Tim Bean

Don’t do this. It was a thoughtless, foolish thing to do.

Although I would have been in little legal trouble, sliding a bare finger slid along the sheen of a 100-year-old canvas is disrespectful both to a museum and to the work’s caretakers.  If two or three people a week decided to do the same, you’d eventually see a worn skid mark across a priceless work. Unforgivable and I apologize.

That said, I did touch a Picasso.

I have a bucket list of sorts. Touch a great white shark (Not Done). Touch Rodin’s Burghers of Calais (Done). Make a four-piece stave shell drum set (Done). Visit the grave of Giles Corey, a brave victim of the Salem Witch Trials (Not Done). Touch a Picasso (Done).

Twelve years ago I was twenty-six. That’s not very young, but it feels young when you’re thirty-eight looking back on twenty-six. The summer after my fifth year of teaching, two friends and I decided to do a weekly tour of Chicago all summer, picking different spots each time.  Sometimes it was simply walking downtown. Sometimes a museum. I was adamant that one time needed to be a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago.

When I told them why, they weren’t thrilled. “Touch it? That’s f——-g stupid,” is an accurate paraphrase. But I am a tactile man in a tactile world. They agreed to go as long as I warned them when they moment came, so they could scurry away.

Why Picasso? I took several art history courses as college electives, simply because I like art history. And among the painters I preferred, I always had a soft spot for Picasso. He’s not my favorite artist (Daumier or Nolde), but he’s the one whose personality was as lively as his work. He himself was a living, breathing work of art that lived past ninety.

I never tired of hearing of Picasso’s exploits. His butchery of French pronunciation, his tantrums, his endless parade of dramatic affairs. Interesting but not admirable, of course. But I admired his concentration and prolific talent. He did art well, and he did it a lot. And no living person ever enjoyed such long-lasting renown and fame in his/her life, while both embracing and detesting it.  So I wanted to touch a Picasso.

Those familiar with the Art Institute will recognize the most famous Picasso canvas on permanent exhibit: The Old Guitarist. That painting I enjoyed not for the work itself, but in the brisk strokes, you can clearly make out a previous painting beneath it.  Picasso often reused canvases, so that’s nothing astounding, and in this case I am sure it was an abandoned self-portrait.  But too many eyes on it. Same with The Red Armchair and Mother and Child.  Too popular. Sketches stayed behind glass and sculptures were right out.  Arriving at the museum I kept my options open.

Head of a Woman – 1909
Oil on Canvas

Entering the Art Institute’s Modern and Contemporary Art wing, my eyes latched on the paintings, the guards, the cameras. It was, of course, ridiculous, since I wasn’t planning a heist, but I also didn’t want to be chided like a child if caught.  As I browsed, I came to an alcoved gallery of the wing, no bigger than 50’ x 50’.  One guard patrolled it, hands behind her back, radio at the ready, always watching hands.  She stood in an entryway between the two galleries, but would walk the adjoining one from time to time.  And in that small gallery stood Head of a Woman from Picasso’s Cubist period. 

Not my favorite of his works, and not a period in his art I enjoyed.  I saw Cubism as a necessary step to his later, more impressive abstract work, but Cubism to me was like freeform jazz. You admire the technique and skill, but it was just too…busy. Cubism felt the same. Cluttered and busy.  But beggars can’t be choosers.

I warned my friends and, as promised, they abandoned me, shooting off in each direction, shaking their heads. I stood before the painting and leaned in close. I wanted to test it before touching it and concocted an easy method. 

I opened my mouth a little, sucked in a lungful of air and blew as hard as I could without moving my lips or body.  Being only inches away from the canvas, it had force and nothing happened. I waited a moment. No klaxon, no red strobe, no firm hand on the shoulder asking me to come along. 

Picasso’s miasma of brushstrokes

I breathed out. Then in one languid motion, before I could rethink what I was doing, I lifted my right arm, reached out my index finger and slid it across the canvas, gesso, oil and varnish of Picasso’s Head of a Woman. I didn’t touch it hard enough to dimple the canvas, just enough to feel the brushstrokes.  Slick, slight ridges ran across the pad of my finger as I traced it as light as a mouse’s foot from one corner of the canvas to another. Neither warm nor cold. And that was it. I didn’t touch it for more than half a second. 

Like most people who accomplish a long-term goal, I felt an all-too-brief flare of triumph, then that empty weight of What Now? I touched a Picasso and it felt like a dried canvas covered in glossy varnish.  No epiphany, no chorus of angels, no flourish of trumpets. 

I left the gallery, found my friends and soon went home. I haven’t been to the Art Institute since. I’m not sure why. I don’t feel like I was let down by the experience, but let down because I thought it would be a something more. Just more. It wasn’t. 

I end this in the same way I began it: I apologize to the staff and curators of the Art Institute of Chicago. Touching any artwork is two steps shy of vandalism. Admirer or not, amateur art historian or not, I should have known better. I do now. 

Want to Know More? 

If you’re interested in Picasso, you can find no better resource than John Richardson’s exhaustive series on the artist’s life.

For attrition’s sake, here’s the Art Institute of Chicago’s concise explanation of the harm human contact can cause artwork.