When studying responses to the Armory Show, it is easy to get lost in the progressive and conservative rhetoric that argued for and against the “new spirit” in art. However, while many engaged in a serious debate over the value of European modernism, several critics and artists used humor – from playful cartoons to malicious mockery – as a means of coming to terms with the radical new art on display.
Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) was endlessly caricatured, inspiring clever cartoons such as “The Rude Descending a Staircase (Rush Hour at the Subway),” as well as a contest offering a $10 prize to anyone who could “find the lady.” The work of sculptor Constantin Brancusi was also lampooned, especially his Mlle Pogany I, which one critic described as a “hardboiled egg balanced on a cube of sugar.”
In addition to the cartoons, jokes, and jeers, the Armory Show prompted a number of spoofs and burlesques. On March 11, 1913, the Architectural League held a boisterous buffet dinner and smoker where academic artists competed for a prize by painting parodies of Futurist, Cubist, and Post-Impressionist works. The following week, the “Academy of Misapplied Art” held a charity exhibition at New York’s Lighthouse for the Blind. Described in the press as a “Post-Mortem Armory Show” and a “Cubist Burlesque Show for Blind,” the artworks on display were said to “ignore drawing and every sane principle of Art” and bore satirical titles such as Food Descending a Staircase and U.S. Discards the Oval for the Cube.
Armory Show exhibitor Robert Chanler was also inspired to produce his Parody of the Fauve Painters, a work that depicts a group of artists kneeling in reverence before a chimp – a harsh caricature of Henri Matisse. On a lighter note, G.P. Putnam’s Sons published a humorous children’s book entitled The Cubies’ ABC, in which “D” stood for “Duchamp, the Deep-Dyed Deceiver.”
One wonders, however, how many of these spoofs and parodies were simply hiding the nervous insecurity that many felt about the advent of European modernism, for behind the laughter lay a very real anxiety about the future of art in America.
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.