Thursday, February 21, 2013

Picasso in Chicago

“Picasso in Chicago”, through May 12, Art Institute of Chicago

In 1926, the Art Institute of Chicago was the first American museum to place a painting by Pablo Picasso (‘the Old Guitarist”) on permanent display, so it’s a bit surprising that 40 years after his death we are still waiting for a major retrospective for what its director calls “the most transformative artist of the 20th Century”. The current show is limited to items from its own collection enhanced by works on paper from local collectors. But with over 400 pieces to draw from, it still offers a memorable stroll through that exceptional artist’s 70 year career. And an encyclopedic museum like the Art Institute is the perfect place for it because Picasso was an encyclopedic artist. Picasso-relevant displays have been scattered throughout the museum to remind us of his wide ranging eye. He borrowed from his older contemporaries like Rodin and Cezanne, as well as historic European painters from El Greco to Corot and world art from Africa and Polynesia (though he had little use for either south or east Asian) . The artist seems most comfortable with historic art of his own Mediterranean homeland, i.e. Greco-Roman classicism, and his greatest achievement, at least for me, are his line drawings illustrating Ovid’s Metamorphosis, sumptuously laid out in a gallery-long vitrine.

That man could draw! You can see from his very earliest marks on paper why this was one young artist who never had to drive a delivery truck or wait on tables. He doesn’t go for depth of volume, but his line manages to capture both character and tension, and when he chooses, fits seamlessly into overall design.

Of course, he could also paint, and that’s the shortcoming of this exhibit, limited as it is to local collections. The two major paintings from Philadelphia that traveled to Chicago for this show are now hanging over in the Modern Wing, perhaps because they would only remind us of what is missing. The only other exciting painting that came to Chicago recently was the 1965 “Les Dormeurs” that hung on Navy Pier last year for Art Expo.

There's no way that this much Picasso can be anything less than fascinating. It's a trip through art history, especially the early 20th C. avant garde. And the artist's vigorous, satyr-like personality is as endlessly appealing as it is repellent. But this exhibit has prioritized the history of Picasso in Chicago collections. This history teaches us nothing about the artist because it’s not likely he knew any Chicago collectors. And since the pieces have not been grouped by collector or date of collection, we can learn very little about those collectors. So "the story of this unique 100 year relationship" is just an exercise in civic self grooming that only shows how badly we need it.