Chicago and the Future of Art

April 17th, 2013by Naomi BlumbergFiled under: Stories

In honor of the Armory Show’s closing day, which took place one hundred years ago on April 16, curator Naomi Blumberg takes a look back at Chicago’s horrified response to modern art in 1913.

One hundred years ago this month, the Armory Show opened at the Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibition became notorious for promoting artists who, while they are today considered the pioneers of Modernism— made a real splash—both positive and negative—among their contemporaries in our city. The Chicago show featured about half of what was exhibited in its previous iteration in New York City. But the works that did make it here caused a major stir in the Chicago audience—and their reactions made headlines.

Mayor Carter Harrison was quoted as “impressed”, but he then proceeded to lambast the Cubists, especially Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending Staircase, the painting that received the most attention of any in the entire exhibition. At the time, Mayor Harrison turned away from the painting, saying, “I suppose an idea is intended and the cubists ought to get credit for trying to do something, but what they were trying to do, I don’t know.”

Chicago landscape artist Charles Francis Browne led an artistic revolt against the exhibition. Some of his unintentionally flattering criticism wound up in the Chicago Tribune: “It’s [the show] trying to prove ITSELF by ITS own ITNESS.” And later on: “From the scratched stone of the cave dweller to the Nude Descending Staircase is but a step.” Browne had apparently also mocked the Impressionists when they first arrived on the art scene. We all know how that turned out.

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Chicago landscape artist Charles Francis Browne
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And lest we forget that the start of baseball season coincided with the show in 1913, one anonymous Tribune comment mocked the exhibition: “You may be a Cubist, but put me down as a Soxist.”

The Tribune also ran a piece comparing works done by residents of the Dunning insane asylum alongside works shown in the Armory Show. The headline asked: “Which are which?”

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The Tribune’s March 23, 1913 piece compared the Armory paintings with those by a patient at the Chicago State Hospital in Dunning, Illinois, referred to here by its common label “the Dunning Asylum.”

Under the headline “Record Throngs at Institute Gape at Post-Impressionists’ Work: Few Understand Them,” the author included a suggestion for how to best understand the Cubist works: “There is a formula by which you can see just what is represented. Take a careful survey of the picture, study the purported idea, whirl around three times, close your eyes, count twenty, bump your head twice against the wall, and if you bump hard enough the picture of the nude descending the staircase will be perfectly obvious.”

On the day the exhibition left town, Art Institute students held a ceremonial burning of copies of works by Matisse as well as a mock trial of “Henry Hairmattress.” They also planned to burn Matisse in effigy, but that final insult was called off by “the authorities”—presumably the police—in the nick of time.

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Later in 1913, Mary Mills Lyall and Earl Harvey Lyall’s picture book The Cubies’ ABC further satirized the paintings and artists of the Armory. (See http://extras.artic.edu/armoryshow/program-notes for the full book.)

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The Cubies illustrated ‘M’ with Matisse, of course.

Not everyone thought the joke was funny. A Tribune columnist responded to the rowdy behavior thus: “Burning Matisse in effigy was hardly necessary. The students of the Art Institute seem to have weathered the epidemic of Post-Impressionism. No infection of new ideas has been reported. Long live the past!”

Even as a professional preserver of history, I’m relieved, for Chicago’s sake, that the city did not continue this trend of resisting artistic innovation.

> Take a tour of the Art Institute’s Armory Show online exhibition

> Download pdfs of The Cubies’ ABC and the original Chicago program notes

> Explore the New-York Historical Society’s dedicated Armory Show website

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