Letter from Chicago: Part I. “Picasso and Chicago: the Fearless Pursuit of the Modern”

March 21st, 2013  |  Published in March 2013  |  2 Comments

Letter from Chicago: Part I.
“Picasso and Chicago: the Fearless Pursuit of the Modern”
Art Institute of Chicago, Feb 20 May 12, 2013

Picasso, Old Guitarist

Questions flood the mind after seeing a stunning exhibition by an artist whose name is part of the cultural and popular vernacular. In this first of a two-part analysis, questions arise. What does Picasso mean to the art world now, in 2013? How and when did the United States enter into dialog with the European avante garde, as it was called at the cusp of the 20th century, and with Picasso a leading force of this avante garde?

2013 marks the centennial of the Armory Show in America. The Armory Show represented the grand introduction of avante garde art of Europe to the U.S. The exhibition was held in temporary spaces, such as the New York Armory, hence the name, with the exception of its viewing in Chicago at the Art Institute, the only place where a major museum took on the challenge of hosting Europe’s avante garde art.

In short order, the Art Institute of Chicago became the first American museum to feature Pablo Picasso’s art work, and interestingly, the Arts Club of Chicago gave Picasso his first American solo show in 1923. Building on this embrace of the modern, the Art Institute and private collectors championed modernism and Picasso; the iconic Old Guitarist was donated to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1926, three years before the Museum of Modern Art was even founded. With its stunning architectural champions, Chicago is the birthplace of the modern city and the birthplace of modern art. The City of Big Shoulders early on held up Picasso as a beacon of modernism and this exhibition corrects historic narrative that always favors that city on the East Coast.

Douglas Druitt, President of the Art Institute declared “ Picasso as the most transformative artist of the 20th century.” When we think of the recent stellar auction prices for iconic modern art, Munch’s Scream received major attention selling in May, 2012 for $120.7M, yet Picasso’s Rose Period Garçon à la pipe (Boy with a Pipe,) at inflation-adjusted value, sold for 127.5M. Picasso breaks records regularly in auctions and surpasses Van Gogh for the number of paintings among the top forty-eight highest selling paintings. In this list, Van Gogh appears seven times to Picasso’s ten. No other artists match Van Gogh and Picasso’s number of paintings in this august listing.

Question One: ‘What does Picasso mean to the art world now, in 2013?’ is answered first by his hefty and continuous presence in the global auction market. It is a barometer of cultural desire and validation, available to few participants. After Garçon à la pipe, nine additional paintings list in the top forty-eigh;: 2. Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, 3. Dora Maar au Chat, 4. Les Noces de Pierrette, 5. Yo, Picasso, 6. Au Lapin Agile, 7. Acrobate et jeune arlequin, 8. Femme aux Bras Croisés, 9. Le Rêve, 10. Femme assise dans un jardin. For their exhibition, “Picasso and Chicago: the Fearless Pursuit of the Modern,” the Art Institute of Chicago picked “the best of the best” in assembling 250 works of art from the museum’s holdings of Picasso, the loan of three iconic works from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and others from private collections in Chicago. The works range from paintings, drawings, prints, assemblage sculptures, bronzes and ceramics.

Question Two: ‘How and when did the United States enter into dialog with the avante garde, as it was called at the cusp of the 20th century, with Picasso a leading European force of the avante garde?’ To me, Picasso’s legacy is tied to his pursuit of form wedded to content in the Wild West days of modernism. He disavowed abstraction for abstraction’s sake. Picasso’s own biography fueled subjects and themes. I suspect, as with Van Gogh, this has inspired global adoration and high demand in the auction market. The United States enter into dialog with the avante garde in the 1920’s and Chicago embraced the radical Spaniard immediately.

“Picasso and Chicago” is a magnificent commemoration of modernism. View Picasso’s oeuvre chronologically, beginning with Picasso’s early years, the Blue Period, with the Art Institute’s iconic 1903-04 oil painting Blue Guitarist as its centerpiece. Picasso’s empathy for the poor and marginalized is evident in this painting of the blind, emaciated guitar player. Think of Frans Hals’ swarthy, beer-swilling, mustachioed musicians and lusty barmaids with breasts like fresh muffins popping out of their corsets, or Manet’s almost glossy Spanish guitar player to witness the strong contrast to Picasso’s marginalized musician. The musician as entertainer is felt in the Hals or Manet, whereas Picasso foregrounded a forgotten, handicapped person with sunken unseeing eyes, whose guitar playing seems an act of inner need and solace. In the gallery of the early works, solitary figures and two versions of the etching The Frugal Meal call attention to Picasso’s own poverty and his awareness of those who are alone or are in suffering. We do not think of Picasso in this light typically, so among many reasons the exhibition’s curator, Stephanie d’Allessandro and her research associates should be lauded, it is for the selection and placement of Blue Period art works to show Picasso’s sensitive humanity.



Picasso, The Frugal Meal

For example, Woman with a Helmet of Hair, Paris 1904, a gouache on wood pulp board, features Picasso’s model and muse, Madeleine. This is a deeply iconic work wedding form to content. A small work, measuring almost 17 by 12 1/3 inches, it shows the digestion of Cezanne’s flat plane devices as Picasso’s restless intelligence begins formulating the aspects of Cubism. Gouache, which is opaque watercolor, allows for extremely delicate crosshatched brush strokes around her hair and broader areas of flat brushwork, flattening out planes in her hair, face, neck and shoulders. Her pale face with hopeless eyes fills the picture space and the blue and gray palette calls up melancholy. A faintest touch of pale pink on her lips provides a formal cool/warm contrast and also a feeling of her fragile feminity. This balance of form wedded to content gives us a rigorously modern picture that, yet, is full of pathos.

Picasso’s Rose Period, from which Garçon à la pipe is a leading example, is the next section of the museum’s chronological presentation. This section gives us the luxury of viewing a large number of small works on paper, giving us insight into Picasso’s thinking, emotions and formal experiments. Some of the modest works on paper from 1905 are: Woman in Profile, a seemingly unassuming portrait of a woman in pen and brown ink, a delicate and little-known etching of Saltimbanques, and a unique, cheeky, cartoon-like depiction of Salome before Herod called The Barbarous Dance. The expansion of ideas and volume of works of the Rose Period was assisted by art dealer Ambroise Vollard buying twenty-seven of Picasso’s Rose Period works. This section of the exhibition vividly calls attention to Picasso’s careful study of the Louvre’s collection of classical antiquities, his absorption of Ingres’ classicism and of Puvis de Chavannes’ themes and pastel palette (showing how eclectic Picasso was.) There is also obvious absorption of the formal considerations of ancient Iberian sculpture in the Louvre’s collection and in the Trocadero Ethnographic Museum. Nude with a Pitcher, an oil painting in the exhibition, is a perfect example of Rose Period palette and the form-changing that ethnic sculpture provided for Picasso.
Picasso here is shifting from more emotional rendering of the human condition in his Blue Period to a more ancient-primitive/modern dialectic. In this rigorous contrast, he begins the trajectory toward form bending/form breaking, hence toward modernism, on his terms.

The third gallery of the exhibition focuses on the Armory Show and Picasso’s most seminal works of his Cubist investigations starting in 1909. Numerous versions of Head of a Woman in ink, in watercolors, in oils and in bronze are featured and reveal how quickly Picasso shifted from the Rose Period’s dreamlike figuration to his hacking, slashing modes of Cubism. This gallery spotlights two of the Art Institute’s Cubist masterpieces. First, is the oil painting, Man with a Mustache, Buttoned Vest, and Pipe of 1915. It is an intelligent and decorative stacking of figure, wallpaper pattern, scrollwork, interior moldings, hands and pipe smoke in cartoon shorthand, slabs of wall and interior furniture in French decorative faux painting techniques, all of this with a nod to early 20th century collage. It is in a way, a Pop painting before Pop. The formula of Cubism seems to veil the obvious grabbing of high and low art in this painting. This somewhat riotous moshed painting is buttressed by beautiful, spare and intelligent Cubist drawings, such as Seated Woman in an Armchair, an iconographic companion to the jaunty Man with a Mustache painting.

Picasso, Man with Pipe


Picasso, Fernande Head



The second masterpiece this gallery from the Art Institute’s Cubist holdings is the 1910 oil portrait, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. All gray and beige, it is about as sober as Picasso gets. It is a pillar in the art history books and is steeped in analysis, yet wonderful to see in person. I call attention to a wonderful drawing of this period. The charcoal drawing, Mustachioed Man with a Guitar of 1912, has some delicate cross-hatching around his face and neck, but which is formed, essentially, by deft long lines that form his body and his guitar. A carefully placed circle and S curve describe a few line elements as “guitar.” Yet the sparseness of this drawing is very like the 1906 profile drawing Peasant Woman with a Shawl. An elegant, slightly wavering line goes from the top of her shawled head to the bottom of her long skirt. Shading here is as economical as it is in the Mustachioed Man with a Guitar. I think Picasso keeps all his ideas in his pockets and keeps pulling out favorites, moving forward graphically yet looping back to his core ideas. These core ideas are: intense observation of living subjects, stripping away non-essentials in descriptions, using line and tone for emotional intensity and then building up/stacking up forms to create new visual languages. These elements are constantly and unrelentingly looped, morphed and amplified. I come to these conclusions as a painter and professor, but mostly as a painter.

My discussion of the Picasso’s art work in this exhibition will continue in the April issue.

Cynthia M. Kukla is an artist and professor of art currently living in Illinois.


  1. Richard Hansen says:

    March 24th, 2013at 1:45 pm(#)

    This is not merely a pro-Chicago exhibit article but an enlightening analysis of Picasso grounded in a historical chronology. The insights into Picasso’s work are crisp and lucid, and they offer a balanced survey of the artist within the context of representative questions. I look forward to the sequel!

  2. Sigrid Wonsil says:

    March 24th, 2013at 3:30 pm(#)

    Cynthia Kukla has once again written with passion and astuteness about an art movement, Modernism, and its main proponent, Picasso. She describes the city of Chicago’s role in promoting the avant garde, and took the time and trouble to research Picasso’s status on the art auction market.
    this is a great article about a great exhibit.