The 1913 Armory Show inspired a series of scathing reviews, a poem lambasting Duchamp's famous nude on the staircase, and a contest to identify the figure in the picture.
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“A bomb from the blue,” declared the first article in the American Art News, as the magazine was then called, referring to the International Exhibition of Modern Art, a 1913 show organized by American artists desperate for public recognition. Reviewer James B. Townsend, the magazine’s publisher, accurately predicted that the exhibition, staged at New York’s 69th Regiment Armory and later known as the Armory Show, would have far-reaching consequences. His use of the word “bomb” was not arbitrary. While he liked much of the exhibition, especially the works by such established names as Goya, Renoir, and Glackens, he found the most radical elements—the European Cubist, Fauvist, and Futurist experiments—awful.
The magazine’s editors agreed with Townsend. However, the event was hugely important, they believed, for the city and for artists everywhere, and they printed no fewer than ten stories during the monthlong show. Certain works, including a provocative brown-hued canvas by Marcel Duchamp, were lambasted. Only much later did the magazine’s opinion of Duchamp improve, giving rise not only to respectful articles about the influential artist but also to contributions by him.
But that’s skipping ahead decades. Back in 1913, Townsend aligned himself with the conservative critics, damning some of the Armory art as a product of “disordered stomachs or deranged minds.” He also complained about the logistical challenge of the reporting assignment, which meant trying to review more than 1,000 artworks by hundreds of American and European artists. “It is impossible,” he wrote, “to even attempt to enter into any detail regarding it… one may well pity the poor art writers.”
While the exhibition’s organizers, a group of artists led by Walt Kuhn and Arthur B. Davies, aimed to show off the talents of the most radical American artists, who were mostly realists, the unexpected outcome of the show was a virtual hijacking of the headlines by the European avant-garde. Townsend wrote that the Americans, including Mary Cassatt, Childe Hassam, and George Bellows, appeared “mostly academic” when compared with the adventurous Matisse, Cézanne, and van Gogh.
Much of the coverage focused on Duchamp’s contribution, which was hung in a gallery of French painting and sculpture dubbed the “Chamber of Horrors.” (Others in the gallery included Picasso, Picabia, and Braque.) The ruckus over Duchamp’s painting was mainly a result of its provocative title: Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) angered audiences that could identify neither a nude nor a staircase in the jumble of fragmented Cubist forms.
American Art News opted to make light of the affair with a poem that included the lines “This ‘Cubist’ is a master/For he hath hidden stair and dame/Beneath some brown courtplaster.” The editors concocted a contest, with a $10 prize (the equivalent of $210 today), for the reader who could solve the “conundrum of the season in the New York art world” and identify either the dame or the staircase. The prize went to a resourceful reader who used a thick pen to outline the nude figure, positing that it was male rather than female.
The magazine also looked at the business side of the show. Five thousand dollars in entrance fees—at 25 cents a head—and $30,000 (about $630,000 today) in sales were reported during the first week. Duchamp was given much of the credit for this. “‘A Nude Descending a Staircase’ draws shrieks of laughter from the crowds who gather about it eight deep,” wrote one reviewer. “M. Duchamp has done his part towards swelling the door receipts.”
If the American Art News was cynical about visitors’ intentions or reactions, it blamed the lowbrow coverage in other publications. “The number of involved, tedious, and lengthy essays on the new art movements in Europe is appalling,” wrote one of the magazine’s reviewers. “While curious New York runs in to the Armory to ‘see the freaks’… art writers and critics seem to feel it necessary… to cater to this love of sensation.”
Its attempts at poetry aside, American Art News avoided such sensation-mongering, and its reviewers focused on the more sober creations of the American Impressionists and the acknowledged European masters.
By the time the exhibition closed, on March 15, American Art News had heralded the proceedings as historic. The show, which had attracted more than 70,000 visitors, “had stirred the art interest of the metropolis, and indirectly and reflectively that of the country, to an unexpected degree.” One reviewer proclaimed it a “wake up” for American artists who were “too content to follow in and keep to a rut.”
On the 26th anniversary of the Armory Show, the magazine published a memoir of the event by Walt Kuhn, one of the last surviving organizers. His 1939 essay brings the show to life in all its colorful detail, from such financial and logistical trials as raising $5,000 to rent the Armory and operating without a phone to Kuhn’s marathon scouting trips in Europe. He even mentioned daily visits from Mrs. John Jacob Astor, who perambulated the Armory each day after breakfast. “It was a bedlam—but we liked it,” he concluded.
As for Duchamp, who had aroused so much hilarity in the pages of American Art News, he, too, had a sense of humor. Writing to congratulate the magazine in 1982, he said, “Bravo! for your 60 ism-packed years.”
Lindsay Pollock is a journalist and the author of The Girl with the Gallery (Public Affairs, 2006).
February 22, 1913A Bomb from the Blue
If my humble appeal of a few weeks ago, at the opening of the Winter Academy exhibition of “wake up, American painters” was considered by certain Academicians and other American artists as unfounded and untimely, what will these artists think of the long-anticipated and much-heralded exhibition of the newly formed Ass’n of American Painters and Sculptors, which opened in the 69th Regiment Armory at Lexington Ave. and 26th St., on Tuesday last, to remain through Mar. 15?
This really remarkable display, which will go down in N. Y.’s art history as one of the few events—for there is a wide distinction between incidents and events, in said history—and which has already excited, not only the galleries, studios and the art public, but even the larger public of the Metropolis which, although perhaps comparatively ignorant on the subject of art, is always athirst for a new sensation—is like a “bomb from the blue&
quot; in the artistic camp of American painters and sculptors.
While Pittsburgh, up till now, has deservedly maintained the claim of holding the only exhibition in this country that is worthy, from its international character, of the title of a Salon, in its annual Carnegie Institute displays, the present Armory exhibition has removed the ground for this claim on the part of the “Smoky City,” and the energetic younger American painters and sculptors, headed by Arthur B. Davies, T. Mowbray Clarke and Walt Kuhn, who have really been the chief workers in the arrangement and making of the exhibition, deserve, not only the thanks, but the praise of American artists, art lovers, students and collectors. They have made it possible for the thousands of Americans, interested in the art movements of the old world, but who have not had the opportunity of late years to visit Europe, to see, study and compare the work of the founders, leaders and the followers of the various cults and movements which have so stirred France, England, Germany, Italy, and even Spain and Russia and the Scandinavian countries, during the past decade, and which have brought about, if not an art Renaissance in Europe—a stirring of the dry bones of conservatism and conventionalism in art abroad, and have had their direct influence here. They have done this feat also, with due regard for the more puritanical, not to say, squeamish, atmosphere of this country and have wisely, while culling the most representative examples of the new movement, especially in France and Germany, refrained from importing the obscenities of the Paris Autumn Salon, and of various German exhibitions, perhaps in fear of Dr. Parkhurst and Anthony Comstock. It is reported that despite their care, however, so strong a protest was made, even in advance of the press view, by some members of the society that one canvas was removed.
A Clear and Varied Display
Taken as a whole, the exhibition is a clean, a strong, and a varied one and of vast artistic, educational interest and importance, and, if I mistake not, will have as a result, and despite the unquestionably skeptical and even hostile attitude towards the merits of the new foreign movements, or an indisposition to accept them as being worthy of the title of art movements in general—the most marked effect upon the cause of art in America, and upon the coming production of American painters and sculptors, than anything that has occurred since the first exhibition of the so-called Munich band of young American painters in the old American art galleries in 1878, and of the work of Monet and his contemporaries and followers held here in 1883.
To Stimulate American Art
The object of the exhibition is frankly stated to be “to stimulate American artists by showing them what the rest of the advanced world is doing,” and to give them an opportunity of comparing the work of painters from Goya, Ingres and Courbet, to the “Cubists” and “Futurists” of the Paris Autumn Salon, with those of certain of our American painters, who have been influenced by these foreign painters and sculptors. In this the organizers of the exhibit have succeeded, and it is amusing to realize how, in comparison with the work of Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and notably Matisse and others, that of such Americans as J. Alden Weir, Childe Hassam, Putnam Brinley, Ernest Lawson, Geo. Bellows, Homer Boss, Geo. Luks, W. Glackens, Mary Cassatt, Cimiotti and even Arthur Davies, seem almost academic, while Leon Dabo, Bolton Brown, Jonas Lie, Robert Henri and H. D. Murphy have no “place in this gallery.”
Exhibition Well Arranged
The exhibition is exceedingly well arranged in 18 rooms, opening out of each other, and leading from the large Atrium, in which Robert W. Chanler’s excellent and striking decorative murals, so influenced by the Japanese, are displayed, to a room in which hang and are placed the pictures and sculptures of the “Cubists,” of whom the archdeacon, Francis Picabia is now here, to explain, if possible, the meaning of his work and why he became a “brigand in art.” To be sure, Picabia does not call himself a “Cubist,” whose work he says “barring the few technicalities in painting, such as reproducing the original in cubes, has much the same theory as that of the Old Masters.” Picabia says that “he does not produce the originals, but impressions of original subjects.” In this room of the “Cubists” there is a so-called picture with a curious title, “A Nude Lady descending a Stairway,” which is already the conundrum of the season in New York. Up to the present writing, I understand that no one has yet been able to make out of what looks like a collection of saddle bags, either the lady or the stairway.
Noted Names Represented
It is impossible, in this first review of this remarkable exhibition, to even attempt to enter into any detail regarding it, and when one considers that there are over 1,000 exhibits, one may well pity the poor art writers of the town and country. Suffice it to say that the display is so comprehensive as to include among foreign painters and sculptors the early Goya, Ingres, Courbet, and Daumier, then Manet, Corot, and Cézanne, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Whistler, Bonnard, Braque, Chabaud, the English Chas. Conder, Augustus John and Nathaniel Hone, Flandrin, Gauguin, Delaunay, Matisse, Gussow, Jansen, Kandinsky, Kleinert, Passini, Picabia, Pissarro, Redon, Rodin, Henri Rousseau, Sickert, Toussaint, Van Gogh, Blanche, Walkowitz and Wentscher.
The Americans, whom one finds in this strange company, are the sculptors Robert Aitken, Geo. Gray Barnard, Chester Beach, Karl Bitter, Solon Boglum (where is Gutzon?), Jo Davidson, Mowbray Clarke, Ethel Myers, Charles C. Rumsey, Enid Yandell and Mahonri Young, and the painters Carl Anderson, Florence Barclay, Gifford Beal, Marion Beckett, Homer Boss, Putnam Brinley, Mary Cassatt, Robert W. Chanler, G. Cimiotti, Jr., Arthur B. Davies, Chas. H. Davis, Guy DuBois, Florence Este, Mary Foote, James E. Fraser, Kenneth Frazier, H. I. Glintenkamp, W. Glackens, Philip Hale, Marsden Hartley, Childe Hassam, Robert Henri, Charles Hopkinson, Leon Kroll, Walt Kuhn, Ernest Lawson, Jonas Lie, George Luks, Francis McComas, Dodge McKnight, John Marin, Kenneth Miller, Jerome Myers, F. A. Nankivell, Walter Pach, Josephine Paddock, H. S. Phillips, Van D. Perrine, Maurice D. Prendergast, James and May Wilson Preston, Arthur and Alfred Putnam, Theodore Robinson, A. P. Ryder, John Sloan, Carl Springhorn, Henry Fitch Taylor, Allen Tucker, the late J. H. Twachtman, J. Alden Weir, J. McN. Whistler and J. B. Yeats.
A Retrospective Glance
It is not the purpose of the present writer to condemn, even what seems to be the most unexplainable and inartistic works of the men who represent the foreign movements and their followers here, for he too well remembers that in 1883, 30 years ago, he passed a hasty and immature judgement when art writer for the “N. Y. World,” on the works of Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, and their fellows and followers, that he called them “crazy painters” and “bumptuously” proclaimed that “such so-called art could not live.” Realizing how he has learned, with other older students of and writers on art, to admire the work of the so-called French “Impressionists,” and to recognize their influence upon the art of all lands, he hesitates to even predict that another generation will repudiate the “Futurists” and “Cubists” of today. This early judgment of the French “Impressionists” was not soundly based, in that it did not consider the fact that those great painters, who gave to the world a new translation of light and color, still “held true” to the basic principles of art. Do the leaders of the new movements today & quot;hold true” to these, and is it possible that there can be any great or enduring painting or sculpture that does not recognize the basic principles of form, line, composition, and color? Can one compose a great piece of music—one that will live, without some regard to the harmonies, the key or the notes? Can one write a great poem without following the rules of metre? Can a sonnet have more than 14 lines?
If, as it seems to me, the best definition of art is that it is “an expression of the emotions,” whether through painting, music, or poetry, and these men say “they express their emotions in their work,” as now shown at the Armory, would it not appear that the said expression is one of disordered stomachs or deranged minds?
February 22, 1913The Nude Lady and the Stairway
Title of a Cubist picture at the Armory Show.
Now this is asked on Hudson’s banks
And not on shores of Niger;
Our lady’s on a stairway placed,
There’s no sign of a tiger.
At least the “Cubist” says she is
He who hath so devised her;
No stair nor dame can we discern
And so we’re none the wiser.
If “art concealeth art”—when then
This “Cubist” is a master,
For he hath hidden stair and dame
Beneath some brown courtplaster.
Oh—Saints, Madonnas, visions fair,
Of Raphael and of Lippi.
Must we forsake Ye—and embrace
Bad dreams by painters “Dippy”?
Perish the thought—with masters old;
We’ll still walk woodlands shady,
Still be inspired by visions fair,
Scat! “Stairway and Nude Lady.”
March 1, 1913The Armory Exhibition
It had been our purpose to devote space this week to a critical review of the so-called Internation Exhibition of Modern Art, now on at the 69th Reg’t. Armory, and which was organized and is managed by the youthful American Painters’ and Sculptors’ Society—but neither space nor time will permit.
We are the less sorry to be obliged to postpone adequate review or notice of this almost sensational display, as we are inclined to the opinion that it needs more time for proper digestion than the art writers and critics of this town, to judge from their effusions thus far published have given to it. They have found themselves confronted with a problem beyond their solution, as we predicted last week, and the number of involved, tedious and lengthy essays on the new art movement in Europe, as evidenced by the exhibits of the “Cubists,” “Futurists” and all the other “Ists” at the Armory published of late in the dailies, is appalling. We doubt if any art lover, who has even attempted to wade through these writers’ labored efforts to give any intelligent idea of the subject, is any the wiser as regards it today.
But let not these art writers or their public despair. Had we space to republish the “Trash” or to speak more boldly, the insane maunderings of certain of the French and English art critics the past two years on the new movements, it would readily be seen that our townsmen and women would have done as well, and in the case of Mr. Royal Cortissoz of the “Tribue,” far better. In fact it may be that Mr. Cortissoz, alone of his fellows, has given some lucid idea of the tendencies, at least, of this so-called “new art.”
We would call the attention of our readers to the fact that, entirely apart from the weird output of the “Eccentrics,” there is on at the Armory an unusually good display of the work of such early and later foreign painters as Goya, Ingres, Monet, Manet, Pissarro, Sisley, Boudin, Puvis de Chavannes, Corot, Degas, Cézanne, Courbet, Delacroix, Daumier, Renoir, Redon, Matthew Maris, Van Gogh, Gauguin, the English, Augustus John, Wilson Steer, and Nathaniel Hone, and of such sterling American painters as Ernest Lawson, Robert Henri, Homer Boss, George Luks, Wm. Glackens, Jerome Myers, Arthur B. Davies, Leon Dabo, Childe Hassam, Alden Weir, Mary Foote, Gifford Beal, Bolton Brown, Geo. Bellows, D. Putnam Brinley, Mary Cassatt, Elmer McRae, Robert W. Chanler, G. Cimiotti, G. Ruger Donoho, Kenneth Frazier, Guy Píne DuBois, Walt Kuhn, Arthur Lee, H. Dudley Murphy, Van D. Perrine, the Prestons, Theodore Robinson, Florence Barclay, Albert P. Ryder, John Sloan, Marsden Hartley, Allen Tucker, John H. Twachtman, and J. McN. Whistler.
There are also among foreign sculptors Rodin, and other leaders, and among Americans the names of George Gray Barnard, Chester Beach, Mahonri Young, A. St. L. Eberle, Karl Bitter, Solon Borglum, Bessie Potter Vonnoh and Enid Yandell, all stand out. Here is therefore an exhibition of good work in painting and sculpture by some of the best artists now living and working both here and abroad, and well worth seeing, and yet this fine and exceptional display has been and is being neglected, while curious New York runs in to the Armory “to see the freaks,” as if it were a museum, and art writers and critics seem to feel it necessary, with a few exceptions, to cater to this love of sensation.
March 1, 1913Chamber of Horrors
Who shall determine how much may be attributed to real art interest and how much to curiosity, of the five thousand dollars and more in entrance fees, at twenty-five cents each, received by the International Exhibition of Modern Art in the 69 Regiment Armory during its first week? With this amount in entrance fees and more than $30,000 worth of art works sold, it looks as if New York had been waiting for some live art “movement” to come along and stir its interest.
Needless to say, the Armory is thronged daily. The centre of attraction, however, for the mob is the so-called “Chamber of Horrors,” due of course to the American sense of humor, as it is really room full of mirth-making spectacles, which no one has yet been found to take seriously.
There is every evidence that New York has decided to give the “Cubists,” “Futurists” and other freakists, “the laugh,” a bad sign for these “jokers of the brush.” In fact, some predict that New York’s laugh will bury these new apostles of art in oblivion. Marcel Duchamp’s mixture of leather, tin and broken violins, which he calls “A Nude Descending a Staircase,” draws shrieks of laughter from the crowds who gather about it eight deep, in their eagerness to discover the lady or the stairway. Had the mind (or the stomach) which conceived this novel presentation of the female form divine invented some comprehensible title, the financial results would doubtless have not been as large, and certain it is that M. Duchamp has done his part towards swelling the door receipts, and may therefore safely be called a “Profit.”
Why should time be wasted in advertising these “carpenters” who in a few weeks, when the public has had its laugh, will have to seek places in their real trade? The management was wise, however, in bringing their works to New York, but they have served their purpose, as by comparison with them any good work of art is doubly appreciated and the management was wiser still in offering to the public a number of beautiful examples by sane and serious men, whose art only shines the more by its close proximity to this vaudevillian collection. It is the work of such masters as Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Corot, Courbet, Daumier, Puvis de Chavannes, Rodin, Bourdelle, Rousseau, Maris, Whistler, A. P. Ryder, John H. Twachtman, Weir, and many other European and American painters and sculptors which command serious consideration and respect for the exhibit, and which are a relief to eyes and minds tortured by the disquieting perpetrations of the art criminals.
March 1, 1913The Armory Puzzle
The conundrum of the season in the New York art world is the identification of either the Nude figure or the stairway in a canvas entitled “Nude Descending a Stairway,” in the Cubist room of the Armory at Lexington Ave. and 25 St., where the first International exhibition of modern art, organized and managed by the American Painters’ and Sculptors’ Society, is in progress.
Up to date no one has been able to discover in this curious composition either a figure of any kind or anything that resembles a stairway, and the wonder continues to grow
as to how and why the producer of this so-called work of art devised the title for his canvas. The question has become a burning one, and the ART NEWS, moved by many appeals for the elucidation of the mystery—which it frankly acknowledges it cannot solve, herewith offers a prize of Ten ($10) Dollars to any of its readers or subscribers who can write, in fifty words, a solution of the mystery, adjudged satisfactory by two well-known painters.
March 8, 1913The Prize Winner
“It’s Only a Man”
You’ve tried to find her,
And you’ve looked in vain
Up the picture and down again,
You’ve tried to fashion her of broken bits,
And you’ve worked yourself into seventeen fits;
The reason you’ve failed to tell you I can,
It isn’t a lady but only a man.
March 15, 1913Armory Puzzle Solved
The committee on the award of the $10.00 prize, offered by the American Art News for the best explanation or solution of the so-called Armory Puzzle of the supposed lady in Duchamp’s picture in the “Cubist” room in the International Exhibition of Modern Art, which will close at the 69th Regiment Armory this evening, as was announced last week, awarded the prize to “Guilfish.” It is to be regretted that space limitations prevented the publication, other than those published last week, of the hundreds of other interesting and clever letters received and the reproduction of as clever sketches to explain these letters. It had been hoped to publish a selection from these letters and sketches this week, but again space limitations forbid.
The committee awarded the prize to “Guilfish” for the reason that in addition to her clever explanatory verses, this competitor alone discovered the curiously self-evident fact that the painter did not entitle his picture, “Nude Lady Descending a Stairway,” as the press widely stated, but simply “Nude Descending a Stairway”—”Nu” in French being the masculine—and proved by her accompanying sketch, reproduced last week, that the figure was that of a man, and not a woman….
March 15, 1913An Art Awakening
There can be no question of the fact that the remarkable International exhibition of modern art, the first ever held in this city, organized by the Ass’n of American Painters and Sculptors, and which will close at the 69th Regt. Armory tonight, with an almost unprecedented record of attendance for this town, and an unprecedented one for the number, if not the financial total of sales—has stirred the art interest of the metropolis, and indirectly and reflectively that of the country, to an unexpected degree.
Chicago has successfully bid for the exhibition, which will now go to the Art Institute in that city, and it is not improbable that it may travel afterward to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and possibly even to exclusive and self-satisfied Boston.
It may even be said that the result, if not immediate, of this remarkable and well conceived and managed display, will perhaps ultimately create a second so-called art renaissance in these United States, the first having been that made by the so-called Munich band of young painters, who returning from Munich and Paris in 1877, with new ideas and intense enthusiasm, to their native shores, soon after killed and assisted in the burial of the then long triumphant, narrow and dry, so-called “Hudson-River School” of Art. It may seem almost absurd to even suggest that the influence of the works of the so-called French, German, and Italian “Post Impressionists,” “Futurists,” “Cubists,” and other “ists,” as exemplified by representative examples at the Armory show, can have any immediate, or even near future effect, upon the generally strong, good and, from the conventional art viewpoint, sane, American painting and sculpture of today, but there is no doubt that the study of these new groupings, called “movements” in painting and sculpture, which have so emphasized and influenced the art of Europe today, for the past 5 years, and even the derision which they have excited, and will continue to excite, has had and will have a stimulating effect. They will undoubtedly wake up, it is to be hoped, many American artists who have been too content to follow in and keep to a rut, in subject and treatment in their work, and will influence the art public to demand more originality in subject, more versatility and variety in handling, modeling and painting, from even those artists whom they most respect and admire.
With all due allowance for the bait of curiosity and love of sensation, the 50,000 and more visitors to the Armory show, were not all influenced by these inducements, for unquestionably thousands went to the display to see the work of the men who have so stirred the art of Europe.
We owe a debt of gratitude to the organizers and managers of this most successful exhibition, and, in passing, let us extend our condolences to Gutzon Borglum and Leon Dabo, who, after all, were the chief promoters of an event in whose triumphal result, for temperamental reasons, they were unable to participate.
March 15, 1913Armory Show’s Success
The records of attendance at the Armory Show, during the present week, which is the last, exceeded any of the previous weeks. Up to last Wednesday the visitors numbered over 60,000. Six thousand admissions were registered last Saturday, and as this will be the closing day, and as the managers expect a greater crowd than ever, extra police service has been arranged for. More than two hundred works have been sold, the prices of which and also the names of the buyers have been promised for publication, “after the show closes.”
It is expected that the door receipts, and sales of catalogs will just about clear expenses, as even though the amount received far exceeds the expectations of the management, the expense incurred in bringing so many of the paintings and sculptures from Europe and in sending them back is heavy, and this, added to the $5,500 rent for the Armory, will reach $30,000 all told. But the show has been an unheard of success,… and the artists who have devoted so much of their time and energy are gratified.