. In this painting, he incorporated objects often used in Cubist still life paintings – musical instruments, newspapers, a glass and a tabletop. The combination of the wood texture wallpaper and other elements is an evidence of early collage. The repeated outline of the guitar resembles the analytic Cubism, whereas the composition reflects the synthetic Cubism. The overlapping planes, flattened appearance and rhythmic patterns reject the illusion that these are still life. One explanation for the anomaly in the composition is that the painter simply wants to complete the composition.  

We were then led to the monumental Three Musicians (1921). Picasso did a similar painting under the same title depicting the same subjects, now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In this painting, Picasso used flat pattern to express subjects such as tilted tabletop, which probably inspired by the Cezanne painting, and dispositional hands in the harlequin figure.
Our tour was concluded by a series of Synthetic Cubism paintings by Fernard Léger[1]. The four paintings on display were, as Léger described, of his “monumental era”. Léger said " I had smashed the human body, so I began putting it together again, finding the face again." Reclining Woman (1922) is a masterpiece during this era. The body of the woman is mainly made up of basic geometric forms; her face shows no emotions. One thing that I noticed was the common color combination in three of the four paintings, which were the basic colors blue, yellow and red. These highly saturated colors, in my opinion, are intended to correspond to the basic geometric shapes and form a strong visual impact on viewers. Any moderate use of color would weaken the overall sense of the painting.
After the talk, I stayed on the third floor and watched some non-Picasso-related exhibitions. And, voila! Here are some of my favorite paintings.

What can you see here? Bird and fish shapes? Human mouths, noses, eyes and necks? 

A collection of American experiences. Love this multimedia work!

The Beginning - Barnett Newman

After the one-hour talk, I was mentally excited but physically exhausted. I went downstairs and ordered a sweet potato soup combo at Caffe Moderno.  
I had a cup of water to reset my mind and get ready to absorb more Cubism and “awkwardness” (I use quotation mark here because, after watching so many deconstructed paintings, I can no longer define what is awkwardness).

I dipped the whole wheat bread in my sweet potato soup and let the viscous soup permeate through every space of the bread. The excellent taste refreshed me. I stayed for another twenty minutes and then set out to watch the main exhibition Picasso and Chicago. (to be continued)

[1] Joseph Fernand Henri Léger was a French painter, sculptor, and filmmaker. In his early works he created a personal form of Cubism. During his service in the French Army in World War I, he produced many sketches of artillery pieces and painted Soldier with a Pipe (1916). It was then that his “mechanical period” began.

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