Master collection: ‘Picasso’ exhibit as enigmatic as the artist
Pablo Picasso. Maquette for Richard J. Daley Center Monument, 1965. | The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Pablo Picasso. © 2013 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
‘PICASSO AND CHICAGO’
Through May 12
Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan, Chicago
General admission: $12-$23 (free for children under 14)
(312) 433-3600; www.artic.edu
Updated: February 27, 2013 11:30AM
The first thing you see as you enter “Picasso and Chicago” — the Art Institute of Chicago’s new exhibit that pays tribute to this city’s intriguing 100-year relationship with the artist — is a model of the “Chicago Picasso,” that sculpture so familiar to anyone who has walked past Daley Plaza in the Loop.
Some describe this great steel face that gazes out onto Washington Street as belonging to a woman. Others think it’s the long, narrow head of a horse. And some happily admit it might well be a beguiling hybrid of the two — a perfect example of the mischievous, often anthropomorphic imagination of the Spanish-bred artist who spent most of his life in France.
Giving breath to this model are recordings by Studs Terkel who was on the scene when the sculpture was unveiled Aug. 15, 1967. He asked ordinary Chicagoans to comment on the work, and their answers suggest it was not exactly love at first sight.
“It’s like pickles and ice cream,” said one passerby. “It looks like a lady — Cleopatra in a sense,” said another. It captures “the confusion of present time’s society.” “It’s a steel monstrosity; but at least it won’t burn.”
And then there was the woman who got it just right: “It represents that Chicago will always be progressive, and keep rising.”
The creation of that sculpture for Chicago — a gift from the artist, and his first monumental work of public sculpture — came rather late in his life. (He died in 1973, at the age of 91.) And not only had he never visited this city, but he had never stepped foot in the United States — in large part because as a member of the French Communist party he was not permitted entry here.
Yet from very early on in Picasso’s career, this country embraced his work in significant ways. And it is the Art Institute of Chicago that holds the distinction of being the first American museum to show his work.
How did that happen? It was all an outgrowth of the New York Armory Show of 1913 — a landmark showcase of the work of the most audacious European artists of the time, hung alongside their forward-thinking American contemporaries.
“When some influential Chicagoans — including Arthur Jerome Eddy, a lawyer, collector and critic — heard about the Armory exhibition, they were determined to have it travel to Chicago,” said Stephanie D’Alessandro, the show’s curator and author of its catalogue. “They canceled previously planned shows, emptied some galleries, and made it happen — displaying the work of Picasso, as well as such artists as Braque, Derain, Brancusi and Matisse.”
“The Chicago show [which would go on to Boston in yet another form] attracted nearly 200,000 visitors, and really set the course for the forward yearning of this city. Although none of the Picasso paintings shown in Chicago in 1913 is in the current exhibition, the ‘Head of Fernande’ sculpture, seen only in New York, is included here because it was later bequeathed to us by Alfred Stieglitz.”
Arranged largely chronologically, “Picasso and Chicago” — the first large-scale Picasso show at the Institute in 30 years — features about 250 works, of which 200 are drawn from the Art Institute’s own formidable collection of close to 400 of Picasso’s paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures and other work, with an additional 50 pieces from the private collections of Chicagoans.
A polymath with a voracious appetite for experimentation, Picasso was, as he often portrayed himself, something of a great Minotaur — a creature with the head of a bull, the body of a man, and a nearly unmatched spirit of obsessive creativity and experimentation.
“You can see his genius in everything,” said D’Alessandro. “For example, when he learned how to make prints he took those techniques and flipped them on their head. Master printmakers loved working with him for that very reason.”
It was in 1963, that William Hartmann and other Chicago architects behind what is now the Richard J. Daley Center, contacted Picasso’s friend, Roland Penrose, the British artist and poet who would act as a go-between. As D’Alessandro recounts, a delegation went to visit the artist, bringing a model of the plaza project, images of the Picasso collection in the Institute, and photos of famous Chicagoans — among them Ernest Hemingway, whose origins here Picasso seemed unaware of, but whose knowledge of bullfighting he happily took credit for. The deal was sealed.
Adam Gopnik, the New Yorker writer who penned the introduction to the “Picasso and Chicago” catalogue noted that “Picasso had a mythic image of America, even as he sometimes criticized it politically.
“He idolized Orville and Wilbur Wright, and had a collection of photos of Lincoln, who he thought had ‘true American elegance’. And his earliest collectors, Leo and Gertrude Stein, were Americans in Paris.”
“Perhaps what made Picasso most American in spirit was how improvisational his work was,” said Gopnik. “He was fabulous one day, yet could do something that was almost dreck the next. And I think it’s those oscillations, that sense of the instantaneous and unpremeditated, that is what we love about him.”