Two New Art Exhibits Address Earthly Spirituality

By Wecker, Menachem | National Catholic Reporter, June 29, 2018 | Go to article overview

Two New Art Exhibits Address Earthly Spirituality


Wecker, Menachem, National Catholic Reporter


CHICAGO and WASHINGTON * In the late 1920s, when Chicago artist Ivan Albright sat to paint a full-length portrait of Peter Haberlin, a Franciscan monk at Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside, California, the painter asked, "Can't you feel more religious?"

The monk responded, "I'm doing the best I can," notes a wall label in the exhibit "Flesh: Ivan Albright at the Art Institute of Chicago" (through Aug. 5).

The painting, titled "I Walk To and Fro through Civilization and I Talk as I Walk (Follow Me, the Monk)," is one of the least bizarre works in the one-room exhibition, which celebrates an artist whom the Art Institute describes as "one of the most provocative artists of the 20th century, a 'master of the macabre' famous for his richly detailed paintings of ghoulish subjects."

Albright (1897-1983) became one of the most famous American painters after his "Picture of Dorian Gray" was used as a prop in the 1945 Oscar-winning adaptation of Oscar Wilde's 1891 novel. Albright's picture, per Wilde's description before him, is downright terrifying and is difficult to describe to someone who hasn't seen it in person. The life-sized figure, it might be said, looks like he has just emerged from a losing paintball match, during which he has also sprouted an abundance of boils. The environment itself has turned on the figure, and Albright has somehow managed to endow every nook and cranny of the picture with such an off-putting aura that one can't help but recoil, without entirely knowing why.

Typically the painting hangs on its own directly opposite the crowd-pleasing "Nighthawks," by Edward Hopper, but in the Albright exhibition, it's among its brethren, including highly unflattering self-portraits, a picture of Mary Block (co-namesake of Northwestern University's museum) that it's hard to imagine anyone could find flattering, and a painting titled "Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida." The latter is a ghastly take on Renaissance traditions of showing attractive young women eyeing mirrors or combing their hair as death looks on, often bearing an hourglass. Where other artists might be tempted to smooth over embarrassing features or to darken a sitter's hair, Albright likely introduced unseemly bulges, and worse, where none really existed.

The portrait of the monk, however, is more humanizing. The monk's face and hands are wrinkled, but there's a majesty to the man, who bears a crucifix. His eyes downcast, the monk stands in a sparsely decorated room, facing some light pouring in through a window. A small plant on the sill echoes, in its sagging leaves, the monk's dangling rosary beads and knotted cord. Where other pictures in the show repel, this one draws the viewer in, and an exhibit label suggests spiritual transcendence.

Albright is up to something very different in "And Man Created God in His Own Image," where a man wearing a hat removes his shirt This depiction, the exhibit notes, is anything but a classical male nude. What it presents, a wall label states, is a controversial and "disturbing vision of 'God' made flesh," in which Albright worked from an Illinois labor leader and bartender named George Washington Stafford.

Critics at the time referred to the "Bowery bum" and "bleary-eyed, red-faced, elephant-skinned reprobate." And yet, the exhibit suggests, the artist meant for the picture to convey nuance: "Is the main figure a symbol of humanity's delusions in thinking itself divine?" it asks. "Or is the true nature of God to assume the form of society's most wretched and outcast members?"

Exploring the notion of what it might mean--at least pictorially--for the divine to assume flesh in the context of Wilde's novel, in which flesh becomes immune to aging through a kind of reversed, aesthetic voodoo doll, is a heavy enterprise that is not for the faint of heart. More than 650 miles away, at Washington's Phillips Collection, the opposite sort of program emerges in the exhibit "Marking the Infinite: Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia" (through Sept. …

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