The Background Of The Chicago Picasso
In 1963, the architects behind Chicago's Daley Center wrote a poem to an 82 year old Picasso asking him to make a sculpture for Daley Plaza. They followed this up with an in person visit to the artist. Armed with a scrapbook full of quotes and photos related to the city, they flew to meet him in France and, to their delight, he agreed.
'I never accept commissions...' he said, 'but in this case I am involved in projects for the great two gangster cities.' (The other being Marseille).
Picasso turned down the proposed $100,000 payment choosing instead to make a gift of his sculpture.
Over the next four years he designed it and it was built out of COR-TEN steel by the American Bridge Company in Gary, Indiana. It was then disassembled, transported to Chicago and put back together, hidden from public view by scaffolding.
In 1967, it was unveiled to the sounds of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a poem written specially for the occasion by Gwendolyn Brooks.
Its reception however was far from euphoric.
The Chicago Picasso Causes Controversy
'A cow sticking out its tongue'. 'A giant baboon'. 'Some giant insect that is about to eat a smaller, weaker insect'. These are some of the things it was compared to. It was almost as controversial as DC's Enthroned Washington!
'The tone was that we had been had,' Mark Kelly, the city's current cultural commissioner, recalls. 'This alien beast, or whatever it is, with no name arrives and some poseur artist has played a joke on the whole city.'
Prior to this public arts projects in Chicago had been reserved for the commemorative and their were calls that this should remain the case. This abstract monstrosity should be torn down, some suggested. And a statue of baseball player Ernie Banks put here in its stead.
Despite this negativity there remained a grudging acknowledgement that Picasso's statue somehow captured the spirit of the city. The same man who had compared it to an insect also said, 'its eyes are like the eyes of every slum owner who made a buck off the small and weak... you'd think he [Picasso] had been riding the L all his life.'
This, combined with the fact that the statue was inviting to climb on and lacked any copyright so could quickly be incorporated into city souvenirs, lead to it over time being accepted as a local icon.
Question marks remained however over what it was actually meant to depict.
The Inspiration Behind The Chicago Picasso
The above comparison between the statue and a baboon might seem derogatory but Picasso's own wife suggested this was likely what it was based on. 'Picasso loved the way the creature changed as you viewed it from different angles,' she explained.
This analysis is disputed however. Picasso's grandson has speculated that the sculpture was modelled after Sylvette David, a woman who frequently featured in the artist's portraits and sculptures.
On top of this, Picasso himself claimed that its head was inspired by that of his pet Afghan Hound Kabul.
The Chicago Picasso Today
Today the statue is notorious for many reasons. It is known as the place where youth activists Jerry Rubin and Phil Ochs were arrested in 1968 for nominating a pig ('Pigasus') for president. It can also be seen in several hollywood movies, such as Blues Brothers (1980), Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) and The Fugitive (1993).
It is the site of musical performances, farmers' markets, Christkindlmarkt and of frequent visitors climbing up and down its jungle gym-like frame.
Interested in finding more places like this? Try one of our Chicago Scavenger Hunts - untangle cryptic clues as a team, as you are taken on a journey to the most unique, unusual and bizarre corners of Chicago and beyond!