A Train, Manet, and…a Burger?

The title of this sounds like a joke in progress, but it’s not. Over Labor Day Weekend Barry and I took the South Shore Line into Chicago to (finally!) catch Manet and Modern Beauty at the Art Institute.

If you’re a listener of our podcast, Writing All the Things, you’ve heard about our trip in Episode 10. (Shameless plug.)

First of all, the train ride to the museum reminded us of when we rode from Rome to Florence backwards. It gives you more time to gaze at something if it catches your eye. We watched quaint towns go by and I (an urban decay aficionado) paid close attention to the rusting steel mills. It was a short enough ride from where we got on not to be tiresomely long.

Since I have recently fallen for vintage South Shore posters, much to my wallet’s chagrin, it was exciting to ride it for the first time.

We actually arrived early in Chicago, so we stopped for a quick breakfast before getting in line at the museum. “Getting in line” is code for talking with everyone around us about the exhibit, about previous exhibits, and about other museums we had all been to. Visitors were there from Japan and New Zealand, for starters.

Once we had our tickets we raced directly to the exhibit. Inside it, we decided to start at the end and come forwards. This was because, predictably, the area was packed with the early crowd.

Forgive me for this mild rant: it’s eerie to be in an exciting exhibit and hear near silence, to see audio guides glued to faces. That’s fine for those who like it, I suppose, but I “art” aloud. I like to discuss my discoveries, share with wide hand gestures the inevitably beautiful lines. (I’m a line person!) When I see a gorgeous color, I feel obligated to point it out. I don’t think this means I respect art any less. Hubby is much the same.

True, art has sometimes reduced me to silence. It has caused me to weep. This exhibit, however, felt like a visit with a friend. I’ve been studying Manet’s work for several years, and I could likely have been a guide myself.

Because the show was of his later works, Victorine (of my forthcoming novel of the same name; she was his favorite model and a painter herself), was only present in a photo from Manet’s album.

All of the works were worth seeing, though some stood out more than others. In the Conservatory was there. Barry and I last saw it with a dear friend in Berlin, where it lives. It was wonderful to see it again and discover the cigar anew.

Plum Brandy’s colors are hard to match, as is the sad sack expression on the model’s face. The model was actually an actor of the time, and her face would have been familiar. What does that say about acting of the time that he depicted her as so glum? Or was he merely painting what he observed?

Also to note: the banquette the woman is seated at (she’s supposed to be in a cafe or some such drinking establishment) is repeated in another of his paintings, clearly giving away that the painting was created in his studio. And, did you know they actually put a whole plum in the brandy? I haven’t researched this, but that’s what’s in her glass. Go figure. Ah, but those shades of rose and pink, the way the colors race around the canvas…

Manet was a master of still life. His brioche (complete with Zuzu, his wife’s cat, in the background, and a rose sticking out of the baked good) looks flaky and tasty. His white asparagus (besides looking phallic, naturally — the man has a juvenile’s sense of humor sometimes) are lifelike. There were two paintings of them there. One, alone, and a bunch of them as well.

His irregular, faintly bruised peaches also bear testament to his still life abilities. One likes them better for their imperfections.

Barry and I probably spent the most time in front of Boating. The colors in person are dazzling! Those gradations of blue! The shimmering water!

The figure placement is, predictably, pleasingly unusual. The passenger in the small boat, a woman in a dress that looks ungodly hot, complete with a belt, a hat, and veil, leans on her elbows. We see her profile. Her companion, the rower, is in basically a white undershirt, white pants, and a small straw hat. I’m angry that he gets to dress cooler than she does. He looks kinda irritated — because it’s hot and he’s rowing? How warm must she be!

In any case, the couple seems disconnected, for all that they’re in this tiny space. Her pose is relaxed but her body is not. They’re turned about as far away from one another as they can be.

He has the expression of someone who sees he’s about to have his picture taken and doesn’t like it. But since he’s posed for this painting, we have to attribute his features to conveying what Manet wants him to.

Is the rower too hot? Hearing bad news? Tired? The writer in me is still spinning scenarios.

Ah, but I promised you a burger. So because we didn’t have much time after we finished at the museum to have dinner, we shared an Impossible “burger” at Burger King. You know, the veggie burger that’s supposed to be indistinguishable from a real burger? Spoiler alert: it’s not. But nice try, BK.

If you missed the show, I’m sorry to hear it. It was special in so many ways. We talked about it from the museum back to the dunes and pretty much all the way home the next day. I still feel excitement fluttering in me just thinking of it.

What’s your favorite exhibit you’ve ever seen? Or is there one you wanted to make it to but didn’t? Let me know.

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