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What Do We Owe Picasso?

This article was originally published on March 07, 2013 on ArtSlant by writer Sarah Hamilton. This article is part of a series of article exchange partnerships between Sixty Inches From Center and other online blogs and journals that have missions similar to ours–to document and support the visual arts happening in Chicago. The goal of these partnerships is to build bridges within our writing community, help promote one another to new audiences and give more exposure to the art that keeps our Chicago experience compelling.

There is no shortage of Pablo Picasso exhibitions in our world right now – a good half-dozen major shows have opened and closed across the U.S. in the past three years, exploring everything from Picasso’s relationship with women to his relationship with other artists. Now, the Art Institute of Chicago has opened their own exhibition, “Picasso and Chicago,” adding Picasso’s relationships with cities to that list.

The premise of the exhibition is a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the first exhibition of Picasso in the United States, made possible back in 1913 by the Art Institute. The debut of modern art in America happened at the 1913 Armory Show in New York City, which famously featured work by Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Marcel Duchamp and, of course, Picasso. After the Armory Show, the exhibit toured to the Art Institute, where it delighted the local audience. As part of this 100-year celebration, the Art Institute has set up an online exhibition featuring an interactive map of the original show.

“Picasso and Chicago” takes great ownership of the Art Institute’s role in Picasso’s career, which, they claim, was the first presentation of his work in an American art museum, the first solo non-commercial show and the first permanent display of his work. Chicago, the exhibition assures, has been a significant force in supporting great artists, particularly the great Picasso.

Pablo Picasso. Head of a Woman, 1909. (Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago, Edward E. Ayer Endowment Fund in memory of Charles L. Hutchinson/ © 2013 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

There are no surprises here – the exhibition seems to be an unapologetic send up of a beloved artist. Designed for Picasso experts and novices alike, the exhibition covers the long span of his career in depth while exploring the multitude of mediums he employed without cliché. Some greatest hits are there – Mother and Child (1921), The Red Armchair (1931), and The Old Guitarist (1903), and you will undoubtedly have difficulty getting close enough to see many of them. His painting Half Length Female Nude (1906) is a portrait of a haunted woman, a clear precursor to Desmoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Picasso’s “Head of Woman” series from his cubist period, transitions from drawing to sculpture to painting and works as an excellent study of the artist and his craft. The sculpture, Head of Woman, Fernande from 1909 is particularly interesting, since he manages to flatten the perspective of the work without losing the perception of volume.

The most rewarding works, however, are his etchings, particularly the ones he did for “Texts of Bufon.” The prints feature simple line drawings of Picasso’s interpretation of what a seventeenth-century naturalist might have considered some animals to looks like; the resulting turkey looks more like a cotton puff than a holiday bird. The wings of his dragonfly have a wavering fierceness to them – more quiver than insect – and his ostrich has the kinetic silliness of a Warner Brothers cartoon. The “Minotaurmania” series is full of densely packed illustrations of a man-monster that hearken to his later masterwork, Guernica (1937), while maintaining the vague flavor of a Maurice Sendak illustration. The entire drawings and illustrations room reveals a less-aggrandizing artist that speaks well to his talent and prolificacy. Picasso needs no advocate, however. As one of the twentieth century’s most fertile artists, Picasso is certainly its most over-represented. A survey referenced by David Galenson in his book, The Most Important Works of Art of the Twentieth Century, placed two of Picasso’s artworks in the top ten, with Desmoiselles d’Avignon ranking number one. His position on the frontlines of modernism makes him an unwilling advocate for many discussions about contemporary art and his popular reach is exceeded by few other artists. He was never “just” a painter, but always working in multiple media and unafraid to combine them. Very interdisciplinary, one may say.

What still seems like a stretch, though, is the huge exhibition and museum-wide programming dedicated to a man who never set foot in the United States, let alone Chicago. Is this a way of turning Picasso

Pablo Picasso, Minotaur and Wounded Horse, 1935. (Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago, Anonymous gift. © 2013 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

into some sort of spirit animal for Chicago, or is this an apologia for denying him and his peace delegation an entry visa back in 1950? Is this a way of embracing him as one of our own after keeping him on an FBI watch list for twenty-five years?

“Picasso and Chicago” should be a proxy for a lot of other relationships this city has had with artists that go underexplored. While themed exhibitions around locales can be a provincial exercise, the question that haunted me throughout the exhibition is “Who is he standing in for?” How many artists with deep soulful ties to Chicago are still waiting for the city to acknowledge their contributions?

Go see “Picasso and Chicago;” your out-of-town guests will enjoy it, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the prints and drawings. If you happen to miss it, however, I’m sure you’ll be able to catch up with Picasso in another, nearby burgh.

– Sarah Hamilton

“Picasso and Chicago” is up until May 12 at the Art Institute of Chicago.

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