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Between the Lions

Guarding the doors of the Art Institue of Chicago are two bronze lions. I’m not sure of their significance, but judging by the green hue and collection of dents and scratches, they have been there a long while. The building itself is massive, not in a vertical sense like the skyscrapers just down the street, but a jumble of tan stone blocks, engraved on the top with artist’s names.

Inside, where the air is cool and artificial, I was greeted by staircases and hallways going sideways, leftways, rightways, backways, and any which way you want. An armless statue, with muscles perfectly sculpted, stands in the center.

The first gallery I saw seemed to be the most popular-- the impressionists. They were a group of painters around a hundred years ago, starting with Van Gogh, who abandoned the realistic style popular in Europe for a more loose, artistic style. Rather than painting exactly what they saw, they wanted to convey the impression, the feel of it. They live up to their name, for when I took a closer look, all I saw were messy brush strokes, almost amateur. But, upon taking a few steps back, the colors all fit together in beautiful synchronicity, to make a bridge or a pond. A ballerina in a white tutu, which I would have drawn with various shades of white and grey, contained blues, greens, magentas, lavenders, and warm oranges and yellows, yet still somehow resembled a white tutu. Monet's train station, simply blobs or streaks thrown across a canvas, was a blue-grey, foggy dawn, a bit chilly, with a slight buzz of conversation and a hiss of steam. These men didn't see the world in lines or shapes, but in colors.

All these paintings circled a center wall, upon which was the main attraction: George Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. He's the guy who painted with the dots. I've seen pictures, but the real thing is always bigger than you expect. A crowd huddled around, most only glancing for about ten seconds. A cautionary sign warned, "No flash photography,” but it did not say anything about selfies, as photos of the 129-year-old painting were plastered across the internet in ways that George Seurat could have never dreamed of. My sister, the celebrity of Snapchat, was no exception.

An exhibit unique to the Art Institute is a collection of tiny rooms. When I say tiny, I don’t mean for a child; I mean dollhouse rooms, complete with miniscule lamps, couches, fireplaces, and tables. The rooms, around a foot in length, were built into the walls and fronted with viewing glass. An old lady with way too much time on her hands had donated these rooms some time ago. They were sorted by time period, stretching from renaissance Europe to 1950’s California. The decor was perfectly matched to the style of the time and place, such as the grand white stone of an eighteenth-century Virginia mansion, or the adobe and Navajo rug of a 1940’s New Mexico home. My little brother, the LEGO fanatic, was fascinated. The degree of realism was so well-done that in the pre-electrical age rooms, artificial sunlight was filtered in through miniature windows.

I’ve seen Grant Wood’s American Gothic three times before, this time being the third. It was the shining attraction of the second floor. This is one we’ve all seen in countless pictures, but it is always strange to see the real thing. You can imagine the artist painting it, see the brush strokes of the different paints blended together; it has a degree of realism only accessible at a museum.

There were three others in that gallery that stood out to me, all by the same artist-- Ivan Albright, who rose to fame after making the titular painting for the 1945 movie adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray. His style can best be described as “beautiful ugliness.” Dorian Gray was disgusting and rotted, his skin grey and green, his hair falling out, but yet I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. Another was an old woman looking in a handheld mirror, the room dark and dismal, cellulite on her grey legs. Yet, it’s painted with such a unique style that it was almost pleasing.

My sister and little brothers went running off pretty quickly. George paced around while Martha sat around with her phone. “I’m starving,” she complained. My Mom, the art teacher, and myself were only halfway through the gallery. My feet ached, but that’s a day in Chicago. With the traffic clogging up the streets like an old drain packed with 2.7 million people all fighting to squeeze through, walking was the easiest option. I had to leave with almost half the museum left unseen, including the modern art wing. We said goodbye to the suits of armor, goodbye to that strange medieval painting of decapitation, goodbye to Grant Wood’s dentist with his pitchfork and comical stare, goodbye to the strange African masks shrouded in yellow grass, goodbye to the green lions. We had a long journey ahead of us. Pizza sounded good.

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