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On This Day 44 Years Ago: Chicago’s Picasso Unveiled

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Picasso

The Picasso in Daley Plaza is outfitted with a Bears hat in February 2007, as the Bears headed to the Super Bowl that month. (Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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CHICAGO (CBS) — On this day 44 years ago, the iconic Picasso sculpture was unveiled in what we now know as Daley Plaza.

The sculpture was unveiled on Aug. 15, 1967, in what was then called Civic Center Plaza at 50 W. Washington St. In a column the day after the ceremony, the late Mike Royko wrote for the Chicago Daily News that as a crowd waited in anticipation, the late Mayor Richard J. Daley pulled a string that brought down a blue covering, revealing the soaring, 50-foot cubist sculpture.

The cubist sculpture was commissioned by the architects of the Daley Center courthouse and office building, and designed by artist Pablo Picasso in Mougins, France, where he lived.

Picasso never set foot in Chicago and never even came to the United States in his lifetime. But the sculpture was fabricated not too far from Chicago, at the U.S. Steel plant in Gary, Ind., the City of Chicago recalls.

It was the first monumental modern sculpture to be unveiled in the Loop, the city recalls.

But from the very moment it was unveiled, the jury has been out on what the untitled sculpture actually represents. Royko wrote that everyone had expected to see a “beautiful soaring woman,” as art experts had anticipated.

But, Royko quipped in his column, “If it was a woman, then art experts should put away their books and spend more time in girlie joints.”

He wrote that the crowd assembled before the new sculpture left the plaza confused, and he remarked that the sculpture “has a long stupid face and looks like some giant insect that is about to eat a smaller, weaker insect.”

But not everyone was as dismissive as Royko. WBEZ.com Chicago historian John R. Schmidt wrote that a professional critic said, “The old master has done it again,” while the Chicago Tribune called the sculpture “austere and powerful.” But the debate about what the sculpture represents rages on.

Even the City of Chicago on its official Web site is ambivalent on the subject, with a list of four “more popular beliefs” on what the Picasso represents.

Some say it is a baboon, as seen by its close-set eyes and flaring nostrils. Others believe it is indeed a woman, perhaps contemporary Picasso model Lydia Corbette. Others still believe it is a cubist representation of Picasso’s Afghan hound, and others still argue that it is an abstract expression that is not intended to represent any real person or object.

Either way, the Picasso has long since grown to become a beloved icon of Chicago, donning special hats for sports teams and the city’s birthday, and providing a makeshift playground slide for generations of children.

Or as Chicago writer and poet Emily Thornton Calvo put it in her poem “Letter to Picasso No. 2,” “She will outlast us, forever spark conversations between strangers while we take hats off to her— a gentle salute to the mystery of art.”

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