In 1913, the Armory exhibit introduced modern European art to Chicagoans, who either loved or hated it. The show returns to the DePaul University Art Museum. Exhibit curator Mark Pohlad joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm. Below, read an interview with the museum's director, Louise Lincoln, about the exhibit.
It’s been 100 years since “The Armory Show” opened to the New York City public and later, for 23 days, to Chicagoans at The Art Institute. New York is usually considered the cultural capital of America but it was in Chicago that the exhibit drew the biggest crowds and the most attention. Why did it elicit such strong reactions here?
Having opened in New York, there was a lot of press about the exhibit from the developing national press commenting on the show. The show was introduced in New York but by the time it got to Chicago, many people had heard about it and had heard that it was controversial. There was a lot of conversation about it and I think that Chicago was simultaneously trying to demonstrate its sophistication while also worrying about distinguishing itself from New York as down-to-earth, honest and Midwestern. Some of those tensions still persist in the art world.
What about the artwork was so stunning to American audiences? Were our artistic tastes really that bland?
Yeah, they were pretty vanilla, but the administration of the Art Institute made a point of asking for the controversial works to be on display. They didn’t want to be cheated out of the excitement and shock value so they asked for the most radical European works – things like Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, and other cubist and abstract works. It was really the first time that Chicago audiences had seen art like that. The aspect that was really difficult for people was the way the human figure was portrayed, specifically the female nude. In America, beautiful, modest, but very technically accurate nudes were the standard in art academies. When these other artists brought new ideas to the depiction of the female nude, it destabilized peoples’ sense that it was OK to look at the nude body. It’s a line we can’t even see anymore, but part of it came from the Armory Show.
What are some of the more noteworthy ways that viewers reacted to this and other aspects of the artwork?
Some of it was moralizing and scolding from religious figures who preached against the show from the pulpit. The city of Chicago even sent an inspector to determine whether the show would corrupt the morals of youth and of women to see abstract or cubist versions of the female body. They even found the work of Henri Matisse, who is thought of as somewhat of a “pretty” artist, very troubling. There was a Matisse female figure that people were outraged by because it had only four toes that Matisse had just sketched in quickly.
How did the exhibit change American art, and in particular, the ways American artists treat the human body in their work?
One interesting thing about the Armory Show is that it was organized by American artists, who wanted Americans to look at and think about the kinds of artwork Europeans were producing. One of the artists who organized the exhibit, Walt Kuhn, wrote this several years later about his involvement with the exhibit: ‘Business caught on immediately. Drabness and awkwardness began to disappear from American life, and color and grace stepped in. The exhibition affected the apparel of men and women, automobiles, airplanes, furniture, interior decorations, beauty parlors, advertising and printing in its various departments, plumbing, hardware—everything from the modernistic designs of gas pumps and color of beach umbrellas down to the merchandise of the dime store.’
So in his view, the Armory Show was the catalyst for a radical transformation. I think it’s certainly one of the two or three most important art exhibits in the 20th century.
How does the new exhibit chronicle this evolution among American artists? Does it feature originals as well as more recent artwork that was inspired by the exhibit?
We’re not just putting up some works from the Armory Show and calling it a recreation of it. We feature some works that were in the original exhibit, along with later works by American artists where we’re probing for how these artists were influenced by what they saw at the show. We also feature some older works that appeared at the Armory Show, works by artists like Paul Gauguin or Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec that were 20 or 30 years at the time but that were considered innovative.
Interview has been condensed and edited.