Monday, July 28, 2014

Suck factor zero?

Back to Dream Lake.  The water was less silty this year.  It was cool and refreshing and, best of all, we had it all to ourselves.
This year I mastered noodleology and achieved "turtle mind" with the water. 
Clint, me, and Mark having an organic perfect moment.  The hot sun, the cool water, and the beer.  There is a minor debate among Cumberland Island Armadillos whether suck factor zero is humanly attainable. Some feel that everything sucks to some extent.  Whatever.  In this moment, and in several others like it on this particular hot summer day, I could not detect any suck factor at all. Note Mark's Tilley hat mentioned below...  
The highs were in the low 90's that day with a slight breeze.  The bright sun was ringed by a subtle rainbow.
In the shade of the deck a butterfly landed on Clint's camera bag.
Vodka tonics were plentiful in the shade of the deck as well. We brought ice-filled coolers down in the golf cart. The vodka remained so chilled the ice stuck to it.  Perfect for tonic. 
Mark is rightly proud of his Tilley hat.  The inside label.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Long Time Coming: CSNY 1974

CSNY 1974: Proof of Purchase
I was 15 years old when David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young (CSNY) reunited for their "Doom Tour" in the summer of 1974.  I vaguely knew of the quartet at that age.  I had heard "Ohio" and "Teach Your Children." The only other tune I had heard by any of the musicians was Neil's 1971 number one hit single "Heart of Gold."  For me the quartet was just another nebulous musical style among many others. In those early high school years I was really more into a dozen other bands or musicians.

I was in college before I listened to CSNY's Déjà Vu album. But after that I recall quickly acquiring 4 Way Street and, suddenly, I had a complete CSNY collection.  This was also about the same time my awareness of Neil broadened.  I would become a full-fledged Rustie in 1979 but by then CSNY was no more, temporarily.  The way my musical tastes evolved, my full appreciation of CSNY as a musical force came after my awareness of Neil Young blossomed.  Neil was my path into CSNY.  Only later did I become interested in the skills of the other three members.

Jennifer and I saw CSNY in Atlanta (an infamous concert) during their 2006 Freedom of Speech tour, which was very Neil-heavy in terms of content as it featured his Living With War album. That performance was impressive.  They played for over 3 hours with only a short break. Everything sounded great.  Crosby and Nash's harmonies on the classic CSNY material were amazing. Stills and Young traded numerous virtuoso riffs on lead guitar.  The concert was divided into a traditional CSNY format - an electric set followed by a lengthy acoustical set followed by a more intensely rocking third set.

Now I have almost everything these four musicians have recorded in their various combinations and as solo artists. Naturally, I would rank Neil above them all but Stills and Crosby both have a lot of noteworthy material. Nash is a talented vocalist and many of his songs are catchy and fun.  He falls flat when he tries to be too serious though, in my opinion, his material is too much like cotton candy. In small portions it is OK but in larger amounts it is just too sweet for my tastes.

Back in the early 1970's the mere mention of CSNY got impassioned results.  There were very few "supergroups" in music back then.  The Beatles disbanded early on.  The Rolling Stones were of that caliber.  The Who and Led Zeppelin certainly come to mind.  CSNY had a turbulent on-again, off-again history that led to a lot of friction and very little actual recorded material.  But when they rallied to tour in 1974 they were most certainly an elite superband act.

The numbers of the 1974 tour give you some sense of how popular these guys were at the time.  The smallest audience they performed for was about 32,000.  The largest crowd was in Cleveland where 82,000 gathered, the largest non-sporting event in that city's history.  Most of the audiences ranged between 50,000 and 75,000, night after night for a bit over two months during that summer.

Although there had been large tours before (the Beatles in the 1960's) and huge concerts before (Woodstock, for example) nothing of this scale had been previously attempted;  to fill so many of the stadiums and coliseums in America, Canada, and the United Kingdom with rock and roll fans seeking to imbibe on their hippy idols.  For the four members of CSNY it was an opportunity to make over $1 million dollars each for about nine weeks work.  Everybody, the promoters, the road crew, the managers, thought they would make a lot of fast money.

They all huddled up to rehearse at Neil's ranch in California. The original set lists were sprawling with 44 songs, much of it new material.  None of them were interested in just doing their "traditional" songs and hits. Older material was reworked into new arrangements. As the tour wore on, the excess of the lists became an issue.  No two concerts were the same. The set lists were constantly being trimmed and rearranged. 

Logistics became an issue.  Moving all the equipment from massive venue to massive venue was unprecedented.  The sound technology itself became an issue. Capturing the performances with quality sound before audiences that size was beyond what speakers and amps were capable of delivering in outdoor venues at the time.  The sound quality was especially hampered by weather; wind and rain interfered with many of their concerts.

The band members, so unified and upbeat in the beginning, became adversarial before then end. Part of it was the undercurrent of gigantic egos that are naturally a part of any superband.  Part of it was frustration due to the fact they were not achieving what they had envisioned artistically. By the time the tour mercifully ended in the UK they all went their separate ways and no one was interested in even thinking about the music they had produced, much of it of inferior quality due to the mix of weather elements, discord between the foursome, and all that cocaine and pot they were all infamously consuming.  They were pretty messed up onstage most of the time.

It was an excessive, overindulgent mess that never really jelled...or so the music world thought and was told over the past four decades.  But the tour never quite left the minds of the quartet, especially that of Graham Nash.  It seemed a shame to leave this moment in rock history, the first true superband tour, completely silent and undocumented.  The tour was not completely recorded.  In fact, it began with no intention to record anything.  But nine of 31 shows were captured on 16-track soundboard recordings.  So, Nash and Neil's archivist Joel Bernstein began listening to the old tapes again, cleaning stuff up and making the best performances sound of the highest quality.

The result was released a few days ago.  I bought CSNY 1974 in its Blu-ray version to ensure the best sound.  And it does sound very rich and nuanced. The boxed set is nicely packaged, and is accompanied by a DVD featuring videos of eight songs performed during the tour.  Watching these guys perform as they were 40 years younger is a real treat.  It all comes with a superb 186-page book packed full of excellent photos, many never seen before, along with an excellent, detailed essay that served as the basis for much of what I wrote above. Other perks in the booklet include an exact listing for each instrument performed by each musician on each track of the 40 songs included in this lengthy and extensive presentation.

Then there is the music itself, over three hours of it, beautifully remastered, showing the strengths and the weaknesses of the performances, a true historic record in every sense.  Since the tour was chiefly about new material by the four musicians, several of these tunes have never been released until now, and many more songs included were recorded on various non-CSNY albums following the tour in 1975 and 1976.  The previously unreleased material is not always rock-solid but it is remarkable for documenting where this band was in this time, the enormous amount of creative potential there, and even the occasional moment when all four were on the same page in splendid sync and really moving the audience with their collective talent and unique chemistry.

The CD edition of CSNY 1974 devotes one disc to each set of music while the Blu-ray offers it as a continuous, navigable 3-plus hour performance. If you listen to it all the way through it is mixed as if you were there for the concert.  The opening electric set starts out with "Love the One Your With" which is pretty decent.  "Wooden Ships" follows it and it is an OK version.  Crosby is terrific as he plays off the harmonies of the other three on a delightful "Carry Me." As the set wears on, however, most of the material seems flat or slightly uneven to me.

Generally speaking, when CSNY is offering new material the songs are stronger.  When they are covering their previous material from around 1970 they sound more like an imitation of themselves, with variations that are interesting but are nonetheless inferior to versions I have elsewhere in my collection.  "Johnny's Garden" (bootleg here) and "Almost Cut My Hair" are the strongest tunes in the set. Of particular interest as a Neil fan is the inclusion of "On the Beach" (bootleg here) in the first set, the title song of Neil's latest album at the time, opportunistically released just as the tour started. So this was another brand new tune. It is great to hear this CSNY version but it isn't as good as how Neil does it on his studio album.

The acoustic set is the finest part of the collection.  "Change Partners" gets it going and it is a fine vocal arrangement with Crosby, Stills, and Young all playing Martin acoustic guitars. "The Lee Shore" is a beautiful work, well-played, featuring not only that incomparable Crosby-Nash harmony but the entire band in a jazzy acoustic rock style: percussion, bass, and drums supporting Neil and Crosby on acoustic guitars with Stills on a subdued electric; one of the best songs in this collection.  Likewise, Neil's "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" is an awesome version featuring the whole band.  "Our House" is enthusiastically received by the crowd, a triumph for Nash, followed by his finest solo performance on the collection, "Fieldworker" on piano.

The set isn't perfect, there a couple of weaker moments, including "Hawaiian Sunrisea Neil song heard here for the first time ever. Like "Traces" in the first set, it is just mediocre really.  But the twin duo performances of "Guinevere" (Crosby-Nash) and "Long May You Run" (Stills-Young) are wonderfully comparable and representative of the group's range.  "Long May You Run" would be a mild hit for Neil in 1976.  "Mellow My Mind", on the other hand, would be recorded on Neil's holy grail album Tonight's the Night in 1975.  I prefer that edgy dissonant version to the CSNY version. But on the Blu-ray Neil is playing solo banjo as the rest of the quartet sings harmony.  It smooths the tune out nicely and is really a more accessible and pleasurable version of the song than my preferred rendering on Neil's cultish album in the ditch.

Neil is supported by the drummer (Russ Kunkel) and the bass player (Tim Drummond) and Nash's voice in this version of "Old Man".  I must have 25 versions of "Old Man" and they are all excellent, this one is no exception.  A terrific performance. But this is only a foreshadowing of what Stephen Stills proceeds to come out and do in his solo section.  He performs a blistering "Word Game" on acoustic guitar and then he creates one of the collection's true highlights.  Stills released "Myth of Sisyphus" on Stills in 1975.  But that version does not really compare with what he does on this newly released recording.  As cliche as it sounds, this is a spellbinding performance.

A cover of the Beatles' "Blackbird" is next.  Man, this really sounds fine.  Classic, very tight and very smooth, Crosby, Stills, and Nash harmonies.  As if to bring a bit of bite back into the set this smoothness is followed by another previously unreleased Neil song, "Love Art Blues."  This country-blues tune is really the best of Neil's unreleased material on the collection; a fun song to listen to and the group gives us a flawless rendition.  The acoustic set closes with "Teach Your Children" and "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes", which are both just OK.

In the final set, the electric music returns and is overall stronger and more interesting than the first set.  "Deja Vu" is nice new arrangement where Neil swaps guitar riffs with Stills before transferring to Steinway piano to play keyboard lead dueling with Stills on guitar; something worth hearing for sure. As a side note, Nash, Stills, and Neil all take turns at the keyboards throughout the concert.  The keyboards are always mixed equal to the guitars and are not relegated to a backing instrument. Whoever is on piano or organ at the time is matching skills with the lead guitarist.  There is plenty of really fine guitar-keyboard jamming on this collection.

There is no better example of that than "My Angel," where Crosby plays electric rhythm guitar as both Stills and Neil trade lead on keyboards. Another highlight of the Blu-ray. The final set offers the only official digital version of Neil's "Don't Be Denied" that exists on the planet.  This track comes from his rough Time Fades Away album, which has never been released since its original vinyl pressing in 1973.  So, as a Neil collector, I am happy to have this version, which, with this group's skill set, is far better in my mind than what is on the original album.

This is followed by another high point in the collection. "Revolution Blues" is also from Neil's then-new album.  I wish it were a couple of minutes longer to allow for more jamming but overall the group totally nails this number. Though shorter it is better than the On the Beach rendering.  This is the best version of this tune I know of.  Crosby, Stills, and Neil create a driving wall of rocking sound with their three guitars and the crowd roars at the end of this powerfully energetic performance, probably the largest applause this song ever got; a fantastic example of how Neil could be so good with these other three guys.

Skipping over several other weaker or just OK performances I want to highlight "Pushed It Over the Edge," yet another previously unreleased song by Neil.  Here Neil manages to do something I would not have thought possible.  He makes CSNY sound like Neil with his long-time garage band Crazy Horse.  Musically it is just OK though it is essential for a Neil collector like myself.  It is unlikely this song will ever be preformed again and this is its only official release.

The concert closes with an OK version of "Ohio", which was obviously a crowd pleaser at the time, though this not the finest moment for this Neil number.  Overall, out of the 40 songs included, 13 are Neil's and 5 of those are new releases. So while this is definitely a CSNY effort, Neil and Stills, dominate the collection with their new material, evidence of what a tremendously creative, and consequently fractious, force they were within the group dynamic.

While most of the material is worthy and a few songs are exceptional, a lot of the playing on here is just passable though listenable.  I suppose that is an accurate representation of the tour and one reason why after it was over the group just felt like they never sounded consistently as good as they wanted. They are all four perfectionists and these musical selections, with some exceptions, are not perfect.  But it is also difficult to be perfect when you are breaking new ground both in terms of the music performed and pushing the limits of technology in delivering it to the enormous audiences.

Still, I would recommend CSNY 1974 to any music lover.  As I said, it is a superbly packaged historic document of a great band coming together in the summer of 1974 with mixed results.  But the music here is simply too good to be withheld from the general public for 40 years. CSNY was, and still is now and then, one of the pillars of American rock and roll. As David Crosby sings: "It's been a long time coming..." for this material to see the light of day.  For the most part it was worth the wait.

40 years ago today, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young performed to a sold-out Royals Stadium, Harry S. Truman Sports Complex, in Kansas City, Missouri. It was the sixth concert of the tour - which ended in Wembley Stadium, Middlesex, England in mid-September.  Also 40 years ago today marks the release of Neil's second ditch album On the Beach, though the album's wiki link says it was released on the 16th.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

True Detective: Coming to Catharsis

When it comes to television long-time readers know two things about me.  First and foremost, TV is generally a waste of time and the programming generally reflects and contributes to the downward spiral of mediocrity of the human mind. Second, I do not pay for television.  As far as the major networks and the cable/satellite corporate monopolies are concerned, if it ain't free I don't watch it, with the exception of our Netflix account, which is mostly for movies.

Naturally, I pay for great movies and even the rare great television series.  I own all nine seasons of the X-Files series, for example.  I own all six seasons of Lost.  I own the entire, original Outer Limits series. And so forth.  Since I am a free TV guy I don't get HBO but I am aware of its comparative success in the world of television. About a month ago, True Detective became available on Blu-ray.  I followed what the critics were saying about this program on my news apps as it was aired back earlier in the year.  Largely almost everybody thought it was awesome television - except for the snobby New York press.

Whatever.  The more I read about the series the more I wanted to see it.  I have now had time to watch its 8 one-hour episodes repeatedly.  It is easily the best fictional TV show I have seen in a very long time.  True Detective is superbly written, directed, acted, the music is excellent, every production detail is the best television can offer. This Blu-ray set offers brilliant high-definition images and excellent sound.

Jennifer and I watched the first three episodes in one-night stands but, while she was away one evening, I binge-watched the final five hours of the series in one sitting.  I simply could not stop watching it after the show, which starts off rather slowly, kicked into high gear.  Since then I have re-watched the whole thing with and without Jennifer, four times all total. We both think it is extraordinary.  Here are some of my reasons why.

The writing is terrific.  It is centered around two detectives investigating a ritual murder back in 1995, but told in flashback as they are both being interviewed about the case by two internal investigators in 2012.  The two major characters, Marty (played by Woody Harrelson) and Rust (Mathew McConaughey), are developed slowly over the first three hours.  We see their independent lives and discover the near constant tension between them as partners.  They do the job together, complimenting one another's skills, but they have almost nothing in common.

Rust is a self-proclaimed pessimist and has a number of long wonderful diatribes where he seems of be channeling Friedrich Nietzsche.  This naturally scores high points with me entertainment-wise as I am into Nietzsche, devoting my other blog completely to that great philosopher.  Rust's take on the hopelessness and, indeed, the mistake of human existence gives the narrative some depth and an added edge.

Marty, on the other hand, is much more straightforward.  He is seen as the far more stable and respectable of the two by those within the state police department.  He is a family man but we soon realize he is lost within his marriage (his wife, Maggie, is portrayed in an solid supporting role by Michelle Monaghan), becomes increasingly estranged from his children, and has difficulty staying out of at least a couple of infidelities.

On the case, however, these two are seasoned professionals and, as they begin to unravel the mystery of the murder, the facts lead to a rather nebulous but larger involvement of some people in high places within Louisiana politics.  But, I'm not going to spoil the story for those who haven't watched it. There are plenty of other things to talk about in True Detective.

The music was created and selected by T Bone Burnett (of O, Brother Where Art Thou fame, among other creations).  I wish there was a True Detective soundtrack available, but for a 8-hour movie it would take a boxed set to cover all the musical selections.  Suffice it to say you can check out the music here and that I found each tune to be perfect for each situation in the moment of the narrative.

Some of the music is original synthesized compositions by Burnett.  These are usually filling in otherwise silent moments or in establishing shots or in the many gorgeous areal shots of the Louisiana Gulf Coast.  During times when you see the sun setting or the endless marshlands and coastal waterways, the series felt like Apocalypse Now to me.  True Detective creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto references Apocalypse Now a couple of times in one of the audio commentaries included in the Blu-ray set.  So I felt vindicated in my comparison of how the series feels akin to that great film by Francis Ford Coppola.

True Detective, like all great films or productions, works on multiple levels simultaneously as it engages the viewer.  There is the high metaphysical level anchored by Rust's long, nihilistic ruminations.  There is the deeply emotional level of Marty and his marriage.  There is the conflict between the two partners as they nevertheless have to work together.  There is the story of the bizarre murder itself and how its tentacles slowly spread into a broader perspective as deeper details are investigated.  There is the new investigation about the old investigation, which allows for Marty and Rust to be separately interviewed and more or less tell most of the story in retrospect.

As the narrative unfolds we discover that Marty and Rust are, in fact, not being completely truthful about what happened in their investigation.  They are both telling the same lie about a very important event in the investigation.  That unexpected revelation was one reason for me to binge watch the final five episodes in one sitting.  I simply had to find out what the consequences of that mutual lie were, in addition to discovering the full implications of the murder.

In fact, it is that singular but critical lie (a cover story) that binds Marty and Rust even after they finally had a huge fistfight and a falling out around 2002 in the True Detective timeline.  Even though they refused to speak to one another again, they remained consistent about the lie, tightly covering each other. The lie is their fraternity and ultimately sets up the foundation for them to reconnect with one another in 2012 following their separate interviews by internal investigators.

The series shifts from being in the past-tense through most of the episodes into the present-tense at the end of episode six. The older versions of Marty and Rust end up reconciling to some degree because, as Rust puts it, they "have a debt to pay." They pick up their original investigation, which Rust never really let go of, and carry the series through its final two episodes without much reflection on their pasts.  Here they are two wounded warriors, bound by a fundamental deceit, working together to finish something that was left undone for far too long.

True Detective's production quality is on par with a great Hollywood movie.  It is often visually outstanding, especially in high-definition Blu-ray. One scene merits specific attention. The series is not really what you would call "action oriented." There are a few moments of intense action but generally this is a fine drama with fine character portrayal carrying most of the entertainment load.

In episode four, however, we are treated to a unique seven-minute sequence that is simply outstanding.  I love long continuous shots.  Alfred Hitchcock did an entire film, Rope (1948), in extended single-shot takes.  There is an incredibly lengthy single-shot sequence in Children of Man (2006) which makes that film something worth watching at least once.  In True Detective Rust goes undercover briefly to try to ascertain the whereabouts of a major suspect.  As part of his work he ends up as a member of an Aryan biker gang conducting a drug raid deep inside some black housing projects.

At one point the camera follows Rust nonstop through a myriad of action as the biker raid goes bad, gang fights, gun shots, helicopters overhead, an intercepting police raid, etc. This sequence without an edit is as action-packed and well choreographed as anything you might see in a major theater. It is certainly the action high point of the series and it is superbly executed; highly entertaining and a nice change-up from the otherwise character-driven story arch.

The series sounds heavy and indeed it is quite dark and brooding.  But part of what makes it such a well-written work is the fact that is chocked full of humor, usually cynical in nature.  Jennifer and I often laughed out loud and discussed afterwards some of the frequent, crisp one-liners during the course of the short series.  Several of the one-liners come from the difficult to impress Rust, but Marty gets his share in as well.  Here are some examples among many...

In episode 1, Marty makes some attempt to understand Rust's view of life while driving in their car.  After a heavy dose of materialistic nihilism Marty declares he has an idea of his own, playing off of Rust's words: "Let's make the car a place of silent reflection."

"Is sh!tting on any moment of human decency part of your job description?" Marty to Rust in episode 2.

"Not everybody wants to be alone beating off to murder manuals." Marty to Rust in episode 3.

"People incapable of guilt usually do have a good time."  Rust to Marty in episode 3, probably the best line in the series.

"Every time I think you hit the ceiling, you just keep raising the bar.  You are the Michael Jordan of being a son of a bitch." Marty to Rust in episode 4.

One of the bad guys, zoned out on crystal meth, philosophizes to Rust, of all people, in episode 5: "Time is a flat circle."  Rust replies: "What is that? Nietzsche?  Shut the f*ck up!"  It is as if he is suddenly listening to himself.

At the end of episode 6, modern day Marty meets modern day Rust for the first time in years.  Rust is now underemployed and bedraggled.  Rust offers to buy Marty a beer so they can catch up.  Then Rust pauses after looking at his beat-up truck, which he owned back in 1995. "Actually, why don't you buy me a beer..."

"Get on outta here, you're classing up the place." Rust to Maggie in episode 7.

Part of a conversation between Rust and Marty in episode 8 - Rust: "Sentient meat.  However illusionary our identities are, we craft those identities by making value judgments. Everybody judges all the time.  Now, you got a problem with that, you're living wrong."  Marty, after a pause: "What's scented meat?"

Throughout the course of this narrative there are several underlying themes explored.  But the one that I carry with me the most, indeed the one which serves as the basis for the conclusion of the short series, is what the show says about human catharsis. In episode 3 Rust summarizes the human need for religion as "the transfer of fear and loathing to an authoritarian vessel brings catharsis."  When asked in episode 5 about his superior reputation as an interrogator Rust replies to the internal investigators: "Everybody wants some kind of cathartic narrative; the guilty especially."

It turns out no one is more guilt-infested than Rust Cohle.  He carries a tremendous weight throughout the series, a weight that is heavier and more fundamental to him than his philosophy of hopelessness.  At the conclusion of the series, that weight is suddenly lifted - perhaps too suddenly for some New York critics.

But, I buy it because what those critics don't seem to understand is that Rust breaks down, cries to Marty, and experiences a transcending moment, a moment of catharsis. It is this moment that really makes the conclusion so satisfying for me personally.  He does not become a new person, it isn't that overwhelming, but he does take on a new awareness.

I won't try to define it precisely, you will have to watch the series for yourself.  You come to understand that True Detective is really not about the murder mystery at all.  It is a character study of two men coming to terms with life.  For Marty it is coming to terms with the slow passage of time. For Rust it is an instantaneous moment when suddenly darkness is not winning.  The fact there is any light at all is hopeful.  And the story ends on that sobering, grounded, yet inspiring note.

Which is a highly Nietzschean as it turns out. According to some essays in a great new book I am reading, Nietzsche On Art and Life, Nietzsche sought a balance where Art was not viewed as an escape from the suffering of life and life was not to be taken on its own terms without art.  Rather, out of the balance of both, out of an appreciation for both, a richer, active experience and affirmation of life is possible without minimizing the fundamental difficulties of human existence.

This is where Rust ends up.  His cathartic moment is not over the top.  It is not the transformation of Rust Cohle into some motivational speaker or salvation seeker inspired by the spirit of god.  It is genuine because he affirms life without giving in to the temptation to make his affirmation the basis for an easier life.  As Nietzsche teaches, life is no less hard just because you can see beauty in the world. But seeing beauty in the context of life's essential ugly qualities is precisely what it takes to live an authentic and relevantly fulfilled existence.

More about my new book on Nietzsche in a future post when I finish reading it.

True Detective's creator readily acknowledges the Nietzsche influence and references it in the audio commentary and special features included in the Blu-ray set.  The television show was nominated last week for 12 Emmy awards including (somewhat controversially) Best Dramatic Series.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Chicago: The Impressionism Experience

Note: This is the third part of my three-part travelogue about Chicago.

The Art Institute of Chicago features a stellar collection of French Impressionism, other Impressionism, and post-Impressionism.  It is, perhaps, unmatched in the world and certainly unsurpassed though, of course, I haven’t seen the great collections in London and Paris. There are bountiful paintings by Renoir, Monet, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Cezanne, Pissarro, Seurat, Caillebotte, Morisot, Cassatt, Whistler, Sargent, among others.  The Institute places the French front and center.  Through the main entrance you go up three short flights of superbly designed very wide stairs in an ample lobby featuring a wonderful female nude torso statue.
The main entrance lobby.  I took this shot on Monday afternoon. Traffic was light and I waited to get this without visitors in the shot.  The glass doors in the shade of the upper right open into the French Impressionism exhibit. 
When you enter the Impressionist collection, usually more crowded than many other sections of the museum given the popularity of Impressionism these days, you are greeted by Gustave Caillebotte's large and brilliant Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877). It is grand in size and obviously one of the best prizes in the Institute, a highly respected, world famous work of art.  I have seen this painting for many years in art books.  I have read about it and seen video lectures on it. But seeing it for the first time, the size of it, the superb technique and perspective, all the many background details…it was a wow moment.
The large and famous Paris Street, Rainy Day by Caillebotte greets visitors entering the Impressionism collection at the Art Institute of Chicago.  It is an impressive work to witness.
But my attention toward this painting was initially brief.  It fixed my view as I opened the glass doors and entered the collection, exiting the lobby entrance area.  I walked up and gazed at it only for a few seconds before my face turned to my right and I noticed an entire wall of paintings by Pierre-Augusta Renoir.  I immediately gravitated toward them, studying each in its turn before finally returning to the Caillebotte.  There are twelve Renoirs altogether with a wonderful Morisot mixed in with them.  An impressive gathering around the Caillebotte and I don’t recall ever seeing so many Renoirs in one place. 
One of twelve Renoirs around the Caillebotte.  Young Woman Sewing (1879).  Women sewing was a common theme in Renoir's work.
Detail of the flowers above.  Extraordinary work.  I looked at the many Renoirs for a very long time, more than the Caillebotte.
I experienced one of the high points of my life in Chicago.  I saw my favorite painting by my favorite painter for the first time in my life.  Art means more to me than religion.  It fact it may be my religion, I don't know.  But to witness Two Sisters (1881) by Renoir was like experiencing a personal journey to Mecca or something.  This painting is so delicate and beautiful and innocent and vibrant with color and mood and energy.  It is a rich combination of things, like all high art, and it deserves to take its place alongside the loftiest company, in my opinion. I can now say I have seen my three favorite Renoir paintings. In Boston, it is the couple dancing.  In DC it is the boating party. Now this, the summit of them all, in Chicago.  How fortunate I am.
Jennifer took this pic of me with my favorite Renoir; an amazing moment for me personally. Is that older sister looking at me? 
Two Sisters is flanked by Lunch at the Restaurant Fournaise (1875) and Near the Lake (1879).  Both paintings are marvelous.  Their selection to frame and accent Two Sisters shows a lot of creative thought by the Institute about displaying this art. Near the Lake supports the bluish tone of Two Sisters while Fournaise is directly connected with Two Sisters, both being painted at the same location, Maison Fournaise, along with Luncheon of the Boating Party, which we saw in DC last year. Obviously Renoir admired this location along the Seine.
The three-work restaurant on the Seine art is one the best examples, among many, of an artist fully absorbed in the moment, able the paint masterpiece after masterpiece within a punctual, brilliant explosion of creativity.  It was an especially powerful moment for me when I realized, for the first time, that the brilliant red hat of the older girl in Two Sisters is juxtaposed against the Seine, the river which, like our Mississippi River) has a large cultural connotation in France.  Knowing this deepened my appreciation for the work even more.
Almost the exact moment that I saw Two Sisters for the first time.  It is well anchored with two other excellent Renoirs.  The three are hung on a short wall after you pass the Caillebotte. Here we see Jennifer observing along with a few other visitors.
A detail of the older sister's face.  The famous red hat is positioned against the Seine, which is in the background past some growth along the water's edge.
Detail of the younger sister's face and hat.  Renoir was his most brilliant in the way he depicted accenting flowers in his works, in this case the flowers in the little girl's fancy hat.  You can see each pain-staking brush stroke.  Her eyes are stunning to me.
Lunch at the Restaurant Fournaise.  Renoir (1875).  Compare this work with Luncheon of the Boating Party and you will see many similarities in color and tone.  This is one fine example among many of depicting the nature of leisure among the middle class in the late 19th century. 
The Renoir experience was breathtaking for me but there are other great artists featured in that entry room.  The third wall in the entry room to the Impressionist collection has no Renoirs. Instead it features a Pissarro, another Morisot, a Manet, and several wonderful works by Monet. Collectively, this room was such an inspiring and sacred moment for me, a moment of Being.  I spent more time in front of these works than any other paintings in the Art Institute.

Passing out of this room through a short bridge way you come to the large and equally world famous A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884) by Georges Seurat.  Jennifer was not that wowed by this work but for me it seemed really interesting and wonderful due to its size, composition, and "Pointillism" technique.  An intentionally pixilated masterpiece. There are other, much smaller Seurat’s in this room along with some excellent work by other Impressionists. A small side room is filled with paintings, drawings and poster works by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – certainly more by this artist than I have seen anywhere else.  His At the Moulin Rouge (1895) made a particular impression upon me, but I did not get a clear photo of it.
Seurat's La Grande Jatte is one of the museum's big draws.  In most cases we were able to take photos with minimal or no visitors in the shot.  But the Institute was well-attended during both of the days we were there. Jennifer snapped this one of me among the crowd gathered in front of this great work.
Toulouse-Letrec.  Moulin de la Galette (1889).
A small preliminary study of La Grande Jatte by Seurat. Oil Sketch for "La Grande Jatte" (1884).  This small work is one of 24 such "sketches" Seurat made of this theme as he completed his masterwork.
It turns out that there are probably more works by Claude Monet in the collection than even works by Renoir. Several of Monet's most famous paintings are in Chicago including six of his numerous "hay stack" works and three of his many “water lily” paintings, featuring exquisitely detailed brush strokes.  There is a healthy sampling of Cezanne and Pissarro, of Gauguin and two famous Van Goghs.  A couple of Rodin sculptures are the only accenting pieces for this section of the highly concentrated collection.
Monet.  Water Lily Pond (1900).  One of many times Monet painted this bridge. Chicago probably does not have the best water lily paintings by Monet but those present are nevertheless remarkable.
A slight detail of the painting above.  Revealing more of Monet's brush stroke work.
Jennifer took this extreme close-up of part of one of the lily paintings.  The use of color, often sparingly, reflects a sensitivity rivaled among Impressionists only by Renoir himself.  A delicate blend of many colors in a canvased space of about 7-8 inches in this shot.  Just beautiful.
Monet.  On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt (1868).
Monet.  The Beach at Sainte-Adresse (1867).
Monet. Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare (1877). This is one of my favorite works by Monet.
Monet.  Stacks of Wheat (Sunset Snow Effect), 1891.  One of six "hay stack" paintings lined up in a row together when we were in Chicago.  Monet used these stacks to study the play of color and light at different times of day and in different seasons.
Monet.  Water Lilies (1906).  I especially enjoyed this water lily depiction.
After you pass through the "main" Impressionist collection you can enter a series of side rooms which contain even more from this period.  There are many Manet's featured here.  One of the most striking pieces in this part of the collection is a marvelous self-portrait of Frederic Bazille, a painter of great promise whose life was tragically cut short by the Franco-Prussian War.
Frederic Bazille.  Self-Portrait  (1866).  I took this photo.  All artwork presented in these posts was photographed by either Jennifer or me.
Camille Pissarro.  Haying Time (1892).  A detail.  The brush stroke work in this painting, the flow of globular paint, was impressive to me, as were many others in the collection.
Edouard Manet.  Fish (Still Life), 1864.  I have always liked this painting and Manet is one of my favorite painters. 
A detail I took from The Bedroom by Vincent van Gogh (1889).
Jennifer took this shot.  She really adored this painting of many hats by Edgar Degas.  The Millinery Shop (1886).
Impressionism by American artists like Mary Cassatt, who worked in Paris with Degas and other major French artists, is featured in the American art collection at the Institute.  But I will include them in this post as they fit completely with the style and influence of the French.  Cassatt’s famous The Child’s Bath (1893) is post-Impressionism and created after her return to America.  Mixed in with this masterwork were some incredible paintings by John Singer Sargent, an artist whose work Jennifer and I continue to admire more each year.  
Mary Cassatt.  The Child's Bath (1893).  A defining moment in American art.
John Singer Sargent.  Portrait of Charles Deering (1917).  Detail. Sargent is a rising star in my awareness of great painters.
Another Sargent.  The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy (1907).  A detail. This was a wonderful work to see.  It reveals much of Sargent's command for mood, tone, and detail.
A new Impressionist discovery for us was Childe Hassam.  I may have seen some of his work elsewhere but I do not recall it.  There were 4 or 5 works in the collection that I initially noticed as new and masterfully accomplished.  Then I noticed all of them were by Hassam, so now I have a new artist to learn about and admire.  As with any great art museum trip, it is not just about seeing work for the first time with which you are familiar, but also in finding new creativity to broaden the spectrum of your appreciation for Art. 
Childe Hassam.  New England Headlands (1899).  The technique in this work reminds me of Pissarro.
Hassam.  New York Street (1902).
Detail of above painting allowing you to see the exquisite intricacy in Hassam's work.  Notice the black stitching in the woman's right glove.  The brilliant few short strokes of red and yellow create a vibrant hat against the grey winter day in 1902. An alluring work.
One of the many things the Impressionists explored in their great works was the emergence of leisure time among the middle class in the late 19th century.  The Renoir paintings and the huge Seurat work along with Sargent and others reflect relaxed Sunday afternoons, smoking cigarettes and enjoying wine and unperturbed conversation. There are paintings of people taking naps, sitting adrift in boats, and just strolling along.  The beauty to be found in these leisurely pursuits communicates to me today.  Is this beauty the Beauty, the Platonic Idea?  Could be.

The Chicago trip itself was a manifestation of this same beautiful leisure in my own life.  So, I felt connected with Impressionism on many levels at the Art Institute.  In this case, instead of art reflecting back on itself, in many cases it was me, as the observer, reflecting back upon myself through the many masterpieces I witnessed in those sacrosanct rooms and halls.