A Brush with the Masters

by Diane L. Mangum

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    “Nothing is ugly. Even the puddle is beautiful if you look at its shape and gleam.”
    (Jean DuBuffet, in a letter to the Art Institute of Chicago)

    “Now then, girls, as we visit the Art Institute, always carry your folding stool over your left arm, walk in pairs, and absolutely no gum chewing!” There were guilty looks as the gum quickly disappeared, and the Chicago Heights Illinois Stake Mia Maids grinned as they reminded each other that the stools were to be carried over left arms, not right. (Carrying them on the left arm avoids bumping valuable paintings as tour groups move down the right-hand side of narrow halls.)

    Then the entire group hurried to keep up with the 81-year-old, but incredibly energetic, tour guide, Miss Marianne English. It was quickly becoming evident that this morning’s cultural activity at the Art Institute of Chicago was going to be as entertaining as it would be enlightening.

    First stop: a valuable glazed pottery horse, a statue from the T’ang Dynasty, which ruled China in the seventh through ninth centuries. Eyebrows raised with new interest as the girls learned of the ancient Chinese custom that insisted a man be buried with not just his live horse, but with his wife as well! Then Miss English whisked the group on down the marble hallways lined with Roman vases and Greek statues. They paused at an Italian sculpture of Heracles wrestling Anteus.

    “Does anyone remember the story of this myth?” the guide asked. One girl surprised even herself as she related most of the details. Anteus, a giant who received his strength by always touching the earth, was finally bested by Heracles in a battle of wits and strength.

    The group moved on toward a collection of Buddha statues, but the guide slowed her pace to a stroll and chatted with a couple of the girls, who were on the tour as part of the first-ever Mia Maid conference in the stake.

    “They tell me you girls are a religious group on some kind of a retreat. You’re the ones who don’t believe in Christ, right?” A girl with long, blond hair smiled as she reassured the guide that Latter-day Saints most assuredly do believe in Christ. She, like most of the other girls, seemed accustomed to such questions. After all, Chicago and its suburbs include 7 million people plus, and the missionaries haven’t reached all of them yet.

    Other girls thought back to their morning’s activity. The first stop had been a 50-foot, metal Picasso sculpture that dominates the Civic Center Plaza in the heart of downtown Chicago. Elevators tunnel to the top of towering buildings around the courtyard, and of course, each girl clambered aboard one to rush with it up story after story for the reward of a look down. The Saturday-morning city was just beginning to allow slices of sunshine to sift through the skyscrapers.

    The skyline was familiar to only a few of the Mia Maids, though some of them do occasionally shop downtown in enormous department stores with famous names like Marshall Fields, riding efficient commuter trains from their suburban homes many miles away. Members of the Chicago Heights Illinois Stake live anywhere from 50 blocks to 75 miles from the city’s “Loop,” the center downtown area encircled by elevated railways. In the cool early morning air on top of the building, Arlene and Carla had reminded each other about pigeons they had seen on Michigan Avenue and anticipated returning after the tour (when it would be warmer) to chase them. Then they had jumped back on the elevator, dropped back to the plaza, and gathered with the rest of the group.

    “Put your stools down here, and we’ll look at Rembrandt’s painting Young Girl at the Open Half-door,” Miss English interrupted the young ladies’ reverie. “This painting is actually a design of circles. Look closely and you might see more than 20 circles.” Suddenly, for Pam and Brenda the painting became more than just a scene with a nice-looking girl. It became an intriguing puzzle.

    Others were fascinated by the large brush strokes of El Greco or the loving smiles on portraits by Correggio, who reportedly learned his technique by studying the Mona Lisa.

    The Art Institute’s collection is arranged chronologically, so a walk through the corridors is a walk through the centuries. The oldest painting dates about 1270 A.D., and the statues and other relics date centuries earlier still.

    One of the highlights of the medieval collection was a series of paintings entitled The Ayala Altarpiece. The works were commissioned by a family of nobles in 14th-century Spain for the family tomb. Heavy with gold, the altarpiece depicts various scenes from the life of Christ, typical of the period when the major function of art was religious instruction (necessitated by the fact that only the priests could read).

    “Medieval painters hadn’t yet learned to show distance,” Miss English explained. “The pictures look flat, with no sense of perspective, and the people have rigid, awkward bodies. Notice that it is essentially the position of the stiff hands that expresses the character’s surprise or sadness.”

    Not far away, another Mia Maid was startled to meet the likeness of a young woman, cut in stone, atop a chiseled sarcophagus. “Actually,” Miss English confided, “the woman buried in this coffin was probably much older and not so beautiful as the lady you see lying here. It’s likely she had her likeness carved the way she wanted to be remembered.”

    A short detour and the group jumped ahead to the 19th century, plopping down their stools in front of an impressionistic work by Claude Monet, The Beach at Sainte Adresse, one of his early paintings.

    “Do you see here the careful shadings and detail we saw in Rembrandt?” the guide inquired. “Have the brush strokes melted into one realistic scene like the landscape of Venice we passed?”

    A timid hand rose. “No. You see dabs of green and white in the ocean that aren’t blended in at all.”

    “Right! The theory in impressionism is that the colors will mix in the mind. French artists like Monet, Renoir, and Degas broke the established rules and used less careful detail but lots of light, atmosphere, feeling, and color.” She described how the impressionists were at first rejected, but persisted in their scenes of rainbow colors without smooth shading. Details were lost, flowers became simply dots of paint, and reflections in water were favorite settings. American artist Mary Cassatt convinced many wealthy Americans to buy French paintings and bring them to the U.S. “I’m sure France wishes it had some of them back!” the guide said. “The people wouldn’t call them messy now, which is how they described them then.”

    The girls didn’t realize how fast time was passing. They were amazed that art history could be so much fun. And the guide made it even more personal by pointing out things they could observe any time they went looking at art: “Learn to look for the color, shape, line, form, texture, and movement that always comprise a painting.”

    —Colors may be bold, such as those in Delacroix’s The Lion Hunt, which underscore the deep emotions of the scene. Reds are fierce, dark clouds threatening. Or colors may be delicately shaded, as in the porcelainlike faces of Renoir’s women. Or they may be just flecks and spots, as in the “pointillism” of Seurat, who used tiny brush strokes of different colors to fill an entire picture. (For example, separate dots of blue and orange can be distinguished in the grass in Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, although when one takes a step back, the color appears as dark green.)

    —Look for geometric shapes in the overall design. Are lines and forms sweeping or restful? The circles in Young Girl at the Open Half-door have already been described. In The Lion Hunt the oval arrangement of the characters ties together the animals and the hunters, intensifying the drama. In the Seurat painting just mentioned, the triangle shape of the island draws the audience back into the picture.

    —The texture of the paint can be so smooth it is almost an unobservable part of the work or so heavy that it can’t be ignored. For example, in Picasso’s Place du Havre, Paris, there is such a heavy impasto (paint laid thickly on the canvas) that it’s almost like painting with candy. Especially in modern art, texture may be anything from smooth like a window pane to woolly like a sweater. The paint may not even cover all of the canvas.

    —Some artists successfully create a sensation of movement. How? In On the Stage by Degas, skirts swirl, hair flies, and details in the foreground are blurred to give the illusion of captured motion.

    “See what the artist is trying to tell you,” Miss English summarized. “Are the people realistic or only caricatures? Is he showing their character or only their costume? For example, look at the pitchfork-holding farmer and his wife portrayed in Grant Wood’s famous American Gothic, painted in 1930. What message about those two people do you find?

    “Finally, if modern art baffles you, remember it encompasses all the elements of traditional art, except that the subject has been removed. Nature or the realistic scene serves merely as a jumping-off point. Some modern art, such as Picasso’s, is inspired by the medieval period. He has gone full circle back to the flat perspective.” Teenage heads nodded with new understanding, remembering the huge Picasso sculpture they had seen first thing that morning.

    The tour was over. Later that night, traditional youth conference activities continued. There were workshops on dance, beauty, and grooming, and a spiritual discussion about testimonies, taught by Sister Jan Ryan, who joined the Church just 18 months ago. A court reporter, she compared witnessing the truth before a judge to testifying of the truth before one’s fellowman. There was also a testimony meeting.

    The young ladies still recall the Friday evening group prayer, the games, the apple juice and doughnut refreshments, and the chatter before snoozing in sleeping bags. And, of course, the spiritual memories still linger, because they helped the girls see life through new eyes. In a different way, so did the art tour. By studying great artworks, the Mia Maids had, perhaps, gained some appreciation for the talent and love the Master Artist exhibited in creating the world, and they had learned to search for beauty where they hadn’t expected to find it before. That type of awareness may just be the true purpose of art.

    Photos by Paul A. Coulis

    Top, Val Cross comes face to face with classical Greek carvings; Above, Val Cross and Donna Woodruff examine a glazed pottery horse from China; At Left, Pigeons scatter as Mia Maids stroll in a Michigan Avenue park

    Above left, Paul Cézanne’s work, Madame Cézanne in a Yellow Chair, shows lively colors typical of impressionists

    Above right, Miss English illustrates her point during Art Institute tour

    Top, Georges Seurat’s post-impressionistic painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte

    Above, Donna Woodruff wonders what the girl buried in this sarcophagus really looked like; At left, Donna and Val, relaxing on the plaza, discover there’s art outside the museum, too