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Picasso And Chicago At The Art Institute

By Amy Cavanaugh in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 23, 2013 7:00PM

Picasso and Chicago, the new show at the Art Institute of Chicago, could easily just be called Picasso. Though the show opens with a model of the Chicago Picasso sculpture that’s resided in Daley Plaza since 1967 and audio of Studs Terkel interviewing Chicagoans about their thoughts on it, and the works are from a Chicago institution or collection, the Chicago connections throughout feel forced. That isn’t to say it isn’t a good show—it’s just that you should suspend expectations that the show provides significant insight into Chicago's place in the world of art.

Listening to Terkel interview people about the sculpture is delightful.

“What do you think?” he asked.

“Is this the front view?”
“I don’t understand abstract art.”
“It’s a terrible looking thing as far as I’m concerned.”

What did people think it looked like?

“It’s supposed to be a woman’s face, I understand.”
“A heart.”
“A big butterfly with wings.”

The best comment came from a woman who was delighted to be meeting Terkel.

“You’re better looking in person,” she said.

In 2013, everyone in the gallery laughed.

It was a charming beginning that could only happen in Chicago. But from there, explicit Chicago connections cease. The crux of the show is that in 1913, when Chicago held the Armory Show, the Art Institute became the first American art museum to show Picasso’s work. This is the 100th anniversary of the New York Armory Show of 1913, which featured work from forward-thinking contemporary European artists and their American counterparts. To bring the show from New York to Chicago, the city had to cancel previously planned shows and empty galleries. The show, which featured work by Picasso, Braque, Matisse, and others, ultimately changed Americans’ attitudes toward art and attracted nearly 200,000 visitors.

The Art Institute began collecting Picasso’s art in the 1920s, when it bought two drawings. In 1926, it added The Old Guitarist, which Picasso painted in 1903-1904 and was the first painting acquired by an American institution and put on permanent view. The painting, on display here, is one of the most famous images from his Blue Period, which are austere and influenced by the death of his friend and fellow painter, Carlos Casagemas.

Picasso and Chicago provides a chronological overview of the artist’s work, life, and influences. On view are 250 paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, and ceramics. It’s a comprehensive showcase of what the artist can do—the sheer breadth of media that Picasso excelled at is incredible. Since all the works come from Chicago, this can’t be a greatest hits show, but it is a strong survey of the artist’s career.

There’s The Old Guitarist, which appears right after the Daley Plaza sculpture, and other paintings, like the brightly colored The Red Armchair, and the huge, softly colored Mother and Child, which is displayed next to a fragment of a man that Picasso cut off the painting. There are lithographs, like the 1945 series Bull, which features 11 images of a bull and is basically a class in abstraction. It begins with a realistic depiction of a bull and each frame becomes progressively abstract, until only a simple outline remains. It’s a strikingly powerful work. Seeing this work helped me understand Picasso’s aesthetics and artistic process, how he translated what he saw into cubist paintings. There are also sculptures, drawings, pretty ceramics, and a series of animal etchings that he made to illustrate Buffon's Natural History.

Along the way, you’ll learn more about Picasso’s love life than you thought possible—I couldn’t keep a running timeline in my head of when he was married to or involved with each woman. He was married twice, once to a Russian ballerina, and had many mistresses. They each had a significant influence on his work, and their photographs hang on the walls next to Picasso’s paintings or drawings of them.

You’ll also learn about his choice of paints. The Red Armchair, and others, were made with Ripolin, a brand of French house paint. You’ll learn how he was deeply influenced by Greek aesthetics and mythology. Bulls and minotaurs frequently populate his works, as in Minotauromachia, my favorite work in the show.

Minotauromachia is an incredibly rich etching that Picasso made from March 23-May 3, 1935 and that offers insight into his mindset at this time. A minotaur charges in from the right, while a female matador slumps over an eviscerated horse in the center, and a man climbs a ladder on the left. A calm child holds a candle up over the horse’s head and placidly observes the minotaur, while two women with doves peek out a window and oversee the whole scene. It’s dark, at once intricately detailed and crude, and displays a wide range of emotion. Picasso wouldn’t explain what the image meant, and we’re left with a mid-career work that we can’t fully parse.

While we can’t fully understand all his work, there’s something about Picasso that many relate to. I dressed up as an artist for Halloween when I was in elementary school, and when someone asked me if I was Georgia O'Keeffe, I insisted that I was Picasso. He’s not, nor has he ever been, my favorite painter, but there’s something in his work that I find deeply appealing.

But some people have more tangible connections. In the galleries, I overheard one conversation between a family—one older woman and two middle-aged people—in which they tried to determine what year it was that the older woman met Picasso in France. (They decided it was 1950). I overheard another conversation between a pair of friends, in which they wryly recalled when another friend tried to “touch up” a Picasso painting, to ill results.

This show isn’t about Picasso and Chicago. The artist never came here. But maybe the show is about Picasso and Chicagoans—everyone who saw the work in 1913 is probably dead, but through their collecting, and through the works themselves, we’ve all managed to have a relationship with the artist today.

Here's a video in which the Institute staff discusses Picasso's relationship to Chicago and artistic influences that includes many of the images that appear in the show.

Picasso and Chicago runs through May 12 at the Art Institute.