The informational cards in museums—the preferred term is "wall labels"—are one of the few forms of writing even less respected than daily journalism. They are anonymous, typically. There are no awards, that I know of. Nobody collects them, and they have no life beyond the length of the exhibit they are prepared for, unless they linger, obscure and unread, in a book version of the show.
So I want to pause, and highlight a particularly noteworthy label at the current Rembrandt Portraits show at The Art Institute, running now until June 3.
It accompanies a self-portrait of the great Dutch artist, and begins: "Rembrandt was his own favorite model—and he was always conveniently available for study."
Ignoring the "and"—superfluous—I want to focus on "conveniently." There is a modest parcel of whimsey packed into that word. A slight joke: He was always around. Wherever Rembrandt went, there he was.
I thought of plunging into the Art Institute PR department and trying to find the identity of the writer. But Wednesday was such a nice day—I shouldn't have been in the museum at all, but just popped in to wait before lunch, spending only, oh, 45 minutes before exiting into Millennium Park to savor the advent—finally, finally, finally—of decent spring weather.
The Rembrandt Portraits show, by the way, contributed to the brevity of my visit. It consists of the four portraits shown above, two from The Art Institute's collection, two visiting from California. That's it. I understand cultural institutions must do what they must do to draw in the groundlings. But really, giving this gathering a formal name and presenting itself as a cohesive exhibition, well, it strikes me as a minor species of fraud. Forgivable, perhaps, if it puts eyeballs on art. But something beneath a mighty enterprise such as The Art Institute. Or so is my opinion, but I am open to the possibility that I might be mistaken.