As part of our training, new faculty members at Shimer College sit in on one of the core curriculum courses that is outside our teaching comfort zone. In my case, it’s Humanities 1: Art and Music, which carries with it a membership to the Art Institute of Chicago, due to the generosity of some alumni donors. The Girlfriend and I went a couple weeks ago to check out the recently added Modern Wing, and we took the standard approach of trying to “cover” the entire area. Our favorite piece was this video installation by Eija-Liisa Ahtila, which had three videos playing simultaneously, displaying (at least at first) three angles on the same scene. Sure enough, before long Ahtila was flying through the forest.
We enjoyed our visit, but as we were walking back to the train, I wondered what we had really gotten out of our rush tour. Here is all this great art that people have devoted whole careers to studying, and we’re giving thirty seconds as a baseline to each piece, maybe stopping to look for a couple minutes if something catches our eye. The Girlfriend agreed in principle, but pointed out that neither of us knows enough about art to know which paintings are really worth spending more time with — better to cast a wide net.
The professor recommended that we go back this weekend to look at their Cézanne holdings, as we were going to discuss several of his paintings on Monday and then were reading Rilke’s Letters on Cézanne for Wednesday. I went for about an hour yesterday afternoon and managed to find a wall that had five Cézanne works, which was apparently the extent of what they’re showing currently. While I didn’t match Rilke’s record of spending two hours studying a single canvas, the amount of time I was able to spend on each painting made it a new experience for me.
From left to right, the wall had the following five paintings:
- The Basket of Apples
- The Bathers
- The Bay of Marseilles, Seen from L’Estaque
- Standing Bather, Seen from the Back
- The Vase of Tulips
I started with The Basket of Apples, because it seemed possible that it was one of the paintings Rilke had seen at the exhibit — the chance to be looking at the same physical object as Rilke had spent such time looking at was appealling to me. I read the little sign, which said that the two sides of the table didn’t match up. I dutifully noticed that this was the case. Rilke had mentioned that his wine bottles are a very deep shade of black; I noticed this as well. I remembered reading that Cézanne sometimes used sharp lines to delineate different color zones and sometimes blended them; sure enough, this appeared to be the case. I spent about five minutes looking at this painting, unsure of what I was looking for.
I moved on to The Vase with Tulips and noticed what I had seen in the Cézanne painting our professor had shown a reproduction of in class: sometimes he put color tones in the “wrong” place, that is, if the painting was characterized by two or three zones, each dominated by a particular color tone, splashes of the opposing tone would appear. I then turned to The Bay of Marseilles, Seen from L’Estaque, which was the largest canvas and also the one I spent the most time on. The same issue with color tones in the “wrong” place occurred — the village is dominated by orange tones, and orange tones appear in the water of the bay. I also noticed how the color differentiation of the water produces a sensation of motion, similar to looking at a real body of water on a moderately windy day.
I spent less time on the small canvases of nude bathers, which didn’t sustain my attention as much, and then returned to the first still-life. As I looked at it once again, I noticed a subtle stroke of green in the white of the towel and was shocked I hadn’t noticed it before. Suddenly I was able to see green tones everywhere in the towel, in the apples that had previously registered as pure red, in the wall, perhaps even in the table. (The wine bottle seemed to be relatively innocent of greens, but I may be wrong.) Looking more closely at the sharper differentiations of color zones, I also noticed that these lines had a counterintuitive property — they somehow weren’t “saturated” and represented spots where the underlying canvas could show through. It was as if he treated an area where he didn’t smoothly blend the colors as an open seam.
I observed these and other things, and I don’t know what to make of any of them, really. I’ve been to the Art Institute many times in my life and took a fine arts class at Olivet that was actually really excellent, so I can say things about how Cézanne was different from the Impressionists who had preceded him — but that’s the kind of thing that would serve me well on Jeopardy, not any kind of functional knowledge of art. Whatever I got from spending time really looking at the wall of Cézanne feels more like the beginnings of real knowledge of art to me.
I also observed my fellow museum patrons. When I first walked in, I noticed a group of dutiful tourists, clearly worn out from their journey through the world of art, seeking refuge in the bathroom. As I stood for an hour before the Cézannes, I also saw many people come and go. The people who were alone spent more time, but anyone in a group dutifully stopped for fifteen seconds before each canvas, then moved on. Some people seemed to want to spend more time on the Cézannes, but it was as though I had “claimed” them, and so they moved on. No one spent more than five minutes in the area, and only a couple people came back more than once.
When the museum closed, I walked toward The Girlfriend’s office, as we had arranged to meet after she got off work. I walked along Michigan Avenue. I looked at the artwork in Milennium Park. I walked along Madison and looked at myself and my fellow travellers in the glass covering a large ad that was almost entirely blue, wondering how one could achieve the effect of the reflection in painting. I had no idea.
When I got closer to her office in the financial district, I decided to start searching for a bar. I walked among the streets, casually and yet systematically. As I walked, I registered what I had seen: that’s a McDonald’s, that’s a Corner Bakery, that’s a men’s clothing store, that’s a Vienna Beef, that’s an old-fashioned bank advertising that it has safety deposit boxes, that’s a Starbucks…. I stopped briefly before the handful of bars I walked by, but none of them held my attention and I moved on.