No one looked at the aging process of the human body quite like Chicago artist Ivan Albright, 1897–1983. His obsession with the body’s physical decay earned him the well-deserved title, “master of the macabre.”
The Art Institute of Chicago has curated more than 30 works of Albright into a retrospective called Flesh, now showing through August 5. Based on Albright’s 1928 painting, Flesh, the exhibit covers many of his paintings, which demonstrated every wrinkle, boil, and fold of human skin with equal depictions of both men and women.
His process was painstaking and labored. It often took him many years to complete a painting and some paintings he finally abandoned. Considered his most important work, “That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door) is a prime example of a work that took him ten years to complete. But it leaves us with the acknowledgment of life’s brevity and the road often not taken. Dr. Jerry Findley, formerly on the faculty of Indiana University commented, “This work focuses on moments that humanity finds hard to address — and shows the frailty of the human experience.”
One downside of Albright’s meticulous attention to detail is the “Showcase Doll,” which he did not complete because he set it set aside to work on something else.
Albright’s portrayal of the body’s decay led him to his most important commission – painting The Picture of Dorian Gray for the 1945 film of Oscar Wilde’s haunting novel. This hideous, well-detailed portrait captures the essence of Wilde’s “Gray” as he descends into madness. Given the opportunity to portray the decadent aristocrat “withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage,” as Wilde wrote, Albright pushed the depiction to the limits of good taste: the eyes bulge maniacally, and sores and pustules cover his leprous features.
According to the Art Institute, Albright was a medical draftsman during World War I. He saw the body’s vulnerability—to age, disease, and death— and created works that provoked outrage and admiration, such as Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida (1929–30) and And Man Created God in His Own Image (1930).
As one critic wrote in 1931, “There is a frightful fascination about [Albright’s paintings] that makes the beholder return to the scene of the torture.” At the end of his life, Albright turned his pitiless gaze on himself in a haunting series of self-portraits, one of which he made in his hospital bed three days before he died.
Findley added, “The works they selected were excellent choices of Albright’s depiction of the flesh of the human body…the vulnerability of time that overtakes all of humanity.”
In exploring “the way of all flesh” throughout his career, Albright purposefully pushes the envelope of decency to shock his viewers. For more information, go to the Art Institute Chicago website