CHICAGO — Sometimes it almost seems that at any time of the year, at some place in the world, there is always a show of Picasso’s work on display. Within the last 12 months in the United States alone, museum-goers could see works from Picasso’s residence in southern France, La Californie, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City; an exhibition devoted to the Blue period, La Vie, at the Cleveland Art Museum; Picasso in Black and White at the Guggenheim in New York City; Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Philadelphia; and works from Paris’s Musee Picasso on loan at the Seattle Art Museum. As a self-confessed Picassoholic, I’ve seen some of these shows as well as many of the blockbuster Picasso-related events from the last twenty years (Picasso and Sculpture at the Tate in London, Matisse Picasso at New York’s MoMA). And so I feel confident in my assertion that Picasso and Chicago, which opened at the Art Institute of Chicago last week, stands in comparison with the best of them.
Although Picasso never set foot in either Chicago or the USA during in his lifetime, the starting point for this exhibition is the distant but significant part played by Chicago in the spread of Picasso’s work in the U.S. The Art Institute was the first museum in America to show his work when the Armory Show was exhibited there in 1913. By the 1920s, his work was also entering the collections of wealthy Chicagoans. In the mid-1960s Picasso was commissioned to create the big sculpture on Daley Plaza — the 50-foot-tall head of a woman that is nowadays as much a symbol of the city as the Sears Tower. The entryway to the show, in fact, displays a maquette of the sculpture against an enlarged news photo of its unveiling, while from overhead you can hear recordings made in the crowd by Studs Terkel. The rest of the exhibition moves in chronological order through Picasso’s creative life, from his early years in Barcelona at the end of the 1890s, his first forays to Paris in 1900 and 1901, and then the successive grand phases of his career, from the Rose Period, then Cubism, the neo-classical work of the 1920s, the Surrealist work of the 1930s and 1940s, and a broad array of work in printmaking, artist’s books, and ceramics.
There are more than 400 works on display, drawn from the Art Institute’s holdings and from private collections in Chicago. What’s so refreshing is that there are so many drawings, watercolors, gouaches, prints, and books on display, many of which are being seen for the first time. Every room contains delightful surprises, like a 1899 charcoal drawing of Josep Cardona, a proof of the 1904 etching “The Frugal Meal” printed in blue-black ink, and Picasso’s well-known “Mother and Child” displayed with a fragment that suggests a much larger and bigger painting. There are complete sets of his Vollard Suite etchings, and his etchings to accompany Balzac’s “Le Chef d’Oeuvre Inconnu,” both of which are landmarks in 20th-century printmaking.
I particularly liked the way sets of drawings were paired with well-known paintings or sculptures in the exhibition, giving the viewer a sense of the progression in Picasso’s thinking and casting the familiar works of art in a new light. A great example is the 1909 bronze “Head of a Woman,” with its bulbous multi-faceted head, and on the wall behind it a series of drawings and a painting of the same subject. A gouache and charcoal drawing from the spring of 1909 shows Picasso working on this subject, though the planes of the head are mainly quite flat. An oil painting from summer of 1909 explores the head in the geometric shapes and earth tones of the early Cubist paintings. And a watercolor from fall 1909 shows that Picasso was finally prepared to take the most extreme step — radically stylizing the features and exploding the top of the head — on the way to the sculpture.
Themes from the show are picked up in subsidiary displays elsewhere in the museum. For example, there is a fascinating selection of pages from a book of his own poetry that Picasso printed together with loosely-drawn lithographs. Picasso’s relation to books is explored in the library (near the museum’s Michigan Avenue entrance), which displays more books illustrated by Picasso. Other collections have been temporarily reorganized or excerpted to make connections between Picasso and art history — for example, you can read about the influence of African sculpture on Picasso and look at examples of the kind of pieces he was interested in.
But the main event is what pulls it all together, showing not only the dedication of the city over the course of a century to Picasso’s work, but also the common threads and patterns that ran through the work of this most varied of artists.
Picasso and Chicago runs through May 12 at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago).