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Appreciating the Picasso

Because people have been unable to step out of their comfort zone, i.e., the kind of art they have been used to so far, they look at the sculpture and squirm, unwilling to embark on the voyage it calls them to. 

Amidst the skyscrapers and green spaces stands the cor-ten steel cubist sculpture, the first of its kind in Chicago, inciting awe, wonder, ridicule and mockery. The fifty-foot-tall sculpture that now resembles a bird, now a woman, and now an afghan hound, has been an object of fascination and come to define the Daley Plaza even though its meaning is still up for debate. 

Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem The Chicago Picasso talks about the sculpture and the way it has been perceived by viewers. In saying, “Man visits art, but squirms. Art hurts, art urges voyages,” she describes the reaction of the public to Picasso’s unnamed sculpture. Because people have been unable to step out of their comfort zone, i.e., the kind of art they have been used to so far, they look at the sculpture and squirm, unwilling to embark on the voyage it calls them to. What we don’t understand, we naturally dislike. Brooks says that “we must cook and style ourselves for art, who is a requiring courtesan.” She denotes that it is not the art that we should urge to change to suit our needs, but the audience that has to change their perception and understanding in order to truly appreciate art. By comparing the sculpture to a flower which is “as meaningful and as meaningless as any,” she elucidates that art can be appreciated just as a flower is, without knowing its meaning and admiring it for what it is. Through her poem, Brooks changes our perception and way of approaching and attempting to comprehend art and the Picasso, and helps us appreciate the sculpture by viewing it through a different lens – that of observation rather than analysis. 

To understand the sculpture better, gaining an insight into the artist, his life and his inspirations plays a pivotal role. The Picasso appears to symbolize different things from different angles and distances – from the back, it resembles a bird, from the front lies an uncanny likeness to a baboon’s, afghan hound’s, or an aardvark’s face, and from the side it resembles a woman. All of this and none of this can be equally true of the sculpture. Pablo Picasso has used Africa as a source of inspiration for many of his artworks. Baboons and aardvarks represent the fauna of Africa, and hence could possibly have inspired the Chicago Picasso. Something else that Picasso is notoriously famous for are his countless female muses. Sylvette David, one of the models and muses of Picasso, and Jacqueline Picasso, another one of his muses and his second wife, are both said to have inspired the sculpture.  

Being a lifelong admirer of classical and renaissance art, as I first stood in front of the enigmatic and controversial Picasso, I found myself unable to understand or appreciate it. However, learning more about the artist and cubism as a style of art, and going through Brooks’ poem, I was able to begin to connect with the sculpture. 

By representing objects of nature such as a bird or a baboon, and yet symbolizing urbanism through its modern design and steel structure, the Picasso makes a successful attempt at juxtaposing nature and urbanism and hence representing the city of Chicago itself. As Sally Chappell says in Chicago’s Urban Nature, “Chicago is also a laboratory for a new kind of interactive landscape urbanism.” The Picasso, thus, manages to capture the essence of the whole city, its history and its people. Being a visual metaphor of the city, it serves as an important icon that could potentially boost civic pride and appreciation of the city itself. 

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