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All Things Considered

New art exhibit explores the century-long connection between Picasso and Chicago

Picasso Pine Tree Nude (courtesy Art Institute of Chicago)

Pablo Picasso never came to Chicago - never even set foot in the United States. But in 1967 Picasso gave Chicago an incredible gift: that fifty foot, 162 ton sculpture (or giant slide, depending on your age and point of view) in the heart of Daley Plaza.

The architects developing the plaza (then known as the Chicago Civic Center) sought Picasso out for the job. After all, by that point he was firmly established as the great artist of the 20th century. Picasso accepted, though apparently he rarely did commissions and he wouldn't take any money for the work. 

Of course not all Chicagoans considered it a gift, disagreeing then (and now) over what the work actually represents, and whether it's more eyesore than work of art.

As big an event as that unveiling was, it wasn't Chicago's introduction to Picasso. A century ago he was busy helping to create another art controvery here, when the 1913 Armory Show came to town.

The show, a landmark in modern art history, essentially introduced Americans to European avant garde art. It was exhibited in New York and Boston, but Chicago was the only place that put it in an actual museum, rather than a temporary space.

By doing so, the Art Institute of Chicago became the first museum to ever show Picasso – and other modern artists – in America.

That historic milestone, as well as the ensuing relationship between Picasso and Chicago, is the subject of the Art Institute's new show Picasso and Chicago, which opens February 20 and runs through May 12.

The Armory Show was controversial wherever it went. Art enthusiasts expecting the usual true-to-life landscapes or still lives were a bit taken aback by the angled planes and other experiments in works by Marcel Duchamp, Henri Matisse and Picasso.

Douglas Druick, the President of the Art Institute of Chicago, says Chicagoans had a range of reactions: enthusiasm, excitement and outrage.

"I mean I think there was a bit of theatre about it," Druick said. "They knew it was going to be controversial. There was big attendance, some 200,000 people in 1913, that’s still a big audience. It’s interesting because students at the School of the Art Institute were more conservative than the collectors and indeed some of the trustees. And there’s a moment in time when they burn Matisse in effigy on the steps of the Art Institute. So it’s an exhibition that really got people riled up."

The Picasso in Chicago show includes a handful of works from the 1913 Armory show – some still in their original frames.

But the bulk of the show is a vast survey of Picasso's output, spanning his earliest to latest periods. On exhibit you'll find paintings from most of his periods, drawings, etchings, sculptures and ceramics. The show's a testament to his incredible artistic output, but also to the Art Institute's significant holdings. There are over 250 works on display, most of which come from their 400-plus collection of Picasso.

Curator Stephanie D'Alessandro said viewing disparate works side by side was revealing.

"You have the chance to see a truly remarkable mind, grappling with, challenging the ideas in his head and pushing beyond them," D'Alessandro said, "In a way that still today, you know a hundred years after some of these works were made, is completely thrilling."

If the show is revealing of Picasso, it also helps lay bare a fascinating story about Chicago and the city's early connection to modern art.

The Armory Show may have shocked some but it also activated a number of collectors, including some who were already collecting Picasso.

D'Alessandro told me the story of attorney Arthur Jerome Eddy. He helped bring the Armory Show to Chicago and wrote the first book on modern art published in the United States: Cubism and Post Impressionism.

D'Alessandro says Picasso's early period - the so-called Blue Period - was especially appealing to Chicagoans, with its "exaggerated forms, evocative mood and beautiful palate."

Many of the works Chicagoans collected eventually made their way to the Art Institute.

But D'Alessandro also thinks thinks there is a natural affinity between Picasso and Chicagoans that has to do with our shared modern sensibilities.

"I think there’s a modern spirit that Picasso has, that sort of boldness of his work, I think must have appealed to Chicagoans who had a grander vision for their city, as they began to move into the 20th century," D'Alessandro said. "Our architect is a good example of that same bold vision that Picasso had for his work."

See for yourself if that affinity between artist and city still exists: Picasso and Chicago opens February 20 and runs through May 12th.

You can follow Alison on Twitter @wbezacuddy or Facebook.

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