Did Chicago's Art Institute really show Picasso first?

Walking downtown or riding the "L," it's hard to avoid signs advertising "Picasso and Chicago," the major exhibit which is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through May 12.

Picasso Chicago

Picasso in Daley Plaza, Chicago/Wikipedia

When it promotes the exhibit, the Art Institute refers often to its early adoption of Picasso's work.

"A century ago, in 1913, the Art Institute of Chicago became the first art museum in the country to present the work of a young Spaniard who would become the preeminent artist of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso," according to the Art Institute site, which adds that the exhibit of 250 works "celebrates the special 100-year relationship between Picasso and Chicago."

And later on in the announcement, the museum refers to its "exceptional holdings" of Picasso works.

"The first time most Americans saw radical, European avant-garde art was 100 years ago in 1913 at the Armory Show. This exhibition was mounted in three different cities: New York, Boston, and Chicago, but only in Chicago was it mounted at a museum, the Art Institute of Chicago," says Stephanie D'Alessandro, curator of modern art at the museum, in a video on the Art Institute site.

But what exactly does it mean for a museum like the Art Institute to have been the first to show Picasso in the country? Does it really matter outside of the art establishment who was first on the Picasso curatorial bandwagon?

The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn., for example, notes on its website that in the 1930s, it "presented America’s first major Italian Baroque exhibition, its first Surrealist show, and its first comprehensive Picasso retrospective."

"I think the issue is the difference between showing the work and a full one-person exhibition," says Susan Talbott, director and CEO of the Wadsworth Atheneum.

According to the Wadsworth Atheneum's archivist, Talbott adds:

Our 1934 exhibition was the first comprehensive Picasso retrospective exhibition in an America museum. As John Richardson notes in the third volume of his life of the artist, Picasso himself supervised his “first full-scale retrospective” in 1932 at the Galleries Georges Petit in Paris, opening on June 16, 1932, and a second, larger version at the Kunsthaus in Zurich, opening on September 11, 1932. Richardson mentions that Alfred Barr had been dreaming of having a grand Picasso retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, but the two 1932 shows in Europe “put paid to the dream. ... Beaten to the post by Chick Austin’s beautiful 137-work retrospective at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford (in 1934), New York would have to wait until 1939 for MoMA’s first Picasso retrospective. ...”

Of course Picasso’s works had been exhibited in the United State in galleries and museums continuously since 1911, when they first appeared in Alfred Stieglitz’s Photo-Secession Gallery in New York. Austin himself showed Picasso’s Maternity in April of 1928, six months after he arrived as director of the Atheneum, in his exhibition, "Modern French Paintings."

Perhaps it's only natural for there to be some competition between a Chicago museum and its colleagues on the East (and West) Coast -- some might even call it an inferiority complex -- but if there really was an artistic venue going against the tide and scouting out an emerging artist before it became popular to do so, that would surely be noteworthy.

When parsing that out comes down to passing out accolades for increasingly narrow Picasso milestones, one wonders if that narrative line is such a meaningful historical frame to merit such prominence in the Art Institute's exhibit.

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