Outside the classroom: An evening at the Art Institute

By Shubhda Hirawat, Class of 2020

Author Shubhda Hirawat.JPG

We all know that, as UChicago students, we have free access to the Art Institute, but how many of us have actually been? I hadn’t, in spite of being in the city since for eight months now. Also, as a newbie to art, I wasn’t sure how much fun it would be to spend hours staring at horizontal brush strokes and landscapes. However, I decided to take the plunge when I heard that UChicago graduate students were leading tours at the Art Institute followed by a ‘reception’ (#livingmybestlife?). Whatever it would be, it involved frosty beverages, so why not?

A few UChicago Grad Students took us through one painting each and talked about how it related to their research. From learning about the connections between Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and surrealist art to folklore in the time of the Grimm Brothers, the evening was one of my most interesting ones in Chicago. Here are a couple of highlights:

Mickey, an experimental quantum physicist who is building a molecular clock (I think! “Okay Google, what is a molecular clock?”) talked about his research, how Rene Magritte’s painting, Time Transfixed, was the genesis of his interest in relativity, and the connections he saw between seminal discoveries in physics and the rise of the surreal art movement. He also blew our minds with his explanation about how time moves faster when you moved in comparison to when you are stationary.

Another physicist, Lipi, walked us through a painting by Tanata Atsuko that was an accompanying painting to her best-known work, Electric Dress. It was a painting with concentric circles, which she linked by to her work with the movement of subatomic particles in particle accelerators and her life as a PhD student more broadly.

Kenji Kiramitsu, who studies trauma at the Divinity School, shared how he was inspired by the famous Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s painting, Under the Wave of Kanagawa. He talked about the history of the painting, its connections to the internment of Japanese Americans in the US in World War II and how the painting was evocative of the work he did in trauma psychology. As a side note, the painting is one of the most acclaimed possessions of the Art Institute of Chicago. The painting is popular all over the world, and its coloring is so vivid and delicate that the British Museum, which also owns a copy, displays it only for six months every five years!

Every speaker was incredible – they had selected their paintings carefully, done their research and thought about what the art meant to them. I was left inspired by both the art and their journeys, motivated to explore a city I now call home and determined to seek out experiences I would normally pass over. Sure, this was a #livingmybestlife moment, because when else would you have scientists explain art to you?