Visual art: Peter Blume, “The Rock,” Art Institute of Chicago

By Mariela Del Toro

When looking at Peter Blume’s oil painting “The Rock,” located in the American Art section of the Art Institute of Chicago, it might be hard to look away. There is too much going on in the image. Laborers work hectically to construct something amongst an area that has a gigantic suspended rock ready to collapse into the ground they are working on while a fire sparks in the right corner burning down what seems to be an old home. Vibrant colors give the painting an animated look, but the content is very serious. This painting is not just a reproduction of a construction scene, but an effort by Blume to provide social commentary through the tone of his image and symbols.

Blume was commissioned by the Kaufmann family to paint their new home, Falling Water, one of Frank Lloyd Wright  prized architectural works, in 1939.  Nine years later, in 1948, Blume completed his work, and it’s obvious he had more in mind than simply commemorating the home.

In the image, Falling Water recedes in the far left, and is under construction. The scaffolding contains many workers, as does the land. All the workers are barefoot, and the deep contrast of shadows on the faces that are visible make them look serious and unhappy. Every worker is also posed in a manner where they are lifting, digging, or hammering something down. Perhaps Blume was attempting to show the struggles of a working class, and to show the gap in social status since people who do not even have shoes on made this monumental piece of architecture made for the wealthy.

The composition of the image is remarkable.  The eye is able to travel between the top left and the bottom right in a number of ways. From Falling Water, the diagonal composition of the workers wraps around to the old home, which causes the viewer to wonder why this home is being burned down. The smoke of the fire travels through the dark sky up to the giant rock, which is centered in the painting.

So what’s with the rock? The rock is suspended by land where the workers are digging, and by the looks of it it can collapse. There is a woman near the rocks platform kneeling on the ground with outstretched arms. Being the only woman in the picture and the only one without equipment to work, she likely was placed in the image to represent the emotional side to the scene. Since the rock is surrounded to the left with bones and to the right with flowers, there is a point made about life and death, which is important to the piece. It’s not about death to humanity, but to nature, and the trouble we have coexisting with it.

Symbolism, structure, and Blume’s attitude on the subject are what makes “The Rock” a piece of art. The work tells a story about construction and deconstruction, and points out that we our quick to destroy nature for our own selfish gain.