"Japanese Art from the Alsdorf Collection," an exhibition that spans roughly 1,000 years of Japanese art history, visited the Art Institute of Chicago over the summer. Organized by Stephen Little, director and president of the Honolulu Academy of Arts, the show consisted of 29 hanging scroll paintings dating from the 12th through the 19th centuries, plus ceramic and lacquer objects.
Museum shows are typically monographic with a clear focus, but "Japanese Art from the Alsdorf Collection," July 2-Sept. 12, 2004, presented objects that Marilynn and the late James Alsdorf had purchased over 40 years. Thus, it was easy to get lost in this show unless one came to it with considerable foreknowledge of Japanese painting. Lost or not, the visitor could see many excellent, little-known works of art.
One of the most beautiful and subtle of the Alsdorf pieces is Poem Card (Shikishi): Pine Trees and Calligraphy by Honami Kōetsu (1558-1637) with painting attributed to Tawaraya Sōtatsu (d. ca. 1643). Calligraphy is considered the equal of painting in Japan and calligraphers may take the lead in creating a work of art. Text fills most of this painting, overshadowing the sky and the trees, which we see at the bottom. The anonymous poem, which dates from the early 13th century, reads:
Is that the fragrance
Of the person I expected to come?
No, it is the scent
Of wild orange blossoms by the eaves
In my hometown.
The Art Institute staff thinks that this poem card may have belonged to an album containing 35 such cards created by Kōetsu and Sōtatsu, but confesses that nobody really knows what a poem card is. They exist -- and the Japanese have a name for them -- but their origin and precise function are obscure.
One-petal Kannon (The Bodhisattva Kannon Crossing the Sea on a Lotus Petal) by Sesson Shūkei (1504-1589?) is a Zen ink drawing on paper. We see the androgynous Bodhisattva ("Buddha-to-be") of compassion and mercy, gently blown over the waves by the wind like some holy surfer with a rising moon behind its head. Shūkeis drawing is the artwork here and the hanging scroll a mere accessory, much like a picture frame. Some Japanese paintings survive on their original scrolls while others are removed and affixed to new scrolls when the old one wears out.
Gibbon Hanging from a Branch, a four foot long by one foot wide ink painting by Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768), shows a gibbon foolishly reaching for what he thinks is the moon, though its just a reflection in the water. Ekaku brushes in the gibbons long arms and body with pale ink washes, then adds a few pen strokes to complete the image. The inscription on this painting relates to Ekakus dispute with another monk who had written a book on human frailties that Ekaku thought superficial and misleading. In another version of this painting, Ekakus inscription compares his adversary to a flys head.
Officials on New Years Day by Suzuki Kiitsu (1796-1858) is a masterpiece of design that shows officials in stylized black-and-white robes approaching the Imperial Palace in Kyoto where they will have an audience with the Emperor. The five men proceed across a sand or dirt courtyard toward a bridge that leads to a low staircase. Executed on silk, this painting has four horizontal bands of colored wash in the background with imagery drawn in ink on top. The bamboo plant at right, whose full-grown foliage suggests the time of year, is particularly well done. We can almost see it move.
Ōtagaki Rengetsu (1791-1875) was a woman in a field dominated by men -- and her spidery calligraphy is strikingly different from theirs. Bridge and Maples (Toga-no-o Valley) depicts an area near Kyoto thats famous in autumn for its red leaves. We see the bridge crossing a ravine with red maples on both sides and a shadowy mountain in the background.
Rengetsu was the illegitimate offspring of a samurai and a courtesan. After two marriages and the loss of all her children to illness, she became a Buddhist nun in 1824 and devoted the rest of her life to prayer, painting and pottery. She is best known for her ceramics, which she decorates with her distinctive calligraphy.
Chicago Modernism, 1893-1945
"Chicago Modernism, 1893-1945: Pursuit of the New" is the final exhibition at the Terra Museum of American Art before it closes its doors on Oct. 31, 2004. The Terra calls this show an "unprecedented survey of early modernism by Chicago artists." Art critics, says the Terra, have "narrowed the once expansive definition of modern art to a select canon of modernism that favors. . . formalism -- color, line and form -- through abstraction." The Terra exhibition "recovers the nascent notions of artistic modernism in Chicago by a selection of works that were considered distinctively modern at the time of their creation."
According to the Terra, Chicago modernism was born in 1893, when local artists saw Impressionist paintings at the Worlds Columbian Exposition. These pioneer modernists embraced Impressionism and were followed by others who made (almost exclusively figurative) art in the styles of their day. "To be modern in Chicago," the Terra concludes, "was to express oneself with complete sincerity and individuality, whether or not the effort to do so involved radical artistic experimentation."
In support of this thesis, the museum presents 98 paintings and works on paper by 74 different Chicago artists. A few of the names in the show will be familiar to students of American art: Gertrude Abercrombie, Ivan Albright, Frederick Clay Bartlett, Aaron Bohrod, Elbridge Ayer Burbank, Manierre Dawson, Archibald J. Motley, Jr., Mitchell Siporin and Julia Thecla. Some other artists are so utterly forgotten that only one or two paintings survive and virtually nothing is known about their lives and careers.
The Terra divides the artists into Impressionists, urban realists, painters on social themes, fantasists/surrealists and black artists. The catalogue tells how Chicagos modernists sought allies among critics, dealers and collectors; organized to make esthetic statements and advance their interests, and found ways to exhibit paintings that did not satisfy accepted taste.
The work in this exhibition does not support the sweeping claims that the curators make for it. The 74 artists are conscientious and accomplished, but they get their ideas from outside and make no advances of importance. By way of comparison, Chicago produced writers like Theodore Dreiser, reformers like Jane Addams, architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and numerous jazz musicians during the first half of the 20th century. Modernism in art came to Chicago in 1937 when Laszlo Moholy-Nagy arrived to direct the New Bauhaus. This school of art and design would evolve into the Institute of Design and give Chicago a generation of great modern photographers.
Two Black Artists
Chicago was hardly a paradise for black artists, but there were far worse places to be. The city was racially segregated and blacks had to live in "Bronzeville," an area on the south side that became famous for its vibrant community life and entertainment scene. But the School of the Art Institute of Chicago was the only major art school in the United States that accepted black students and the Art Institute exhibited work by black artists.
Among the artists in "Chicago Modernism," Archibald J. Motley Jr. believed that black artists should find subjects in their own community. His 1933 painting The Plotters takes us inside a hangout where two men converse intensely across a white table. There are five men in the room, but we see only two of them clearly -- and they dont look like fellows wed ever want to meet. Motleys off-kilter image is filled with sharp angles and diagonals. The mens dark skin and clothing contrasts with the white tabletop. In the upper right corner, we see a cut-off image of two boxers, one black, one white.
Eldzier Cortors Southern Landscape (ca. 1938-40) looks like a pleasant outdoor scene, with a couple lounging on a tablecloth theyve spread on the ground for a picnic. The woman, who has removed her shoes and straw hat, has a dreamy expression on her face and holds flowers in her left hand. Behind her is a solidly built man looking away. Over his shoulder we see a flood-swollen river sweeping buildings and debris away. At the upper left are the ruins of a church. On the right is a dead tree with its limbs broken off.
What are we to make of Cortors southern landscape? The couple has apparently not noticed the flood. Even though the banks of the river are close by, they dont seem threatened. Could they be southern blacks who are oblivious to sufferings of their brethren -- or to the flood of blacks moving north? There are no easy answers -- perhaps thats Cortors point.
A Prophetic Painting
Most viewers will instinctively connect Manierre Dawsons Prognostic (1910) to Kandinsky. The tilted mountain-like forms at right and the bright colors seem to clinch the case. But Dawson went to engineering school to please his parents, became an architectural draftsman, developed his painting style in solitude, and later visited Europe where he saw modernist work in Gertrude Steins Paris apartment.
Where does this imagery come from? According to the artist, he painted Prognostic "shortly after I graduated from college where I had so many engineering and mathematics courses that the influence of this shows in the background of coordinates and super-position of differentials. . . . The black line and circles thrown over Prognostic are subconsciously possibly suggested by pencils, pens and erasers generally strewn over a students drawing board."
"Chicago Modern 1893-1945" does not break new ground in art history as the curators hoped it would. But it is a solid, serious show with a great deal of work weve never seen before and definitely worth a visit.