by Kim Orcutt

Marcel Duchamp (French, 1887–1968), Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), 1912. Oil on canvas, 57⅞ × 35⅛ in. (147 × 89.2 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art: The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950, 1950-134-59

Marcel Duchamp (French, 1887–1968), Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), 1912. Oil on canvas, 57⅞ × 35⅛ in. (147 × 89.2 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art: The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950, 1950-134-59

Three of the most prominent paintings in the Armory Show were nudes, and they form an interesting dialogue about modern art. The nude was a traditional subject going back to the Renaissance and to ancient Greece, and some of the avant-garde artists took new approaches to it that made their work seem all the more provocative.

Matisse’s Blue Nude agitated French critics when it was first exhibited in 1907, and American critics were just as hostile in 1913 at the Armory Show. They called the figure “distorted and toadlike,” and they harshly criticized the “misplacement of features and limbs.” They were outraged that Matisse had treated a classic fine art subject in a crude manner, and perhaps, in an era of change and upheaval, they were threatened by what seemed to be a purposeful step backwards in artistic progress.

Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase presented a different problem: its title promised a classic art subject in the form of a nude, but the picture only seemed to deliver a bewildering “splinter-salad,” as one critic put it. Cubist works like this one required viewers to master a multi-perspectival way of looking that we take for granted today. Duchamp’s painting raised a question that resonated through many of the critical responses to the show: was the artist responsible for creating a painting that the viewer could understand, or did the viewer have to learn a new language of art in order to comprehend what the artist was trying to convey?

The American artist Robert Henri probably saw both of these works in Europe in the fall of 1912, and he painted his own nude, Figure in Motion, especially for the Armory Show. It was an unusual subject for Henri, and it puzzled critics in 1913. His painting of an academic nude, made modern through her direct gaze and lively pose, may have been a protest – not against the new styles themselves, but rather the threat they represented to American artistic independence and freedom. Though the three paintings were in different parts of the 69th Regiment Armory, they spoke eloquently and passionately across the galleries about the nature of the new movements, and what they might portend for the future of American art.

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