The year was 1911, a new decade had just started. In spite of sharp social divisions and mass immigration, New York was bustling. The scientific revolution was making an impact, radically altering the nineteenth century vision of the world.
New technology changed the face of the metropolis. The Woolworth Building had been completed, making it the tallest building in town. Electric trains pulled out of the Grand Central Terminal; in the streets horse-drawn carriages were being replaced by automobiles.
It was a period of unbridled patriotism; a golden age for producers of flags and buntings (in April 1908 Emma Goldman had given her fiery San Francisco lecture on the ‘menace’ of patriotism).
New York was waking-up and starting to fulfill its potential. It was a place of new developments and initiatives. Modern was the buzzword. That year a group of artists came together aiming to organize a grand exhibition that would reflect this new confidence.
Association of American Painters and Sculptors
Disgruntled with the conservative taste of the cultural establishment represented in organizations such as the National Academy of Design, a number of young artists founded the Association of American Painters and Sculptors (AAPS). Brooklyn-born impressionist painter Walt Kuhn, secretary and co-founder of the organization, declared that the group was to be a “broad liberal organization embracing every kind of art.”
Having studied in Paris and Munich, Kuhn was aware of the ground-breaking work produced by European artists. America, in his mind, needed a similar cultural revolution. Authorities and academies that stifled creativity needed to be overturned. Innovation became a demand. The world belonged to the young and rebellious.
Prime aim of the AAPS was the organization of the first large-scale modern art exhibition to be held in the United States. Kuhn and his associates spent considerable time identifying suitable works of European and American art for the project. Between September and November 1912, Kuhn traveled through Europe in pursuit of works, visiting Hamburg, Cologne, Düsseldorf, Berlin, Munich, The Hague, Amsterdam, Paris, and London.
The Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian holds a handwritten sheet of paper on which Pablo Picasso recommends a number of painters to Kuhn, including Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger, and Juan Gris.
Celebration of Modernism
Members of the organization raised money, generated publicity, transported the works of art, rented the location, and prepared the exhibition – all without public funding. The three-city International Exhibition of Modern Art, better known as the Armory Show, started in New York City’s 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue from February 17 until March 15, 1913, before moving on to Chicago, and then to Boston. On the evening of the show’s opening, 4,000 guests milled around the makeshift galleries where some 1,400 art objects were on display.
On Saturday evening March 8, the AAPS hosted an all-male banquet at Healy’s on 66th Street, one of New York’s smartest dining palaces at the time, to mark the Armory Show. Wearing aprons, diners supped on trays of steak, and gulped down pitchers of beer. Healy’s had three rooms dedicated to them: the Dungeon, the Jungle Room, and the Log Cabin Room. The organizers of the exhibition did have a lot to celebrate. The show had been an overwhelming success, attracting 87,000 New Yorkers to pay a visit.
Over the previous decade or so, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (MoMA) had not been active in acquiring works of contemporary art. Inspired by the exhibition, its paintings curator Bryson Burroughs made a successful plea for a change in policy. On March 17, the Museum purchased Vue du Domaine Saint-Joseph (also known as La colline des pauvres – Poor house on the hill), the first Paul Cézanne painting in any of America’s public collections. The Armory Show had re-arranged the foundations of cultural practice and caused a change in art appreciation.
In chronological order, the exhibition began with work by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Although steeped in the classical tradition, his work was appreciated by the younger generation. It then progressed through the rest of the nineteenth century, finishing with a selection of early twentieth-century works of art. Europe’s prominent artists were represented, from Cézanne and Van Gogh, to Matisse and Picasso. Two-thirds of the paintings on view were by American artists (Robert Henri, George Bellows, Whistler, Mary Stevenson Cassatt, and others), but it was European art that caused a sensation. Reviews of the show varied from expressions of disbelief to screams of disgust. The New York Tribune described artworks in the exhibition as some of the ‘most stupidly ugly pictures in the world’.
Female nakedness attracted the most attention. American audiences had become familiar with perfect classical nudity in paintings by Giorgione, Titian, or Botticelli. They may have known Rembrandt’s Bathsheba or been introduced to Rubens’s celebrations of the flesh. But what they witnessed at the Armory Show was an unprecedented experience.
First of all, there was Henri Matisse’s Nu blue, souvenir de Biskra (Blue nude, memory of Biskra). First exhibited at the 1907 Société des Artistes Indépendants, the painting was a response to the portraits Matisse had seen at the Salons. The subject matter, a reclining female set amidst a lush landscape, was traditional, but it was Matisse’s treatment that proved controversial. She is not the idealized type of sensuous sitter. This blue woman is ugly, forceful, and almost aggressive. Her body, twisted and muscular (anticipating Cubism), defied common criteria of beauty or eroticism. While Matisse followed convention in not allowing the model to look directly at the observer, her breasts stare us right in the face. The painting was decried as deformed. For Matisse, his model represented the energy that he had experienced during a trip to North Africa. She symbolized the life force of an emerging continent. At the time, it added a colonial flavor to the critical appreciation (or otherwise) of the painting.
For 1913 visitors Nu blue came as a shock. Looking primitive, almost childlike, in (overpainted) colors that had not been witnessed before, the audience was both indignant and fascinated. Critics judged the canvas insane, but its “succès à scandale” drew public curiosity and encouraged collectors to have a closer look. The painting had been acquired by the siblings Gertrude and Leo Stein in 1907. It is now part of the collections at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The response to Matisse’s painting was moderate compared to the manner in which Marcel Duchamp’s 1912 Cubist-inspired painting Nu descendant un escalier (Nude descending a staircase) was received. The painting deconstructed a mechanical naked figure in fragmented, overlapping motion. It was a synthesis of several competing European styles: Cubism’s preference for monochrome color shades; Futurism’s passion for depicting bodies in motion; and the photographic study of movement by Eadweard Muybridge and others. A critic for the New York Times described the painting as an “explosion in a shingle factory.” The wilder the insults hurled at Duchamp, the more visitors came to see his work. He eventually turned out to be Europe’s best-known modernist in the United States. The painting was acquired by Californian art dealer Frederick C. Torrey. It is now part of the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Of Irish descent, New York lawyer and art collector John Quinn’s social connections and financial support were essential in bringing about the Armory Show. An honorary member of the AAPS, he acted as legal advisor to the organizers. In his opening address he implied that the Age of Awe was over. The exhibition showed that young American artists “do not dread, and have no need to dread, the ideas or the culture of Europe. They believe that in the domain of art only the best should rule.” He concluded that the exhibition would be epoch-making in the history of American art. His judgment would turn out to be correct. The Armory Show marked the dawn of modernism in America. With it came the jargon: the metaphor avant-garde was imported from Paris in order to describe works of contemporary art.
Emerging artists who visited the exhibition were confronted with a European generation of creators that no longer revered their masters at the Academies by flouting the rules of art and disrespecting their predecessors. These youngsters could not wait to make their way to Europe. War intervened, but as soon as the hostilities were over they moved heaven and earth to leave America for Paris, Munich, or Berlin.
Working in a continent that was under threat, European painters and sculptors recognized New York’s potential as a center of artistic activity, opening up the prospect of a new and increasingly sophisticated market and, if need be, a place of refuge if conditions in Europe would become unbearable. By contrast, for American creators the event was a call to come to Paris; not to travel as pilgrims and visit the shrines of art, but to arrive as eager young artists ready to take on the challenge and compete with their European counterparts. The show served as a catalyst for American artists who were intent on expressing their own language of creativity.
Edward Hopper was represented at the exhibition with his 1911 Sailing, a painting that shows some innovatory stylistic elements that would become his hallmark. The first canvas he ever sold, this was a significant moment and a metaphor for things to come. Having weighed anchor of tradition, the sailboat seeks the freedom of the sea. In art, there are no territorial waters.
Illustrations, from above: International Exhibition of Modern Art event flier; AAPS all-male stake dinner at Healy’s on March 8th, 1913; 69th Regiment Armory Armory Show in 1913; Vue du Domaine Saint-Joseph by Paul Cézanne late 1880s; Nu bleu, Souvenir de Biskra 1907 by Henri Matisse courtesy Baltimore Museum of Art; and Nu descendant un escalier 1912 by Marcel Duchamp courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.