The Art Institute Project

Brooke got me an Art Institute of Chicago annual membership for Christmas, and I finally got there Thursday (it’s only open late on Thursday). I’m going to shoot for a blog about a painting or two once a week. Art is something I haven’t written about very much at all, so don’t get your hopes up. But I like trying to write about new things, so this is my attempt.

At first I was thinking I’d go through each room in chronological order or something completist like that, but decided instead to just start in the most obvious place possible: this being the Art Institute, Impressionism is more or less what hits you in the face when you walk up the grand staircase at the Michigan Avenue entrance. Impressionism is also the era I’ve seen most often in exhibitions (and listen to the most audio-guides about). They almost always say the same things over and over again (i.e., woman with slight British accent saying “the salons of the day thought this picture of a haystack was SIMPLY UNACCEPTABLE, ‘GOUCHE’ to use the language of the French… but Monet sought to depict life AS IT WAS, not as some academic exercise…”). In other words, exactly the sort of gesture of self-congratulation that American upper-middle class casual art museum attendees eat up, but they’re basically lacking in insight. I’m not saying I’ll do much better but I’d like to try.

I picked two paintings this week: one each by Monet and Pissarro. They’re both pictures of huge modern buildings – the Gare Saint-Lazare (Paris) and the Crystal Palace (London). I’ll start with the Monet.  In addition to knowing little about art or writing about it, I’m also no good at iPhone photography, so I apologize in advance for that.

I’ve always liked looking at this painting (“Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare,” 1877) for a simple reason: when I was little, like mostly every other little boy on the planet, I loved trains.  And this is a painting of a train.  More than trains though, I’ve also always loved train stations.  Unlike airports, which I find tremendously stressful (mostly because everyone there is simultaneously experiencing a huge amount of unprocessed nervous energy, and taking it out on everyone else, or by ferociously wolfing down disgusting overpriced food), train stations are pleasantly frenetic.  People are in a hurry, but generally not worried they’re going to be blown up or die in a fiery runway mishap.  And they’re not about to spend 3 hours in a tube with bad air, unwillingly shoving their shoulders against people they don’t know.

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Monet’s painting captures that sense of the pleasantly frenetic.  There is motion – the smoke, the people in the distance, even the smear of the floor in the foreground has a sense of movement.  But this painting also captures the permanence of the train station itself, seen in the massive roof structure of the Gare Saint-Lazare.  The roof defines the rest of the frame by its sharp angles, and the transparent parts near the top are reminiscent of a greenhouse.  There are also lower-hanging horizontal wires that help establish the rigorous structure of the space.

I’ve always assumed this was an early-morning scene – somehow the rising smoke conveys that (though I’m fully aware smoke rises at all times of the day).

The reason I picked out the Pissarro (“The Crystal Palace, London”, 1871) is because of a Dostoevsky connection: the Crystal Palace is one of the Underground Man’s idees fixes.

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For the Underground Man, the Crystal Palace was the end- and zero-point of human development: a structure that both turned humans into ants and symbolized that conversion and our willingness to embrace it.  Dostoevsky himself, in his own voice, also discusses it in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (1863):

A city with its millions and its world-wide trade, the Crystal Palace, the world Exhibition… Yes, the Exhibition is astounding. You feel a terrible force which has united all these numberless people here, from all over the world, into a single herd; you become aware of a colossal idea; you feel that something has already been achieved here, that there is victory, triumph here. It’s even as if you begin to feel afraid of something. No matter how independent you are, for some reason you feel terrified.

It looks a bit more innocent here: it’s a huge, cold edifice in the distance, off to the left, somehow less important than the ordinary non-ant people walking along the road, or even the warm reddish-brown houses and walled gardens in the foreground on the right.  Still, there is a sense of foreboding about the Crystal Palace.  It dwarfs everything else within sight (except the flag – not sure whose).  And just like in the Monet, a street lamp centers the field.

So I am not sure whether this painting accentuates the inevitability of impending modernization in the background, or the persistence of tradition in the foreground – or maybe it does both – or maybe neither and I’ve missed some other point.

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