One Hundred years ago today The International Exhibition of Modern Art, better known to history as the Armory Show opened on February 15, 1913 at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City. The exhibition, sponsored by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, wast he first introduction of modern art to the American public.
It featured many artists who were well established in Europe, particularly France including all of the leading Impressionists, Pointillists and Expressionists including Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Auguste Rodin, Georges Seurat, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gaugan, and Vincent van Gogh. Also featured were Americans who had studied and worked in France like James McNeil Whistler and Mary Cassatt, Today these artists are so familiar to us that they do not seem daring. But the American public, even the sophisticated, art consuming classes of the New York elite, steeped in traditional representationalism had never seen anything like it.
The public was even less prepared for the younger artists. Henri Matisse and Edvard Munch were taking Expressionism to even bolder extremes. But it was the Cubists who both outraged and captured the public’s attention. They included Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso. Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Stair Case was the most talked about—and derided picture in the exhibition. It was described as an “explosion in a shingle factory.” The painting and other Cubist work was denounced by the President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt himself who thundered (did he ever talk any other way?) “This is not art.”
Critics fretted if it was bad for the morals of the community and that it might induce “societal psychosis.” Predictably, there were calls to close down the exhibition, even to arrest the organizers. Authorities, however, demurred and let the exhibit run its scheduled course through the Ides of March.
The curious of all classes flocked to the show to see what all of the fuss was about. They found 1300 works by 300 artists arranged in 13 galleries at the sprawling armory. Top American artists from New York, Boston, and Chicago were included. The exposure of other American artists to the avant-garde freed them to undertake their own experiments in modernism.
When the show closed, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, considered the ultimate judge of important Art in the US, signaled its at least partial approval of the new developments when if purchased one picture from the show--View of the Domaine Saint-Joseph by Cézanne.
The exhibition went on to show at the Art Institute of Chicago and to Copley Hall in Boston, where work by American artists was removed due to a lack of space.
The Armory Show was just one of the cultural tsunamis shaking up provincial and complacent American culture. In a few short decades a wave of new inventions from the light bulb and telephone to automobiles, moving pictures, and airplanes had changed the way people lived at what seemed a galloping pace. Waves of immigration were transforming American cities into stews of swarthy foreigners with foreign religions and politics. Socialism and class warfare were on the rise. New notions from evolution to psycho-analysis were altering world views. The revolution in the visual arts was paralleled in rag time and jazz music, new forms of theater, the rise of the novel as the primary literary expression, and movies bringing the world to both Main Street and urban slums.
The adoption of the work shown at the Armory that year by the educated classes was then and is still resented by a deep strain of populist anti-intellectualism. In fact recent cultural events show that the backlash is actually growing one hundred years later as the most reactionary elements of society gain traction by rejecting all traces of modernism.