The Red Armchair (1931), part of "Picasso and Chicago"
The Red Armchair (1931), part of "Picasso and Chicago" Credit: Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

As you’ve probably heard, a big Picasso show opened this month at the Art Institute, celebrating the “special century-long relationship” between the “preeminent artist of the 20th century” (as the catalog puts it) and our town. “Picasso and Chicago” showcases about 200 of the 400 works owned by the Art Institute, and 50 more from other local collections, and there are related “Picasso Effect” mini exhibits throughout the museum, along with lectures, music and dance performances, and film.

All this for a favorite son who never set foot in the city.

The “special relationship” has four basic anchors. The Art Institute:

• was the first American museum to show Picasso’s work (in the then-shocking 1913 Armory Show).

• was the site of Picasso’s first American solo show in a noncommercial setting (a 1923 exhibit of drawings hosted by the Arts Club).

• was the first American museum to put Picasso’s work on permanent display.

And Chicago is home to Picasso’s first monumental sculpture in America—the untitled big dog/woman/what have you in Daley Plaza, otherwise known as the Chicago Picasso.

All to the greater glory of our town as an early adopter of modernism.

But it’s a safe bet that apart from the time he was working on the Daley Plaza commission in the 60s, Picasso—ensconced in France and busy inventing Cubism, juggling the paramours who were his models, and making himself a global brand—never gave Chicago more than a passing thought.

New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik, who wrote an essay titled “Picasso not in America” for the exhibit catalog, finessed this detail nicely in a lecture he gave at the Art Institute last week. He simply substituted “America” for “Chicago” and forged ahead, in spite of the fact that Picasso was never in America either. The artist had an imaginary America in his head, Gopnik said (skyscrapers, cinema, capitalism), and America had an idea of him (artist as genius, lionized in the press).

The all-local sourcing of “Picasso and Chicago” means there are more prints and drawings in this show than most of us will want to linger over, while major works owned by other museums are absent. (A couple of pieces on loan from Philadephia are up in a separate exhibit.) It starts with what we know best—the model for the Daley Center statue, with a wonderful audio background of Studs Terkel interviewing mostly mystified spectators at the 1967 unveiling. And at the end, there are the unmistakably familiar “head of a woman” drawings Picasso had been working on before anyone approached him with the idea of making a massive monument for Chicago.

In between we traipse through a life and work that’s been sliced, diced, examined under a microscope, and categorized: the blue period, the rose period, the neoclassicism, the surrealism, the collages, the experiments with prints and ceramics, and, most strikingly, the emergence of Cubism, which Picasso and Braque cooked up in the first decade of the 20th century, after getting a look at art from Africa, Iberia, and Polynesia.

Suddenly, faces splinter, masklike heads torque on angular torsos, and the world becomes a swirl of clanging chaos, open, as Gopnik says of the Daley Center Picasso, to multiple meanings. And, therefore, the appropriate art for modern life.

Starting next week, on your way in or out of this Picasso tutorial, you can see some art with a real relationship to Chicago. “They Seek a City: Chicago and the Art of Migration, 1910-1950” will display about 80 pieces by artists who went out of their way to get to Chicago, and whose work reflects both what they fled and what they found. Immigrants from eastern Europe and Mexico, southern blacks who were part of the Great Migration—to its credit, the School of the Art Institute was open to these artists when most of its peer institutions were not.

Special Houses by Elizabeth Catlett, part of “They Seek a City: Chicago and the Art of Migration, 1910-1950”Credit: Estate of Elizabeth Catlett/
Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY