BY HEDY WEISS firstname.lastname@example.org February 20, 2013 4:50PM
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.
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Updated: March 23, 2013 6:08AM
The first thing you see as you enter “Picasso and Chicago” — the Art Institute of Chicago’s wide-ranging, often revelatory new exhibition that pays tribute to this city’s intriguing 100-year relationship with the artist who changed the face of 20th century art — is a model of the “Chicago Picasso,” that massive 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, and a tribute to the centennial of the Armory show — 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. (The only outside loan is the bristling “Woman With Gloves,” from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.) And it traces the arc of the artist’s astoundingly prolific and varied output.
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.”
Picasso was a master draftsman, as you can see in such exquisite drawings as the very early “Peasant Woman with a Shawl”; or the portrait of his first wife, Fernande Olivier; or the wistful “Pierrot and Harlequin”; or the somewhat amazonian “Dancer”; or the delicate, impossibly minimalist lines of “Three Nudes Reclining on a Beach”; or the weighty, distorted “Woman Washing Her Feet”; or the marvelous picture of animals done for a bestiary.
And if the artist’s revolutionary work in Cubism marked him as cerebral, you need only look at the earlier Spanish-influenced, earth-toned paintings done before he fractured the picture plane, or the monumental “Mother and Child” (along with an excised “Fragment” from that canvas that he gave as a gift to the Institute), or even the abstract, richly textured canvas, “Head,” from 1927.
And when it came to color he could be muted or bold: Look at the anguished blues of “The Old Guitarist”; the absinthe-green ink of one version of the print, “The Frugal Meal”; the exuberantly tinted patterns in the collage, “Man With a Pipe”; the clean, brilliant tones of “The Red Armchair.”
It was in 1963, led by 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 he 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 (and who will give a lecture here, “Picasso Not in America,” on Feb. 21), 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.”