by Kim Orcutt
March 24, 1913 marked the opening of the International Exhibition of Modern Art at its second stop and its only museum venue, the Art Institute of Chicago. Director William M.R. French wasn’t enthusiastic about the controversial avant-garde works in the New York show, but he recognized their importance. He asked for a scaled-down version of the exhibition that focused on European works, and only one by most of the American painters (and none of the sculptors), since many were already represented in their collection.
By the time the show opened in Chicago, it had already attracted national press attention. Where New Yorkers were taken by surprise, Chicagoans had heard all the jokes, seen the cartoons and parodies, and many were skeptical about how seriously they should take the startling new styles. But they came nonetheless. Over 188,000 people attended – more than twice the number in New York. Newspaper headlines read, “Art Show Open to Freaks,” and “Cubist Art Baffles Crowd.” Walt Kuhn, one of the artist-organizers of the show, wrote disgustedly, “It’s a Rube Town!”
Chicago art students celebrated the exhibition’s close with a mock trial of Henri Matisse (whom they named “Henri Hairmattress”). They convicted him of artistic crimes and burned four of his paintings in effigy. But one Chicago artist, Manierre Dawson, wrote in his diary, “I am feeling elated. I had thought of myself as an anomaly and had to defend myself, many times, as not crazy; and here now at the Art Institute many artists presented show these very inventive departures from the academies.”
After initially condemning Chicago, Kuhn saw more and more thoughtful reactions to show as it progressed, and by the end he temporized (in spite of the art students’ bonfire), “The papers hammered the show, but it was a grand success.” As it had in New York, the Armory Show introduced the Chicago public to European modernism. For more on the Chicago venue, see the Art Institute’s online exhibition.
The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution is on view October 11, 2013 through February 23, 2013 at the New-York Historical Society.