One For The Road: The Picasso And Royko, 45 Years Later

By Marcus Gilmer in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 15, 2012 10:30PM

It was 45 years ago today that Mayor Richard J. Daley unveiled painter and sculptor Pablo Picasso's gift to the City of Chicago, bolted down in Civic Center Plaza (which would eventually bare Daley's name). Since its unveiling, the sculpture has stood ominously in the Loop, casting its eye on passing Chicagoans and tourists alike, sometimes bedecked with a hat showing support for one of the local sports teams. Picasso designed the 160-ton behemoth without ever visiting the city. The sculpture was commissioned in 1963 but not officially unveiled until August 15, 1967, just a few months after Daley had won reelection for his fourth term in office. At the time of its dedication, it was seen as a spurring of the city's cultural rebirth, its placement in the middle of the Loop something of a victory lap for Daley who had spent years revitalizing the area. Still, reaction was mixed, especially among Chicagoans who supported the theme of only erecting statues of historic figures. While plenty of people have weighed in on what the sculpture is or means, Picasso himself didn't name it or ever reveal what it meant to him.

Though none seem to have settled on a consensus, Mike Royko has the best interpretation of what the sculpture meant. The day after its unveiling, Royko's brilliant column "Picasso and the Cultural Rebirth of Chicago" at once gave a scathing interpretation while eviscerating Mayor Daley and all of the cons of the city, yet with a hint of begrudging love. It was quintessential Royko and perhaps his best column. Royko played with the idea it had been inspired by a woman, quipping, "If it was a woman, then art experts should put away their books and spend more time in girlie joints." But even as he mocked the "big, homely metal thing," he did what he did best, twisting and turning his feelings on the statue towards his hometown and, specifically, the crooks and those in power (who, to Royko, were often the same people). And it's in the conclusion that Royko hit the home stretch and composed one of the single greatest passages in Chicago's long journalism history.

Up there in that ugly face is the spirit of Al Capone, the Summerdale scandal cops, the settlers who took the Indians but good.

Its eyes are like the eyes of every slum owner who made a buck off the small and weak. And of every building inspector who took a wad from a slum owner to make it all possible.

It has the look of the dope pusher and of the syndicate technician as he looks for just the right wire to splice the bomb to.

Any bigtime real estate operator will be able to look into the face of the Picasso and see the spirit that makes the city's rebuilding possible and profitable.

It has the look of the big corporate executive who comes face to face with the reality of how much water pollution his company is responsible for and then thinks of the profit and loss and of his salary.

It is all there in that Picasso thing the I Will spirit. The I will get you before you will get me spirit.

Picasso has never been here, they say. You'd think he's been riding the L all his life.

The passage, and the entire column (which you can read in its entirety here), still resonates today in a city that's still full of corruption, graft, and political shenanigans as it was in Royko's day, albeit occasionally in an evolved form. And it likely will continue to do so for years to come. If nothing else, today is a reminder of the city's evolution (or a complete lack thereof), its cultural history, and one of the greatest minds it ever produced.