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Our day off: visiting the Art Institute of Chicago

| Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Art institute webSusan Zhu

In the 1986 comedy “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” the charming Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) is a high school senior who plays hooky on a beautiful spring day. He takes his girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) and his friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) along for the ride, and the trio spend a day adventuring through Chicago. In one iconic scene, the kids visit the Art Institute of Chicago: they stare intently at paintings, link arms with a tour group of small children and jokingly mimic the pose of Rodin’s impressive sculpture “Portrait of Balzac.”

The museum scene is a lovingly-crafted, two-minute-long sequence that contrasts directly with the rest of the movie — whereas the scenes directly before and after are action-packed, the still shots of various paintings, ethereal music and total absence of dialogue within the marble walls of the Institute create a sense of intimate calm.

Although short, this scene had such an impact on the image of the museum that, while visiting the Art Institute with a group of Notre Dame students last Sunday, our tour guide was only 10 minutes or so into her spiel when she mentioned the film. She laughed as she described the numerous questions she’d received over the years about the film, calling the museum’s decision to allow Hughes to film there the “best public relations move the Institute had ever made.”

Our group consisted of freshman and senior Notre Dame students, with nearly every dorm and major represented. The scheduled, two-hour tour took us on a brief survey of some of the Art Institute’s highlights, including the American Wing, the Modern and Contemporary Wings and the hallmark Impressionist collections that the museum is so famous for (and we saw many of the works featured in “Bueller” along the way).

Some highlights included the recently opened Edlis/Neeson Collection of Contemporary Art, featuring newly-acquired works by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. We also got the chance to take in Marc Chagall’s “White Crucifixion,” just returned from its overseas visit to Florence where it met with Pope Francis. The painting, which depicts Christ on the cross and mixes both Christian and Jewish symbolism, is Pope Francis’ favorite.

Additionally, a few of the students on our trip enrolled in an art history course had the special privilege of viewing the current exhibit “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms,” which includes 36 of Vincent Van Gogh’s original works, letters and sketches. The exhibit was jam-packed — we visited at peak traffic hours, a Sunday afternoon — but the paintings and narrative structure of the exhibit were reportedly excellent.

Visiting the Institute demands that you, the visitor, engage intellectually. The museum houses a staggeringly abundant and wide-ranging collection; two hours spent in the walls of the museum barely allows you to scratch the surface. Yet within our relatively short visit, each person found something that drew them in. Our tour guide did an excellent job of casting the various works we viewed in an interdisciplinary lens, tying in Einstein’s theory of relativity to our discussion of “Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler” by Pablo Picasso and explaining the conservative ideology behind “American Gothic” by Grant Wood.

Some students discovered Salvador Dali for the first time, another person fell in love with “Nighthawks” by Edward Hopper. A universal favorite was the extensive, world-renowned Impressionist wing, especially the rooms upon rooms of scenes by Claude Monet, Pierre-August Renoir and their contemporaries. Simply being in the presence of the paintings feels a bit like meditating.

The short clip in “Bueller” pays homage to the encyclopedic qualities of the museum while also paying close attention to its impact on the patron — especially when Cameron, Ferris’ anxious friend, stares intently at Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” As the camera focuses in on the individual dots and loses the larger image, Cameron’s eyes flicker agitatedly, suggesting his concern that he, too, appears insignificant under closer inspection.

The beauty of being in a large group was that you weren’t necessarily anchored to the tour, either. Many students chose to explore individually, or to hang back and digest a painting on their own terms – a la Cameron and his tiny dots. Our tour guide didn’t mind; I think she, too, understood that art museums are a place for introspection.

On his day off, Ferris visited the Art Institute of Chicago. If you have a free weekend coming up, I highly suggest that you do, too.


“Van Gogh’s Bedrooms” runs through May 10. White Crucifixion” is on display through May 8. All other paintings mentioned are displayed year-round.

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