A new show at the Art Institute explores the provocative work of a Chicago artist known as a “master of the macabre.” By all accounts, Ivan Albright was a lighthearted fellow – but in the mid-20th century, he painted some very dark pictures.
John Murphy, curator: He’s a very difficult artist to categorize and I think he liked it that way. He wanted to make sure his work was uncategorizable. He didn’t want it to fit into any trend or movement – he didn’t see himself as part of any school. He was Ivan Albright. He was an intense individualist, and when you see one of Albright’s paintings you know there was no one else who could’ve painted it, except Albright.
Marc Vitali: He sometimes took 10 years to paint a single canvas.
Albright cast a harsh but compassionate eye on many lost souls. And he could create startling details with just a single bristle on his paintbrush.
He was a meticulous craftsman and one of the most provocative American artists of the 20th century. Chicagoan Ivan Albright also had a long history with both the School of the Art Institute and the museum.
Murphy: His father was a painter – Adam Emory Albright – who had several one-person exhibitions here at the museum in the early 20th century. Ivan came in through the galleries when he was a kid, he would’ve had the chance to see El Greco and Rembrandt and Manet, so it was an early education for him.
And then in the early 1920s he matriculated into the School of the Art Institute, enrolled as a student, and trained for about three years, from 1920 to 23 so that’s where he got his grounding and academic training as a painter.
Vitali: Chicago Tonight visited the small but vivid Ivan Albright exhibition before it opened to the public. The theme? The way of all flesh.
Murphy: That was the title of a 1928 painting by Albright and I think in many ways it’s the word that most clearly signals his main thematic preoccupation with the body, with decay. There’s something about the word “flesh” – it’s a kind of disturbing word that’s a little unsettling even to say out loud and I think it signals a little bit of his relish in portraying the body as it’s decaying. It’s not that these are necessarily gruesome or off-putting paintings. There’s a strange push-pull of attraction and repulsion at the same time.
Vitali: He was called “the master of the macabre,” but the painter was more friendly than frightening.
Born into an artistic family, he grew up in a log cabin in Edison Park with his twin brother Malvin, who also became an artist. They later moved to Warrenville where their father converted an old church into a family art studio.
During World War I, the brothers served in a hospital in France, where Ivan Albright depicted the wounds of returning soldiers. His graphic sketchbooks can still be seen by appointment in the Art Institute’s Ryerson and Burnham libraries.
In 1945, the twins Ivan and Malvin Albright worked on the film “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” the Hollywood version of the Oscar Wilde novel. Ivan Albright created the grotesque portrait that ages while its subject stays young. When the painting is revealed, it is the only moment in ghoulish color in an otherwise black-and-white movie.
Murphy: You can understand that, for the film producers, they were looking for the artist who would be able to most gruesomely and accurately in the most horrible way depict Dorian’s aging and corrupt soul, and if that was what you were looking for then there was only one painter you were going to get, and that was Ivan Albright.
Vitali: In 1977, Albright turned 80 years old and made a major gift of his works to the museum.
Murphy: The Art Institute of Chicago is fortunate to be the major repository of Ivan Albright works in the entire world.
This show is entirely made up of works from the permanent collection.
We’re fortunate to have a few unfinished works in the collection by Albright and those are on display and they’re very rarely seen by the public, so it gives you a glimpse, behind the curtain so to speak, to Albright’s methods and processes.
Vitali: One signature painting that did not quite fit the theme of this exhibit hangs in a gallery across the hall. Commonly known as “The Door,” Albright titled it “That Which I Should Have Done, I Did Not Do.”
Albright did not spare himself from his own withering gaze. He painted a profusion of self-portraits, especially in his later years.
Murphy: Throughout Albright’s career, he was very much invested in this idea of the competition between the body and the soul, the physical and the spiritual, and he wanted to see if he couldn’t find a way to combine both of those elements into one painting.
This year marks 35 years since Ivan Albright died. The exhibition “Flesh: Ivan Albright at the Art Institute of Chicago” is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago through Aug. 5, 2018. For more information, visit the museum’s website.