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Revisiting the Permanent Collection

"Beauty was present long before us and that we are but stewards of that beauty."


James B. Cuno, president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago, says that we should visit his museum to experience its permanent collection instead of just turning up for blockbuster shows. The permanent collection, he writes, affords the opportunity for "sustained and repeated engagements with individual works of art, presented without the hyperbolic promotional apparatus of the temporary exhibition."

The permanent collection is composed of objects that remind us that "beauty was present long before us and that we are but stewards of that beauty, ushering the past into the future for others to experience as we experience it now." Art takes us out of our selves and alters our consciousness "in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism," Cuno states.

I agree completely. The Art Institute's permanent collection is a wonder -- more than 260,000 objects, constituting of roughly 3,900 paintings, 3,000 sculptures, 70,000 prints and drawings, 16,000 photographs, 12,000 textiles, 15,000 decorative artworks and 140,000 to 150,000 architectural drawings. At any given moment, there are roughly 4,600 objects on view -- just two percent of the entire collection. Since the Art Institute acquires objects each year and regularly rotates works in and out of storage, there's a lifetime's worth of art to look at, even if we visit twice a week.

All of us have favorite works in permanent collections that we continue to appreciate. Mine is the Tasso Cycle of paintings by the Venetian Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. The paintings tell the fictional story of Rinaldo and Armida, who come from opposing sides in a religious war, fall unexpectedly in love and are torn apart by duty. Tiepolo's source is Jerusalem Delivered, a rousing 1581 epic by Torquato Tasso, one of Italy's greatest poets. Jerusalem Delivered describes the First Crusade in 1095, in which Christian soldiers drove the Turks from Jerusalem. Some scenes are historically accurate, but Tasso often ventured into magic and romance, creating vivid characters and much poetry. Tasso's stories were very popular, and wealthy Venetians commissioned artists like Tiepolo to decorate their palaces with scenes from Jerusalem Delivered. Tiepolo made the Tasso paintings between 1742 and 1745, and it's believed that they once hung in a large room with three smaller works.

Tiepolo's style of painting is the visual equivalent of Tasso's elevated poetry. He employs color, composition and body language to compress a long, complex tale into four scenes. In Rinaldo Enchanted by Armida, we see Armida, a Syrian sorceress, seated on a cloud in her magical chariot with her pale-colored garments billowing around her. She looks down haughtily, but with considerable interest at Rinaldo, a Christian knight who has fallen asleep on the ground. Armida, who is accustomed to having her way with men, likes to beguile Christian soldiers with her beauty, tie them up and dump them in the desert. Instead of crushing Rinaldo, she falls in love, binds him in magical chains made of flowers and whisks him off to her secret garden at the end of the world.

In Rinaldo and Armida in Her Garden, the two are lovers -- of a sort. Lying on her side, she looks at him, but also admires her own features in a large mirror. He gazes back as he inspects his face reflected in her eyes. Behind the garden wall at the back are Charles and Ubaldo, Christian knights who have come to Armida's garden (with supernatural assistance) to fetch Rinaldo back to the Crusades. He's their best fighter, and they must have him for the final assault on Jerusalem. Their costumes and body language tell us everything we need to know about them.

In Armida Abandoned by Rinaldo, the lovers become human. Armida, no longer a pitiless sorceress but a woman who's losing her love, looks up at Rinaldo, imploring him to stay. Ready to leave, Rinaldo stands at the other side of the painting, but his posture betrays his ambivalence. Charles and Ubaldo gesture impatiently, urging him to depart in a waiting boat.

The final painting Rinaldo and the Magus of Ascalon (not shown) is a bit anticlimactic. The Magus, a magician, conjures up the heroic deeds of Rinaldo's ancestors and inspires him. Rinaldo fights, Jerusalem falls, and the lovers meet and reconcile. There the story ends. o

Published: June 01, 2006
Issue: Summer 2006