Art Review Archives:
Chicago History Museum
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
"A tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities." So Carl Sandburg wrote of Chicago in 1916, exulting in the city's identity as a rough town built on industry and commerce. In much the same way, Chicago's foremost native products, commerce and politics, end up having the strongest presence in this exhibition at the Chicago History Museum. In Big Picture: A New View of Painting in Chicago, seventy-nine works dating from the 1850s to 2004 purport to illustrate Chicago's identity or 'sense of place'. That's a tall order to cover, from the frontier environs of a prairie town to the Midwest's thriving hub of agriculture and industry, and the paintings themselves are a loose and varied selection. Not quite a survey of Chicago art itself, nor a survey of Chicago artists, Big Picture succeeds best as a series of glimpses and curiosities, a loose agglomeration of individual works that reflect various facets of the city and what its artists have seen in it. Highlights include several paintings by Richard A. Chase, political satire from the Chapin and Gore saloons, several painted panels from the famed Riccardo's restaurant, and a few works from the Chicago Historical Society's vaults that might otherwise only rarely go on display.
Chicago's fortunes were built on commodities, the ready availability of raw resources, and its central location in the Midwest as a railway and freshwater port connection between the well-developed East Coast and the rough and ready markets expanding to the West. Its history as a cultural outpost is less surefooted. Industry was its driving force, and those who tried to emulate magnates in the East and endow the city with arts and culture, often themselves ended up moving East to a venue more sympathetic to cultural interests and aspirations. Infusions of culture were deliberate, and grafted onto what was essentially a town of brute commerce: steel mills, stockyards, and freight trains. It is perhaps natural that Chicago's artists would find inspiration in elements symbolic of burgeoning growth and the movement of goods. Aerial View of Chicago (watercolor and tempera: 1933-4), painted by William Macy in the 1930s for the Century of Progress International Exposition, presents an idealized view of Chicago as a city of civic order and magnificent prosperity, its well-built and bustling environs stretching to a dreamy and limitless horizon. Richard A. Chase's paintings of Chicago bridges and street scenes from the same period provide a more close-up but no less inspiring view of the city as robust with strength, growth and expansion: Erecting the Wabash Bridge (oil on masonite: c. 1936) and Erecting the Lake Shore Drive Bridge (oil on masonite: c. 1936) are each views of dizzying ambition, the workmen dwarfed by the mighty iron girders of the bridge sections.
Politics is the second most prominent of Chicago's native products. That Chicago was the source of a thriving vernacular presence both politically and socially is witnessed in caricatures from the Chapin & Gore Saloons, a series of seven gentlemen-only bars whose heydey was the late 19th century. Selections of popular and political figures are a glimpse into topics of common knowledge and interest of the day. Singers, such as the young lady in Theodore L. Wust's Caricature of Charlotte "Lotta" Mignon Crabtree (oil on canvas: c. 1895) might be expected, but alongside them were also political satires, as in Wust's Caricature of William McKinley (oil on canvas on Masonite: c. 1895), lampooning McKinley as a robust shilleleigh-wielding 'McKinley Bill'. Chicago Record writer George Ade also appears, caricaturized by artist William Schmedtgen as a prissy schoolmarm in a dress; Ade's newspaper columns Stories of the Strees and of the Towns and Fables in Slang provided an amusing slice of Midwestern life and vernacular literature on a par with Mark Twain. Also on view are several murals of the Seven Lively Arts series, painted in the 1930s for the old Riccardo's restaurant at 43 Rush Street. For the figure of Drama (Mephistopheles), Chicago artist Ivan Albright (1897-1983) is said to have used proprietor Riccardo himself as the model.
A section on figuration, being not wholly a roster of Chicago artists nor a true overview of themes or styles of paintings, ends up being best enjoyed as a series of individual selections. Carl Hoeckner's powerful Homecoming of 1918 (oil on canvas: 1918) is one of those paintings which Big Picture serves best, giving an opportunity to exhibit a work that might not otherwise be seen. The reference is to the homecoming after the four harrowing years of World War I. Hoeckner uses a direct illustrative style, its anti-war statement couched in the simplest possible terms of row upon row of crippled and starving men, women and children, nude, advancing in ranks toward the viewer beneath an ominous and cloudy sky. Roff Beman's In the Old 57th Street Art Colony (oil on canvas: 1937) is of interest for its glimpse into the interior of the artist's studio, actually an artist-claimed residence in the former World's Columbian Exposition workers' quarters. Politics reappears in Alexander Raymond Katz's Democratic Convention of 1932 (oil on canvas on Masonite: 1933), a surging storm of bodies, hand-clapping and megaphone-wielding that suggests the rally is devolving into a real hootenanny. Two Chicago Imagists are tossed in as a contemporary footnote: Roger Brown's brooding Abraham Lincoln in Lost America (1989), and the most recent work in the exhibition, Ed Pashcke's day-glo orange pairing of two young criminals entitled L. & L. (2004). A further exhibition focus, a section on abstract paintings by Chicago artists, also functions best as a brief series of sample works, and includes paintings by Morris Barazani, Miyoko Ito, and Thomas H. Kapsalis.
The Society influence which cultivated a European-style appreciation for the arts on the East Coast ended up having little sway in the middle of the prairie. Chicago's fine arts gained footing on a more grassroots level, with artists themselves founding institutions such as the Art Institute of Chicago, established in 1866 as the Chicago Academy of Design. Too diverse to be a true overview of the time period it spans, Big Picture is best viewed as a collection of images, each with its own particular interest. Richard Chase's scenes of buildings and construction, and the political twists of the Chapin & Gore caricatures, leave the strongest impressions as a reminder that Chicago itself was a city with other ambitions, as expressed in the pulsing drive of Sandburg's poetic imagery:
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of
And perhaps so. And perhaps, a prairie town, whose art reflects its origin in industry, commerce and politics. But it is not without its vigor; and perhaps, that is as it should be.
Big Picture: A New View of Painting in Chicago is at the Chicago History Museum through August 3, 2008. A 64-page color catalog features selections from the exhibition and is available at the museum.
--Katherine R. Lieber
Editorial Note: Carl Sandburg is quoted from his poem "Chicago", from Chicago Poems (1916) (University of Illinois Press:1992).