Picasso's Baboon

This article makes a case regarding Picasso's sculpture in Daley Plaza, suggesting that it is, in fact, a baboon. It's a strong case. If you don't know what a mandrill baboon looks like, look below. The photos of the baboon are not as good as I'd like, because it's difficult to get a mandrill to pose. Still, the comparison defies denial.

The Baboon
The Sculpture in Question

Of course, my speculation regarding Picasso's motives is just that: speculation. But the case is strong, reasonable, and probably beside the point. The main thing is that the sculpture is a baboon, and should, in my opinion, be recognized as such, and referred to not as "the Chicago Picasso," but "Picasso's Chicago Baboon."

So, read the piece; see what you think. If you'd like to use it, give me a call or write, and we'll talk. I'm not nearly as interested in money as I am in stirring up discussion, and being credited with starting the argument. (But don't get me wrong, some money would be really nice . . .)

Let me know what you think.

Picasso's Baboon is Alive and Well and Living in Chicago

Pablo Picasso was a man known, among other things, for his sense of humor. He was also known to produce some of the most stunning and innovative pieces of art of the last century. It was his reputation as an artist that led to his being commissioned by the City of Chicago to produce a monumental work for display in what is now Daley Plaza. There it now sits.

A Mandrill Baboon The Baboon Another Mandrill Baboon
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I first saw the piece, untitled by Picasso, during one of my wild college-kid weekends in 1967, the year of its unveiling. In those days, college students could fly standby for half price, which came to $13 from Kansas City to Chicago, took about an hour, and was a great way to blow Lawrence for a weekend. My friend Steve at Northwestern University would pick me up at the airport and we'd spend the weekend going to museums and night clubs, and hanging out in what we thought were all the right places.

We were roaming the Loop when we rounded a corner and there it was. The first impression I had was that this was an impressionistic interpretation of a mandrill baboon. It sat like a baboon, it had a face like a baboon, it seemed appropriate to Picasso's humor that this would be a baboon.

At the time, there was a fair amount of controversy about what the sculpture was supposed to represent. After all, Picasso titled practically everything he did, and this piece may be the biggest thing he ever made. Are we to believe that he had nothing particular in mind while making it? The maincurrent of thinking was that it was a woman. It was (and still is) said that if you stand at just the right place, and look at just the right angle, that you can see a woman in the figure. Well, I've never been able to see much of a woman in this piece, and besides, why would the subject of the piece be so obscure that you had to stand at just the right place and look at just the right angle? Picasso was not a Buddhist. In the rest of his works, the subjects are not obscure; the work is complex, often revealing itself behind contrasts and disguises, but, according to Picasso biographer Pierre Dufour, "its vital essence is never hidden." Picasso's humor was not obscure, either.

He also was a man whose political committments surfaced in his art. Many consider "Guernica" to be his masterwork. The World Peace Conference of Paris in 1949 adopted his now-famous dove as its symbol. He was himself a communist, no doubt in reaction to the limitations imposed on his artistic freedom and the personal privation he suffered under the Nazis in WW II France. He once said, "One does not paint to decorate apartments. Painting is an instrument of offensive and defensive war against the enemy."

One presumes he felt the same way about his sculpture. Quoth Picasso, "Sculpture is the best commentary a painter can make on his painting."

Picasso used animals frequently in his art. He made lots of paintings of bulls and minotaurs. Wrote Daniel Kahnweiler, "Picasso's `Minotaur,' who carouses, loves, and suffers, is Picasso himself." He sculpted goats, sheep, and yes, even a(nother) baboon (1951, "Baboon with Young,"' in bronze).

My guess is that Picasso made the Chicago Baboon quite intentionally, perhaps as a statement about the kind of civilization that gives us sleazy political machines which somehow have the good sense to patronize artists whose work they don't understand at all, but whose reputations they nonetheless admire. Picasso said, "People don't buy my pictures, they buy my signature." He also had the good sense not to title the piece, no doubt knowing that there would be controversy enough about such an unusual piece without the suggestion that he was playing a large, permanent, and expensive joke on the citizenry. "If the monster does nothing but smile," he once said, "people are disappointed."

Gjon Mili's Picasso making a minotaur with a flashlight Here's a photo made by Gjon Mili of Picasso drawing a minotaur in the air with a flashlight.

More likely, the butt of Picasso's joke was intended to be Hizzoner, Mayor Daley (the elder, from back in the day . . .). Let's face it, Daley was nothing if not a caricature of the civilized man. An appropriate animal character for Daley might be, for example, an alpha-male baboon. He was not known for his sense of humor, unlike Picasso. Perhaps the authority who designated Daley Plaza after Hizzoner's death suspected what I'm suggesting in choosing the location to bear Daley's name as a memorial.

Why a baboon? Well, why not? The baboon is the most social of the apes next to man, its sociality often studied for insights into the sociality of mankind. "Members of a troop form a cohesive society and are led or guarded by one or more dominant males." (Not unlike Daley's machine.) The mandrill in particular is a visually fascinating animal, with beautifully rich and unusual color. The baboon is also a creature with a tradition of jokes behind it in the lore of mankind.

It's not too hard to imagine Picasso representing Daley as a baboon, just as he characterized himself alternately as a minotaur and a harlequin. "If I am Picasso," he once said, "it is because I created monsters."

Setting all the philosophical arguments aside, let's just look at the piece. The shape of the face is pure mandrill, from the placement of the narrowly-set eyes under the twin arches of brow, with the long, vaguely hourglass-shaped snout accentuated by diagonal striations and terminating in prominent nostrils, and the flowing mantle of hair around the shoulders, to the posture of the beast. That's how baboons sit. The economy of line is characteristic Picasso, but the sum of line and form is mandrill.

When I recently visited Chicago for yet another wild weekend, after an absence of 18 years, I was once again struck by Picasso's Baboon. My traveling companions, upon hearing my theory, agreed. It seems obvious: the piece looks for all the world like a baboon. If Picasso had titled his piece, there would never have been a mystery to solve. But then, what fun would that have been?

So, should the people of Chicago feel insulted? Should the spirit of Mayor Daley be affronted? Only if they take themselves too seriously. After all, for all the jabs one could make about Hizzoner, he did preside over the city that commissioned not only Picasso's Baboon, but other stunning examples of public art as well, by Calder, Chagall, Oldenberg, and Miro, to mention only a few of the truly heavy-hitters. Chicago is a beautiful, thriving city, pulsing with commerce and glittering with outstanding architecture. The spirit of Mayor Daley lives in the city he had no small part in making. And his spirit lives in Picasso's Baboon, standing guard over the heart of the city in Daley Plaza.

So who am I to inflate this issue (or non-issue, as most would seem to prefer)? First, I just can't believe that no one has exposed the joke yet, all these years later. Mayor Daley died several years ago, so there's no need to shield him from the truth. Certainly I'm not the only person who's seen the piece that's been struck by its baboon-ness. So, I volunteer to blow the whistle because of my second motivation. Which is to share with other viewers of the piece the rich, multi-dimensional fascination that the Baboon has for me. I see it and I smile. Then I chuckle, not for Daley's foibles, but for Picasso's genius.

This monster doesn't smile and I, for one, am not disappointed.