Monday, December 14, 2009

DANIEL BURNHAM. The Edison Building. Revelation

I need to finish the sequence of posts about Daniel Burnham's Edison Building. But I'll confess to a little writer's block.

So, on this gray monday I stopped into the Art Institute for warmth and brightness. I wasn't disappointed. A cluster of excited school children stood in front of Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus. A docent explained Caravaggio's kitchen table Revelation. And his revolutionary technique of painting tableaux vivants directly from life. The Gallery was perfectly lit and without distraction. Except for the adjacent Manfredi depicting Mars punishment of a blindfolded Cupid (whose perfectly rendered, about-to-be-whipped bum was the epicenter of the un-settling composition). The Children moved out and on, followed by three bespectacled Germans. Tourists. Women in their eighties. Caravaggio cognoscenti it would seem, if judged by the nods and murmurs. The shocking contrast of Cupid's bum and Christ's reappearance on Earth was clearly not lost on them.

For a moment, I was left alone in the room, clearly aware that I was in the presence of two silent masterpieces. Revolutionary. Diametrically opposed. Brilliant. Hanging side by side. It was a moment you would pray for, if you prayed. But only comes accidentally. Unexpectedly. Caravaggio's and Manfredi's gift spanning 400 years. I left the Museum through the modern wing. Exited to the solitude of the Nichols Bridge and the Park in the rain. I always have the notion, floating over Monroe Street, suspended, carpet-like, that someone thought it necessary to crush some philosophy or some movement or another with the sheer size and correctness of their modernisme. And indeed they did. Howard Van Doren Shaw's modesty will forever be forgotten. With his understanding that a statement of neither mass nor form, can be the statement of most value.

But excuse the digression. I'm back to the Edison Building. Where I find that I may have the post I was looking for. Daniel Burnham is dead. Not as long dead as Manfredi or Caravaggio, but dead just the same. So is Mies, for that matter. But each has left a record whose value is that it might speak to us from another time. Another place or circumstance. Teach us something new. Fresh. Something we may have forgotten. I like the Edison Building. Like it without logic or just-ification. But the reason for its importance is that it stands among others. Who are loved equally well. And, also beyond reason.

I would hope to find, some years from now, that the Edison Building's base/plinth has been entirely restored, its masonry maintained, and its cornice replaced to match in care and quality the adjacent work at the Marquette Building. And the facade renovations, across the street, at the Federal Center. And that these, together, might stand - for at least another lifetime - in their perfect opposition. Cupid's bum on the Left. Revelation on the Right.


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