The Armory Show of 1913 holds a place in history as the first time that modern art was exhibited in the United States. While it is true that it was the first time the works of Picasso and Duchamp were shown in America, I raise a relevant question. Were the works in the Armory Show predominately modern? I propose that most of the works in the show were traditional, actually, many of the artists exhibited were anti-modern in their philosophy. Gill Perry recognized that “Many artists whom we now label ‘modern’ were in fact opposed to the processes of modernization (by which I mean the forces of industrialization and urbanization in Western capitalist society).”
Throughout Europe prior to the 20th century, artists formed communities and colonies away from urban centers. Very often rural peasants or children were chosen as a subject of great moral worth, since they were believed to be uncorrupted by the sophistication and materialism of the modern world. This is reflected in the work of artists as diverse as William Bouguereau and Paul Gauguin. I believe that on a subconscious level, many artists were reacting to the modernization of the world which had the effect breaking the connections between people. They responded by painting and sculpting intimate works that reflect human bonds.
The Armory Show is presented in history as an exhibit of modern art because the current establishment has little concern for the connections between people who could get in the way of the well-oiled machine. In the 1950s , the CIA formed the Congress for Cultural Freedom as a front to promote modern artists like Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. According to Frances Stonor Saunders, The realist painter Ben Shahn refused to join, referring to it as the ‘ACC F*ck’. The CIA claimed that the purpose of the program was to improve the United State’s image to liberals who may support communism, but the real intention is not difficult to deduce. If art is limited to a field of color or an abstract shapes, it makes it impossible for the artist to represent anything that could conflict with the ideology of social system. Considering the CIA’s promotion of modernism we should be skeptical of the account given of the Armory Show, since most of the works in the exhibit were actually traditional.
A sculpture of a girl walking with a jug is the central image of the most circulated photograph of the show. After a considerable amount of research, I discovered that the sculpture is The Water Bearer by Joseph Bernard (1866-1931). Many artists like Bernard were interested in renewing tradition, not destroying it. In Kenneth Clark’s study The Nude, Clark accounted for the decline of Venus in Roman art by the second century A.D., due to the fact that Venus had lost significance as a symbol. The nude was revived in the Renaissance but by the late 19th century, the female image or Venus began to loss vitality as symbol again, so rather than depicting a wide hipped woman which had become a cliché in classical art, Bernard sculpted a girl who appears to be only 13 or 14 years old. Many artists like Bernard spiritualized the female image, often by depicting Venus as a young girl.
The largest painting in the Armory Show photograph, I believe to be The Plage by Maurice Denis (1870-1943). An other photograph from the show presents the painting in sharper detail. The Plage is a peaceful scene of woman and children on the beach, it hardly reflects an interest in modernization. Denis was one of many artists who was influenced by Puvis de Chavannes.
Within the same photograph, a bust of a woman sits on a table below The Plage, I have identified the sculpture as Une Muse created by Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957). In the early 20th Century many artists had grown tired of the realism that had become a standard in the French Academy, some looked to ancient and primitive art for inspiration. The simplified face and long neck of Une Muse are similar to the features of the paleolithic sculpture referred to as the Venus of Brassenpoy. At some point the quest for the archetype became a novelty when form was taken as an end to itself.
Puvis de Chavannes(1824-1898) is arguably the most influential artist of the period, fifteen of his works were exhibited in the Armory, more than any other artist. The extensive representation of Chavannes must have reflected the esteem for his work that was felt by artists of the time.(see post on Chavannes)
Paul Cézanne’s (1839-1906) work is claimed to open the doors to Cubism but the most common subject of this work were bathers, his Four Bathers was shown in the Armory. If Cézanne was really interested in modernization don’t you think he would have chosen instead to paint the Eiffel tower or the fastest train in Paris? But no, he continued to paint nude figures like most European artists. The compositions of many of his paintings are strong, if only his skill in drawing had developed.
Up until the 19th century the patrons of the arts were European, they were familiar with Greco-Roman culture so nudity in art was generally acceptable. However, at that time wealthy Americans who had made a fortune in industry began to collect art. By 1890, the United States had by far the most productive economy in the world. American industry produced twice as much as its closest competitor, Britain. I propose that there was a conflict of interests between the new American patrons and the creative direction of the European artists. The United States had a puritanical background, the nude was rarely a subject in American art. For example, Alexander Turney Stewart was one of the wealthiest men in the United States and a loyal patron of the French Academy master, Bouguereau. Stewart commissioned Bouguereau to paint “the artist’s greatest work, and not a nude subject.” For many European artists the nude was very often the subject of the most ambitious work. Since the Renaissance the nude was a means to depict the soul, paradoxically, the puritanical view led to the denial of the soul.
The Protestant view; the indifference to Mediterranean sentiments was compounded by the fact that the new patrons of the arts found their wealth in industry. Erich Fromm, in his Sane Society, perceived the effects that a position in industry can have upon the individual, “Due to the enormous size of the apparatus to be administered, and the resulting abstractification, bureaucrat’s relationship to the people is one of complete alienation. They, the people to be administered, are objects whom the bureaucrats consider neither with love nor with hate, but completely impersonally; the manager-bureaucrat must not feel, as far as his professional activity is concerned; he must manipulate people as though they were figures, or things.”
In his insight, Fromm presents the psychological orientation that allowed for modernism to prosper. In the 20th Century, the artist was expected to mimic the conditions of alienation in the production of his or her work. The artist’s relation to work was expected to be completely impersonal and without feeling.
Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase is claimed to have stolen the Armory Show, it is usually the first piece referred to in the Armory. Duchamp is presented in recent art history as a pioneer of anti-art, his work is regarded a challenge to polite society and the establishment. But was he really such a rebel? I propose he was merely a conformist. Calvin Tomkins states that “The discovery that Marcel Duchamp was one of the most influential artists of the 20th Century has been a recent development in modern art history. Not many critics would have assigned him such a leading role before 1950, and some of our esthetic guardians are outraged by the immense reputation given to him in recent years.”
As late as 1910, Duchamp was still painting rather realistic nude figures until he began to experiment with Cubism and Futurism in 1912. Duchamp came to the United States in 1915 from the suggestion of the artist Walter Pach. Duchamp did not have to pay rent because the art collector Walter Arensberg had provided him with a studio at 33 West 67th street in New York. How was his work anti-establishment when a millionaire who represents the system, collects his work and provides Duchamp with a studio without paying rent? The Arensbergs made their fortune in the steel industry; therefore, it is not difficult to understand why the Duchamp’s large glass would appeal to such a person. Duchamp’s work just conformed to the atrophied taste of the new corporate establishment.
The psychological orientation of a society changes gradually over a period of time, with those in high positions in industry experiencing alienation before those in small communities, as those in agriculture. In the mid 20th century, the psychologist Rollo May accounted for his patients’ loss of their sense of relatedness to nature. He writes,”They may remark, regretfully, that though others are moved by a sunset, they themselves are left relatively cold; and though others may find the ocean majestic and awesome, they themselves, standing on the rocks at the seashore, don’t feel much of anything.”
At least May’s patients realized something was wrong. May and Fromm, the authors of the anti-utopias and many others recognized the possibility of an individual losing their humanity and not even knowing it. Friedrich Nietzsche ridiculed the atrophied soul, who had lost emotion for life, with his metaphor of the last man, “What is Love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star? thus asks the last man and then he blinks.” Traditional subjects would not appeal to men like Arensberg since they had lost the capacity to be moved by works that reflected others and nature. Duchamp was not really an innovator, his work just catered to an impoverished state of being.
Before Duchamp began the large glass, he was looking for a way to remove all traces of himself from the work, what the French call la patte; the artist’s personal style, his touch, his “paw.” Duchamp’s solution was to draw on glass. He borrowed the technique of mechanical drawing from engineering, in which, as Duchamp said, “you are directed by the impersonality of the ruler.”
Duchamp’s work is only modern in terms of critical theory, but not in social political terms. The modern in social terms, recognizes the individual as a subject and is concerned with the concepts of freedom and rights. Duchamp’s work actually stands in opposition to these concepts. His readymades were manufactured objects that he had no hand in making but he exhibited them as “art”. Duchamp’s act of removing himself from the creation of the work, was the act of denying his potential as a free creative subject. I can imagine Duchamp as a kid in school, suppose he was in an English class and he was given an assignment to write a story. Of course, Duchamp wouldn’t bother to do the homework, he could just cut out a recipe from his mother’s recipe book and turn it as his homework. If Duchamp was in my class he would flunk. In writing a story or painting a picture, there are hundreds of decisions to be made, the writer and artist learns from this activity and grows. By turning in a recipe or exhibiting a urinal one will not know what one is capable of creating.
The Armory show was the first exhibit in America to feature Pablo Picasso’s(1881-1973) work, but his painting Woman with a Mustard Pot is certainly not his best. Picasso was a very talented artist but he listened too much to the Steins who collected his work. At times the pressure to please his patrons was so great that Picasso lost contact with himself, which is reflected in his work.
Rollo May recognized this in an exhibit of Picasso’s work, “As in the novels of Kafka, one gets a stark and gripping feeling of the modern individual’s loss of humanity. The first time I saw this exhibit, I was so overcome with the foreboding picture of human beings losing their faces, their individuality, their humanity, and the prediction of the robot to come, that I could look no longer and had to hurry out of the room and onto the street again.
To be sure, all the way through Picasso preserves his own sanity by “playing” with paintings and sculptures of animals and his own children. But it is clear that the main stream is a portrayal of our modern condition, which has been psychologically portrayed by Riesman, Mumford, Tillich, and others. The whole is an unforgettable portrait of modern man and woman in the process of losing their person and their humanity”.
At this time I should emphasize an important point I made earlier. There was a conflict of interests between the American patrons and the creative direction of the European artists. Many artists were reacting to the modernization of the world which had the effect of alienating society, by painting and sculpting intimate works that reflect human bonds. But unfortunately, the American patrons who were in high positions in industry, were very often the most alienation members of society. Some artists like Picasso appealed to the alienated tastes by experimenting with styles like cubism. Therefore, we should not view the avant-garde movements as a challenge to the establishment, rather the work of artists like Duchamp very often reflected an uncritical and conformist acceptance of the new structures of capitalism.
Considering Mary Cassatt’s (1844 –1926) stature as an artist, at first I was surprised that it took me months to discover that her beautiful painting Reine Lefebre and Margot Before a Window, was in the Armory Show. But after reflection I’m not at all surprised, the Armory Show has been promoted as an exhibit of modern art, traditional masterpieces like Cassatt’s painting get in the way of the current ideology. I recall reading an article in the magazine ART News in which a feminist claimed there has never been a great woman artist, but the problem with that claim is, it is based upon an alienated patriarchal view of art. Cassatt’s paintings of women and children have warmth that is not to be found in the work of her peers, Manet and Degas, she was their equal.
Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1872 – 1955) was an American sculptor who deserves more attention, her sculpture Dancing Girl was exhibited in the Armory Show. Despite the great obstacles a woman faced to become an artist she won numerous awards, critical acclaim, significant patronage in the early 20th century. However, by the mid 20th Century, the ideology had changed, the CIA was promoting modernism; therefore, her work was marginalized. According to Julie Aronson, only recently has Vonnoh’s works received serious consideration because of their political dimensions.