Thursday, January 15, 2009

Art Haven

Tonight I indulged in the Chicago Institute of Art. Yes, it’s free on Thursday nights, but it’s still an indulgence—it feels so decadent to immerse myself in that kind of beauty and genius. It’s going to be my Thursday night treat to myself once or twice a month. I looked forward to it all week, and I enjoyed myself immensely all evening.

The first time I went was on January 3, with one of my best friends, Wendy, who was visiting for New Year’s. We waited outside in a line snaking up Michigan Ave; I was impressed with the institute’s popularity. Once inside and warm, we moseyed about, primarily enjoying the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists and miniatures collection. That first visit only scratched the surface, but it piqued my determination to start visiting the museum regularly and I could hardly wait to get back on a Thursday evening. And it was such a treat tonight.

There was hardly anyone there! Here I was sauntering about, taking in all this magnificence, and I did’t have feign interest in a mediocre painting while I waited for the crowd to move away from the piece I actually want to see; I didn’t have to battle my way past school tour throngs; I didn’t even have to feel the pressure of that personal space invader who tries to dictate how long you enjoy a particular paining. And when I giggled aloud at those ridiculously adult faces the Renaissance artists painted on their babies, there was no one (or hardly anyone) there to hear me. In fact, most of the crowds were concentrated in the Impressionists galleries, so I just avoided that entire section. Much of the time it really was just the art and me (well, and the occasional curator.) I’ve never had that kind of experience in a museum, much less a museum of this caliber. I’ve never had the silence of a museum like I did tonight. It was all art and no distraction. It was perfect.

Ignoring my most favorite pointillists, I instead threaded through Buddhist and Hindu sculptures, Greek pottery, and the 18th-century galleries. I spent considerable time gazing at paintings with bright colors or colorful characters. I skipped the violent and the drab. I got lost. And then I stumbled upon the American decorative arts gallery…

Needless to say, I now have a new favorite gallery. After my first visit, I was sure nothing could trump the miniatures collection, but once I came across the people-sized versions of the furniture I love in those little glass cases, I was even more entranced. I have a thing for antique furniture, particularly Victorian (okay, so I have a penchant for all things Victorian). Honestly, I can’t get enough of the way the fabric puckers neatly under those fabric-covered buttons that create dimples in chair cushions and sofa backs. And I have a fondness for excellent woodwork: my grandpa used to build furniture, and I understand and respect the level of artistry that goes into those amazingly carved chair legs, desk frames, tables. So, to see the beauties at the art institute was such a treat! There’s a particularly brilliant green sofa with button dimples all over it, framed in a rich chocolate wood. It’s Victorian and looks a tad uncomfortable, but I fell immediately in love with it and wanted to take it home with me (fashion over function, as the Victorians would have wanted it). I should have taken a picture, but that would only have drained its brilliance and shrunk it down to cheap reproduction. That sofa is now among my favorite pieces the museum.

I’d intended to save the best for last, so the miniatures were my final stop. I could spend all day peering my voyeuristic eyes into those tiny parlors and ballrooms. I’m so impressed by the detail. I chose my favorites (two French salons circa 1740-ish and a Victorian parlor) and then made speedy work to leave the museum. Not because I was ready to leave my haven from the hustle and bustle, but because I’d worn about five layers as armor against the -30 degree wind chill outside, and those layers were starting to feel extremely uncomfortable in the nice warm museum. So, I headed back upstairs, reluctantly bundled myself up, and stepped back into reality.