Lascaux and the Genius of Beauty
There is a Chagall window in Chicago. To me the blues are Caribbean, and within the blues float objects of other brilliant hues. They don’t tell a story, but spin something else, a direct appeal to emotion. I feel what I suppose is human yearning, a feeling of connecting, a drive for empathy and understanding. How do you do that with a window?
It’s not installed, of course, as a real window, but at The Art Institute, as three large display panels backing to a natural light source, Chicago’s lakefront. The three panels, each made of twelve rectangles, are said to represent literature, drama, and dance, and I suppose they’re in there somewhere too, but I feel primarily happiness. It’s not joy or giddy celebration, but the quiet happiness that comes when life brings about a small thing that makes your day better that you suspect you probably ever deserved. Picasso remarked: “When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color is …” Marc Chagall (1887-1985) was from Belarus, but worked at Antibe in the South of France.
Chicago’s Art Institute, where the windows shimmer, is on Michigan Avenue just blocks off of Rt. 41. The museum is structured primarily out of beauty and surprise and demands wandering, but it’s OK to wander with an official brochure map in hand, and it’s even OK to wander with a taped lecture stuck in your ear buds, though I declined this pleasure. Admission of $20.00 entitles general wandering, with an additional surcharge for specific wandering into temporary exhibits. I stuck to the general wandering, because I only had about four hours and there is a lot of general collection to find.
Besides Chagall I visited Van Gogh. A Bedroom at Arles here was done while he was institutionalized (the ear incident), apparently from memory. The self-portrait shows carrot-colored hair with highlights in light green. What a strange beauty Van Gogh saw, and you can see the strangeness in the face, the strangeness of a man who I don’t believe would fit anywhere, certainly not in the world of polite social visits which is the world he happened to inhabit. Van Gogh (1853-1890) was Dutch, but worked at Arles in the South of France.
One thing about France is that it’s the center of the world, not easy to see on a map, though pretty obvious if you have a globe you can hold in your hands. You can angle the globe in a certain way as to see a water hemisphere (dominated by the Pacific and Indian Oceans) and a land hemisphere. Something like 95% of earth’s land lies within this land hemisphere, and you can center in on France. Seen this way the Mediterranean Sea really is in the middle of the world’s land, as the name implies and the ancients apparently believed. In fact, to the Greeks, Ocean meant an encircling river, which in a way it is.
Gaugain is here as well. He is one of the guys who got out of Europe to find beauty in the primitive, travelling the Pacific, especially Tahiti, where he may have arrived a little late, at least according to something I read. I imagine the island girls had already been told they were topless. Anyway it made him sad, though he still used colors in a joyful way. Maybe he arrived back realizing that a bad day in Tahiti is still better than a good day at work. Paul Gaugain was portrayed by Anthony Quinn in the Hollywood biopic Lust for Life which centered on Van Gogh (Kirk Douglas), but Quinn won an Academy Award showing Gaugain as a brawling enthusiast and bully. Gaugain (1848-1903) was French and worked some in the South of France.
Gaugain had several children, but strangely his oldest son, Emile, is buried in Florida at Lemon Bay. It’s less than ten miles off Rt. 41.
Amid wandering I took a long break to drink iced tea in one of the cafés at the Art Institute (there are several), mostly to sit for an hour, but I stood to chat with a retired guy who was a school trip chaperone for a couple classes of energetic high schoolers. (I know, redundant.) These kids were on break from their day as well, so they did what high schoolers do best, talk about each other. He said he’s usually a substitute teacher, but today just a chaperone. They were nice kids from a serious school who all had packets to fill in, and they appreciated their time off for good behavior.
The next day I’d saved for The Field Museum of Natural History, a place of dinosaurs and dioramas: specifically (yes, it cost a couple bucks extra on top of the $20 admission) to see the traveling exhibit on Lascaux, the cave where people recorded visuals. That’s in the South of France. Maybe these cave artists were the first geniuses, the first to take enough time to develop a way of using beauty to help others see the world that they saw. They were hunters and they had the technology of the hunt. By 20,000 years ago that was pretty well developed with razor-sharp points, accelerated spear-throwers, and organized strategies. Maybe the cave walls were partly instructional, like a driver’s ed simulator. I kind of think they may have started out utilitarian in some way but quickly morphed over into a celebration of the animals. All hunting cultures worship what they hunt.