In February of 1913, the International Exhibition of Modern Art—later coined the Armory Show—sent shockwaves through New York, and the United States, with the introduction of Modernism and artists such as Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Paul Cézanne, and Georges Braque. The overwhelming coverage in press—both good and bad—is the perfect testament to Andy Warhol’s famous statement: “Don’t pay attention to what they write about you, just measure it in inches”.
Although Warhol’s time was yet to come, hopefully the artists from the 1913 show were given comparable reassurance. While the Cubists, Fauvists, and Futurists were hit the worst, few avant-garde artists were spared the brutal reviews and satirized cartoons of the critics. In defense of the artists, a scholar once wrote: “You can’t spoof what you don’t understand.”
On the Work Overall:
“A product of disordered stomachs and deranged minds” — “to even attempt to enter into any detail regarding it... one may well pity the poor art writer”— “all sorts of grotesque affairs exhibited by those who favor ‘advanced’ methods”.
On the Cubists:
On the work hanging in the gallery monikered “Chamber of Horrors” by the press, President Teddy Roosevelt himself said: ”There are thousands of people who will pay small sums to look at a faked mermaid; and now and then one of this kind with enough money will buy a Cubist picture.”
On Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase:
Critics and patrons had trouble locating the figure. In their confusion, they speculated: “An explosion in a shingle factory”— “Rush hour on the subway”— “Dude descending a staircase”— “orderly heap of broken violins,”— and best of all, a contest promising a $10 prize to whoever could solve the “conundrum of the season in the New York art world” by identifying either the nude or the staircase. The winner published the following poem:
“It’s Only a Man”
You’ve tried to find her,
And you’ve looked in vain
Up the picture and down again,
You’ve tried to fashion her of broken bits,
And you’ve worked yourself into seventeen fits;
The reason you’ve failed to tell you I can,
It isn’t a lady but only a man.
In a lecture at the Art Institute of Chicago, a teacher speculated how Matisse’s son must have accidentally made a mark on one of his father’s canvases. “Was the child punished?” he had asked, “No. Matisse surveyed the work and exclaimed, ‘That’s it!’ and a new school of art was founded.” In response, the students held a mock trial against Matisse. “You are charged with artistic murder, pictorial arson, artistic rapine, total degeneracy of color, criminal misuse of line, general aesthetic aberration, and contumacious abuse of title,” they said. (Matisse was found guilty.)
Clipping from Scrapbook, from the Walt Kuhn papers, 1913, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Check out their 1913 Armory Show digital exhibition here.