Last week my wife and I were fantastically disappointed by a Picasso exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. The most glaring problem with it was that although the exhibit is called, “Picasso and Chicago,” it turns out that Pablo Picasso never set foot in Chicago. Or in the United States for that matter. So while the museum went to great lengths to detail the relationship between Chicago and the Spaniard, the results were predictably thin.
Also – not to denigrate anyone’s passion or specialty – but the overwhelming majority of the display consists of sketches rather than paintings. There’s nothing wrong with sketches per se, but they don’t interest me. Or my wife. We had hoped to be exposed to some new canvasses we’d never before seen; instead, all the paintings on display were already part of the AIC’s collection (and thus we’ve seen them many times), so we saw sketch after sketch and print after print of minotaurs. Apparently Picasso went through a phase (we’ll come back to this), and that’s what was boring visitors from all over the world. Drawings of minotaurs.
To be fair – apart from my wife’s and my own innate preference for one medium over another – there was an even more troubling aspect to the exhibit, but it’s one that I think many people missed, because it’s arguably more subtle than the other issues: the exhibit was ahistorical in two very important ways. It gave no accounting for Picasso’s experiences during and/or reaction to World War I, and it barely even acknowledged the same with respect to the Spanish Civil War. I’m no art critic, of course, but I’m going to posit that living in Paris during World War I – a circumstance that guarantees Picasso would have been able to hear the war from his home much of the time – had to shape him, and I’ll wager the same for the visceral implosion that followed in the country of his birth. Any exhibit explaining a man’s life and work to me but omitting those two influences is a sham.
Needless to say, Mrs. Frankenfeld and I learned very little about Picasso from the exhibit. Therefore, some advice: spend your time elsewhere in the Art Institute of Chicago if you’re going.
As much as it pains me – as a dedicated history buff to admit – I don’t need to know Picasso’s life story to be moved by The Old Guitarist. A good painting can communicate an experience so profound as to be spiritual, even if you don’t know anything about the author or the painting’s story; that’s one of the – if not the – points of art, really.
In a way, it’s a metaphor for faith, which is often similarly validated by experience rather than information. Most people who become followers of Jesus in a moment of spiritual crisis do so without knowing His whole story; they feel Him, they believe, and they go from there. Much of faith is as experiential as a masterly painting, and just like a profound faith experience leaves a person wanting more, experiencing a great painting always leaves me wanting more. So while I don’t need Picasso’s personal history to appreciate his paintings (or minotaur drafts), I do crave it.
I’ve always liked the paintings of Edward Hopper, but a few years ago AIC hosted a traveling exhibit of his work, and after viewing that display, I understood Hopper in a way I never had before. Before the exhibit, I would never have seen him as being linked to Renoir or Monet; after the exhibit, the connection is clear (Light. It’s about light.). I could tell you similar stories about Winslow Homer, Roy Lichtenstein, or others, but the point is, I’ve never gone to an exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago without learning more about the artist in question. Until now.
Usually, it would be impossible. If each painting is a spiritual experience of its own, a good exhibition of one artist’s work becomes like a bible. Each painting is its own story – this one Samson and Delilah, that one Nebuchadnezzar eating grass – but taken together, there are larger stories and themes that emerge. See enough of one artist’s work in one place, and you learn exponentially more than you ever could from just one painting. As I said, that didn’t happen this time.
I’ve already admitted that I don’t know how the wars impacted Picasso, so the theory I’m about to put forward is precisely the type of unsourced speculative drivel that makes the internet such a fun place. I mentioned that towards the end of his life, Picasso spent a lot of time drawing (and supposedly painting, but again, you’d have to be at a different museum’s Picasso exhibit to know for sure) minotaurs and other mythical creatures. The AIC exhibit told us they were unable to explain why Picasso did this; they just know he did.
In light of the fact that Picasso was born in the late 19th Century, however, and began his formation as an artist at a time when much of Western Europe was more or less obsessed with mythology and pagan mysticism (putting coins on the eyes of the deceased so they can pay the boatman to ferry them across the River Styx, the publication/popularity of Dracula, etc.), is it possible that the arrival of mythical creatures in his later work is a latent expression of longing for an earlier period of his life? Maybe Picasso didn’t know what to think about the world after hearing World War One from his home, feeling alienated from his homeland by the Spanish Civil War, being trapped in his studio during World War Two, and backing the less popular side in the Cold War (Yeah, he was a communist. He was an artist. Was there ever any doubt?). And maybe, after watching his world spend half a century tearing itself apart around him, what he wanted was the innocent fascination with myths that he remembered from youth.
Like I said, I don’t know. I’ll read a Picasso biography one of these days because I really do want to test my little theory. For now, I’ll just float it on the internet.
There may be some of you irritated by my theory on Picasso because you know better. Bear in mind, however, that none of the thousands of people who visit Picasso & Chicago do or will know any better, because the ahistorical nature of the show leaves us all free to draw our own conclusions, however fantastic.
In that way, the Art Institute’s Picasso exhibit had still more in common with evangelicalism than you may realize. After all, if a painting is like a bible story and an exhibit can be like a bible, isn’t a fragmented and ahistorical exhibition reminiscent of the way many evangelical churches digest their bible stories? Picasso & Chicago put all the emphasis on the experiential component of a few paintings and a ton of sketches; many churches put all the emphasis on the experiential component of meeting the living Jesus through the Holy Spirit. But just like I’m sure Picasso’s work would make more sense if I knew more about his experiences and relationship to the great conflicts of his time and place, Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well (John 4) makes more sense if you grasp the history of Samaritans, and Hezekiah’s escape from Assyria makes more sense if you grasp the historical situation too.
In this way, at least, last week’s visit to the Art Institute of Chicago did teach me one thing, or at least it raised one important question. Why was I so mad that the Art Institute prioritized the isolated experience over the bigger picture, but so complacent when so many evangelicals do the same? One is obviously a more egregious offense, and – as always in the real world – it’s the one that doesn’t involve minotaurs.