“Picasso in Chicago”

Chicago Art Institute

One of the most impressive shows of the season was the exhibition of “Picasso in Chicago” which was held at the Art Institute. Selected from private and public holdings it was a superb display of 183 paintings, drawings and prints. His sculpture, having been seen to advantage in the sculpture exhibition of last summer, was not included. The number of Picasso’s works in this city, and their overall quality, is singular.

The direction taken by much of today’s art is in sharp contrast with that (or those) followed by Picasso. His considerable authority was evinced by the fact that so many artists were thoroughly captivated by the show. Whether an individual painting succeeded or failed, and there were some which were less than successful, his personality was unmistakable.

As might be expected, the contrasts were as clear and striking as his mercurial temperament. The sumptuousness of the Woman with a Flower, 1932, when viewed against Woman with Folded Arms, 1902, with its wistful austerity, or the relaxed and playful clownishness and utter buffoonery of Woman with Dog, 1962, contrasted sharply with the intensity of the 1939 Portrait of Dora Maar. Apart from these, and standing out from all of his work, are the remote, elusive Cubist paintings from 1910–12 (e.g., Portrait of Kahnweiler, from 1910). When viewed in the context of Picasso’s work, Breton’s description of these as the “great grey and beige scaffoldings” seems to single out their unique, haunting and persistent qualities. Their appearance has become almost spectral.

Picasso’s ability to transmute the ordinary, to place his visionary means at our disposal—even to forcibly impose his vision upon us—has always been outstanding and yet this show displayed it in such abundance that surprise was strong. If the art of each succeeding period reshapes our conception of earlier styles, then Picasso’s role in this is without parallel. His Woman with a Flower has a masterful sweep through a series of sinuous curves and it alone gives new meaning to Baroque forms, e.g., a portrait by Rubens with all of its richness and maturity. By contrast, Woman with Folded Arms, painted when he was 21, infused with unabashed sentiment and charm, is disciplined by the wiry Degas-like contour line. But the incisiveness that Picasso brings to the subject has a youthful poignant compassion not found in Degas.

His ability to see, and here we are involved with that activity in its widest and deepest sense and in all of its ramifications and the intensity of the act which modifies our own confrontation is nowhere greater or more singularly manifested than in the Portrait of Dora Maar. The power of the painting comes through a series of contrasts; though small in actual size (36 1/2 by 29 inches) its scale is monumental; painted in “muddy” tones of pink, green and shadowy greys its rich sombre ambience is dignified and sober; at first glance it seems fragmentary and incomplete and yet it is not and its distortions, which on one level might appear grotesque seem to be completely resolved and natural. Like some mask from the Sepik in New Guinea with its elongated nose, detached and suspended out into space, this head, with its overpowering torsion, is both convincing and haunting. In the pitch of its intense power it has no equal in Picasso’s work.

Whitney Halstead