The exhibition catalogue for The Armory Show at 100 will include an essay by distinguished art historian William C. Agee, who calls Matisse “the most radical, most polarizing, most influential artist at the Armory Show — even more so than Duchamp, who was associated with a single work, his famous Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2. The Cubists caused bewilderment; Matisse caused downright anger.” Critics described his work using terms like perverse, offensive, monstrous, vulgar, and grotesque. When the exhibition traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago, students burned Matisse’s paintings in effigy. Today we revere Matisse and we seek out his work, so it’s easy to wonder, what was all the fuss about?
The Armory Show included thirteen paintings, three drawings, and one sculpture by Matisse, and they were installed in the large final gallery of the exhibition, along with over fifty paintings by artists of his circle. If you attended the exhibition in 1913 you would have come to the end of your wanderings in the galleries to be overwhelmed by wildly colored paintings that seemed to abandon any aspirations toward technical mastery, standards of beauty, or even anatomical accuracy (for example, Matisse’s Le Luxe II was criticized because one of the figures had only four toes).
Looking deeper into the 1913 responses to Matisse offers some interesting possibilities to consider. Many critics focused on the perversity of deliberately retreating to the past the way Matisse appeared to be doing. Some were worried about what seemed to be a reversal of progress — and what could be more frightening to Americans than regression: “[Matisse’s] paintings are repellent because they turn … Humanity back to its brutish beginnings”; and “His attempted return to childhood involves an avowal of disbelief, not only in his own growth, but in the growth of the race.” 1913 was a moment of change not just in art, but also in politics, social reform, architecture, literature, and countless other forms. Some people thought that the revolution in art that they saw at the Armory Show was the harbinger of larger changes that threatened the foundations of western civilization.
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.