Friday, May 25, 2018

Exhibit holds magnifying mirror to our wrinkled, decaying 'Flesh'

Ivan Albright. Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida, 1929–30.
Gift of Ivan Albright. © The Art Institute of Chicago.

     Can you be the fan of an artist because of the title he gave to one of his paintings?
     Ivan Albright is Chicago's most famous painter. Born in North Harvey, he studied at the School of the Art Institute. The Art Institute of Chicago holds more of his paintings than any other museum, though typically just three canvases are on display at any time.
     One, his portrait of an aging woman sorrowfully contemplating her ravaged face in a mirror, "Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida." Furrows of cellulite under harsh white light, the polar opposite of every romantic portrait ever painted. Albright is staking out his turf: decay and age, not in soft Rembrandt glow, but as nightmare, a realm that 70 years ago he had to himself*—predicting all the graphic shock art that came later.
     He is certainly contemporary in how he leapt to other media. The second painting often on display is his most famous, "The Picture of Dorian Gray," a life-sized portrait of Oscar Wilde's debauchee, commissioned by MGM and featured in lurid Technicolor in the otherwise black-and-white 1945 film. 

     And third, the painting that makes Albright special in my eyes. An enormous still-life of door, weathered and warped into its frame, a painting he titled, "That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do. (The Door.)" Why? Maybe the sentence echoes in my regret-based interior ecology; it sent me by the Art Institute to see the new Albright show, which opened earlier this month: "Flesh: Ivan Albright at the Art Institute of Chicago."
     The door isn't actually in the exhibit—it's a few galleries over. Maybe it doesn't fit into the "Flesh" theme.  
Ivan Albright. Head of My Father, 1935/36.
 Mary and Earle Ludgin Collection.
© The Art Institute of Chicago.
     It's a modest show, one room, but well-worth a visit. I knew a bit about Albright—that he's the father-in-law of former secretary of State Madeleine Albright, for instance. But I did not realize that his father Adam Albright was a painter of sugary, idealized children. His son's entire career, all the burst veins and dead fish flesh, could be considered an elaborate revenge upon the old man.

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* Originally I prefaced this with the observation that I am not an art historian, but that got cut whittling this to size. What I should have done is gone with that flash of self-awareness and not ventured about Albright being in the forefront in this regard, because he wasn't, according to reader Tom Hohman, who writes:
     Albright certainly did not have this " himself". See Otto Dix, Max Beckmann and Weimar artists banned by Hitler. They were on the vanguard of the German New Objectivity Movement. Dix particularly explored the same subject as Albright but decades earlier.
     I regret the error, and leave this in, as opposed to just removing it, as a cautionary tale about letting your idle conjecture stray beyond the borders of your actual knowledge. 


  1. Albright's art is fascinating in a horrifying kind of way. It's like peeking through a window into Hell, or possibly a glimpse of death personified. And it's probably best not to conjure up any images of what's behind "The Door". When I was a child, it was the stuff of nightmares.
    All things considered, I'd much rather spend time with Caillebotte and Renior.

  2. Thanks, Neil. Fascinating pictures and wonderful backstory, neither of which I'm likely to forget any time soon.


  3. Marvelous apology. I have to admit that my idle conjectures often stray and occasionally escape reality altogether.


  4. Can I be the fan of an artist because of the title he gave to one of his paintings? Damn betcha! But it's Edward Hopper, and the title was "Nighthawks", which mesmerized me upon each visit to the Art Institute. He captured on canvas the melancholy of those "wee small hours of the morning" can almost hear a sad saxophone or the voice-over by Sinatra.

    In the mid-Sixties, when admission was still free, the Art Institute's Hopper show drew me back at least a half-dozen times, as did a later Hopper exhibition in the early Eighties. Albright's work always invoked depression and a creepy feeling, especially "Ida"...and I would hurry through the gallery with a shiver and a shudder, and imagine being old. I don't have to imagine it anymore.

    But Hopper...oh, his morning sunlight, and the loneliness in his rooms! There's a building on the southwest corner of Chicago and Dempster in Evanston that always looked exactly like his "Early Sunday Morning" (1939). The storefronts, the red-brick fa├žade, the second-floor windows. Or maybe it's been repainted by now. Blue, or white. It's been a long time.

  5. You mean that portrait of Mr. Gray is a real thing?

    I confess to having an odd, disjointed memory of seeing that at the Institute, but it was 1978 and... things were weird at the time.

    Thank you for clearing up a bit of my memory, as it were.

  6. Albright was certainly a gifted draftsman. But, perhaps like Andrea del Sarto, the "faultless painter," a little too gifted for popular taste.



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