CHICAGO — The Art Institute celebrates itself as it marks its century-long relationship with Pablo Picasso in a new blockbuster museum exhibit opening to the public next week.
"Picasso and Chicago" opens Wednesday, although members-only previews begin this weekend.
While it salutes Picasso as a groundbreaking artist, and really the epitome of the ever-inventive artistic creator in the modern era, it doesn't really break much new ground on its own.
Even so, it's the first large-scale Picasso exhibit in 30 years at the Art Institute, and it's something all Chicagoans, not just art aficionados, can take pride in. Drawing from 250 of the 400 Picasso works in the museum's collection, the exhibit doesn't really need anything from anyone else to make its case for Picasso's greatness, which in a way is testimony to its own.
The jumping-off point is the famous Armory Show of 1913, a century ago, which Art Institute President Douglas Druick said "shocked" the viewing public in New York City and the entrenched art world across the nation. The Art Institute was the only U.S. museum to welcome the works, meaning it can lay claim to being the first to exhibit Picasso.
It can also lay claim to being the first to have a Picasso in its permanent collection, thanks to Chicago collector Frederick Clay Bartlett, who gave the Art Institute the blue-period masterpiece "The Old Guitarist" in 1926. It occupies a prominent spot in the galleries leading into the exhibit proper.
The top position belongs to the now-beloved Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza, which the exhibit makes clear was not meant to depict a lion nor a dog (the Chicago American newspaper's opinion at the time of its 1967 unveiling), but the head of a woman. Studies for it are labeled as such, although the miniature Picasso prepared in 1965, used to construct the sculpture at U.S. Steel's American Bridge Co. plant in Gary, Ind., was simply labeled a "Maquette," or scale model.
Picasso's grandson, Olivier Widmaier Picasso, wrote in 2004 that the inspiration for the sculpture was an English woman, Lydia Corbett, who the artist had met in France. She was just 19 at the time so "in me, I think he saw his youth," Corbett told the Sun-Times.
Picasso was not a big one for performing commissions, and although he committed to the sculpture for Chicago, he had to be prodded along. At one point, city representatives presented him with Cubs and Bears memorabilia to inspire him, but what entranced Picasso in the same package was a picture of Ernest Hemingway, whom he recognized as his old friend and supporter in 1920s Paris and asked if he was from Chicago. That seemed to get him interested.
The Picasso sculpture was "key to the definition of our city as a place for the new and the modern," said Stephanie D'Alessandro, curator of modern art at the museum as well as of the exhibit. Yet she added that the museum's early and abiding appreciation for his work led directly to "our critical place in the history of modern art in the United States," as well as "the very indelible connections between the greatest artist of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso, and Chicago."
So, no, there's no "Portrait of Gertrude Stein" here from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, no "Desmoiselles d'Avignon" from the Museum of Modern Art, much less "Guernica." Yet it's great to see the breadth of the museum's Picasso collection brought together in an organized, chronological fashion, as well as "Head of a Woman (Dora Maar)," brought in from a private collector, along with an early Picasso self-portrait and "Three Musicians," both on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and set up not in the exhibit but in the Modern Wing. There's also a separate gallery devoted to the Armory Show, as the museum peppers its entire collection with references to Picasso and his work.
"Picasso and Chicago" is meant to be a crowd pleaser. Art aficionados can content themselves with the upcoming Kara Walker installation.
The museum is open daily 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays until 8 p.m., and admission is $23, with discounts for seniors, students, Chicagoans and Illinois residents, free to all Thursdays after 5.