“Make no mistake, this is pornography,” said Ali Kemp, pausing Monday in front of Titian’s painting “Danae and the Shower of Gold” at The Art Institute of Chicago. “If you were a rich dude in renaissance Italy, and you wanted porn, you just commissioned someone to paint your own. But if you wanted people not to know what it was, you’d come up with some vaguely mythological story that could somehow involve a naked lady and that’s what you’d portray.”
She was — the woman in the painting, not Kemp — one of thousands of naked ladies sprawled on chaises I’ve tramped past in a lifetime of vigorous museum going. But I can’t remember ever pausing to look closely and think about what I was seeing, such as the dog in the corner of the painting.
“Now there’s this little dog, which seems innocent enough,” she said. “But in renaissance Italy, nothing is as it seems, and that dog symbolizes that she is … loose, basically.”
I knew there is an Art Institute — I’ve been a member for years. And I knew there are tours — groups of foreigners trekking after someone holding a small flag. But it never occurred to me that there are also organized gonzo tours, not until Museum Hack invited me to tag along and I thought, “Why not?”
“We lead sassy and subversive tours at The Art Institute,” explained Cody Nailor, a publicist for the tours. “These aren’t your grandma’s tours.”
Indeed not. Museum Hack offers “Drag Tours”— art tours led by cross-dressing men —”Badass Bitches” tours, focusing on feminism and the one I was on, the “Un-Highlights Tour.” In addition to Chicago, it operates in New York, San Francisco, Washington and Los Angeles.
The Art Institute allows this?
“We do allow Museum Hack and other various groups to conduct their programs at the museum so long as they follow our security and visitor protocols,” said Anna E.. Miller, a museum public affairs coordinator.
The group gathered in the lobby.
“We’re going to see a sampling of the things I find in this museum the weirdest, the sexiest, the most disgusting. and just have a really good time,” said Kemp, a mother of three who lives in Downers Grove. “It’s just going to be the cool stuff that you wouldn’t get to see if you came here yourself.”
Our first stop was a two-foot tall Aztec figurine, labeled: “Ritual Impersonator of the Deity Xipe Totec.”.
“Do you guys have an outfit in your closet, you know you could put on if you got a call from your boss, or a Tinder date, something that made you feel sexy and powerful?” Kemp asked. “The Aztecs had an outfit like that too.”
She explained that during a certain festival, Aztecs wore the flayed skins of ritual victims. She pointed to the corset lacing at the back of the ceramic figure, where the skin was held in place.
“You might feel best in a little black dress, and they would feel best wearing you,” she said. “They’re wearing people.”
Speaking of people, our tour had five: Kemp, myself, Larry Snider, a new retiree to Melbourne Florida, plus Vivian Lee and Faith Magtulis, an engaged couple from Toronto, here on business.
We pulled up in front of Giovanni Baglione’s “The Ecstacy of St. Francis.” .
“Do any of you guys have a favorite celebrity feud?” said Kemp. “First is Baglione; he’s the Taylor Swift of this scenario. He sweet, nice , easy to work with, easy to like his artwork. He probably has cats. The second is Caravaggio. He’s a real jerk, but he makes great art.”
Two hours passed quickly. Yes, sometimes we descended into parlor games — pick a place we’d hide in a miniature Thorne Room. Part of the pleasure of tours is finding the guide’s mistakes, and I noticed just one: Kemp presented Louis XIV and Honore Daumier as contemporaries, even though the Sun King died nearly a century before the great caricaturist was born.
A visitor to Chicago could find worse ways to spend $59. A reminder that merely checking out the latest show — the John Singer Sargent exhibit opened this week — and pausing before old favorites doesn’t come close to taking full advantage of The Art Institute. There’s a lot there, if you take the time to seek it out.