Armory Show at 100: When Modernism was New

The Armory Show at 100
New York Historical Society, NYC
Through February 23, 1914

Taylor 1912
Two paintings from American artist Henry Fitch Taylor sum up the impact of the 1913 Armory Show–the first, from 1912, of a girl feeding ducks is saccharine enough to be from Thomas Kincaid. Now check out what Taylor did in 1915, just three years later. To say that the Armory Show rocked his world barely scratches the surface! It doesn’t really matter whether you prefer the first to the second, because there was no turning back the clock. The Armory Show marked the break between Victorianism and Modernism with such finality that, a hundred years later, it’s still the most important art exhibition ever to take place in the United States.

Taylor in 1915
The New York Historical Society gives us a small taste of what audiences saw a century ago. Its hundred sculptures, drawings, and paintings constitute just 7% of the 1400 pieces New Yorkers saw in 1913. Even this is a remarkable achievement given that works that were often ridiculed in the day are now “classic” works valued at many millions of dollars. More ironic still, they are also beloved icons that museums are loath to loan. Nonetheless, the sample is plenty to give us the flavor of 1913 and, because the display is in the NYHS, there’s plenty of accompanying context to consider. The exhibition took place at a crucial moment; among its contemporaries were the Industrial Workers of the World, the social problems images of the Ashcan painters, the suffrage movement, a surge in anarchist activity, labor strikes, and gathering war clouds in Europe that would, four years later, rain on America’s Progressive Era parade.

Augustus John
The Armory Show at 100 is revelatory on several levels, not the least of which is its ability to separate myth from reality. First of all, not everything there was shocking and quite a bit of it was uniformly praised. French Impressionists such as Monet and Renoir, for instance, were already beloved and American counterparts such as John Henry Twachtman and J. Alden Weir attracted kudos. Some works, such as those by Walter Pach, were fairly conventional, and the one that garnered fawning praise–Augustus John’s The Way to the Sea–is objectively an insipid exercise in unfettered sentimentality. On a more elevated level, not everyone could unravel symbolists such as Odilon Redon, but they viewed them as on par with allegorical artists such as Albert Pinkham Ryder and praised their “spiritual” characteristics. Just as long as they didn't get too creepy, like Edvard Munch, whose Madonna and Vampire induced mixed commentary.

Eberle-White Slave Trade
Second, Americans were not total naïfs at the time. Ashcan painters such as George Bellows and John Sloan paved the way for non-decorative painting, Sloan with his ungilded views of working-class life, and Bellows for showing the city’s seemly sides. There is, in fact, striking thematic similarity between the grotesque, zombie-like crowd faces found in a Bellows painting, and the angst-and-danger undertones of Munch. Among the big sensations of the 1913 show was Abasteria St. Leger Eberele’s bronze White Slave Trade and its powerful contrast between a cowering, legs clenched-together nude female and her hulking, legs astride, vulgar auctioneer. His expression is so vivid that we can (metaphorically) see the spit projecting from his open mouth and imagine saliva pooling at the edges. American artists also had familiarity with caricaturists such as Daumier, as evidenced by Guy Pene Du Bois’s Waiter!

What did induce shock were the Fauvists and the Cubists, the first because they were viewed as either incomprehensible (Henri Rousseau) or obscene, and the second because classically trained painters viewed it as the death of painting. Two works that illustrate this are both nudes, but cut from different cloth: Henri Matisse’s carnal Blue Nude and Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, the latter of which one critic famously panned as “an explosion in a shingle factory.”

The biggest revelation is that none of these works shock us today. We admire them (or not), rejoice for being able to see them, smile at some ‘old’ favorites, or perhaps yawn at their familiarity, but we view them as neither art’s demise nor its future. As you exit the exhibit in your non-agitated state, take a moment to consider that you are not shocked because, a hundred years ago, the Modernists won.

Rob Weir


Judy said...

Re your ending comment "a hundred years ago, the Modernists won.":
Art is not a competition! All styles have their heyday, are challenged by a new vision, and then are revived as "the new" X, Y or Z. Remember the Gothic Revival of the mid-18th century? Architects brought back a style that had first flourished in Medieval days! (I know this because I could never tell the difference between the old and the "new" in art school.)
Everything old is new again, if you live long enough!

Anonymous said...

Judy: I think you're reading literally what was intended to be metaphorical. I agree 100% art is not a competition. The irony of 1913 is that the purveyors of taste viewed it that way, with several declaring that cubism was the "death of painting." They were, of course, as wrong as they could be. 1913 opened artistic visions in ways hitherto unimagined--both for some of the artists (Stuart Davis springs to mind; Marsden Hartley as well) but also for the critics. Modernism "won" in the sense that there was no turning back the clock. It was no longer possible to think of art as *only* the constrained world of Victorians or the narrow constricts of the academicians. Rob