Chicago's Picasso Remains a Symbol of the 'City of the Big Shoulders'


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Art Institute of Chicago exhibit highlights Picasso collection.

The relationship between Picasso and the City of Chicago is a fascinating one.

The Art Institute of Chicago is  presenting a major exhibition that will celebrate its holdings of works by artist Pablo Picasso (1881–1973)  through May, 2013. More than  250 of the finest examples of the Art Institute’s collection of Picasso’s paintings, sculpture, prints, and drawings as well as major loans from private collections in the city will be on display. The exhibition will coincide with the centennial of the Armory Show at the Art Institute, the first major exhibition of avant-garde European art presented in the United States and the first time Picasso’s works were displayed in an American museum. The exhibition will be the first major Picasso exhibition organized by the Art Institute in almost 30 years.

The museum began its collection of works by Picasso in the early 1920s with two figural drawings ("Seated Male Nude" and "Sketches of a Young Woman and a Man," 1905 and 1904/05, respectively), and in 1926 welcomed "Old Guitarist" (late 1903–early 1904) as a generous gift of Frederic Clay and Helen Birch Bartlett. Over time, the collection has expanded to include paintings such as the classically inspired "Mother and Child" (1921) as well as landmark sculptures including the cubist "Head of a Woman (Fernande)" (1909). In addition, the museum boasts an exceptional collection of works on paper that include the monumental "Woman Washing Her Feet" (1944) and impressions of his most iconic works such as "The Frugal Meal" (1904), one of only three examples of the famous Blue Period etching actually printed in blue ink. The exhibition will provide viewers a rare opportunity to chart Picasso’s wide-ranging interests and explorations.

Red Armchair by PicassoThe presentation will not only survey Picasso’s extensive material experimentations, but also subjects that are emblematic of the artist, including the emotive individuals of his Blue and Rose periods, the bold geometric forms of his Cubist years, the monumental personages from his post–World War II production, and his specific contributions to the city of Chicago. Special presentations on the themes and influences of the artist will be showcased throughout the museum’s encyclopedic collection, allowing visitors to explore the broad and enduring impact of the eminent artist.

In 1960, the Public Building Commission of Chicago approved a plan for a 31-story civic center., it was decided that a monumental sculpture would grace the plaza. "It was suggested that we put names in a hat, and, remarkably enough, everyone had chosen Pablo Picasso," said one of the Commission. Picasso's name was presented to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who said, "If you gentlemen think he's the greatest, that's what we want for Chicago, and you go ahead."

Picasso was 82 years old at the time. He was living on the French Riviera and "not one to make appointments." However, a relentless campaign by Chicago leaders led to Picasso agreeing to create the sculpture.

Once  Mayor Daley  approved the work, ("It looks like the wings of justice," Daley is reported to have told aides), he sent an aide  back to Picasso with a check for $100,000 as payment. The artist, who had never specified a fee, examined it, and then refused it saying, "This is my gift to the people of Chicago."

On August 15, 1967, the city dedicated the statue at a festive ceremony attended by thousands of Chicagoans who had crowded into the Plaza, in front of what was known then as the Chicago Civic Center. Mayor Daley's press secretary, recalls the lowering of the shroud at the unveiling: "I nearly dropped dead because the thing didn't come down right away. But finally it came down and low and behold everybody gasped, "What is it. . .?" The public's response was loud and varied, and the controversy continues to this day.

The Chicago Picasso (often just The Picasso), is 50 feet tall and weighs 162 short tons The Cubist sculpture by Picasso was the first such major public artwork in Downtown Chicago, and has become a popular  landmark.

Visitors to Daley Plaza can often be seen climbing on and sliding down the base of the sculpture.

The cost of constructing the sculpture was $352,000, paid mostly by three charitable foundations: the Woods Charitable Fund, the Chauncey and Marion Deering McCormick Foundation, and the Field Foundation of Illinois.

Before fabrication of the final steel sculpture was started, a 3.5 meter (~12 feet) tall wooden model was constructed for Picasso to approve.

The efforts of the City of Chicago to publicize the sculpture — staging a number of press events before the sculpture was completed, and displaying the maquette without a copyright notice — were cited as evidence in a 1970 U.S. District Court case where the judge ruled that the city's actions had resulted in the sculpture being dedicated to the public domain.

The sculpture was initially met with controversy. Before the Picasso sculpture, public sculptural artwork in Chicago was mainly of historical figures. One derisive Chicago City Council alderman immediately proposed replacing it with a statue of Ernie Banks, the Chicago Cubs icon.

Newspaper columnist Mike Royko, wrote: “Interesting design, I’m sure. But the fact is, it has a long stupid face and looks like some giant insect that is about to eat a smaller, weaker insect.” Royko did credit Picasso with understanding the soul of Chicago. “Its eyes are like the eyes of every slum owner who made a buck off the small and weak. And of every building inspector who took a wad from a slum owner to make it all possible.... You’d think he’d been riding the L all his life.”

Picasso sculpture  at Daley Plaza in 2007Although Picasso never explained what the sculpture was intended to represent, it may have been inspired by a French woman, Sylvette David, now known as Lydia Corbett, who posed for Picasso in 1954. Then 19 years old and living in Vallauris, France, Corbett would accompany her artist boyfriend as he delivered chairs made of metal, wood and rope. One of those deliveries was to Picasso, who was struck by her high ponytail and long neck. "He made many portraits of her. At the time, most people thought he was drawing the actress Brigitte Bardot. But in fact, he was inspired by [Corbett]," Picasso's grandson Olivier Widmaier Picasso told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2004.

"I think the Chicago Sculpture was inspired by her," said the grandson, author of Picasso, the Real Family Story. Picasso made 40 works inspired by her, said the grandson, including The Girl Who Said No, reflecting their platonic relationship. The quality of the Picasso's sculpture inspired other artists such as Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall, Joan Miró, Claes Oldenburg and Henry Moore. Acceptance from these artists influenced the acceptance from Chicagoans.

It was mentioned (and appears) in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers during the chase scene leading to the Richard J. Daley Center, and can also be seen briefly in the 1993 film The Fugitive, as Kimble (and then his pursuers) run across the plaza.

Today, the Chicago Picasso has become a well known meeting spot for Chicagoans. Depending on the season and time of the month there are musical performances, farmer's markets, a Christkindlmarkt, and other Chicago affairs are held around the Picasso statue in front of Daley Plaza.

Visit your public library for more resources:

A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932.
John Richardson, (2007).
Art historian Richardson became acquainted with Picasso during the 1950s, and his firsthand knowledge adds zing to his extraordinarily vivid and perceptive biography of the master artist, a landmark work that now fills three substantial volumes. Here Richardson illuminates one of the most productive yet least understood periods in Picasso’s long, bold artistic quest. This is Picasso in his prime, and a biography so ensnaring in its details and provocative in its interpretation, Richardson leaves the reader hungry for still more.
— Excerpt of review by Donna Seaman first published November 1, 2007 (Booklist).

Picasso and American Art
Michael  FitzGerald, (2006).
Although “Pablo Picasso never set foot in America,” the protean artist had a profound impact on American art. In this groundbreaking and exhaustively researched study, FitzGerald takes measure of Picasso’s influence, serving up a feast of juicy art-world tales of fervent advocacy and outright hostility. As the unbelievably prolific Picasso changed styles as readily as the mythological beings that inspired him changed shapes, American critics and artists scrambled to keep pace. From the small Picasso still life Max Weber brought to New York in 1909 to Picasso’s first exhibit two years later in Alfred Stieglitz’s now legendary gallery to major museum exhibitions, the story of Picasso’s art in America sheds new light on the evolution of modern American art.
— Excerpt of review by Donna Seaman first published November 1, 2006 (Booklist).

Picasso’s War: The Destruction of Guernica, and the Masterpiece that Changed the World
Russell Martin, (2002).
Picasso hadn’t yet agreed to create a mural for Spain’s pavilion in Paris’ 1937 international exposition, but once news of the Nazi bombing and utter destruction of the historic Basque town of Guernica reached the expatriate Spanish artist, visions of a painting in protest of that horrific massacre of innocents quickly coalesced. The result was the immense masterpiece Guernica , which, as Martin so resoundingly chronicles, became “the world’s most recognized symbol of war’s brutality.” —Excerpt of review by Donna Seaman first published November 1, 2002 (Booklist).



1. Article Illustration:
Maquette of Chicago Picasso Art Institute of Chicago

2.  The Red Armchair, Pablo Picasso. 1931. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Saidenberg. © Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

3.Sculpture by Picasso in front of Daley Center (Chicago).

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