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In New York City, a hundred years ago, thousands of people saw the future of art. The 1913 Armory Show gave America its first look at what avant-garde artists in Europe were doing. The New York Historical Society is celebrating the Armory's centennial with works from the original exhibition.
And NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg discovered that there was much more than European art on view at the Armory, back in the day.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Today, they're in major museums around the world. But in 1913, these artists were mostly unknown in America.
KIMBERLY ORCUTT: George Braque, Mary Cassatt, Paul Cezanne...
STAMBERG: Curator Kim Orcutt.
ORCUTT: ...Gustave Courbet...
STAMBERG: Co-curator Marilyn Kushner.
MARILYN KUSHNER: Henri Daumier, Edgar Degas, Eugene Delacroix...
STAMBERG: Lots of artists, lots of art, 1,400 works, the biggest art show New York had ever had. On East 25th Street, the 69th Regiment Armory had the necessary space. Although it's an odd venue, an arsenal where arms were stored, troops were trained.
ORCUTT: Well, there were lots of comparisons in 1913 of the Armory Show being a bomb from the blue. So the Armory is not inappropriate.
STAMBERG: Yup. The avant-garde show raised hackles. The Most controversial work was Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase." Everyone had an opinion about it, curator Kim Orcutt says, including former President Theodore Roosevelt.
ORCUTT: He famously compares Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase" to a Navajo rug that he has in his bathroom.
STAMBERG: Americans weren't used to looking at abstract art. And the Duchamp, painted in ochres and browns one year before the Armory show, was Cubist, splintering a profile figure, so it seems to be in motion.
Curator Marilyn Kushner says it was provocative.
KUSHNER: There were all kinds of cartoons and poems, and it was called a bundle of slats, an explosion in a shingle factory.
STAMBERG: Viewers were puzzled. With all those fragments, where was the nude? But, they lined up to see it and the other avant-garde works. Some 80,000 people came to the Armory show. Now, rich collectors and dealers had seen such art in Europe. But this was the first time the masses got to see and react to the new ideas.
If the Duchamp made visitors puzzled, curator Orcutt says, Matisse's "Blue Nude" from 1907 made people mad.
ORCUTT: Because what they were seeing was this traditional subject, the reclining female nude, but it was presented as a sort of distorted form with blue shadows, with colors that didn't have to do with the representation of nature. And some people considered this sort of a backwards step in cultural progress, to challenge the very foundations of Western Civilization.
STAMBERG: Just this little nude, because you've got a couple of blue dabs on there?
ORCUTT: Well, she was seen as being very primitive, and a threat to the progress that they felt that they were making here in the United States.
STAMBERG: And some American artists were threatened by what they saw at the Armory.
ORCUTT: They were afraid, too, that these new styles - cubism, fauvism, and so on - would become a fashion, would become a new orthodoxy, a style you had to adopt in order to be modern.
STAMBERG: American artists had organized the Armory Show, chose the European pictures, negotiated with dealers, with lenders. And almost half the exhibit was made up of American art. So when all the press attention went to Duchamp, Matisse and other controversial foreigners, the Americans were unhappy.
Robert Henri, a leader of the Ashcan School of American artists, had a nude in the show, a response to the Matisse and Duchamp. Henri called it "Figure in Motion," a larger-than-life-size woman who seems to be stepping toward us. Her image is realistic, not splintered, but still daring, in its way.
ORCUTT: She faces the viewer very brashly, with all of her nakedness showing in this.
STAMBERG: American realist John Sloan helped organize the Armory Show and had several works in it. "McSorley's Bar," from 1912, is a slice-of-New-York-life scene of relaxation and libation.
ORCUTT: The interesting thing, also, about this is that you only see males in this bar. But this is the time period in New York when women started venturing out on their own and going into these restaurants - perhaps not bars, but dancehalls and restaurants by themselves.
STAMBERG: In 1913, women took to the streets, too, with political and social causes.
KUSHNER: Women are marching in the streets not only for the right to vote, but also for the right of open marriages, contraception, the right to have a child without being married to the father.
STAMBERG: Wait a minute. What year was this?
KUSHNER: This was 1913, right. You know, we all thought this happened later. Didn't we, right?
STAMBERG: As this New York Historical Society salute makes clear, the city was in a bustle a hundred years ago. On the streets were horse-drawn carriages and automobiles. The Woolworth Building had just been completed, the tallest building in town. Electric trains pulled out of Grand Central Station for the first time. New residents arrived in hordes.
KUSHNER: Thousands of immigrants are flooding into the city. So you have a cacophony of many, many different languages being spoken. And this was when Europe sort of sat up and said: Oh, New York. It's not that backwater. New York is the place of the new and the fresh and the modern.
STAMBERG: In that exploding city on the Hudson, in addition to the nudes and the cubes, the radical visions and subjects and colors, more than anything else, the Armory Show of 1913 was a show about freedom: new ways of thinking and seeing and expressing yourself. Given the time and the place, Marilyn Kushner says it was the perfect exhibition.
KUSHNER: The question should not be: Why did the Armory Show happen? Because all of this talk about freedom was going on in New York at the time. If the Armory Show hadn't happened, I think the more apt question would have been: Why didn't it happen?
STAMBERG: And it's still happening. And if you're in the city before late February - that's 2014, by the way - you can see the new and the old at the New York Historical Society's celebration of "The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution."
I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
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