Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Armory Show—A Bomb Thrown at American Culture

Statuary as well as painting was featured at the Armory Show.  Although nude were not unknown in American art, most were cast as classical allegorical figure,  The show shocked American Puritanism by offering up new takes on classical nudes, the frankly sensual, and non-represntational (front left) and art nouveau bas relief.

The International Exhibition of Modern Art, better known to history as the Armory Show opened on February 15, 1913 at the 69th Regiment Armory (The famous Fighting 69th of Civil War and World War I fame) in New York City.  The exhibition, sponsored by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, was the 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.

Americans had never seen anything like Vincent  Van Gogh's Olive Trees, Pale Blue Sky and that was just the tip of the shock iceberg.

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 inducesocietal 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.  

Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending Staircase became the most famous and controverical work exhibited.  It was ridiculed, satirized, and attacked hysterically.  All of the Cubists, including Pablo Piccaso disoriented may American critics into a cultural panic.

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 the 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 show got some cultural validation when the prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired Paul Cézanne’s View of the Domaine Saint Joseph for its permanent collection.  Another validation was the show being re-mounted at the Chicago Art Institute.

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.  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.
Even the U.S. Postal Service's Armory Show Centennial commemorative stamp drew a storm of criticism from cultural conservatives and traditionalists.  Of course they blamed Obama who as President had absolutely no input into stamp creation
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 almost a hundred years later as the most reactionary elements of society gain traction by rejecting all traces of modernism.

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