I took my first art history class as a sophomore in high school, right around that sacred time when teenagers begin forging what scientists and psychologists once courageously deemed “an identity.” Today, of course, most of those scientists and psychologists work in television advertising and utilize a rotation of terms for that awkward transition into adulthood. This year, I believe, they’re calling it Glee.
Whatever the name, my unique identity at the time was Eddie Vedder. And I was very cool and my pants had lots of pockets. I was also one of two male sophomores in an art history class full of hot female seniors. This led me to three very important life lessons: (1) where there is art, there are beautiful women; (2) those beautiful women usually have artist boyfriends; (3) it is best to focus on the art and not on the women, as some artists sculpt quite well with their fists.
As it turned out, the history of art provided more than enough drama and intrigue—or should I say angst and rebellion?—to keep my teenage attention. I loved the stories, the lives and the histories entangled and embodied by these creations the artists left behind. Studying the history of art was like studying the history of humanity—the cultures, religions, politics, technologies, revolutions, evolutions—only the entry point, for someone without access to a major art museum, was essentially based on faith. As a sixteen-year-old kid squinting at a Rembrandt reproduction the size of a business card, I remember thinking, “What’s this look like for real?”
Millions of years later, in a post-post-post-grunge world, here I am, on my last day as a staff member at the Art Institute of Chicago, where I routinely walk past many of the unreal artworks reprinted in that tattered old Gardner book from high school. I still find the optical magic of Seurat’s dots fascinating or the slick sheen of Brancusi’s Golden Bird both alien and captivating, yet what I’ll miss most aren’t the works I recognized on my first museum tour or the few anecdotes I remember from class. Instead, I’ll think back on my secret favorite works, the ones I discovered on my own or researched as an employee, like the charming and functional 14th-century Lion Aquamanile in Gallery 203A (profiled in this month’s Member Magazine, for all you members out there) or Frans Hals’ chuckle-inducing Rommelpot Player (the drummer from June’s Making the Band self-guide) in Gallery 208. During my first stroll through the Modern Wing, I probably stared at Vincent and Tony for ten minutes, a painting where the size of the canvas seems to directly match the potency of the emotion.
My point is—and surely I’m preaching to the choir here—the thing every art history book leaves out of its grand survey of human creativity (besides everything after, say, 1965) is an explanation for that bond that occurs, that unique connection between people and certain works of art, how some painting made in a stuffy, un-air-conditioned room centuries ago can still spur the imagination. Sometimes we have clear reasons (“See how the smoke turns into clouds right there? Isn’t that cool?!”), and sometimes we don’t even have words. In the museum’s recent Matisse exhibition, I absolutely loved his portrait of a balding man with glasses and a mustache. Why? I have no idea. Maybe I was looking into the future.
Anyway, I’ll miss the museum, my wonderful colleagues, and the daily opportunities to discover new secret favorites. Oh, and by the way—check out one of our Rembrandts when you get a chance. They’re way cooler than any book reproductions.
Or Pearl Jam.
–Zach G., (now former) media assistant. [Ed. note: we'll miss you Zach! Godspeed!]
Image: José Guadalupe Posada (Mexican, 1851-1913). Goodbye, Goodbye, n.d. Relief print on paper. William McCallin McKee Memorial Collection.