Romanticism in Chicago
Chicago has long hern interested in the decorative arts as ivell as in painting and sculpture. A Chicagoan who has been a stimulating force in the art world, DANIEL CATTON RICH, critic and author, has hern Director of the Art Institute of Chicago and its Curator of Painting since 1938. Ihis is the sixth of the Atlantics series on Painting and Sculpture to which connoisseurs, curators, and artists are contributing.
by DANIEL CATTON RICH
A SIDE from the Art Institute and a few wellrecognized spots, exhibitions in Chicago are sometimes hard to find. Like the million and one speak-easies during the Capone reign, art activities are apt to be hidden down basement siairs or found “fronting” for something else, most often a theater or restaurant.
Only a few exhibitions are held in galleries as New York or Paris knows such a term—separate establishments dedicated to selling art. The truth is that most contemporary art (and art of all kinds) is hard to sell in Chicago. Wealthy Chicagoans travel New Yorkward and in the leisure and stimulation of a large art market pick up what pleases them. Now and again they come back from Manhattan with a painting by some Chicago artist — an experience which always amazes everyone.
There is even a stereotype that no good art is being done in Chicago, a remark of extreme carelessness. There are many excellent artists in the city, and during the hectic, developing days of the WPA Art Project, Chicago’s painting and printmaking were perhaps the most vital in the country. But when government subsidy stopped, private patronage made no attempt to fill the void, and many of the most gifted have left for the East or West Coast. The artists who remain or the youngsters on their way up either teach or do penance in commercial art. Between jobs, over week-ends, at the close of working days or at too early dawns, they seize time for their own work. Such a situation, duplicated in nearly all the great American cities, has its inevitable danger to the art resources of the nation. Artists who have already made up their minds to a career which, like few in America, demands a vow of poverty are being increasingly forced into the ambiguous position of Sunday painters, their primary energy drained off to get a bare living, their real profession relegated to “spare time” work.
When exhibited the paintings and sculptures of Chicago artists turn up in foyers of theaters or bars. They are strung down hotel corridors or hang above Eames chairs in some modern furniture store. Snack shops and printers, department stores and dealers in art supplies, night clubs and book nooks, continue month after month to lend space to one-man shows and group exhibits. Much of this springs from genuine sympathy for artists who have little opportunity to show their work. At other times the arrangement is less appealing and becomes a form of publicity, with the exhibit Serving as a kind of TV commercial.
Chicago’s prodigality with space —a local obsession— never appears more difficult than to a reviewer trying to make the rounds of art events. I have always had sympathy with the Chicago sports-writer who was suddenly told he must take on an art column. “I’m not worried about the art,” he was heard to complain to his city editor. “I can always fake the art. But what about the leg work!”
Local ariists submit their best work to the annual Chicago exhibition at the Art Institute, which comes this year late in May. The fifty-fifth of a long-established series, it brings together some, two thousand entries, about 10 per cent of which are finally exhibited. I doubt, that there will be much homogeneity in this year’s result. Gone are the days of the unified exhibit of the early twenties with everyone painting in the mild Impressionist style, so suitable for overmantels or dining rooms. This was suddenly upset by an intrusion of bold colors and slashing forms, as much the result of Boris Anisfeld’s teaching in the Institute School as the acquisition of certain “modern" paintings by the museum. Over the years the national changes have all been rung—but with one difference. Chicago painting has kept to an unrepentant romanticism. Even its most documentary moments of the American scene were lit by a coruscating, gaudy color, as exemplified by Aaron Bohrod in the thirties, and figure painting tended, in the work of the powerful Ivan Le Lorraine Albright, to decompose into a world of phosphorescence and mold. Today’s Chicago abstraction often contains moody, expressive textures and rich notes of color to collide with the stricter geometry of the Bauhaus tradition as taught by the late Moholy-Nagy and his successor at the Institute of Design, Serge Chermayeff. This year’s exhibition will make no limitations as to entrants; students, amateurs, and professionals may all compete. Among them will be some like Caroline Williamson Knox of Indiana, an eightyyear-old exhibitor at Marshall Field’s, who will follow the intrepid Grandma Moses leading the aged into a new promised land.
Some Chicagoans will certainly travel the hundred miles south to Urbana to enjoy at the University of Illinois the fourth in a series of annual showings of contemporary American art. During the last decade colleges and universities have been improving their art fare. Staffed by well-trained young art historians and leading American artistsin-residence, they are far from dependent, as they once were, on portfolios of color reproductions or stacks of soporific lantern slides. Many a college student now actually knows what an original looks like, as a result of a continuing exhibition program.
The Illinois program includes music, drama, film, and dance; it has attracted Stravinsky and has produced plays by the most modern authors. The art exhibition has become one of the liveliest reports on native art anywhere in the country. A team of Illinois professors hit America like a well-integrated football play and carry off many of the year’s best paintings to show in Urbana. Artists like to be represented there; Illinois publishes a thoughtful catalogue and —more important — buys yearly a generous number of paintings for its own collection.
Frequently written off by the rest of America as the center of isolationism, Chicago as a city presents a strong center pull towards the appreciation of world movements and foreign influences in art. The University of Chicago harbors (along with Thomism and great nuclear physicists from Europe) an organization with the traditional name of the Renaissance Society. Originally under the classical shadow of Lorado Taft and his bottega of sculptors on the Midway, it long ago gave up its quiet afternoons with a program on Donatello or “My Recent Trip through the Cathedral Towns” and took off into the dizzy stratosphere of modern art.
About the time that the University officially proved that the word renaissance should be pronounced as though it were spelled renascence, Eva Watson Schülze, a pupil of Eakins and a pioneer photographer, shook the complacency of the South Side with a series of startling events in art. Negro sculpture and jazz concerts, paintings by Miró and Dali, a Cubist festival, and the first large showing in America by Fernand Léger caused the Gothic trefoils to flutter and the gargoyles on Hull arch to sit up and take notice. Carried on with distinction by Frances Biesel, a Chicago painter, the program of the Renaissance this spring includes an exhibition by the late great Mexican, José Clemente Orozco, who was almost persuaded, a few years back, to decorate the refectory of International House with a series of his overwhelming murals. Arranged with customary care, the present exhibition includes some of Orozco’s last prints and drawings, imported from Mexico along with Justino Fernandez, the artist’s great friend and best critic.
It is also good news that the Arts Club, closed for several years and living under artificial respiration, has found new quarters and will not only bring its collection of moderns out of moth balls but will resume its program of attracting the most experimental art to Chicago. Spring in Evanston reveals an extensive loan exhibition of twentiethcentury European and American painting from Chicago collections, arranged in celebration of Northwestern University’s centennial, by the versatile head of its art department, Thomas M. Folds. In addition, a symposium at Northwestern brings speakers and audiences together to consider the place of the arts in contemporary society.
Quite by chance Chicago now has a remarkable opportunity to compare two well-differentiated points of view on contemporary furniture, decorative arts, and art for industry. At the Merchandise Mart may be seen the second annual exhibition of American Good Design, sponsored jointly by the Mart and the Museum of Modern Art. About three hundred pieces of furniture, fabrics, tableware, wallpapers, kitchenware, and lamps have been chosen from American manufacture by a jury composed of Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., director of the exhibit, along with William Friedman of the Walker Art Center of Minneapolis and Hugh Lawson of Carson Pirie Scott & Company of Chicago. The objects chosen have been installed with a fine understanding for display in a setting entirely devoid of affectation by Finn Juhl, the Danish architect and designer.
In contrast is the huge, imported exhibition called Italy at Work: Her Renaissance in Design Today at the Art Institute. Consisting of some two thousand objects ranging from costume jewelry to typewriters and including five entire rooms designed by Italy’s leading architects and craftsmen, Italy at Work is the brain child of Meyric Rogers, Curator of Decorative and Industrial Arts at the Art Institute. Mr. Rogers sensed the tremendous upsurge of creative effort in design which a seemingly exhausted Italy was undergoing, and proceeded to do something about it. Organizing a jury of selection including Charles Nagel, Director ol the Brooklyn Museum, Walter Dorwin Teague, the well-known industrial designer, and Ramy Alexander of the Italian Compagnia Nazionale Artigiana, these four men traveled oxer three thousand miles through Italy and visited hundreds of sources for the exhibit.
The showing opened in Brooklyn and will tour eleven other American cities for a period of three years. In a way, Italy at Work was made possible through the Marshall Plan. Largely sponsored by ECA, it attempts to interest Americans to buy — and thus help to support the new Italian movement. It will be successful only if Americans respond to the color, vivacity, and invention of the Italians and are able to afford the almost luxury price which tags every object.
Apologists for modern design in the useful arts insist that part of the movement must lie in producing objects at limited costs for a wide public, and they quote figures to prove that good modern furniture is less expensive than well-made reproductions of Sheraton or Hepplewhite. But the cold fact remains that most of the American pieces at the Merchandise Mart, like most of the Italian examples at the Art Institute, are still beyond the range of thousands of young people who, hesitating between “modern and “traditional,”may plump more or less unwillingly for the latter on budgetary grounds. In the United States, limited production and merchandising, and in Italy the craft character of almost every piece, plus transportation and tariffs to this country, continue to slow down widespread acceptance of contemporary furnishings. Nevertheless, recent markets have shown a changing proportion of newer to older styles in household arts, and it may not be long before theefficient, clean-cut, and often sensitive solutions of the American kitchen and bathroom will spread to more public areas of our homes.
There are dramatic and puzzling questions raised by the two exhibits. Contrasts are easily apparent. Most of the material in Good Design consciously reflects, as Mr. Kaufmann has put it in a recent pamphlet published by the Museum of Modern Art, “the mastery of the machine for the service of man.” This is essentially a “machine” art, with the virtues of simplicity, exposed structure, and little or no enrichment of form and surface.
Italian design, springing from centuries of loving exploration of known materials and techniques, is still largely a “hand” art, and Italian glass, ceramics, weavings, and embroideries are often rich rather than simple, organic rather than geometric, and delight in intricate, flowing ornament. Made in homes or little shops we would hardly dignify as factories, Italian products come from a different world, the Mediterranean world of sunlight and fantasy.
Italian designers, unlike most American designers, are not trained under the purity of the Northern tradition which springs, in our time, from the reforms of the German Bauhaus. Italians are artists first and only occasionally specialists; they frequently fulfill, as Mr. Rogers has pointed out in his handbook on the exhibition, the Renaissance pattern, and are painters, architects, sculptors, and scene designers at will, turning, with a freedom unknown to Americans, from one problem to another. Even when they reflect, as for example does Carlo Mollino, a sense of the International Style, their chairs and tables develop a freer plantlike form in curious opposition to the machine functionalism alive today .
Another striking difference emerges: American Good Design is apt to be somewhat drab in color. Finn Juhl in arranging his objects at the Merchandise Mart had to pump color into walls and ceilings to keep the exhibit from a monastic dullness. Italians almost roar with color; they use it freely, dashingly -and sometimes overplay it as they do their plant forms, until the object’s utility and purpose are swamped in a growth of something which looks like a hectic revival of art nouveau.
Italy at Work introduces a number of fascinating new artists to the American public, among them a remarkable potter, Guido Gambone, who adopts the grotesque elements in Etruscan and folk art to use in his brilliant ceramics. Enrico Bernardi revives tinold technique of intarsia to his inlaid wood cabinets, but it is an intarsia dependent on the discoveries of the painters De Chirico and Carra. There is Luigi Alartinotti, an enamelcr who has done an intense series of small Stations of the Cross for the interior of a chapel in the exhibition, and there is a talented woman. Luciana of Rome, who contrives necklaces from shells, pastes, and evrn tiny corks with an almost Medicean inventiveness. Few of these and other Italian works will satisfy all of the “Twelve Precepts of Modern Design" which Mr. Kaufmann has drawn up in bis pamphlet. Perhaps, indeed, these objects are not “modern" in his sense at all, but rather “contemporary” in that they express an exuberant revival of older traditions in terms of what actually is going on at this moment. At any rate it is wise, now and then, to examine such rigid definitions as Mr. Kaufmann proposes in terms of present realities. Italy at Work definitely challenges the accepted rat ionale of Good Design by offering a wider approach to the whole problem. One may hope, however, that neither Hollywood nor Grand Rapids will be carried away by the engaging externalities of what in Italy is a sincere and vigorous artistry.