Chicagoans know their Picasso—or at least the 162 tons of steel standing tall in Richard J. Daley Plaza. But when that still-enigmatic sculpture was unveiled in 1967, its appearance was just the latest manifestation of the city’s long relationship with the wildly inventive and mind-bogglingly productive artist. That relationship began in 1913, when, as host of the historic International Exhibition of Modern Art, the Art Institute became the first museum in the country to display Pablo Picasso’s work. And it did so again and again, playing a key role in the artist’s reputation and the American public’s understanding of modern art. Today, the Art Institute possesses more than 400 works by the artist, and with “Picasso and Chicago,” it celebrates those riches and the city’s link to a man who reshaped the way we see art.

The International Exhibition of Modern Art—more popularly known as the Armory Show, after the New York venue where it debuted in March 1913—attracted 200,000 visitors in Chicago. But not everyone, including the Art Institute’s own director, William French, was enthralled by the work of such trailblazers as Constantin Brancusi, Henri Matisse, and Marcel Duchamp. After visiting the show in New York, he remarked, “I became depressed to think that people could be found to approve methods so subversive of taste, good sense, and education.” When the show hit Chicago, the papers dismissed it. The Record-Herald had fun issuing a mock review under the byline Otto Nohn Behterr (ought to known better). Writing in the Chicago Inter-Ocean, University of Chicago art historian George Zug opined, “As far as real artistic merit is concerned, the International Exhibition is the poorest show of equal extent I have ever seen at the Art Institute.” Even students at the School of the Art Institute protested the exhibition by staging a mock trial of Matisse and setting fire to reproductions of his work.

The Armory Show did have its champions, including collector Arthur Jerome Eddy, who in 1914 published Cubists and Post-Impressionism, one of the first books in the country to tackle the subject. “One has to but look at a series of Picasso’s work,” Eddy observed, “to see how often and radically he has changed his style... from drawing with great facility in Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist manner to the most abstract Cubism; what he will be doing two years hence, no one can predict.” The Arts Club of Chicago proved particularly receptive to Picasso’s work. In March of 1923, it presented two exhibits at the Art Institute: a collection of drawings (the artist’s first solo show in the city), followed by a display of paintings. The Renaissance Society took to Picasso, too, including his work in group shows in 1928, 1930, and 1931.

The Art Institute’s Picasso holdings began in the 1920s with two drawings: Seated Male Nude and Sketches of a Young Woman and a Man. In 1926, painter and collector Frederic Clay Bartlett donated a selection of modern art including The Old Guitarist, one of the most significant efforts of Picasso’s Blue Period. “The Bartlett gift was an important anchor for the continuing interest here and in the city for what was new and fresh,” says Art Institute curator Stephanie D’Alessandro. “With that gift, we became the first museum to have a Picasso on permanent display. That was pretty radical in 1926.”

Over time, through gifts and purchases, the museum became home to an impressive roster of pieces representing the full range of Picasso’s creativity—from the cubist sculpture Head of a Woman (Fernande) to the classically inspired Mother and Child—and a collection of works on paper that reveal every “ism” the artist explored in his long career. Featuring 250 works (including loans from Susan and Lewis Manilow, Nancy and Steve Crown, and Sylvia Neil and Daniel Fischel), “Picasso and Chicago” is a rich review of the artist’s methods, concerns, and subject matter. “In addition,” notes D’Alessandro, “our ancient art galleries will highlight Greek pottery and the myth of Dionysius, which inspired him in the 1920s. The African art department will highlight objects owned by the French avantgarde that mimic the kinds of pieces and the interests Picasso had when he began to collect African art. The library is doing an illustrated book presentation. So we’re hoping people will have a number of different experiences and a number of ways into understanding Picasso and his relationship with our collection and the city itself.”

Arguably, The Old Guitarist is the Picasso most Art Institute visitors remember. Along with Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grand Jatte, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, and Grant Wood’s American Gothic, it is one of the pictures people come to the museum specifically to see. But with “Picasso and Chicago,” our appreciation of how thoroughly the museum and its supporters embraced the artist is heightened. Even D’Alessandro, after 14 years at the Art Institute, has learned a thing or two. “One of our works—a very beautiful drawing of an old woman—was shown in Picasso’s first US exhibit, at Alfred Stieglitz’s New York gallery in 1911. It was the image people first saw when they walked in. All these years I’ve loved this drawing, and I didn’t know it was the first Picasso people saw in the US. What an overwhelming and, at the same time, quiet revelation.”

“Picasso and Chicago” is showing February 20 through May 12 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave., 312-443-3600.

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