The public and critics alike struggled to make sense of the radical new art exhibited at the 1913 Armory Show. In its distortion of form and color, European Modernism challenged the expectation that art conform to traditional standards of beauty or the perceived reality of nature. Critics were at a loss to understand the new movements, and frequently charged avant-garde artists with insanity. Articles often recounted Van Gogh’s mental instability and eventual suicide, and insinuations of moral and mental deficiency were equally commonplace in discussions of Cezanne and Gauguin.
Perhaps worse than true insanity was the possibility that artists were capitalizing on the outlandish new aesthetics for pure commercial gain. The artist and critic Yoshio Markino summed up two key concerns about European modernism: “Nowadays everybody is asking each other, what does he think of the Futurists or Post-Impressionists?….First of all we must investigate the personality of the artists. Are they sincere or insincere? And if sincere, are they sane or insane?”
Kenyon Cox, one of the most outspoken critics of European modernism, called the new art “pathological” and was convinced that “these men have seized upon the modern engine of publicity and are making insanity pay.” Artist Carl Blenner echoed Cox’s sentiments, commenting that much of the art at the Armory didn’t “appear sane” and he had heard of “two exhibitors… now in insane asylums in France.” Despite rumored cases of genuine insanity, Blenner believed that “most are young artists trying to do something original and striking and are being lazy, looking for quick fame without hard work.”
Though many were deeply skeptical of the new art, some critics felt that the so-called “insanity” of modernism could have a beneficial effect on the art world. A critic writing for The International Studio communicated this concept in distinctly medical terms: “The passing craze, violent, unreasonable, insane even, as it is, must be accepted as the means by which art is roused when it shows signs of becoming torpid. The remedy, for us who are brought into contact with it, may seem to be worse than the disease, but the patient derives some benefit from it, and after the shaking up is able to go about his business in better health and with a definite renewal of vitality.”
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.