The Armory Show is best remembered for Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), and today, it’s easy to think that the Cubists were the “big news” of 1913. It’s true that Duchamp’s nude attracted more media attention than any other work, inspiring tirades, poems, cartoons, and contests to “find the nude.” Some critics railed against it, and others treated the “puzzle pictures” in the Armory with indulgent humor.
But it seems that the organizers of the 1913 exhibition didn’t think that the Cubists were the most modern of the moderns, and their work didn’t attract the most passionate responses. The Nude Descending a Staircase and paintings by Pablo Picasso, Francis Picabia, and other cubists were installed in gallery I in a corner of the Armory. The most important space, however, was gallery H. All paths in the exhibition layout led to this last, very large gallery, and it was reserved for the work of Henri Matisse and his circle, known as the Fauves. It included Georges Braque, with a painting from the period before he turned to Cubism, and artists who are less familiar now, such as Charles Manguin and Andre Dunoyer de Segonzac.
Where many visitors and critics were bemused by the Cubist paintings, they were outraged by the Fauves and their primitivist style, which seemed to abandon traditional standards of beauty and technical mastery for a retreat to the innocence of childhood or to ancient times. Critics objected that “assumed naivete is one more way of lying”; “art must manifest the spirit of its epoch” and “this is an adult world, and it demands an adult art.” In a period of widespread change and uncertainty, the prospect of backward movement seemed to threaten the very principles of western civilization. The works of Matisse and his followers were all the more disturbing because when the Armory Show organizers installed them in this large final gallery, they made the Fauves their ultimate statement of the new art.
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.