Happy Anniversary

Lauren Kaplan
Dec 10, 2012 5:11PM

Call me a traditionalist, but I think the world’s most radical art was created a century ago. As we look forward to 2013, we should also look back at 1913–a revolutionary year in visual art, music, dance, and literature.

1913 was the year of the inaugural Armory Show, an artist-organized exhibition on 25th Street and Lexington Avenue. In the cavernous 26,000-square-foot armory, 1,300 works by European and American artists–including Picasso and Braque’s Cubist paintings and Kandinsky’s abstract compositions–were revealed to the American public for the first time. The audience was scandalized. Similarly, Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), which depicts a mechanomorphic woman slowly gliding down and across the canvas, shocked viewers. Many were disquieted by the fact that the woman was part machine and even more concerned by her so-called nudity (though she looks more armored than undressed). Nudes were meant to recline, bathe, or stand, but never descend a staircase. Then again, this work looked tame in comparison to Duchamp's first readymades like Bicycle Wheel (1913), in which the artist mounted a bicycle wheel on a stool, rendering both objects useless, and called it "art." Meanwhile, in Vienna, Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone music caused listeners to cover their ears, and in Paris, the primitive dancing and driving music of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring launched a riot.

Various ongoing and upcoming exhibitions are trying to elucidate the breakthroughs of and around 1913. The NPR special, Culture Shock 1913, which aired last week, puts all of the aforementioned events in context. But if you’d like to experience some related art firsthand, Matisse: In Search of True Painting  is now at the Met through March 17. The exhibition begins around 1900 and documents the artist’s painstaking process and enduring quest to “push further and deeper into painting.” Matisse’s bright color palette, which today seems joyful and exuberant, was,  in the first decade of the 20th Century,  considered confrontational and violent.  In fact, when he first became famous in 1906, Matisse was the leader of a group that the critic Louis Vauxcelles dubbed the fauves, or wild beasts, due to their extreme palette. To learn more about this story, take my four-session class on Matisse, beginning in February (see here to learn more).

Similarly, MoMA’s upcoming exhibition Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925, which opens on December 23, will chronicle the simultaneous birth of abstraction in Russia, Germany, France, and the Netherlands, and the initial response to radical new works that contained not a single recognizable figure or object. And Kandinsky 1911-13 , on view at the Guggenheim through April 17, charts the beginnings of abstraction in Germany, where artists were exploring the spiritual value of color.

Today it is difficult to comprehend how truly outrageous this art was, but all of these exhibitions provide insight. As these shows make clear, the artistic revolutions of 1913--coupled with the recent inventions of electricity, the automobile, and flight--caused many to think that the world as they knew it was coming to an end.  No year in the past century has caused so many jaws to drop in the halls of high culture.

Lauren Kaplan