Looking at Picasso from Chicago's angle

Exhibit traces his relationship with city he never saw

Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso's "Still-Life with Lunch I" (1962). (February 14, 2013)

The funny thing is, Pablo Picasso never even set foot in Chicago, let alone anywhere else in the United States.

That untitled 50-foot-tall sculpture in Daley Plaza, the city's most iconic piece of public art as well as Picasso's only work of its kind? The France-based Spanish artist never saw it in person, yet he refused to accept the city's $100,000 check as payment, insisting the sculpture was a gift.

He also never entered the Art Institute of Chicago, which introduced many Chicagoans to his work 100 years ago by hosting the Armory Show, a modern-art showcase that stirred controversy. Picasso's first U.S. nongallery show also took place within those walls via a 1923 exhibition hosted by the Arts Club of Chicago, then based in the building.

Picasso felt enough of a connection to the Art Institute that when he saw his painting "Mother and Child" in a museum catalog, he gave an Art Institute trustee a related fragment to take from France to Chicago to be displayed alongside it, Art Institute curator Stephanie D'Alessandro said.

So when the Art Institute set out to mark the Armory Show's centennial with a Picasso exhibition, the museum didn't take a greatest-hits approach to his work. After all, the prolific, long-lived painter/sculptor/printmaker/what-have-you has created enough works to fill many museums and galleries.

"This fall there was a great (Picasso) exhibition at the Guggenheim (Museum in New York)," D'Alessandro said. "You can see a Picasso exhibition almost any time you'd like."

Instead, the D'Alessandro-curated "Picasso and Chicago," which opens Wednesday after the member preview begins Saturday, tells the more specific story of the centurylong relationship between the artist and the museum and city.

"Rather than just reinstall the Armory Show, we tried to think about what was really special about that and what's part of the legacy today," D'Alessandro said as she walked through the exhibition space last week with most of the artwork installed. "We're the first (U.S.) museum to show Picasso, (Henri) Matisse, (Constantin) Brancusi, (Marcel) Duchamp. That's really, really important, and because we did it at an institution and then continued to show that kind of work afterward, Chicago became known as a place for modern art."

"Chicago was pretty advanced in embracing modernism, and Picasso was part of that embrace," said Arts Club director Janine Mileaf, an art historian who will be participating in an April 19 "Picasso and Chicago" symposium at the Art Institute. The Arts Club owns two Picassos: "Head of a Woman" (1922), a chalk-on-paper portrait acquired not long after the club's first Picasso exhibition and is part of the Art Institute show, and an etching that's on display in the club's women's room.

Born in 1881, Picasso already had explored his Blue Period, Rose Period, African-influenced period and Cubism by the time of the Armory Show, yet the reaction to that unprecedented assemblage of modern works was dramatic and established the artist as a figure to be collected and displayed locally.

"Chicago has come a really long way since the reaction to the Armory Show in 1913, when one critic called the modern art, including Picasso's works shown there, 'nasty, lewd, immoral and indecent,'" said Patricia Leighten, Duke University professor of art history and visual studies. "It was extremely controversial, and several superintendents of schools refused to allow students to go to the show."

What they objected to, she added, was nothing that we'd currently think of as obscene or pornographic, but rather the idea of abstracting the female nude, which violated aesthetic norms. Yet the city's art scene moved beyond such objections.

"He was accepted there earlier than in other places," said Leighten, author of "Re-Ordering the Universe: Picasso and Anarchism, 1897-1914." "That's something to be very proud of: Chicago embracing the modern, which you can also see in its architecture."

"We had a relationship with Picasso as he grew and the city grew, and we have a relationship with him every day," D'Alessandro said. "The whole idea is to celebrate the history that we have right under our noses."

Thus, few shipping expenses were incurred to mount "Picasso and Chicago," the Art Institute's first major Picasso exhibition since 1968 (though two smaller shows of his drawings took place in the 1980s).

"We wanted the exhibition to really be about the legacy of Picasso collecting and his interest in the city, which means what's already here," D'Alessandro said. "We have over 400 works by Picasso in our collection. There are about 250 works total in the show, and about 50 are private-collection works, so (these are) things that are owned by Chicagoans today."

One notable exception: The 1901 painting "Old Woman (Woman With Gloves)," on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art but originally owned by renowned Chicago collector/attorney Arthur Jerome Eddy. "It's very likely the first Picasso painting in the city," D'Alessandro said. "By 1911 or 1912 he owned this painting."

The Art Institute owns its share of famous Picassos as well, such as the Blue Period "The Old Guitarist" (1903-04), the Cubist portrait of his German art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1910) and the classical-inspired "Mother and Child" (1921). Those works, as well as some sculptures and other pieces, are staples of the Modern Wing, but in "Picasso and Chicago" they're displayed in the context of what else the artist was doing at the time.

"Maybe 17 of the things you see in the show you can see in the Modern Wing, and everything else is not out," D'Alessandro said.

The new exhibition is especially rich in works on paper; sketches and prints make up more than half of the show. Although many of these works on paper have been viewable if you'd made an appointment to see them in the Art Institute's Prints and Drawings Department, they rarely have been out on public display.

"All the works on paper are almost always not shown because they're light sensitive," D'Alessandro said. "So a work is shown for three months, and then it has to be put back in a Solander box to preserve it for as much as five years. So it's an incredibly, incredibly rare opportunity to be able to be able to say, 'Let's show all our Blue Period works,' and you can stand and you can look at 'The Old Guitarist,' and at the same time you can see the incredibly beautiful "Woman With a Helmet of Hair,' which was made at the same time, and these prints."

The exhibition covers much ground, both in stylistic approach and choice of media, which aside from paintings and sculptures includes collages, various drawing approaches, book illustrations and multiple printing formats.

"The Art Institute owns so many Picassos that they can represent his entire career, and that is really remarkable," Leighten said.

The prints are especially prominent, with the artist experimenting all the while: the linocut "Portrait of a Woman (after Lucas Cranach the Younger)" (1958), with each color printed from a different block, giving way to the four variations of "Still Life With Lunch" (1962), by which point Picasso would print from — and cut into — the same block over and over.

"Picasso is so important as a printmaker," D'Alessandro said. "I would say that for him, printmaking was as important as painting."

As a sort of subplot, one can trace the ever-changing depictions of Picasso's muses amid his artistic evolution and various partners, among them Fernande Olivier, first wife Olga Khokhlova, young Marie-Therese Walter (drawn to be on the receiving end of the Picasso Minotaur's rather ardent affections) and Francoise Gilot.

The exhibition ends on sketches, photos and models of the giant sculpture of a woman's head (also interpreted as a bird, a horse and other figures) unveiled in Daley Plaza in 1967 but seen to be in the works as early as 1962. Leighten considers the sculpture to be a Picasso with an asterisk because it was fabricated from his plans without him actively being involved in its assembly.

"It departs profoundly from the practice of his main body of work," she said.

Nonetheless when you think of "Picasso and Chicago," this is the image that most likely comes to mind.

"We have this monumental sculpture that Picasso made only for our city," D'Alessandro said, "and we're the only city to have something like that."

mcaro@tribune.com

Twitter @MarkCaro

Pablo Picasso
When
: Feb. 20-May 12
Where: Regenstein Hall, Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave.
Tickets: $17-$23 (discounts for Chicago and Illinois residents); 312-443-3600 or artic.edu

CHICAGO

More