In 1913, the Art Institute did something astonishing. It opened its hallowed halls to an exhibition so radical that it would forever alter the course of art-making in the United States.
The event was the International Exhibition of Modern Art, better known today as the Armory Show. It featured challenging paintings and sculptures by the most advanced European artists, including Constantin Brancusi, Marcel Duchamp, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. The show opened first at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York and later at a private arts club in Boston, but since Chicago gave it pride of place at the Art Institute, the city became the first to officially sanction one of the most influential artists of the 20th century — Picasso.
The centenary of this progressive historical moment is the occasion for “The Picasso Effect,” a museumwide celebration of Picasso's legacy and influence that opened recently at the Art Institute. It centers on “Picasso and Chicago,” a major exhibition of 250 of the artist's paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings and ceramics. Supplementary displays pop up in galleries throughout the museum, highlighting Picasso's relationship with Surrealist artist Man Ray; his influence on American artists; his prolific work in books and magazines; masterpieces on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and more.
Would that “The Picasso Effect” felt as revolutionary as the Picasso effect really has been over the past hundred years. Or that it stirred with even a drop of the vitality that must have been coursing through the Art Institute's veins when it agreed to mount such a controversial exhibition way back when.
Instead “Picasso and Chicago” presents a sedate, respectable and generally unadventurous overview of the artist's relationship with the city. And with the exception of some revelatory commentary appended to masks in the African Art section similar to those that Picasso once owned, the related mini-installations mostly amount to art historical footnotes in the form of an extra wall label or two.
Stephanie D'Alessandro, the museum's curator of modern art and the organizer of “Picasso and Chicago,” made the unusual choice to forego a greatest-hits show, opting instead to display work drawn entirely from local collections: 200 works represent half of the Art Institute's sizable Picasso holdings, 50 were borrowed from private collectors. This results in an exhibition consisting primarily of small and subtle works on paper, mostly prints but also plenty of sketches. It also produces a considerable installation challenge, because the museum's special exhibition galleries amount to 18,000 square feet, and that's a lot of wall and floor space to fill, too much of which remains empty. The yawning gulfs between artworks nearly induces a longing for the chockablock hanging of the original Armory Show, where pictures were stacked two deep, with barely an inch separating them.
“Picasso and Chicago” begins strongly if obviously enough with the sculpture the artist designed for Daley Plaza. A photomural and maquette of the 50-foot-tall cubist construction come alive thanks to audio recordings made by the late Studs Terkel at the unveiling on Aug. 15, 1967, when he asked some of the thousands in attendance what they thought of the monument.
Whatever one may think of it — the official explanation is head of a woman, but head of a baboon, a horse or the artist's own Afghan hound provide convincing alternatives — it's the bookend to Chicago's initial claim to Picasso fame. But the city hasn't always embraced Picasso so wholeheartedly, or at least its critics haven't, and D'Alessandro has wittily sprinkled the exhibition with passages from contemporaneous newspaper reviews of local Picasso shows. Mostly these are hilariously short-sighted and conservative, but a few are not altogether baseless.
One Blanche C. Matthias, writing in the Chicago Herald and Examiner in 1923 about a Picasso drawing show organized by the Arts Club, noted “the domination of hackneyed subject matter” but also “the plastic significance of the painting or drawing.” Indeed. Musicians, circus performers, female nudes, female heads, bathers and still lifes pretty much comprise the view of Picasso's mighty output. Sure, there are those Minotaurs, a layered symbol that recurs from the 1930s on, but how many times can a virile bull-man ravage a nubile woman before feminist misgivings, or at least boredom, kick in? Dozens of the beasts charge around the otherwise placid galleries.
When Picasso's at his most conventional stylistically — during the somber Blue Period, the pretty Rose Period, the stodgy Neoclassical Period and for much of the later part of his life — his reliance on time-worn themes can be hard to ignore.
A potent exception is the artist's scathing response, beginning in 1937, to Francisco Franco's murderous reign in his native Spain. The most famous of these, the monumental “Guernica,” was displayed at the Arts Club in 1939 as part of an international tour to benefit the Spanish Relief Campaign. (It now hangs permanently in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid.) The weeping woman depicted in a series of four prints shown at the Art Institute, each more grotesque than the other, wrenchingly echoes that masterwork of antiwar art.
And when Picasso's reinventing the very possibilities for looking at and representing the world — as he and Georges Braque did when they conjured up Cubism — it hardly matters. The Cubist works in “Picasso and Chicago” continue to challenge physiological and artistic norms, even a hundred years later. It's a treat to see the reptilian “Head of a Woman (Fernande)” — a 1909 bronze sculpture of Picasso's lover Fernande Olivier that normally lives in the museum's Modern Wing — surrounded by a series of drawings and paintings representing her same visage in various states of cubistic dissection.
Picasso's lifetime of overlapping lovers, mistresses and wives figure prominently throughout the exhibition, doubling as they often did as models. “The Red Armchair,” his voluptuous, vibrant portrait of the young Marie-Thérèse Walther ensconced in a luridly striped chaise, is here of course, but so is a fabulously tacky picture of her that's more Miami Beach than Rive Gauche.
And then, after a few more muses, a few more decades, and some so-so ceramics, the show more or less begins where it ends. Hello Daley Plaza monument, and goodbye.
“Picasso and Chicago” runs through May 12 as part of “The Picasso Effect,” a museumwide series of events at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave., 312-443-3600, artic.edu
Lori Waxman is a special contributor to the Tribune and an instructor at the School of the Art Institute.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun