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I know. Such a thing should be impossible, forty years after the artist's death, and a century after he began the career that would change the direction of Western Art. And shock is no longer what you generally experience when you walk through Picasso and Chicago, the engaging new exhibition at the Art Institute which skillfully rises above the fact that the artist never set foot in America, much less Chicago. It's an exhilarating, even comforting show. Whatever their original provocation, the 250+ works on display, ranging from graceful traditional portraits to often violent abstractions, now all seem like old friends.
No, my shocking moment came with, of all things, a book. In 1927, French art dealer Ambroise Vollard commissioned Picasso to illustrate a new, limited edition of Honoré de Balzac's novella, Le chef-d’oeuvre inconnu (The Unknown Masterpiece). The story concerns the old painter Frenhofer, who has been unable to finish a single work for ten years, until he is introduced to a young woman who will become his new model. She is so beautiful Frenhofer is inspired to quickly finish the painting, but he becomes so obsessed with a defect in his depiction of her foot that he goes mad, destroys the painting, and kills himself. The short story, updated, was made into a famous, four-hour Jacques Rivette film, La belle noiseuse, with Michel Piccoli and a frequently nude Emmanuelle Béart, and, much later, a suppressed episode of The Simpsons.
Le chef-d’oeuvre inconnu. It was rediscovered in a junk shop in 1972, but that's another story. In 1936, Picasso moved to a studio at No. 7 rue des Grandes-Augustin, believed to have been the house in which Balzac's novella began. The following year he painted Guernica there.
The Picasso and Chicago copy of Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu is kept under plexiglass, away from greasy hands. Next to it, however, a video screen lets you move through the entire book, page by page.
In 1928, Picasso created four maquettes for a memorial to his late friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. It's as if he's lifted his constellations off the page - lines into iron wire and dots into small bits of steel plate - and willed them into the third dimension. The fleshy materiality of traditional sculpture, of brass and marble, is dissolved. Picasso creates a pure 3-D geometry, form scrubbed clean of content.
would make a gift to New York's Museum of Modern Art of a 15-foot steel-rod sculpture, ‘Construction in Wire.’ It was a full-scale version of one of the Apollinaire maquettes, by now called his ‘drawing in air’ sculptures. The work for MOMA was to be fabricated in Cor-ten steel, the same Cor-Ten used a few years before at the then Civic, now Daley Center, in what would be Picasso's most monumental sculpture, his gift to Chicago.
Patrik Schumacher will ever know.
Picasso and Chicago runs at the Art Institute through May 12, 2013. It is not to be missed. Take my advice: carve out time during your visit to find those mesmerizing 16 pages.