Picasso and Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, February 20 – May 12, 2013.
Text and photographs by John P. Walsh.
The links between this art exhibition called Picasso and Chicago going on from February 20 to May 12, 2013 at The Art Institute of Chicago and the artist Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) as well as the centenary of the landmark 1913 Armory Show is often tenuous. From virtually the beginning of his artistic practice, bragging rights on Picasso have come to the Catalan artist. Forty years after the artist’s death at 91 years old, the media talk in 2013 revolves around American collector “firsts” associated with Picasso.
Which institution collected Picasso first? (The Art Institute of Chicago in 1923.)
Which institution collected Picasso most? (The Chicago Renaissance Society by 1930.) Which institution had the first Picasso exhibition? (The Arts Club of Chicago in 1923.) Which institution first had a Picasso retrospective? (The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut in 1934.)
The Art Institute of Chicago is able to put imagination aside and quote itself in Picasso and Chicago. Nearly all of the same inventory of Picasso artwork in this 2013 show were assembled and displayed in the exact same order in a previous exhibition at the museum called Picasso in Chicago held from February 3 to March 31, 1968. According to the museum director writing at that time, that exhibition had been inspired by the dedication of the Picasso sculpture on August 15, 1967, and which remains a Chicago icon today standing five stories tall in Daley Plaza. If attention is what Pablo craves, he has no worries.
Pablo Picasso, The Two Saltimbanques, 1905, printed and published 1913. The Art Institute of Chicago. Drypoint on ivory wove paper 120 x 91 mm (image/plate); 193 x 129 mm (sheet)
There are several good things about Picasso and Chicago although it doesn’t always revolve around his art. It is satisfying to know that Chicago possesses these rich resources to showcase a chronological and comprehensive Picasso show within its own collections. In these tight economic times there is a certain kudos owed to major museum curators who recognize how it can effectively display its own and nearby institutions’ holdings to produce another blockbuster show. The chronological exhibition of Chicago’s Picasso collection—and that includes works from The Art Institute of Chicago, The Arts Club of Chicago and The Renaissance Society—is front loaded providing for immediate pleasures. The visitor is greeted nearly at the door by The Old Guitarist painted by Picasso in 1903-1904—a revered Blue-period painting in the Art Institute—and for the viewer to be edified by its presence is worth any exhibition’s admission price though there was no special exhibition fee beyond the price of general admission to the museum.
Does a front-loaded show spell overall superficiality? The answer is: yes and no. For any future Picasso show curators should find every possibility — as I am doing already for this review — to whittle away at the volume of artwork on display for Picasso and Chicago to present its interesting parts. It is precisely the show’s downsizing opportunity that intimates its shortcoming: by displaying some of the Spanish master’s later increasingly commercial and less compelling artwork produced during a lengthy and prosperous career, the Art Institute of Chicago’s holdings of 500 Picasso works in every medium begin to reveal the challenges of building a successfully qualitative collection of contemporary art even when the artist is Picasso.
Picasso, Sketch of a Young Woman (detail), pen and brush and black ink on paper, Paris 1904, gift of Robert Allerton, 1924, The Art Institute of Chicago. Allerton, a museum trustee since 1918, began in 1923 to acquire Picasso drawings with the sole purpose of donate them to the museum. Sketch of a young woman was Allerton’s first Picasso drawing purchase and museum donation in 1923. It was purchased in Chicago from Albert Roullier Galleries.
When Chicago in the 1920’s began its Picasso-buying frenzy another young Spanish painter twelve years younger than Picasso arrived into Paris and was immediately overtly critical of the great Picasso’s work at that time. That younger painter was Joan Miró (1893-1983) and his criticism of Picasso (more a kind of disgust)—as well as of Henri Matisse (1869-1954)—was that the pair were making all their art for their dealer. In other words, they were making art primarily for a paycheck. Such may be the inherent risk in making contemporary art that meets a market demand: the artist is tempted, after a fashion, to sell-out. Miró knew at first look—and history has proven him basically correct—that the future of contemporary painting did not rest with Picasso after about 1920. This is partly the reason why Miró turned to the “nonsense” art of the Dadaists for the future of his own painting. Keeping Miro’s judgment in the back of one’s mind at Picasso and Chicago one can see that with some notable exceptions an earlier Picasso painting—that is, from the Blue Period after 1901 to Picasso’s period of synthetic cubism until around 1920—offers cohesive artwork that contains a germ or seed of progress. The art collection in Picasso and Chicago, much of it produced following Miró’s critical judgment of Picasso, shares his problematic.
“Nessus and Deianira,” September 22, 1920, Graphite on tan wove paper, prepared with a white ground ,signed recto, upper left, in pen and blue ink: “Picasso” (underlined); inscribed upper left, in graphite: “22-9-20.” Just before leaving Paris in September 1920, Picasso made a series of drawings of the Greek myth of the abduction of Hercule’s bride Deianira by the centaur Nessus. Following this, Picasso became fascinated with Greek mythology to continue to make artwork using its themes.
Picasso, Head of a Woman, summer 1909, Oil on canvas 23 3/4 x 20 1/8 in. (60.3 x 51.1 cm), Winterbotham Collection, 1940. This painting dates to one of the most productive and inventive periods of Pablo Picasso’s career, a stay in the town of Horta de Ebro in Spain from May to September 1909. In these spring and summer months, Picasso produced artworks that rank as some of the earliest achievements of Cubism. Fernande Olivier (French, 1881-1966), Picasso’s mistress at this time, was the model for the series of heads that the artist produced.
Picasso, Head of a Woman (Fernande), fall 1909, bronze, 16 1/8 x 9 7/8 x 10 9/16 in. (40.7 x 20.1 x 26.9 cm), cast 1910, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949. This work is Pablo Picasso’s first large Cubist sculpture and represents the distinctive physiognomy of Fernande Olivier, who was the artist’s model and mistress from 1905 until 1912. Before making the bust, Picasso produced countless drawings and gouaches to explore the specific form and structure of his subject’s facial features – her hair in a coil and a topknot; a bulging jaw; a well-fined depression in the center of her upper lip. The Art Institute of Chicago. The Fernande series’ evolved from the agility of facial expression to its individual features that became fixed signs.
Picasso, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, autumn 1910, Oil on canvas, 39 9/16 x 28 9/16 in. (100.4 x 72.4 cm) Gift of Mrs. Gilbert W. Chapman in memory of Charles B. Goodspeed, 1948. The Art Institute of Chicago. German-born Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1884-1979) opened an art gallery in Paris in 1907. The next year he began representing Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and introduced him to Georges Braque (1882-1963). Kahnweiler championed these artists’ revolutionary experiment with Cubism and purchased most of their paintings between 1908 and 1915. Kahnweiler sat for Picasso up to thirty times for this portrait.
Picasso, Head of Harlequin, 1916, The Art Institute of Chicago.
The Red Armchair of 1931 is hung at what is about the show’s halfway point. At this point, I might have exited. Yet where Miró’s critical judgment lags for me is that Picasso’s art is never incompetent or boring. His art is perceptibly linear and, despite its erotic themes, often contains qualities which satisfy and cleanse a critical eye. Picasso’s art is ever ancient and ever new, and distinctly European. For me, seeing a Picasso connotes a stroll in Paris or feeling a sunburn on the face after revelry and reverie along the Mediterranean coast. Quite readily the show produced these kinds of vicarious experiences as one soaked up a plethora of Picasso’s later, lesser work in utilitarian Regenstein Hall.
There are 250 items on display in Picasso and Chicago—and includes paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, and ceramics— which begin to manifest Pablo Picasso’s profligate artistic genius. Picasso and Chicago may have closed, but these works in Chicago’s various cultural institutions and private collections can still often be savored with the simplicity of a museum visit. A visitor may do no better than to start with a beeline to The Art Institute of Chicago to see Picasso’s The Old Guitarist and The Red Armchair and begin one’s own new absorption and critique of the Spanish master’s work whose home is in Chicago.
The Red Armchair, December 16, 1931
Detail of “The Red Armchair,” December 16, 1931; oil and ripolin on panel; signed, u.r.: “Picasso”; The Art Institute of Chicago.
Picasso, Head of Woman (Dora Maar), Paris, April 1, 1939, oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm. Private collection. Maar met Picasso in 1936 at the Café des Deux Magots in Paris. Her liaison with Picasso ended in 1943.
Picasso, Large vase with dancers, Vallauris, 1950, red earthenware clay, ground painted in white engobe, 71.2 cm. Crown collection.
Miró, Janis Mink, Taschen, 2006.
Je suis Le Cahier: The Sketchbooks of Picasso, 1986, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, Verona, Italy.
Picasso and Chicago 100 years, 100 works, Stephanie D’Alessandro, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2013.
Picasso in Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, 1968.