Take a Walk on the Noir Side

A creepy trip through the Art Institute’s strangest (and often overlooked) curiosities

Art Institute layout illustration
Illustration: David Preiss


A cow skull carving
Photo: Ratko Radojcic

1. Between the lions on Michigan Avenue, you’ll find another animal lurking: a cow—or, rather, its skull. In fact, 28 carved craniums grace the stone planters on the front steps, a nod to the city’s slaughterhouse days.


‘Kohada Koheiji’ by Katsushika Hokusai
Photo: Katsushika Hokusai. Kohada Koheiji, from the series One Hundred Stories (Hyaku Monogatari), C. 1831. The Art Institute of Chicago. Clarence Buckingham Collection.

2. The exhibit Ghosts and Demons in Japanese Prints includes a nearly 200-year-old print by Katsushika Hokusai that tells the story of a murdered husband back from the dead to take his revenge.


‘The Intrigue’ by James Ensor
Photo: James Ensor. The Intrigue, 1890. Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, 1856. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Sabam, Brussels. Image: Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp. © Lukas-Art in Flanders VZW. Photo by Hugo Maertens.

3. To understand the struggles of the Belgian painter James Ensor (who is the subject of the museum’s current blockbuster show, Temptation: The Demons of James Ensor), look no further than his 1890 painting The Intrigue, a disturbing image of a masked crowd.


‘Gemini’ by Victor Brauner
Photo: Victor Brauner. Gemini, 1938. The Art Institute of Chicago. Gift of Albert A. Robin. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

4. The Romanian surrealist Victor Brauner delighted in all flavors of the bizarre. Case in point: His disorienting 1938 work Gemini reimagines the zodiac sign as a single head attached to two bodies, male and female, each with its own tongue and eyes.


‘Object’ by Claude Cahun
Photo: Claude Cahun. Object, 1936. The Art Institute of Chicago. Through prior gift of Mrs. Gilbert W. Chapman.

5. Claude Cahun, one of the few female surrealists, was an ardent feminist famous for her gender-bending portraits. However, her 1936 sculpture titled Object is made from wood and hair and meant to suggest female genitalia.


Cozy Up with a Book

‘The Abduction of Smith and Smith’ by Rashad Harrison

The Abduction of Smith and Smith

by Rashad Harrison

Photos: Courtesy of publishers

Former slave Jupiter Smith tries to elude the son of his old master—whom he killed—in this historical thriller set after the Civil War. Simon & Schuster, January 6


‘See How Small’ by Scott Blackwood

See How Small

by Scott Blackwood

A small Texas town reels in the aftermath of a horrific crime in the emotionally layered new novel from the Whiting Writers’ Award recipient. Little, Brown, January 20


‘There’s Something I Want You to Do’ by Charles Baxter

There’s Something I Want You to Do

by Charles Baxter

A luminary of Midwestern fiction—and a master at plumbing depths beneath the everyday—releases his first new story collection in 15 years. Pantheon, February 3


‘Blue Stars’ by Emily Gray Tedrowe

Blue Stars

by Emily Gray Tedrowe

In this lyrical sophomore outing from the Chicago novelist, two women learn together what it means to have family members at war. St. Martin’s Press, February 17


‘Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press’ by James McGrath Morris

Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press

by James McGrath Morris

South Side native, civil rights activist, and Chicago Defender correspondent Ethel Payne gets her due. Amistad, February 17


Stare at a Painting

Ann Toebbe’s artworks, made with cut paper and paint, depict the childhood bedrooms of her friends and family. One piece, Four Sisters, reimagines the Veracruz, Mexico, bedroom of Hortencia, the longtime nanny for the Toebbes. “I don’t like well-designed homes, the kind you see in Architectural Digest,” says Toebbe. “I like the quirkiness, the accumulation of the past colliding with the present.” Four Sisters is part of the exhibit Division of Labor: Chicago Artist Parents, on view at Glass Curtain Gallery (1104 S. Wabash Ave.) through February 14.

‘Four Sisters’ by Ann Toebbe
Photo: Courtesy of Steven Zevitas Gallery and Monya Rowe Gallery

1. Hortencia had a small, cheap Christmas tree as a decoration in her tiny room.

2. Hortencia and her sisters slept two to a bed, back to back.

3. The house’s masonry was “a mess,” says Toebbe, who depicted bricks with bits of cut paper.

4. Toebbe flattened the perspective to evoke a child’s dollhouse. “We all relate to wanting to re-create our life through play.”


Tour a Pipe Organ

Every pipe organ is unique, and each has its own quirks—but most people don’t know much about them. Father Scott Haynes will give you a look at the guts of the massive one at St. John Cantius Church (825 N. Carpenter St.) on December 13. You’ll discover the following:

Plaque illustration
1. This one has a name: Tina Mae. A plaque near the console honors Tina Mae Haines, the firecracker musician who guided the organ’s 1907 construction.

Illustrations: David Preiss


Pipes illustration
2. The elaborate façades, with majestic metal pipes and decorative tops, are only for show. The 4,000 sounding pipes are all lodged behind the dummies.


Peg illustration
3. The futuristic peg-like stops on the console, dating from the original installation, control the swell pedal and wind pressure.