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Return of the Armory Show: Artistic murder! Pictorial arson! Total degeneracy!

Maybe the critics'll be a little kinder this time around.

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The International Exhibit of Modern Art, better known as the Armory Show, arrived in Chicago on March 24, 1913, and for the next 23 days—as long as the exhibit remained open—Chicagoans were obsessed. Nearly 200,000 people passed through seven cramped galleries on the Art Institute of Chicago's second floor to look at the first major exhibition of modernist work in America. Thanks to advance reports from the show's first stop in New York, they came expecting to be scandalized. They weren't disappointed.

At 634 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper, the Chicago show was about half the size of its New York predecessor, but AIC director William French had specifically requested that some of the most radical examples of modern art, notably Picasso's cubist paintings and Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, be shown in his museum, reasoning that Chicagoans would be unlikely to see them otherwise. French himself despised most of the modernist works he put on display; he set off on a lecture tour through California just before the show opened and remained away for its duration.

The critics, as French had probably anticipated, were not kind. "Our splendid Art Institute is being desecrated," wrote H. Effa Webster in the Chicago Examiner. "This pollution is materialized in several portraits of the nude; portrayals that unite in an insult to the great self-respecting public of Chicago."

On the show's final day, students from the School of the Art Institute, egged on by their teachers, gathered on the museum's steps to put Henri Matisse on trial. "Hennery O'Hair Mattress," they ruled, "is found guilty of artistic murder, pictorial arson, total degeneracy of color sense, artistic rapine, criminal abuse of title, and general aesthetic abortion."

How to find the nude in Nude Descending: Art collector Arthur Jerome Eddy offered a diagram. - COURTESY OF CHICAGO PUBLIC LIBRARY
  • Courtesy of Chicago Public Library
  • How to find the nude in Nude Descending: Art collector Arthur Jerome Eddy offered a diagram.

Other Chicagoans saw the entertainment and commercial value in cubism. People threw cubist parties, department stores advertised cubist dresses, and one scam artist paid a Hyde Park dry cleaner with cubist money. Newspaper cartoonists played off the pun of "Cub" and "cubist" and drew Picasso-style logos for the baseball team. Arthur Jerome Eddy, a prominent art collector, published a diagram in both the Tribune and the Examiner that outlined where, exactly, to find the nude in Nude Descending.

"It transfixed everyone," says Louise Lincoln, director of the DePaul Art Museum. "To see art arouse that kind of passion is fascinating. . . . And now people are starting to forget that it happened."

As a reminder, on April 4 DPAM launches "For and Against Modern Art: The Armory Show + 100," a collection of 20 pieces that were displayed at or inspired by the Armory Show, culled mostly from collections around the midwest. (Duchamp's hot-button contribution, says Lincoln, "was regrettably unavailable.")

One of the challenges facing an exhibit about the Armory Show is to demonstrate how works of art now considered a standard part of any art history curriculum could have so shocked audiences 100 years ago.

"We don't want to fall into the trap of 'we know better than you,'" Lincoln explains. "We want to understand and explain people's response to it."

In 1913, there were only one or two small galleries in Chicago that displayed modernist art. Most critics and students of art were still in thrall to the impressionists. "People had this idea of what art was supposed to do," says Mark Pohlad, a DePaul art history professor who worked on the exhibit. "It was ideal, beautiful, uplifting, natural."

One of the drawings on display at DPAM is an example of what was considered "good" art by the students who were so infuriated by Matisse. It's of an untitled female nude by the Chicago artist Albert Henry Krehbiel. She's classically proportioned, her legs are close together, and she's demurely turning her face away, clearly suffering the viewer's gaze.

"It's well drawn and handsome," says Pohlad. "It's not emotionally inspiring, but it's well crafted. She's being a good female nude. It's difficult to do that. But then the rules changed. If there was too much too fast, people recoiled."

Robert Henri's female nude in Figure in Motion, for instance, goes just far enough (H. Effa Webster's views notwithstanding). The model walks boldly toward the viewer and looks him straight in the eye, which may have been radical for a female nude, but, hey, she's still a naked woman, graceful and lovely, not imperfect and "lewd" like Matisse's.

"Henri didn't insult their intelligence," says Pohlad.

"They still recognized a human body," adds Lincoln. "Nude Descending a Staircase was unreadable."

"For people who knew art," Pohlad continues, "there was a line they couldn't cross. Once it was crossed, they came out swinging."

But if a line had been crossed, why did Chicagoans go so crazy for cubism that spring?

"If you asked people what it all meant," Pohlad theorizes, "they couldn't say. It was like the Harlem Shake. Now there's all these people saying that those videos of people dancing aren't really the Harlem Shake. But this misunderstanding allows everyone to participate. The term is a kind of empty vessel for everyone to bring what they want to it. Similarly, 'cubism,' before it was understood as a style of geometric abstract art, simply meant that something was incomprehensibly new and weird."

Americans had several years to adjust to modernism after the Armory Show. The outbreak of World War I stopped the flow of new work from Europe for a while. In the meantime, adventurous collectors like Eddy continued to buy up cubist paintings and sculpture from American artists and dealers. And even though William French wouldn't show any more modernist work at the Art Institute, other institutions opened that would, notably the Arts Club of Chicago.

One of Lincoln and Pohlad's favorite artifacts in the DPAM exhibit is a program very carefully annotated by Olga Szold, a Hungarian immigrant in her 30s who had traveled from Valparaiso to see the show. Somehow her program ended up in a library at the University of Chicago, where it was discovered by Lincoln's husband.

Szold wasn't an art critic. Her tastes were fairly conservative. She liked Odilon Redon's flower paintings. But she also liked Constantin Brancusi's sculptures, one of which, Madame Pogany, was so abstract that the organizers of the New York edition of the show joked that it looked more like an ostrich egg. "She was very fair," says Lincoln. "She had no agenda. She just wanted to get down what she saw."

As a museum director, Lincoln was impressed.

"Here's someone coming all the way from Valparaiso, buying the program, so devotedly making notes," she marvels. "You don't see that in a museum anymore."

Correction: This article has been amended to reflect the correct author of the comparison between Brancusi's Madame Pogany and an ostrich egg.

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