Chicago native Ivan Albright (1897–1983) remains one of the most provocative artists of the 20th century, a “master of the macabre” famous for his richly detailed paintings of ghoulish subjects. The 1928 painting, Flesh, announced the theme that obsessed the artist throughout his career: the decaying human body. Late in life, he continued urging himself to "make flesh more like flesh than ever has been made before; make flesh close, close, and closer, until you feel it.”
A medical draftsman during World War I, Albright portrayed the body’s vulnerability—to age, disease, and death—in 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.” Albright’s reputation as an inimitable painter of decaying flesh led to his commission to paint The Picture of Dorian Gray for a 1945 Hollywood film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s novel. 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. 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.
As the largest repository of Albright works in the world, the Art Institute is proud to organize this exhibition showcasing one of Chicago's most uncompromising artists. In exploring the "way of all flesh," Albright challenged conventional notions of art and beauty, earning fame as well as notoriety. More than 30 works from the museum's collection present a focused retrospective of Albright's enduring masterpieces, which even today retain the power to shock, move, and fascinate.