CHICAGO — A baboon with wings, a bull-moose hybrid, an Egyptian revival sculpture, and even a vampire.
Fifty years after its public unveiling, the untitled Picasso sculpture that sits in the center of Daley Plaza continues to elicit a wide range of interpretations from mystified passersby. The 50-foot-tall steel figure certainly caused a ruckus when it was first dedicated on August 15, 1967: Many people were simply baffled by the abstract sculpture; others showed up with signs that deemed it a “colossal booboo” and “an insult to Chicago’s greatness.” One urged, “Let’s give it back now!!!” Not exactly an ideal welcome for what the modernist master intended as a gift to the people of Chicago.
No protestors turned up yesterday afternoon (though that would have made for a fun spectacle), when the city restaged the sculpture’s dedication to celebrate the 50th anniversary of an oddity that’s gradually grown into a beloved Chicago icon. The aforementioned interpretations were among those I received from individuals in the crowd, which numbered in the hundreds — just a fraction of the approximately 50,000 people who packed the streets in 1967.
Among them was Bonnie Diamond, who was a little girl when her parents took her to what was then known as Civic Center to witness Mayor Daley pull away the giant, blue veil with a grand flourish. She had appreciated the sculpture upon first sight.
“It was very exciting,” Diamond told Hyperallergic. “It was just wow. We didn’t really know what it was and had never seen anything like it. Now I’m not sure what I think it is, but I always thought it was a horse with angel wings.”
Much of the anticipation back then stemmed from photographs of the statue and its maquette that the press circulated widely as part of the city’s publicity campaign. Everyone, it seemed, had an opinion on the Picasso — a hulking, modernist vision that had no apparent connection to Chicago or its history, unlike other commemorative statues that dotted the city streets. The choice must have seemed particularly curious considering the Spaniard had never set foot in the Windy City.
Readers of the Chicago Tribune wrote in days before the dedication, with a number calling it a “monstrosity” and some decrying the city’s showing of the work of a Communist. Others were enthusiastic and even proud, although many fixated on what exactly the stern-faced creature was supposed to be.
“The Picasso piece depicts a baboon, without a doubt,” a skeptical Helen Mckee wrote. “Picasso has perpetrated a hoax.” One Mrs. Joseph Savler suggested that the piece represented a phoenix, “the bird which like Chicago was consumed by fire and arose from its ashes in renewed beauty and freshness.” And area person P.K. Thompson was adamant about their guess: a giant sea horse.
Still others believed it represented Picasso’s pet Afghan hound, Kabul, an argument that photojournalist David Douglas Duncan laid out in a Chicago Tribune Magazine article. It was published months after the dedication and illustrated with an elegant portrait of the long-nosed canine.
Today, most people believe that Picasso meant for the figure — with its knob-shaped face, eyes and nostrils like donuts, core of radiating lines, and gradually widening stem — to represent an abstracted woman. What is certain, however, is that his sculpture paved the way for modern art to play a significant role in Chicago’s city planning, which had until then largely focused on functional public structures.
“The Picasso really changed the way public art began to appear within the city,” public historian Paul Durica told Hyperallergic. “What’s interesting is that, over the past 50 years, it’s more or less become part of the city’s built environment — people don’t really look at it as a work of art anymore. This anniversary is an opportunity to once again try to approach it as a work of art and think about its meaning and value to the city.”
Working with the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, Durica conceived of the dedication restaging, which also celebrated artists and cultural organizations in Chicago. The 1967 program had featured performances, readings, and speeches, and for yesterday’s event, locals stepped in to represent them with largely new material. Participants included the Chicago Children’s Choir, artist Avery R. Young, and Gwendolyn Brooks’s daughter, who recited the poem her mother had read 50 years ago.
The only thing missing was the drama of the original event: the Picasso was not kept under any veil but left exposed and untouched as celebrations unfolded around it. Instead, artist Edra Soto led a symbolic unveiling, asking people to cover their eyes with pink fans she’d designed and then remove them after a few seconds. It was a creative alternative to what may have proved a complicated endeavor, but I imagine it would have been quite striking to see Rahm Emanuel (who was present) whip away a cloth and watch it slowly billow in the wind as the gigantic Picasso was revealed, glinting in the sun and gazing fixedly forward.
The 162-ton work — which has turned from bright orange to dark gray, thanks to years of weathering — exists because of Chicago architect William E. Hartmann, who wanted to commission an artist to create a monumental work to serve as the focal point of the plaza. And he wanted none other than Picasso — Hartmann considered him “the greatest master alive.” He visited the artist at home in Mougins to propose the idea, which the city’s Public Building Commission had approved. To persuade Picasso, as well as familiarize him with Chicago culture, Hartmann brought along gifts including a White Sox uniform, a Native American war bonnet, a Chicago fire department helmet, and photographs of Ernest Hemingway and Carl Sandburg.
Picasso not only agreed to the task but also refused payment for it; he wanted his work to be a gift to the people of Chicago. He also gave the 42-inch-tall maquette to the Art Institute, where it remains on view today. His design was realized by the United States Steel Corporation at a cost of $300,000, which was covered by three different charitable foundations.
The theme of yesterday’s events was in keeping with the spirit of the artist’s generosity: “Everybody’s Picasso.” But that idea was briefly contested when the sculpture became the subject of a copyright controversy. In 1969, the Letter Edged in Black Press filed suit against the Public Building Commission, which claimed it had copyright on the sculpture. The art publisher had commissioned Claes Oldenburg to reproduce the Picasso and was fighting licensing fees, arguing that the sculpture was in the public domain, as the artist had given it to the people. The commission maintained that the deed of gift was a copyright grant that Picasso had given to the department. The next year, a judge ruled in the publisher’s favor.
Today, even if you haven’t seen the Picasso in person, you’ve likely seen it on screen, thanks to cameos in films like The Blues Brothers and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It’s become a marker of the city’s center, an unmistakable and familiar home base.
When the late Chicago Tribune arts editor Edward Barry wrote about the sculpture’s origin story days before its unveiling, he concluded with a grand premonition.
“For decades, possibly for generations, Chicagoans will dispute about this huge semi-abstract head of a woman — or is it something else? — which will be like a brooding presence in the center of the city,” Barry wrote. “It will be derided, defended, laughed at, and — who knows? — maybe eventually loved.”
From the array of people sitting on the Picasso’s granite pedestal and enjoying lunch to the children who slide down its sloping base every day, you can see that he turned out to be exactly right.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.