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Art Institute ‘Picasso’ exhibit celebrates artist’s love of the female ‘mystery’

Pablo Picasso. Head Woman (Fernande) 1909. The Art Institute Chicago Alfred Stieglitz Collection. © 2013 Estate Pablo Picasso / Artists

Pablo Picasso. Head of a Woman (Fernande), 1909. The Art Institute of Chicago, Alfred Stieglitz Collection. © 2013 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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‘PICASSO AND CHICAGO’

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Updated: March 23, 2013 6:05AM



Pablo Picasso lived in a world of men. In the first half of the 20th century, almost all of his colleagues in the Paris art world — his fellow artists, his dealers, his drinking buddies, even most of his collectors (the great exception being the American expatriate Gertrude Stein, not known for a conventional femininity) —were male. Which makes it odd and inevitable, maybe, that more than any other artist of the past century, Picasso focused on what seems to have been for him the greatest subject of all: the mystery of Woman.

For ample evidence of the artist’s obsession, visit “Picasso and Chicago,” the Art Institute of Chicago’s rich and often erotically charged exhibition of more than 250 masterworks, almost all of them acquired by the Art Institute and/or private local collectors, who embraced the artist’s work early and often. (The Picasso-Chicago connection is a neat scaffold upon which to hang a big show like this, but one made slightly rickety by the inconvenient fact that the artist never visited the Windy City; he seems to have accepted the commission for a monumental sculpture in Daley Plaza in part because it was pointed out to him that his old pal Ernest Hemingway was from Oak Park.) Thoughtfully curated by Stephanie D’Alessandro, the show (which officially opens to the general public Feb. 20) is an absorbing survey of Picasso’s development, including his evolving methods and successive periods, from Blue to Rose to Cubism to Neo-Classicism to Surrealism. But its primary drumbeat is Picasso’s lifelong exploration of what it would be tempting to call the sacred feminine ­— tempting, that is, if so much of the artist’s vision of women weren’t equally earthy and profane.

He was drawn, over and over, to deconstruct the faces and bodies of women and reassemble them in unexpected, often vaguely disturbing ways. The doglike prostitutes of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” whose origins are suggested in several drawings in “Picasso and Chicago,” is the most famous example. The Daley Plaza sculpture, whose genesis, gestation and unveiling in 1967 are carefully documented here with numerous drawings, historic photographs and the original small-scale maquette, is another — which might come as a surprise to thousands of Chicagoans over the years who assumed, not without cause, that the sculpture depicted a horse.

Still, there’s no mistaking the absolute necessity, indeed centrality, of Picasso’s muses — various lovers, wives, mistresses and, in his later years, caretakers — in his imagination. One of the earliest and most affecting drawings here is “Peasant Woman with a Shawl” (1906), in whose impassive face and gracefully folded arms we catch the first glimpses of the mystique Picasso would locate elsewhere, in other women, throughout his career.

In one extraordinary grouping of works on paper, D’Alessandro shows the evolution of the artist’s visual concept of one of his earliest companions, Fernande Olivier, who begins as a mysterious, Mona Lisa-like figure and gradually morphs, in “Head of a Woman with Chignon (Fernande)” (1906), into the still, stylized echo of a statue. By 1909’s “Head of a Woman,” Fernande has become a major vehicle of Picasso’s co-invention of Cubism, her face and head flattened and elongated into geometrically arranged planes of alternating light and dark.

Later we encounter the Neo-Classical “Mother and Child” (1921), its serene family unit complicated by the display of a fragment from the original painting that Picasso gave the Art Institute decades after it acquired the main piece. The painting originally depicted a father dangling a fish over the baby, a tableau the artist later thought better of, painting daddy (the artist himself?) out. The reasons for this are a matter of speculation, but it reinforces the idea that in Picasso’s world, men are distractions to be edited away, so as not to compete with the real center of attention.

Perhaps the show’s greatest female portraits are “The Red Armchair” (1931), a Surrealist depiction of Picasso’s mistress Marie-Therese Walter, and “Head of a Woman (Dora Maar)” (1939), a deconstruction of the artist’s companion just before and during World War II. The contrast is striking. Marie-Therese is bright, blonde, vital, curvaceous; Dora is dark and drooping, moody and doomed. In both cases, the artist is both creator and destroyer, the subject’s master and slave. Without these and other women in his life, he didn’t exist.

Kevin Nance is a local freelance writer. Twitter: @KevinNance1.



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