“That’s not art!” — Theodore Roosevelt about The Armory Show. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armory_Show)
This week we read Chapter 16 “The Bauhaus and the New Typography” and Chapter 17 “The Modern Movement in America.” Chapter 17 begins with a brief reference to “the fabled 1913 Armory Show.” Fabled? Why fabled? What influences did this show have on modernism in America, and particularly on graphic arts?
Meggs mentions that in the 1920s and 1930s American graphic design was primarily traditional, sentimental, and realistic, while in Europe various branches of modernism were growing and flourishing. However, Meggs doesn’t mention that even in the early 1900s, some American artists were breaking free from academic art and experimenting beyond realism. Among those were four young artists (Jerome Myers, Elmer Macrae, Walt Kuhn and Henry Fitch Taylor) who founded the Association of American Painters and Sculptors in 1911 in order to “lead the public taste in art rather than follow it.” (1) Their first order of business was to begin to organize the Armory Show, which would display modern European artists side by side with modern American artists. So, despite the very traditional slant advertisements and graphics followed in early 20th Century America, a hint of modernism was slowly seeping into the American art scene.
Entrance of the Exhibition, 1913, New York City —http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armory_show
The Armory Show was to open in 1913 in New York’s 16th Regiment Armory, and would display 1250 paintings, sculptures and decorative works by 300 European and American artists (2). Some names that are still familiar today: Thomas Eakins, Victor Salvatore, Marcel Duchamp, Edward Hopper, Henri Rousseau, Henri Matisse, Paul Cezanne … the list goes on and on. Although some journalists enthusiastically anticipated the show, many others were disparaging the very idea of a modern art show even before it opened. While the New York Times ran headlines such as “It Will Throw a Bomb Into Our Art World and a Good Many Leaders Will be Hit” (3), other newspapers such as The New York Sun declared “Notable International Art Show Now Ready.” (4) Was America ready for modern art, or would traditional realism prevail?
The answer was, “Yes.” Many regard the Armory Show as “a moment of cultural crisis and a radical break with tradition” (5), a moment that polarized American public opinion about art – but all the same, a moment that made art a hot topic. Many were outraged. The most infamous “star” of the show was Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” (called by the New York Times “an explosion in a shingle mill” (6)) in Gallery I. People flocked to Gallery I like seagulls to tossed bread. News reports accused the Armory Show of “quackery, insanity, immorality, and anarchy” (7), but it was a great financial success. Over 87,000 people attended the 1913 Armory Show, and most of the art sold to American galleries and institutions. (8) (To take a virtual “tour” of the 1913 Armory Show, visit “As Avant-Garde as the Rest of Them: An Introduction to the 1913 Armory Show.” at http://xroads.virginia.edu/~museum/armory/intro.html)
The Armory Show had lasting effects on American art and graphic arts, and even European graphics. When the Show went to Chicago, outraged students from the Chicago Art Institute burned three Matisse paintings in effigy. (9) On the other hand, a visiting student, Ted Kauffer, saw avant-garde work for the first time at the Show, which years later inspired him to design the first Cubist advertising poster printed in England, “Flight.” (10)
New York eventually became a Mecca of avant-garde art. As Meggs pointed out, government-sponsored and corporate-sponsored fine art and graphic art in America transitioned public taste from the previous traditional output to the more modern designs we’re accustomed to seeing today. Or did it? The Gerber baby has changed very little since 1928; Norman Rockwell is still famous; Thomas Kinkade sold very well.
All of the history we’ve read so far indicates a human tendency to resist change. When harbingers of change rear their ugly heads, we fuss and fight and fume … then discover that while humanity as a whole might not have completely transformed, most of us have at least stretched a bit. After awhile, change isn’t new any more, so we wait for the next new change to threaten our security and stop fussing about the old one. The fabled 1913 Armory Show stretched American taste, but we haven’t completely abandoned previous ideas.