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Friday, November 19, 2004


galleries 207-226, 201-206

sometimes one forgets the vast resources of culture that this city emtombs. last night after work, i wandered over to the art institute with no particular agenda. after taking in the temporary exhibition of chicago architecture has-been and never-will-be, i found myself starting on a long walk through european painting.

from late medieval to italian high renaissance and classicism to romanticism, the aic's collection is a fascinating revue of the development of western civilization. to watch the great ideas of ages manifest themselves in pigment and canvas from room to room is as gratifying an experience as one is likely to have.

i grow wistful always in museums of western art. for many years i've experienced a deep emotional connection to the high art of my culture, and i find it is deepening in time. perhaps i am involved in a normal human process, the mechanism by which the young and idealistic often become increasingly conservative. i find ever greater appreciation and affection for what is now gone.

that melancholy wistfulness becomes nearly uncontrollable when i step into the 1870s and the beginning of that golden age of the late 19th century. living in a land and time that is increasingly artless, increasingly superstitious, increasingly brutal and tactile and commercial and gaudy -- ever more absurd, truly -- i find it emotionally difficult not to consider those decades as perhaps the antonine years of the west, whether they are or could be or not.

regardless, the flowering of those years is as resonant an age of painting as any that ever existed. manet. caillebotte. seurat. toulouse-lautrec. degas. renoir... renoir... and renoir -- which arrested me for half an hour. the hue of cobalt blue in this cannot be represented in the pixels of a flatscreen.

i often find it hard to believe that they're already closing the galleries. i was lucky this time, when the guard touched my shoulder, to be standing just where i love to be most -- amid the coasts and lilies and paris of monet. what is it of his perception that makes his work so remarkable?

i personally wonder if any artist before or since ever felt so intimate with light. inevitably when at the aic, i am drawn to the haystacks. monet returned to this scene at chailly over thirty times in two years (1890-91) to express the scene through the seasons and the variations of light, of which the aic has six. a more comprehensive and fascinating study of bucolic light may never have been undertaken. at the end of summer. late in the day. in the gloaming. in winter brilliance. with the high contrast of backlighting. at sunset thawed by a day's warmth. it astounds me every time.

in any case, immersion of this kind is more than a pastime. my edification in the culture of my civilization is to me an essential duty, and one i find irreplacably pleasurable. please go to the aic, or whatever you have near you, such that can teach you about the beauty of civility. it is knowledge sorely lacking in modern society.

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