The impetus for this exhibition is the centennial celebration of the Armory Show. This significant art exhibition opened in New York in 1913, exposing visitors to experimental European art styles for the first time, including the Cubist works of Picasso. The show traveled to the Art Institute and established the AIC as the first public institution to display Picasso’s work in the United States.
According to curator Stephanie D’Alessandro, this show ignited not only the nation’s interest in modern art, but can be seen as a seminal moment in Chicago’s history with collecting modern art. The Art Institute began acquiring works by Picasso in the early 1920s and the Arts Club of Chicago did the same almost immediately after its founding in 1916.
The show itself pulls pieces from the Art Institute’s collection and local art collectors. Even in a city as large as Chicago, it is impressive to see so many works by a single artist together in one space and know they are all “locally” held and owned.
However, the show is strongest and most interesting when citing historical firsts and interesting anecdotes related to the city. Opening with a maquette of the Chicago Picasso, visitors hear interviews with Chicagoans attending the statue’s unveiling in 1967 conducted by oral historian/author Studs Terkel.
Other centerpieces in the show clearly emphasize Chicago’s relationship with the artist. The first Picasso painting ever acquired by an American museum was The Old Guitarist (1903-1904). Given to the Art Institute in 1926, it is displayed prominently early in the exhibit. Likewise, Mother and Child (1921) is presented alongside a strip of painted canvas. After learning the AIC had acquired Mother and Child, Picasso offered this strip to a museum trustee with instructions to donate it to the museum.
Later, alongside works depicting the Spanish Civil War, AIC exhibit material tells how the Arts Club of Chicago sponsored a special show of Picasso’s work to raise relief funds for victims of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. Picasso staunchly opposed the regime’s actions in his home country, so the gesture was not just philanthropic, but also one of solidarity with the artist’s beliefs and concerns.Another strength of the exhibit is that it shows the variety of Picasso’s interests throughout his career. Galleries focusing on his Blue and Rose periods transition to the Armory Show works before moving into sections dominated by etching and print-making work that explore his interests in line study and even surrealist styles of automated drawing.
At times gallery spaces feel a bit sparse or repetitive in content, but there are also installations eliciting intense emotional reactions. Picasso’s images of war and women in anguish hang near his frenetically illustrated poetry. These works are the most expressive of the show, appearing suddenly after a larger gallery space dedicated to etchings. The transition from images of myths and animals rendered with delicate and playful line work to images of extreme emotional duress in heavy black paint and ink is abrupt, but emotionally “affective.”
As the exhibit concludes, it speaks to Picasso’s preoccupation with larger-scale works in his later life. The implication he was contemplating his mortality through these works is a slightly depressing note on which to close. However, the work is still adventurously experimental, varied, and colorful.
It also includes a more in-depth look at the conception and execution of the Chicago Picasso.
If Picasso in his final years was focused on making a longer-lasting impression on the art world than he already had, it is exhibitions like this one, from a city that still appreciates him so greatly, that would put his mind at ease.
Special installations of Picasso’s work throughout the museum (“The Picasso Effect”) and special programming events will serve to complement Picasso and Chicago during its run through May 12.