Tuesday, 14 February 2017


                              Marc Chagall's Blue Windows at the Chicago Art Institute (CAI)
By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted February 14, 2017)

Chicago is not exactly the ideal spot to visit in January which is the ‘dead of winter’ in the Mid-West of the US. The days are cold and overcast; one can go for days without sighting the sun and one can’t go outside without wearing layers of wooly sweaters, socks, scarves, hats and even earmuffs to help you endure Chicago’s bitter wind, nicknamed ‘The Hawk’ since it’s swift and sharp as it’s coming off chilly Lake Michigan.

But for me, one saving grace about Chicago is getting to the Art Institute with my friend Robin who’s a card-carrying member of CAI and gets me in for free.
                                 Henri Rousseau's The Waterfall is one of my favorites at CAI
Setting off before 9am, we took the express subway that let us off just a block from the place. We could’ve driven since it’s an easy trek down the Outer Drive, the 8-line highway that skirts the Lake and offers an exquisite view of the Chicago Skyline. But parking in the City costs anywhere from USD32 (KSh3,300) for the first hour and then rises after that!!

There was nothing special on that day’s program apart from a tour at noon of the Modern wing and the ‘New Contemporary’ galleries of the institute. So we roamed among the medieval and Renaissance paintings that I’d known since childhood when I used to come to the Art Institute regularly with my mum.
       Henri Renoir named this oil painting Two Sisters but it reminds me of my mom & me
There were a myriad of artworks and exhibitions that were also new to me since the CAI staff are ever-busy rotating works from their vast store of artworks either gifted or bought over the years. They are also busy booking exhibitions flown in from all over the world, such as those bypassed that day – one on Photography from Japan, another on Religious Art from the Spanish Andes and several more.  

But as noon drew near, we passed swiftly through the East Asian, Egyptian and Islamic art displays so as to reach the new Modern/Contemporary Art wing in good time.

Sadly, the tour guide we got didn’t measure up to what Robin and I had hoped for, since she got stuck for half an hour on one Pop-Art piece, ‘The Jazz Wall’ by Marisol (Maria Sol Escobar) (below).
It was an interesting multimedia piece. But since we’d wanted to see as much as we could in the short time we had, I slipped away, checked out works by Andy Warhol, Willem de Kooning and Roy Lichtenstein while everybody else stood patiently as the guide rattled on.
                                        Andy Warhol's Pop Art version of Mona Lisa at CAI
I kept checking back in with the group who seemed cemented to one spot; but when we finally got the guts to leave the group completely, we went straight to see our favorite modern artists such as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall and Vasily Kandinsky.
                                    Pablo Picasso's Nude under a Pine Tree at the Art Institute
We also managed to make a whirlwind run around Renoir’s Two Sister, Monet’s Water Lily Pond, Rousseau’s Waterfall and even saw Toulouse Lautrec's  Moulin Rouge (below)
We could have gotten an Audio Guide for USD5 (KSh515), but long ago, I learned how highly informative is simply reading the well-researched wall captions which cost us nothing. Without that encumbering ear-piece, we could freely opine about the art and what we liked and disliked about it.

I had to make a special stop before we left at the acclaimed George Seurat painting, ‘A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jaffe’ (below).
I had to stop not only because Stephen Sondheim had written a whole Broadway musical based on the painting entitled ‘Sunday in the Park with George’, but also because I once met a settler-styled ‘memsaab’ in Nairobi who, upon learning I was originally from Chicago, informed me she occasionally flew into the City just to see ‘the Seurat’!

Chicago has lots more to boast about than the Seurat and the Art Institute. There’s Kanye West and Jennifer Hudson, Michelle Obama and even Spike Lee’s hit movie called ‘Chi-raq’, which explores that side of the city best known for what Donald Trump once called its ‘mass carnage’.

But Chicago is also renowned for its Symphony Orchestra, its Opera House, fabulous urban architecture and multitude of skyscrapers.

It’s also a city full of immigrants and ethnic neighborhoods which mostly coexist apart from those where there are too many drugs, gangs and hand guns.

But perhaps what many people will best remember Chicago for is Grant Park, (which is right next to CAI) since that’s where Barak Obama received the word that he’d been elected the first Black American President of the United States. Chicago’s also the city that the Obamas ultimately call home.

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