I’ve wanted to go to the Art Institute of Chicago for some time. Just yesterday, I finally got the chance — during a pandemic, of course. There’s always something surreal about a world class museum, when you think about how far both the audience and the art have travelled to get there. In pre-2020 life, part of the experience of viewing the Mona Lisa or Guernica was contending with massive crowds. As much as that might have vexed us, it also makes sense: it demonstrates the reverence and adoration we rightfully have, as a human race, for art and creativity. These are masterpieces that speak to everyone, from all walks of life. These days, I would give anything to be crammed into the Rijksmuseum as I was two Christmases ago, in awe of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch on exhibition before me (and dozens of other people).
Walking through a physically-distanced Art Institute yesterday, at times completely alone, gave me the same kind of surreal feeling; same, but very different. Mom and I started on the first floor, with the arts of Japan, China, Korea, Africa, and people indigenous to the American continents. Amongst ancient objects of great ritual and ceremonial importance, not to mention unfathomable artistic achievement and beauty, I felt chilled. Coming into these quiet rooms from an altogether chaotic and uncaring world, where our behavior puts more of the strain on our planet with each day, was in turns a relief and a reminder of how far off course we’ve wandered from our nature. The intuitive, shared understanding of the human relationship with the natural world can so easily be observed across all the cultures who produced the cultural objects we now think of as the “art” in these glass cases.
This is undoubtedly the “age of anxiety,” as poet W.H. Auden described and which many, including philosopher Alan Watts, have riffed on in their work. Without getting too off topic, it’s a shame that we even need to remind each other (and ourselves!) to take solace in nature, the worth of which I hope we are rediscovering amidst this isolating and lonely year. To be outside, to move, and to roam are human biological imperative, but we continue to distance ourselves further and further from these innate impulses. In a mess of feelings, looking at the many, multitudinous forms this wisdom took in the art of the ancient world brought me relief that being attuned to nature is in our code, just as at the same time it brought me despair to think of how we’ve neglected it.
The main event of our visit, though, was undoubtedly the museum’s latest exhibition: Monet and Chicago. Impressionism’s humble beginnings and its lukewarm critical reception may now seem bizarre for the popularity that Monet, Van Gogh, et al. have achieved, but that same late-19th century obscurity is what allowed this exhibition to occur all the way in 2020. With the gift of hindsight, perhaps it makes sense that these stylized artworks that most often deal with nature should have achieved such raucous acclaim over time: they speak to the magic of a natural world that is becoming ever foreign to us, imbuing it with a sense of mystery that it now has indeed obtained despite, as always, being located just outside our front doors.
The exhibit gave an overview of Monet’s artistic journey and great works as told by the pieces that Chicago-based collectors came to acquire during and shortly after his life. One couple even visited him at Giverny, where he painted perhaps his most famous series of works on the water lilies in his pond, with the iconic Japanese bridge over it. Featuring plein air and still life paintings from the coast near his birthplace of Le Havre, the Italian riviera, Norway, London, and the famous water lily pond, the exhibit naturally proceeded from the artist’s beginnings to the masterful culmination of his career. It was easily the most crowded experience in the Institute that day, but that isn’t saying much; there was still ample space and time to connect with each one of the works on display, to ponder both their beauty and the prolific output of the artist. Monet’s series of works are remarkable for how he often painted the same subjects many times, reflecting subtle changes of light, weather, and atmosphere in each canvas. It struck me as an act of patience that few, save certain landscape photographers, would have the conviction to recreate in the modern world — though perhaps I speak for myself!
Altogether, it was a comforting experience to walk through those halls with other people, each of us experiencing different individual reactions to the art while also taking part in a collective experience. Though there are many narratives around the pandemic being a collective experience (we’re all in this together, etc.), it’s safe to say that it is not. There are those of us who can effectively transform our homes into quarantine bubbles, and there are essential workers. I am worried that we have quickly reneged on our early-lockdown rhetoric to realign our value systems and find time to slow down in our lives, as we prioritize the economy and reaffirm our addiction to “the grind.” Monet’s landscapes made me reflect on this in my own life as I tried to understand his creative process.
Ironically, so long as we head into each day carrying the mentality that something always needs to get done, Monet’s work seems to suggest that we should rather focus on showing up and paying attention — observing. Things are constantly changing, and keeping your head down with the one objective of productivity is what drastically limits your capacity to respond. As a civilization, we face great challenges: the pandemic, racism and social injustice, and climate change. To overcome all of these, we need to be creative and innovative like never before, not just haphazardly soldier on as we always have; that clearly isn’t working. I wish it didn’t take a fairly expensive visit to a museum to make me contemplate this, and I also wish everyone in the world could take a day for Monet. In lieu of that, take some time for yourself to look up, look outside, and look around. We have the answers, if we just take the time to look.
Have you visited a world class museum, in-person or virtually, during the pandemic? Tell us what it was like on Twitter!
Check out our guide to Chicago!