Palacio de Belles Artes & “El hombre controlador del universo”

The 500-peso Mexican banknote now in circulation is the largest one I handled during my time in Mexico City, worth about US$26. On one side is Diego Rivera. On the other is Frida Kahlo. Husband and wife on paper money is unusual, but not absolutely unheard of: George and Martha Washington appeared on an 1896 U.S. $1 silver certificate.

I had Rivera in mind on our last full day in Mexico City, which also happened to be New Year’s Eve, and a Sunday. I wasn’t sure places like the Palacio de Belles Artes or the Palacio National, where Rivera murals are on display, would be open. Not only were they open, there was no charge to get in, though I believe that’s always true at the Palacio National.

We arrived at the Palacio de Belles Artes just before noon. It looks like an art palace built before WWI, and it is, partly. Porfirio Diaz commissioned it, and work started in 1904. Enough of the exterior was finished by 1913 to give it Neoclassicial and Art Nouveau aspects. Adamo Boari, an Italian architect active in Mexico, did the exterior.

Worked then stopped because of the Mexican Revolution and wasn’t picked up again until 1932. By that time, any art palace worth its salt was going to be art deco. Mexican architect Federico E. Mariscal designed the interior, and it’s an tremendous bit of art deco.

As fine as that was, though, I’d really come to see the murals, and I wasn’t disappointed. To quote from Lonely Planet Mexico, which organized the information well:

“On the 2nd floor are two early 1950s works by Rufino Tamayo: ‘México de hoy (Mexico Today)’ and ‘Nacimiento de la nacionalidad (Birth of Nationality)’, a symbolic depiction of the creation of the mestizo (mixed ancestry) identity.

“On the north side of the 3rd floor are David Alfaro Siqueiros’ three-part ‘La nueva democracia (New Democracy)’ and Rivera’s four-part ‘Carnaval de la vida mexicana (Carnival of Mexican Life).’ To the east is José Clemente Orozco’s ‘La katharsis (Catharsis),’ depicting the conflict between humankind’s ‘social’ and ‘natural’ aspects.”

All interesting and sometimes unsettling works. But what I’d really come to see was Rivera’s re-creation of his Rockefeller Center mural. If it were anything like his murals in the Detroit Institute of Arts, I knew it would be astonishing.

“At the west end of the 3rd floor is Diego Rivera’s famous ‘El hombre en el cruce de caminos (Man at the Crossroads),’ originally commissioned for New York’s Rockefeller Center,” continues LP. “The Rockefellers had the original destroyed because of its anti-capitalist themes, but Rivera re-created it here in 1934.”

Indeed he did, though I’ve also heard it called “El hombre controlador del universo (Man, Controller of the Universe).”
Quite a work. We spent a while looking at it. The polemics aren’t subtle. Lenin is famously depicted, but so are organized workers, or maybe just determined masses.

Capitalism has brute force and decadence on its side.

Why, I wondered, were the capitalist allegories to the left and the socialist ones to the right? Then in occurred to me that they are on their own respective right and left.

In between is Man controlling Science — so presumably capitalism and socialism are at odds over capturing the power of Science toward their own ends.

If you asked me, the man has vacant eyes, as if he’s a scientist pretty much ready to serve whomever prevails, capitalism or socialism.

Frida, No. Leon, Si.

“This is for the birds,” I said.

There was context for it, but first the setting: we were on the sidewalk on Calle Londres in the Coyoacan neighborhood of Mexico City early in the afternoon of December 29, just outside the Museo Frida Kahlo.

Curiously, besides a street named after London in the area, there were also calles Bruselas, Madrid, Viena, Berlin, and Paris: European capitals. Unlike the part of the Zona Rosa where our hotel was, which had streets named after European cities, capitals and non-capitals: Londres and Berlin (again), but also Roma, Liverpool, Marsella, Hamburgo, Napoles, Oslo.

Coyoacan is a pleasant walking neighborhood, sporting mature trees, sidewalks in reasonably good shape — with not as much pedestrian traffic as in other parts of town we frequented — and large, colorful houses. After a while you do notice that some of the larger houses are essentially walled compounds with iron-bar accents and hard-to-see entrances. Ah well, así es la vida in the big city, if you’re well-to-do.

The most famous compound is the Casa Azul at Londres 247, and blue it is. A deep blue. Like a lot of people, we wanted to visit Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s house. A whole lot of other people, as it turned out. After we got there, we waited a few minutes in one line, only to discover that was the line for people who already had tickets. So we then joined the equally long line to buy tickets.

We’d been advised to buy tickets ahead of time. We ignored that advice. After a few minutes standing in the non-moving ticket-buying line, and with the knowledge that we’d have to stand in another such line eventually, I said waiting was for the birds. Everyone else agreed. No go on Museo Frida Kahlo.

I’m sure the Casa Azul is an excellent museum, but I suspect the real reason for the overcrowding is the movie Frida, which came out in 2002. Her artistic reputation had already been rising, such that Diego Rivera is now her husband, rather than Frida Kahlo being his wife, but I believe the movie kicked it into high gear, the way Nashville has overcrowded the Bluebird Cafe.

Luckily, we had another nearby destination in mind anyway: the Casa de Leon Trotsky. Who could resist that? Not only were Frida and Diego part of the story, it’s got international intrigue, murderous foreign operatives, adultery, a gun battle led by another famous artist, genuine communists and communist plots, and — the crowning event, you might say, an axe murder!

Clearly, Trotsky needs the Hollywood treatment (besides this) if the museum wants to get people in the door, you know, the sort of people who never really heard of that guy Trotsky until they saw that movie about him. Then again, crowds would have drained the fun out of the experience. The Trotsky House wasn’t deserted by any means. A fair number of people were there. But we didn’t have to wait for tickets and crowds didn’t get in the way of free movement around the place, with one exception.

Casa de Leon Trotsky, I’m delighted to report, is quite red on the outside. The present-day complex includes what must have been the building next door at one time, which you enter through and which now has exhibits devoted to the Bolshevik leader. From there, visitors go to a small but very pleasant courtyard with an assortment of plants, walking paths and a few benches.

I don’t know how well tended the garden was in Trotsky’s time, though he did raise chickens and rabbits there. But I do know there was one feature Trotsky never saw himself.
Namely, Trotsky’s grave, where his and Natalia Sedova’s ashes are interred (she died in 1962). Naturally, I couldn’t resist the joke: it’s commie plot. I think I heard that one as long ago as high school, only it was about Stalin’s grave (Lenin and Mao and Ho, strictly speaking, have no graves).

Behind the grave site is the house itself and an attached guard house, for all the good it did Trotsky. The first floor of the guardhouse has a few more exhibits, including photos of Trotsky at various ages and other family members, as well as a family tree. For all of Stalin’s efforts to murder Trotsky’s offspring too, the revolutionary has quite a few living descendants, including in Mexico, the United States and Russia.

The axe wasn’t on display anywhere. That’s because it isn’t even in Mexico.

The house is fairly modest and solidly built, with thick walls and bullet holes on the outside of one of the walls, purportedly left by the unsuccessful May 1940 attempt on Trotsky’s life led by David Alfaro Siqueiros. We saw some of Siqueiros’ murals later, as one does in Mexico City. That Stalinist episode of attempted murder hasn’t seemed to have harmed his reputation as an artist.

Trotsky had reason to be security-conscious, and the compound reflects it. Besides the guardhouse, which includes a guard tower, the entire residence is surrounded by thick walls. Its doors are heavy and, at least going into Trotsky’s study, re-enforced with iron. I didn’t see any steel window shutters or barbed wire, but I read these were part of the security too. None of that stopped a determined NKVD agent with an ice axe.

The study itself is supposedly the way Trotsky left it: a large desk, a lamp, chairs, papers and books, a Dictaphone, a small bed on which to rest (see the picture here). The floor, I noticed, is painted red. It was here that moving around was a little constrained, since you can only stand in a small part of the room, like in most house museums, and visitors want to see the study most of all. I know I did.

The current setup at Trotsky’s House includes a small cafe next to the guardhouse. We had a light lunch al fresco there, cheese crepes for me, and some of the best orange juice I’ve had in a long time. All in all, a bourgeois sort of meal. I expect the waiter was paid for his efforts and presumably the museum made a modest amount, which it probably needs to keep the lights on.

The museum also features a small gift shop at the entrance, heavy on socialist books and portraits of Trotsky for sale and light on tourist gimcracks, though I bought some postcards there. I doubt that the organization is using any of its budget to foment worldwide socialist revolution.

Museo Nacional de Antropologia

Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology, the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, is also in Chapultepec Park, not too far from Castillo de Chapultepec. The park was fairly busy three days after Christmas.

Maybe the park is always busy on nice days. It’s a nice park, with a lot of recommend it, including water features.
On the other hand, the week between Christmas and New Year’s is reputedly a fairly busy one for travel within Mexico. Many residents of Mexico City leave for vacation spots on the coast, and people who live in other parts of Mexico come to the big city, so that might have added to crowds at Chapultepec Park and some of the other sites we went to.

Interestingly, the two main languages I heard in passing at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia were Spanish and American English. Not as much British English or French or German or Japanese as I’d expect in a museum of its high calibre. You can’t go into the Art Institute of Chicago on a busy day, for instance, and not overhear Frenchmen and -women or spot gaggles of Japanese in their tour groups.

Maybe August is when the Euro-tourists come in numbers to Mexico City, and the Japanese as well, during O-Bon. Or maybe Mexico City isn’t quite the draw that Mexican beaches are.

The National Museum of Anthropology is a creation of the 1960s, and looks every bit of it. The building was designed by Pedro Ramírez Vázquez — who also collaborated on the New Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, more about which later — Jorge Campuzano, and Rafael Mijares Alcérreca.

This is the view from the back of the sizable interior courtyard, looking at a mammoth example of modernist construction.
The hefty structure perched over the courtyard, which got me thinking about the potential for seismic activity, at least while I was standing under the thing, is known as el paraguas, the umbrella.

This is what the shaft looks like from closer up. A stone umbrella shaft.
The light was poor for photography as I stood under it; this is a better image of el paraguas, through which steady cascades of water rush to the ground. Maybe “umbrella” is a wry Mexican joke on the nation’s uneven infrastructure.

The museum’s exhibition halls surround the courtyard — 23 rooms in all, displaying a vast array of artifacts from all over the country and across millennia, including but hardly limited to such diverse peoples as Olmecs, Zapotecs, Toltecs, Mayans and of course Aztecs (please to call them the people of Mexia), whose hall has a place of prominence at the back.

The museum has possession of more than 7 million archaeological pieces and over 5 million ethnological pieces, so the best any single person, even a curious one, can hope for is an interesting sample. Such as at any mega-museum. I feel like we got a good sample, such as bones and artifacts from the Tlatilco culture, which flourished in the Valley of Mexico around 3,000 years ago.
A Cabeza Colosal of the Olmecs, 1200-600 BCE, found near Veracruz. Colossal head indeed.

Specifically, the San Lorenzo Colossal Head 2 (also known as San Lorenzo Monument 2). To quote Wiki, it “was reworked from a monumental throne. The head stands 2.69 metres (8.8 ft) high and measures 1.83 metres (6.0 ft) wide by 1.05 metres (3.4 ft) deep; it weighs 20 tons. Colossal Head 2 was discovered in 1945 when Matthew Stirling’s guide cleared away some of the vegetation and mud that covered it.

“The monument was found lying on its back, facing the sky, and was excavated in 1946 by Stirling and Philip Drucker. In 1962 the monument was removed from the San Lorenzo plateau in order to put it on display as part of “The Olmec tradition” exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston in 1963. San Lorenzo Colossal Head 2 is currently in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City.”

A sculpture from Teotihuacan featuring Mictlantecutli, god of the dead.
The people that built Teotihuacan — more about that place later, too — flourished in the early centuries of the common era, but the city was so completely abandoned 1,000 years later that even the Aztecs weren’t sure who had lived there.

Here’s clear proof that ancient Mexico was visited by space aliens, right there in the museum.
He’s wearing a space helmet, after all. What more evidence do you need, except maybe a bottle of Tang? I might be mistaken, but I think images of this very stela appeared in books and TV shows about ancient astronauts when I was a lad, a time when they were fashionable.

The idea lives on. Writes one Paul Seaburn just last year: “So many statues, carvings, paintings and artifacts from the Mayans depict what appear to be aliens or alien spaceships, it’s hard to argue that all of them either have logical non-ET explanations or are hoaxes.”

I dunno, Paul, I don’t find it at all hard to argue the “non-ET explanations.”

Here’s El Creador, found in Morelos State and dating from the late first millennium of the common era.
Here’s a figure found at the Templo Mayor, a site that’s been excavated in recent decades at the historic center of Mexico City.
Speaking of which, I liked this model of Tenochtitlan.
Finally — among the many, many things in the Mexia (Aztec) hall, is the Mona Lisa of the museum, so to speak: The Sun Stone, famed icon of Mexico.
The Sun Stone certainly had a lot of admirers. I admired it myself. Maybe the Conquistadors did as well, since for some reason they didn’t destroy it, though the stone was eventually buried, only to be rediscovered near the end of Spanish rule, in 1790.

Much more about the Sun Stone is available online, including this article by an academic, Khristaan Villela, based in New Mexico. An artist’s interpretation of the central part of the stone is here.

“Since its rediscovery, the Calendar Stone has been displayed vertically, as if it really were a clock,” writes Villela, who refers to it as the Calendar Stone. “But the form and imagery of the sculpture closely link it to sacrificial altars, upon which the Aztec emperor, probably Moctezuma himself, ascended to sacrifice noble captives to feed the sun and earth.

“The most closely related monuments to the Calendar Stone are the Stone of Tizoc and the Stone of Moctezuma I.” Which happens to be only a few feet from the Sun Stone.

“Both are large basalt disks, with solar imagery on their upper faces,” Villela continues. “But whereas these other monuments display the conquests of Aztec rulers on the sides of their cylindrical forms, the Calendar Stone shows images related to the sky on its shallow carved side.”

Castillo de Chapultepec

Grim cold January days here in the North and, I’ve heard, it’s fairly cold in the South too. Why this is a big news story is another matter. It’s winter. You know, the season when it gets cold. Sometimes very cold.

Also, weather ≠ climate, as far as I understand these things. A cold winter no more disproves climate change than a hot summer proves it.

Way down in Mexico City, the weather was completely consistent during the days we were there. Cool in the early mornings, warm by noon, very warm in the afternoons, cool again in the evenings. Not a bit of rain, since the rainy season isn’t now. We were reluctant to leave that pattern and come back to the cold.

Were Mexico City tropical, the walk up to the Castillo de Chapultepec would have been a lot less pleasant. In modern times, the castle is on a high hill in Mexico’s vast Bosque de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Park, measuring 1,695 acres, or 686 hectares) and is open to the public. Chapultepec, I’ve read, means grasshopper hill in Nahuatl.

In earlier centuries, the hill might not have been so public. I’ve seen it described as sacred to the Aztecs, but it wasn’t until late in the colonial period that the viceroy of New Spain — Bernardo Vicente de Gálvez y Madrid, the very same fellow that lent his name to Galveston — ordered construction started on a stately manor on the site. He died without realizing its completion, and the site wasn’t really used until the independent government of Mexico decided to put its military college there in 1833.

That’s what the Niños Héroes were defending to the death against U.S. forces under Gen. Winfield Scott on September 13, 1847. At the eastern entrance to the park, below Castillo de Chapultepec, is the famed memorial to the six cadets.

The memorial dates from 1952 and was designed by architect Enrique Aragón and sculpted by Ernesto Tamariz.

Once you get atop the hill and in the castle, you can look back toward the memorial.
Beyond that, looking eastward — Castillo de Chapultepec would have been west of the city in the 19th century, later witnessing it grow toward the hill — is the modern Paseo de la Reforma, flanked by large buildings.

The castle started taking its current shape under the ill-starred Emperor Maximilian, who used it as a residence. Some of his portraits still hang in the museum, including one that was suitably regal, and another one from which I got the impression that the artist had given the emperor a hint of a “what have I gotten myself into” look on his face (I think it was this one).

The museum’s entrance leads visitors to a handsome plaza.
Note the stage under the tarp. That’s where the Ballet Folklórico de México gave the lively performance we attended two nights later, with a palatial backdrop bathed in alternating colored lights.

Enter the castle itself behind the temporary stage, look up, and you’ll see this 1967 mural by Gabriel Flores on the ceiling.

Later I learned that it depicts Juan Escutia, one of the Niños Héroes, leaping to his death from the castle walls, wrapped in the Mexican flag.

After Maximilian wound up on the business end of a firing squad, the castle was neglected for a while again until Porfirio Díaz decided he wanted to live there and spiffed up the place. Post-Díaz Mexican presidents lived there as well, until 1944, when the building became a museum.

As a museum, Castillo de Chapultepec’s collection is extensive, including paintings and sculpture, clothing, coins, musical instruments, silver items, period furniture, ceramics, flags, a room of 19th-century carriages, books, documents and more. I was especially taken by the murals. You want to see some fine murals, go to Mexico.

Here’s a detail of Francisco I. Madero leading the 1911 revolution, part of a larger mural in the museum’s Independence Room. Juan O’Gorman, who did a mural on the front of the Lila Cockrell Theatre in San Antonio for the world’s fair in 1968, did this mural.
Off to the left in the Madero mural, not pictured above, is the top-hatted U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Henry Lane Wilson, handing the presidential sash to Victoriano Huerta, who murdered Madero in 1913 to take the presidency for himself.

On the other side of room are Porfirio Díaz and his ugly minions, such as this fellow and his whip.

Murals aren’t everything, however. Elsewhere in the museum is a hall with a row of fine stained glass depicting various goddesses of Classical Antiquity, such as Ceres.

And Diana.
The castle’s roof gardens are exceptionally pleasant, especially under a warm afternoon sun.
A tower that caps the castle rises over the rooftop garden.
Castillo de Chapultepec was a fine way to kick off four straight days of tourism.


Something I didn’t know until recently: Mexico City, which has more autonomy than it used to, is no longer in the Distrito Federal, which it had been since 1824. Two years ago, the federal government of Mexico signed off on a name change, which the city’s government had wanted, to simply Ciudad de México, abbreviated CDMX.

On Wednesday, December 27, Lilly and I flew to Mexico City, returning on New Year’s Day 2018 — or actually early January 2, since the return flight was late. We stayed at a hotel in the Zona Rosa, just south of Paseo de la Reforma, a major thoroughfare, but also within walking distance of the Roma neighborhood.

We spent our time as dyed-in-the-wool, first-time tourists, seeing impressive places and structures, visiting grand museums, walking along interesting streets, eating a variety of food, taking in as much detail as possible.

Considering that Mexico City is a vast megalopolis — all too apparent from the air as we arrived in the daylight and left at night — we experienced only the slimmest sliver. But an endlessly fascinating sliver.

Adding immeasurably to the trip was the fact that my old friend Tom Jones — known him nearly 45 years — was in Mexico City at the same time. In fact, I’d suggested the trip to him on the phone last summer, when I called him to hear about his experience in seeing the eclipse. He’d been a fair number of other places in Mexico over the years, more than I have, but not Mexico City, so he was open to the suggestion.

So the three of us went a lot of places together in the city. Tom has an impulse for photobombing.
The first place Lilly and I went, not long after we had arrived, was the enormous Zocalo (formally the Plaza de la Constitution), which was packed with holiday revelers enjoying a temporary ice-skating rink and amusement-park slides. We circumambulated the square, said to be the second largest in the world after Red Square, and spent some time inside the vaulting Catedral Metropolitana, which opens onto one side of the Zocalo.

The second day, with Tom joining us, was for large museums in the even larger Bosque de Chapultepec, the city’s equivalent of Central Park: the Castillo de Chapultepec, a grand palace along European lines and now a history museum; and the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, an epic museum devoted to the many and varied cultures of pre-Columbian Mexico (or more precisely, pre-Cortez).

All that makes for tired feet, so the third day was less intense. Even so, we got a good look at a small part of the charming Coyoacan neighborhood, which includes the Museo Frida Kahlo. The lines were too long to visit Frida, but not to get into the Museo Casa Leon Trotsky a few blocks away.

The next day, December 30, was exhausting, but completely worth all the energy and money we spent, because we got to visit the renowned Teotihuacan, which is to the northeast of the city, in the State of Mexico, and climb its pyramids. From there, we went back into the city to see the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe — the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe — a pilgrimage site I’ve been curious about since I encountered The Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Des Plaines.

And as if that wasn’t enough for a day, we returned to Castillo de Chapultepec on the evening of the 30th, along with four of Tom’s friends from Austin who were also visiting Mexico City, for an outdoor performance by the astonishingly talented dancers, singers and musicians of the Ballet Folklórico de México.

On the last day of 2017, we slept fairly late, but were out and about after noon, for a visit to the Palacio de Belles Artes, a striking building with art exhibits and some astonishing murals, especially the Diego Riveras. More Rivera murals were in the offing at the Palacio National, the last large site we visited.

We were tired on the evening of the 31st, but not too tired to walk a few blocks from our hotel to the Paseo de la Reforma. One of the city’s two main New Year’s celebrations was being held around the Angel de la Independencia, a famed gold-colored statue atop a tall column in the center of a Paseo de la Reforma traffic circle. The event featured live music by well-known (I was told) Mexican bands, a countdown just like at Times Square, except in Spanish, and then fireworks: a bang-up way, literally and figuratively, to start 2018.

Twelve Pictures ’17

Back to posting on January 2, 2018, or so. Like last year, I’m going to wind up the year with a leftover picture from each month. This time, for no special reason, no people, just places and things.

Champaign, Ill., January 2017Charlotte, NC, February 2017

Kankakee, Ill., March 2017

Rockford, Ill., April 2017

Muskogee, Okla., May 2017

Naperville, Ill., June 2017

Barrington Hills, Ill., July 2017

Vincennes, Ind., August 2017

Denver, September 2017Evanston, Ill., October 2017Chicago, November 2017

Birmingham, Ala., December 2017

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all.

The Deering Family Galleries of Medieval and Renaissance Art, Arms, and Armor

Some years ago, the arms and armor gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago, a long hall packed with Medieval and Renaissance arms and armor, but also such artwork as reliquaries, disappeared during a renovation. A permanent exhibit of Indian art, as in the Indian subcontinent, took its place.

Indian art is a fine thing, but I missed arms and armor. Earlier this year, I read that the museum had restored the arms and armor display in a different place, but I was skeptical that it would be as good as the good old hall. I was wrong. The new galleries, collectively known as the Deering Family Galleries of Medieval and Renaissance Art, Arms, and Armor, are better.

An Art Institute press release from March says that the galleries are “the permanent home for nearly 700 objects from the museum’s rich holdings of art from 1200 to 1600, including monumental altarpieces, exquisite jewelry, and the beloved arms and armor collection.

“While much in the collection may be familiar to long time visitors, the installation expands the display of art of this period sixfold and enfolds them in an historically inspired atmosphere and context. The construction of these galleries marks the most ambitious architectural undertaking at the museum since the Modern Wing opened in 2009.”

In the very first gallery, you see the Ayala Altarpiece, dated 1396 and commissioned by Pedro López de Ayala, later chancellor of Castile. The museum spent three years recently restoring the painted wood altarpiece, 24 feet across by eight feet high, and it’s quite a sight.

Also in the first gallery are the likes of a crucifix by the Master of the Bigallo Crucifix, Italian, active about 1225-65.

And “Saint George and the Dragon” by Bernat Martorell, a Spaniard (1434/35).

“The galleries that follow are more intimate, focusing on late Gothic and Renaissance domestic life,” the museum continues. “Luxury goods and accessories for feasting fill one room while another displays works of art for the bedchambers of Tuscany’s merchant elite. Everyday objects from northern Europe, along with jewelry and items of personal display, complete the domestic picture of the period.

“From here, the space opens to the new home of the museum’s expanded arms and armor collection. Filled with weaponry and armor, the display is dominated by two armored figures on horseback — one dressed for battle, the other for sport — and two armed and costumed figures engaged in foot combat.

That’s a kind of armored contest I’d never seen depicted before. Clearly the object of the contest was to knock the other man over without crossing the cross beam, and probably striking below the waist was against the rules.

There were also some good old-fashioned displays of armor in a standing position.
Along with plenty of weapons representing many ways to hack into the other guy.

Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsiia! Soviet Art Put to the Test

After lunch at Shake Shack on Michigan Ave. on Saturday — crowded, but not impossible — we wandered over to the Art Institute. Been a while since we’d been there. I was particularly keen to see Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsiia! Soviet Art Put to the Test.

Mounted, I’m sure, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the revolution. Just inside the entrance to the exhibit was the “Lenin Wall.” Lots of Lenin, including a small statue.

Besides that, the exhibit featured paintings, posters, prints, drawings, photos, magazines, film, agitprop ephemera, porcelain, figurines, life-size reconstructions of early Soviet display objects or spaces commissioned especially for the exhibition, and more.

I was glad to see the Suprematist porcelain collection (I. I. Rozhdestvenskaia).
That’s because I used to have a Suprematist-style cup and saucer. Actually, I still have the saucer, but the cup broke long ago.

Remarkably, there was such a thing as Soviet advertising. Or an equivalent. At least early on (1923).
That’s a preliminary design for a Mosselprom building advertisement for cooking oil by Aleksandr Rodchenko, the Constructivist.

The cover of Produce! magazine (Mechislav Dobrokovskii, Sept. 1929).
And the cover of a magazine called Atheist at the Workbench, Jan. 1923 (Dmitrii Moor).
The theme of that cover is “We got rid of the tsars on Earth, let’s deal with the ones in Heaven.”

This is a model of the never-finished Palace of the Soviets in Moscow, whose partly completed structure was cannibalized for raw materials to fight the Nazis. That’s Lenin on top.
Here’s one of a series of 36 small posters extolling gender equality and increased industrial production (1931). All of them pictured women doing one kind of socialist labor or another, and graphs whose trends were always upward.
If there had been a collection of postcards in the gift shop based on these posters, at a reasonable price, I would have bought it. Or a Suprematist tea cup. But no.

Thursday Tidbits

Last night Northern Illinois dropped below freezing, and it wasn’t a lot warmer during the day. A taste of winter, dressed like fall.
Fall colors, ChicagoI didn’t know until recently that Lotte Lenya, who can be heard here singing “Mack the Knife,” or maybe more properly “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer,” played Rosa Klebb, the SPECTRE operative who tries to off James Bond with her poison-tipped shoe in From Russia With Love.

Not an important thing to know. Just another one of those interesting tidbits to chance upon.

A rare thing: a YouTube comment that’s actually funny. It’s at a posting featuring “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile!” sung by Oscar Seagle and the Columbia Stellar Quartette, recorded January 25, 1918.

Someone calling himself Xander Magne said: ” ‘Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition’ ain’t got s–t on this, sonny. Damn 30s kids with their jazz and their swing and their big band and their ‘World War 2.’ We used to have a Great War and it was Great and you liked it!”

One more thing I saw at the International Museum of Surgical Science, a polemic cartoon by Edward Kemble that was part of a display about patent medicine, the Pure Food & Drug Act, etc.

International Museum of Surgical Science, Chicago“Palatable Poison for the Poor.” Whew. Good thing that’s not possible in the 21st century, eh?

Again, too melancholy a note on which to end. Here’s something I saw just before Halloween. Pumpkin π.

Pumpkin π

A bit o’ pumpkin whimsy.

Iron Lung & Shoe-Fitting Fluoroscope

Today I said to Ann, “Don’t forget, it’s the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution.” She wasn’t much impressed by that odd Bolshevik-calendar curiosity.

At the International Museum of Surgical Science recently, I saw a number of things I’d read or heard about, but never seen before, which is one thing I want from a museum. Two items stood out in that way.

One was an iron lung.

International Museum of Surgical Science

An Emerson device. Apparently that was the most successful kind of iron lung, invented and manufactured by John Haven Emerson (1906-97), a collateral descendant of Ralph Waldo and nephew of Maxfield Parrish.

I stood there for a while looking at the thing, thinking about the terror of such a disease. An iron lung sums that up pretty well. Something dim-bulb anti-vaxxers need to see.

Some ephemera next to the iron lung drove home the point.
Polio Pamphlet 1951Only 10 years before I was born.

In another room was another device I’d heard of, but never seen: a shoe-fitting fluoroscope.

Shoe-fitting fluoroscopeA x-ray machine found at shoe stores, in other words. Put your foot in and see the bones inside. Ostensibly for a better fit, but mostly as novelty. I can believe that kids wanted to see the inside of their feet.

X-Ray Shoe Fitter Inc. of Milwaukee made this particular one, ca. 1940-50, according to the museum. Feet were inserted into the side not visible in my picture.

As many as 10,000 such devices were in use in the United States during their heyday in the 1950s, after which time state legislatures, worried about radiation poisoning and the like, started banning the things. I doubt that any customers were harmed, but you have to wonder how many shoe salesmen suffered from their exposure to x-rays oozing out of the non-leaden boxes over a number of years.