At first, no one knew what to make of the “Chicago Picasso,” a Cubistic 50-foot-tall, 162-ton Cor-ten steel sculpture set in the city’s downtown in 1967 and there were a lot of complaints about it. But now, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the installation, it has become a favored landmark. Chicagoans have even come to accept the disfigured imagery of Cubism with its multiple simultaneous view of the same subject as a symbol of their city. When you consider what this thing looks like, their acceptance is remarkable.

What is it?

When I first saw it, the “Chicago Picasso” called to mind “Bust of a Woman,” the twisted portrait painting of Dora Maar, the artist’s early loves at the end of their romance.

She looked demented. Chicagoans saw other things in the steelwork in their street: baboons, a phoenix, a sea horse, a Viking helmet and even Barbra Streisand. But it’s none of the above. And given that the image looks as if it were put asunder, the answer is unexpected. William B. Chappell reported in Art International in 1977 that the “Chicago Picasso” is a portrait of his last wife Jacqueline and his pet Afghan hound. Of course, one may well wonder why something so personal would be appropriate for a public art work in the middle of an American city.

What’s wrong with this picture?

And that’s not the only odd thing about this sculpture, besides its mangled appearance and out-of-place subject.

Picasso never set foot in Chicago; never had anything to do with a monumental public sculpture before, and never accepted commissions. But Chicago architect William Hartman pleaded with him to take on the job so his city could have the work of the greatest artist of his time. It was 1963. Picasso was 85.

And the band played on

The city went all out to welcome its very own Picasso, complete with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra serenading 25,000 onlookers when mayor Richard J. Daley unveiled it. And, clearly aware of the public’s questions about it, said, "We dedicate this celebrated work this morning with the belief that what is strange to us today will be familiar tomorrow." Well, tomorrow is here and, as if on cue, Chicago’s current cultural commissioners, Mark Kelly, told the press, “I would like to believe that I became a little more open and curious to my urban surroundings and to what was considered art.”

The emperor has no clothes

Good for him, but I’m with columnist Mike Royko of the Chicago Daily News, who wrote of the Picasso sculpture, “It’s nothing but a big, homely metal thing.

That is all there is to it. Some soaring lines, yes. Interesting design, I’m sure. But the fact is, it has a long stupid face and looks like some giant insect that is about to eat a smaller, weaker insect. It has eyes that are pitiless, cold, mean.” What he said.