With so many treasures on view at the Art Institute — Monet’s haystacks, Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece, “Sunday on La Grande Jatte” — it’s easy to overlook the uneasy work of Illinois’ own, Ivan Albright. Not now. With “Flesh: Ivan Albright at the Art Institute,” the museum is putting this master of the macabre in the spotlight.

‘Flesh: Ivan Albright at the Art Institute’
When: May 4 – Aug. 15
Where: Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan
Info/tickets: artic.edu

Long before today’s artists made the body a battleground for aesthetic and political issues, Albright (1897-1983) saw in it the perfect image of passing time and the ultimate test of his talent. With “Into the World Came a Soul Called Ida,” Albright transformed his young model into a mass of aging flesh, her body bloated and knotted like a cluster of cancers. “And Man Created God in His Own Image” depicts a middle-aged man undressing for bed, peeling off his clothes to reveal a cadaverously blue torso.

“Albright’s vision, which viewers often find unsettling, was clearly shaped by his experience in the First World War,” suggests Austin Porter, Assistant Professor of Art History and American Studies at Kenyon College.”His sketchbooks from the war are filled with almost surrealistic, highly detailed renderings of fleshy amputations, open surgeries, and other examples of carnal trauma.”

Ivan Albright, “Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida,” 1929–30. | Gift of Ivan Albright. © The Art Institute of Chicago.

“Albright began to develop his unique style in the late 1920s, and reactions were strong, both positive and negative,” notes exhibition coordinator John P. Murphy, Research Associate in American Art at the Art Institute. “His full-length portrait ‘The Lineman’ won an award at the Art Institute’s Chicago and Vicinity exhibition, but when the painting was reproduced on the cover of industry magazine Electric Light & Power, readers were outraged.”

That picture was merely realistically unromantic, not grotesque. But two years later, he really gave viewers something to get worked up about, when the Toledo Museum of Art hung “Woman.” Garbed in high-collared, fur-trimmed coat, this oddly regal figure is lit from above with the shadows carving an uncomely countenance topped with wiry, unkempt hair. Negative public reaction forced the museum to remove the painting temporarily.

The sons of artist Adam Emory Albright, who painted bucolic, Impressionistic scenes of barefoot boys at play, Ivan and his twin brother Malvin (also an artist) were raised on the North Shore and always shared an extraordinarily close relationship. They studied together, worked together, went to war together and lived together well into middle age, when both wed women from newspaper families.

In 1943, the brothers went to Hollywood to create the canvases used in the film version of Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Malvin painted the handsome youth, while Ivan did the debauched version of the soulless Victorian. Rendered in a palette of blue, pink, green and yellow (to stand up to the bright lights of the set), Ivan’s over-the-top picture depicts a wild-haired, wide-eyed Dorian, his clothes in tatters, his hands bloody. When the painting was shown at The Art Institute in 1945, the Sun-Times ran a photo of school girls shielding their eyes in mock shock.

Ivan Albright, “Picture of Dorian Gray,” 1943/44.| Gift of Ivan Albright. © The Art Institute of Chicago.

When creating self-portraits, Albright did not exempt himself from the merciless treatment he brought to his other subjects. As early as 1935, he depicted himself looking far more decrepit than he was. And while corrupted flesh is front and center in much of his work, so too is an almost microscopic attention to detail, which he went to great lengths to achieve. Albright constructed elaborate tableaux with props and at times would use a brush with just three hairs if that’s what it took to capture the weave of fabric or a wrinkle in skin.

“We have tried to emphasize the humanity as well as the ‘horror’ elements of his paintings,” shares Murphy. “We are also focusing on Albright’s methods, how he achieved his unique effects. We want to address very directly the two questions visitors most often have about Albright: Why did he paint people the way he did, and how did he do it?”

For all the strangeness of his work, Albright was more a maverick than a radical. Academically trained and devoted to the human figure, he was a man who went this own way, not the herald of a new art. He never relinquished the comforts of realism, but he never let others feel entirely comfortable with his version of it.

Thomas Connors is a local freelance writer.