Saturday, October 31, 2009

Chicago, early notes revisited

In the spring of 2007, I spent a weekend in Chicago deciding if I could live in the city for a year or more. It just so happened that during that weekend, I was able to catch the Vollard exhibition at the Art Institute. I typically hate Impressionism and Post-Impressionism (I'm a Classical girl, you know, and a bit of a Romantic) but I developed an odd fascination with Cézanne's "View of the Domaine Saint-Joseph" and wrote an essay about (or sort of rather on, at, around, etc.) the painting later that spring.

I won't bore you with all of this, but having lived in San Francisco again for a month and a half, this early description of Chicago seems mildly-to-moderately pertinent. Or maybe not.
(from On Context: Cézanne's 'View of Domaine Saint-Joseph')

It’s so good and so terrible to attack a blank canvas.
- Paul Cézanne (1839-1906)

I must tell you about this painting.

You must know first that sometimes in Chicago in April, it is still very cold. Cold is subjective, but sometimes wind can be described as nothing less than cold. Later this day, the sun will come out, and it will rain.

Impressionist painting is very sentimental, don’t you think? With those blotchy brush dabs and imprecise-seeming strokes and no definitive edges on anything? Monet is maudlin, even when his canvas is dark, even when the light shown down on it is subtle but ample, highlighting the blurred starlight, lowlighting the reflections on water. Even when the pair of strangers in front of me is quiet, short, and therefore unobtrusive.

Yes, Impressionism is maudlin, and I dare say a little gaudy, though maybe I’m thinking too much of the mass-produced, blotchy, pastel prints that hung over made-to-match duvets in economy hotel rooms in the 1990s. The beds were too hard, the comforters scratchy like fiberglass insulation, the prints amateur and base. Or maybe I’m thinking simply of reproductions—take, for example, the water lilies, and how they were stuck with Sticky Tak to one wall in the dorm room of almost every girl in college who kept and would eventually marry her boyfriend from high school. Just beneath in the white margin, in a flippant font, the title scrawled for those who didn’t know, though by sophomore year, when the posters moved to apartments, we all knew.

I didn’t keep my boyfriend from high school, but from those years I kept my favorite poem:

Doctor, you say there are no haloes

around the streetlights in Paris

and what I see is an aberration

caused by old age, an affliction.

I tell you it has taken me all my life

to arrive at vision of gas lamps as angels,

to soften and blur and finally banish

the edges you regret I don’t see,

to learn that the line I called the horizon

does not exist and sky and water,

so long apart, are the same state of being.

-From Lisel Mueller’s “Monet Refuses the Operation” (1-11)

Despite my distaste for Monet and his weepy, wet landscapes, I like that Mueller is able to write a logic to him, a system of reasoning. Ah…gas lamps—as angels. There’s a value to the rereading of poetry that is absent in the experience of reproduced art. When I read this poem, at fifteen, I underlined the word aberration, wrote deviation from truth in the white space beside it.

It was sentimentality that drew me to the poem, but it is the articulation of the logic behind indefinite shapes that kept me its reader for all of these years. Paul Cézanne is a Post-Impressionist; he picked up where Monet left off, though in fact, Monet outlived Cézanne by two decades. It might be said that Cézanne was more anxious than sentimental. Most of his work happened at the tail end of the Impressionist era, after 1880, and his most youthful and enlivened painting was done at the tail end of his half-century-spanning career. Here, however, I’m already getting ahead of myself.

For the decorative painter whose main object is the organization of his design upon the surface, this is no difficulty, rather an advantage. But for painters to whom the plastic construction is all-important it becomes serious. For them, the contour becomes at once a fascination and a dread. - Roger Fry, From Cézanne: A Study of His Development

In 1871, for just less than three days, the city of Chicago burned. Four square miles were razed to ash, give or take a few buildings—a pair of churches and a couple of lucky houses—left standing in the sooty mire, with resignation and burdened stoicism.

Chicago was resurrected swiftly and with perfect geometry—with the exception of a fistful of curves to accommodate the river, the city’s streets are straighter than any average Midwest horizon, each intersection a quartet of immaculate right angles. This makes it easy to find your way around, though don’t hesitate to ask directions—the people generally don’t mind.

Downtown the gray-bricks and weary columns resonate with a solemnity I want to call American Gothic because it reminds me simultaneously of Poe’s solitary ravens and The Fountainhead’s Howard Roark, but Chicago School architecture is informed by both the classicists and the modernists. I have to look up to see the whole of the skyline, and remind myself there are no earthquakes here to shake those giants. The order and the precision and calculation and height of it all might lend the city a sort of arrogance—this bravado of pre-apocalyptic perfection, a brick and concrete masterpiece that would look lovely in ruins—but remember this: Chicago has already once been demolished by fire.

No comments:

Post a Comment