Before he turned to Cubism, Picasso’s Blue Period yielded works such as 1903’s The Old Guitarist, a sympathetic ode to society’s poor and disenfranchised. The longer you stare at it, the more details it reveals.
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: as part of my 47th birthday celebration, my wife Anne and I drove from Indianapolis up to the Art Institute of Chicago and spent four hours with our eyes wide, jaws dropped, senses activated for deciphering strange shapes and arrangements, and cameras and phones at the ready. We barely saw half the museum and will have to return someday for more.
We concluded our day’s tour on the third floor of the modern wing, labeled “International Modern Art” on their handy map. Though “international” here largely meant “Western European”, we were well beyond the purely representational and into the not-so-straightforward movements and anti-movements of the early 20th century. Much of the collection was the sort that evinces cries of “I don’t get it” or “My kid could paint that” or “You call this art?” from the kind of observers who never list art museums on their vacation itineraries.
Whenever those same non-fans reach for a big name to use as a punchline to mock what they don’t dig, one of the commonest go-to talents is good ol’ Pablo Picasso. Chicago has quite a few of his works composed at varying levels of meaning and times of his life. When I sorted our modern-wing photos into piles according to historical movements, Picasso appears to be the only Cubist who caught our eyes and/or resides in those particular galleries. (We found one artist who apparently dabbled in Cubism later in his career, but not at the time of his paintings we saw here. That means he gets to wait till the next chapter.)
Among the other movements we paid attention to, the highest hit-count fell to the Surrealists — Salvador Dali and his amazing, stubbornly non-conformist peers and aesthetic descendants. As Pablo and those dreamers shared space in the museum, so do they share a gallery here.
(Fair warning: a few of these are vivid reminders that not all old-school paintings are aimed at all ages. Patron discretion is advised.)
With 1909’s Head of a Woman (Fernande) Picasso took Cubism into the third dimension in a bust of his then-companion. The results would fit right into Mordor.
While other artists were off fighting for their respective homelands in the Great War, Picasso kept on keeping on with luxury pursuits such as 1915’s Man with a Pipe.
I promised myself I wouldn’t photograph any ordinary still-life paintings, but we made an exception for Picasso’s own 1922 Still Life,. From left to right: a blueberry Kool-Aid Kooler, a bottle opener, a sitar, and the watchful eye of Robin the Boy Wonder.
Head, 1927. By this time the early Surrealists were pointing to Picasso and declaring him One Of Us.
Some paintings have copious details and stories about them, known to historians and curators far and wide. Then we have 1930’s Abstraction: Background with Blue Cloudy Sky, which several internet resources confirm is, in fact, a picture.
1931’s The Red Armchair was among the first of many portraits of his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, whom he met when he was 45 and she was 17.
We time-jump to 1959 for our final Picasso piece, Nude under a Pine Tree. By this time he was on his second wife and a few mistresses later, so this particular model remains anonymous.
And now we pivot to the Surrealists, leading off with four works by the Salvador Dali for maximum attention span. You’ll pardon me if several of these defy conventional anecdotal captions. I find all of these sincerely fascinating, regardless of which corners of the universe my mind wandered to while writing.
Anthropomorphic Tower, 1930. Idyllic portrayal of a farm silo, two hay bales, a cornstalk golem, and absolutely nothing else. Stop staring.
A Chemist Living with Extreme Precaution the Cuticle of a Grand Piano, 1936. Which is res ipsa loquitur as far as the guy at far left is concerned, really.
Visions of Eternity, 1936-37. Feel the despair when Inque from Batman Beyond realizes her two magic beans are duds.
Inventions of the Monsters, 1937. The NSFW league of psychotropic hags at left would be far more distressing if I weren’t busy screaming OMG WOULD SOMEONE PLEASE EXTINGUISH THAT POOR BURNING GIRAFFE? I DON’T CARE IF HE KEEPS SAYING “This is fine!” PUT HIM OUT!
And now we shift gears, nearly stripping a few of them as we turn toward the remaining Surrealists in our museum excerpts. Some names you’ll know a bit better than others…
Joan Miro, Painting 1936. Miro described his efforts as an attempt to “assassinate” the standard concept of what a painting is. This reminds me of, and perhaps helps explain, every Don Hertzfeldt cartoon I’ve seen.
Yves Tanguy Untitled, 1940, around the time he’d moved from his native France to America. I look upon this and think Toy Story Apocalypse.
Max Ernst, Spanish Physician, 1940. How the German-born Dadaist found time to paint the tribulations of the Bark People boggles the mind, given that he had moved to France, then fled to Spain, was at one point captured by the Gestapo, then ultimately became one of many European artists who sought refuge from World War II in America.
Swiss-born Kurt Seligmann was among the first artists to abandon Europe for NYC during WWII, where he eventually taught at Brooklyn College and wrought a tale of origami amok in 1948’s Magnetic Mountain.
Alberto Giacometti, Isaku Yanaihara, 1956. This portrait of a Japanese philosophy professor he knew reminds me of modern artists such as Ben Templesmith and Dave McKean.
Giacometti was known more for his sculptures than for his paintings, such as 1960’s Walking Man II. Obviously in the movie version this would be played by Doug Jones.
Rene Magritte is the second greatest Belgian in world history right after Audrey Hepburn (sorry-not-sorry, Van Damme) and known for such outlandish fare as 1938’s Time Transfixed. It could’ve been more famous, but its secret catchphrase “A choo-choo charged outta my chimney!” never caught on.
Rather, Magritte’s world-famous catchphrase is “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” from his 1929 classic The Treachery of Images. However, this is not This is Not a Pipe. This is one of at least half a dozen other pipe-themed paintings of his, a 1964 self-ripoff with the on-the-nose title of The Tune and Also the Words.
More to come! Other chapters in this very special MCC maxiseries:
Gallery 1: The Grounds Alone
Gallery 2: The Old Modern Americans
Gallery 3: Georgia on Her Mind
Gallery 4: Two Americans Abroad
Gallery 5: Ye Olde Tyme America
Gallery 6: Very Contemporary
Gallery 7: Monet Growing on Trees
Gallery 8: Posting Post-Impressionist Impressions
Gallery 10: The Last of the Famous International
Gallery 11: Caveat Sculptor
Gallery 12: An Omnibus of Outtakes