Picasso and Chicago...

When I was younger, the Art Institute hosted a series of landmark exhibitions concerning the great Impressionist painters. Every year there was a new show, the galleries were always packed with patrons who flocked to the museum to see these shows, and the works captured my imagination. My mom bought me books about Degas, Monet, Cassatt, and Van Gogh (though he was technically a Post-Impressionist), and I claimed Impressionism as my favorite art movement for years, until my tastes turned darker in high school and I acquired an affinity for German Expressionism (Van Gogh's The Starry Night remains my favorite painting of all-time, however.) Still, I remember with fondness going to see those exhibits at the Art Institute and looking forward to them all year.

Maybe I've just gotten jaded and harder to impress, or maybe the current economical climate has made it more difficult to ship paintings from all over the world to create blockbuster exhibits like those of yore, but I feel like the Art Institute's offerings have been substantially less impressive in recent years, with the exception of last year's Lichtenstein retrospective. 2011 witnessed the Art Institute's massive exhibition of Soviet Propaganda posters, which was a triumph of art scholarship, however, the vast majority of the pieces were drawn from the museum's own collection.

The same was true of "Picasso and Chicago," the current temporary exhibition at the Art Institute, which touts itself as the museum's first major Picasso show in over three decades. I was keen to see the exhibit, not only because I love a blockbuster exhibit, but because I admire the artistic genius and prolific career of Picasso, but I ultimately found myself to be somewhat underwhelmed by the experience.

"Picasso and Chicago" is designed to demonstrate the ties between the artist and our fair city, where his work was heavily collected by wealthy Chicagoans following his showing at the 1913 Armory Show, which was housed at the Art Institute during its tour of the United States. In 1965, Chicago unveiled a monumental statue by Picasso in the Richard J. Daley Plaza that remains a city landmark to this day. Despite these connections, I couldn't help but feel like the Art Institute selected this focus for their exhibit to facilitate curating an exhibit based largely on their own collection.

Sure, the show was brimming over with famous works like The Old Guitarist and the sculpture, Cubist Head of a Woman (Fernande), but all of those notable works are ones that you can see during any visit to the Art Institute in any given year, as they are part of the permanent collection and are always on display. Plus, the case for the Chicago connection felt half-hearted, as if the curators really just wanted to discuss the life and art of Picasso and were forced to tack an extra sentence onto every caption in order to prove the Chicago-relevance of the preceding text.

This doesn't mean, however, that the exhibit is not worth seeing. Though it wasn't as grand or impressive as I was hoping, I was still intrigued by the large volume of works on paper included in the exhibition. The Art Institute has a staggering collection of works on paper, but in exhibitions, they tend to take a backseat to paintings and sculpture. It was in "Picasso and Chicago's" selection of prints that I found the most value in the exhibition.

The Frugal Meal, 1904.
Before visiting this exhibit, I had no idea that Picasso was one of the 20th century's most active print-makers. Seeing as how I have a soft spot for etchings and wood-block prints, collect them myself, and have used them to decorate our home, this was not an insignificant revelation to me. "Picasso and Chicago" offered a longitudinal study of the role of printmaking in the artist's career, from early experiments with etching seen in 1904's The Frugal Meal, to whole series of prints he created to illustrate books, such as 1936's Texts of Buffon, to visually dense explorations of drypoint and lithographic techniques that he would work and rework repeatedly.

Selection from Texts of Buffon, 1936
Weeping Woman I, 1937
It was illuminating to witness Picasso's waxing and waning fascination with the medium, in which he even went so far as to obtain his own printing press so that he could exercise full-control over the production of his work. A particularly interesting series of prints from 1909 entitled Two Nude Figures: Woman with a Guitar and Boy with a Cup showed the progression in Picasso's printmaking craft, as the early pressings reveal crunched paper, slipping plates, and other failures that were part of the artist's learning curve. It was truly an amazing insight into his process, and a powerful reminder than even an artistic genius such as Picasso is still human.

Two Nude Figures: Woman with a Guitar and Boy with a Cup, 1909
I was also intrigued by some very interesting late-career ceramic pieces that he created by incising the clay, much as one would to create a linocut or wood-block print. It was almost as if he created the plate for a print, and decided to make that into the object that would hang on the wall instead of the paper that would normally be pressed against it to create an image. I can't be sure if that is what he was going for, but that was my interpretation of it. 

Woman's Head with a Crown of Flowers, 1964
Much as I enjoyed learning more about Picasso as a print-maker, I felt that the exhibit fell short in its aim of establishing a Picasso/Chicago connection - after all, they admitted themselves that the artist never even visited the city! If I weren't interesting in printmaking, I don't think the exhibit would have held much appeal to me at all, and I was bummed that there weren't any paintings that stood out as being new to me.

Still, from the huge queue of attendees lined up outside the museum to see "Picasso and Chicago," it looks like the museum has another hit on their hands. I just hope this doesn't inspire them to lower the bar for their temporary exhibitions in the future, and that next time, they look beyond recycling their own collection for inspiration.

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