Pablo Picasso

Controversy in Chicago

Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Pablo Picasso’s work in the United States and the little-known controversy that almost banished him


Pablo Picasso. Woman with Book, 1932

By Alex Starace
There was a time when Modern Art was just that: new, unusual, and thoroughly modern. Impressionism was still edgy; the American public was getting used to the idea that fine art could include non-representational, fantastical creations. Names like Brancusi, Matisse and Duchamp had yet to break through the U.S. popular consciousness. So, it was with a splash that Modern Art first landed on American shores, a hundred years ago this year. The event was the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art, now commonly referred to as The Armory Show.

Of the over 300 artists represented, one was a Spaniard named Pablo Picasso. Picasso, who was already the co-founder of cubism (along with Georges Braque), had a reputation in Europe. However, other than at a small 1911 exhibit at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, he had yet to have his work shown in the United States. The Armory Show was, in a sense, his American debut.

The show’s first leg took place at the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue in New York, where approximately 1,300 pieces were on display. At the time, the United States was very conservative, artistically speaking. Most American painters and connoisseurs still favored traditional images, such as a still life, portrait or landscape that was painted in a painstakingly figurative style, where the artist’s brushstrokes (and personality) were hidden.

Breaking the Mold with Modern Art
However, the Modern Art at the Armory was anything but figurative and anonymous. It was instead based on an attempt to capture the emotion or truth of an idea using new modes of expression. This meant new techniques, new ideas, and new materials; instead of hewing the Academy’s rules for art, artists were free to do as they wished. Traditionalists found this overwhelming and outrageous. For example, Picasso’s Cubism was seen by some as incredibly hubristic and amateurish – after all, his paintings didn’t even look like their titles!

Many critics found the show so unorthodox that they mocked it, or concluded it was the manifestation of insane or anarchic tendencies in the artists. Even President Theodore Roosevelt wrote a review of the exhibit. (Roosevelt had mixed, though mostly negative, feelings.) While there was no overriding consensus (and some visionary critics did hail the Armory Show as a creative breakthrough), the show received plenty of attention and more than its fair share of scorn.


Pablo Picasso’s sketch of the 50-foot “Chicago Picasso” on display in the Daley Plaza courtyard

Picasso’s Work Sparks Controversy in The Windy City
The Armory’s next leg was at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), the only museum in the United States forward-thinking enough to display such controversial art. Six hundred fifty of the most novel pieces were selected from the Armory and hung in the galleries. In Chicago, as in New York, there were some howls of dissatisfaction: on the last day of the exhibit, students from the traditionalist School of the Art Institute of Chicago put Henri Matisse on mock-trial. Matisse was found guilty of “artistic murder” and “criminal misuse of line,” among other
infractions. As we now know, however, Modern Art was here to stay.

Picasso, in particular, would grow to become an art world giant. Though he never set foot in the United States, he had a long and peculiar relationship with the city of Chicago. His U.S. museum debut was at the Art Institute of Chicago, at the second leg of the Armory Show. His first U.S. solo exhibition was in 1923, presented by the Arts Club of Chicago. Picasso’s famous blue period painting, The Old Guitarist, entered the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection in 1926, and remains to this day a staple of the museum’s permanent works on display. Other works were soon to join the AIC’s collection, including: Mother and Child, Red Armchair, and Head of a Woman (Fernande).

In the 1960s, Chicago itself, long at the forefront of art and architecture, took a chance on Picasso. The city’s newly constructed Civic Center was in need of a monumental public sculpture. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the firm that had built the Civic Center, settled on Picasso, and sent an architect to France to woo him.  Gifts, including White Sox memorabilia and a Sioux headdress, were given. Picasso, who claimed he never accepted commissions, was finally convinced, though he refused a $100,000 payment for his work. Instead, the sculpture was to be a present to the citizens of Chicago.

Chicago-Picasso-by-Shutter-RunnerThe 50-Foot Chicago Picasso Unveiled
Four years later, after some cajoling of Picasso to hurry up, it was ready: On August 15, 1967, Mayor Richard J. Daley pulled a sheet off the 50-foot-tall, 162-ton artwork as thousands of Chicagoans looked on. What they saw was described alternately as an Afghan dog, an insect, a slum owner, or a woman. One alderman suggested it be replaced by a statue of Ernie Banks. Mayor Daley (after whom the plaza would eventually be named) showed more foresight in stating, as reported by the Chicago Tribune: “We dedicate this celebrated work this morning with the belief that what is strange to us today will be familiar tomorrow.” And so it was – the untitled sculpture worked its way into the hearts of Chicagoans through the years. It’s now colloquially referred to as the “Chicago Picasso,” and
children climb on it while tourists snap photos – it’s a defining image of the city.

However, way back in 1913, when the Armory Show took America by storm, one doubts that Picasso could have imagined his work would be so celebrated a hundred years hence. Such is the peculiar relationship between Picasso and Chicago – and the rise and acceptance of Modern Art.

Pablo Picasso