THE SHOCK OF THE NEW: ANNE EVANS AND THE "DENVER ARMORY SHOW"
I have been reminded recently of the intensely negative reaction suffered by those creative artists in both Europe and America who, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, pioneered totally new ways of painting. Rejecting both the painting techniques and the traditional subject matter favored by the art establishments in different countries, they faced a formidable and harsh reception - exemplified in three notorious exhibitions.
Impressionist Exhibitions in Paris Draw Public Jeers and Hostile Rejection from Art Critics
For the past two months I have been immersed in reading about the lives of some of the French Impressionist painters - Pisarro, Degas, Monet, Manet, Renoir, Cezanne, Sisley. This was for a class (1) I was taking arranged to coincide with the Denver Art Museum's Passport to Paris, a major exhibit of French painting, focusing especially on the Impressionists. I had a superficial knowledge of these artists' stories. But in reading about their pioneer exhibit, I was appalled by the vicious response that this fresh, unorthodox approach to painting provoked from the public, and from the French art establishment of the time.
Because of their insistence on following new visions of what to paint and how to paint it, the Impressionists suffered many years of rejection, low or non-existent sales, and, for those who did not inherit wealth or receive support from their families, consequent dire poverty. A few enjoyed modest success in their later years. Others died penniless, realizing virtually nothing from their paintings which today sell for astronomical prices.
The 1913 New York Armory Show: "The Show that Dropped Like a Bomb."
The International Exhibition of Modern Art, otherwise known as The Armory Show, "woke American art from its provincial slumbers 100 years ago". This according to a New York Times article reflecting on the significance of the Show, 100 years later. (2)
The Show consisted of two sections: one American, the other European. The explosive European part exhibited "a roiling blue and green landscape by Van Gogh and two paintings of South Seas eros and myth by Gauguin." It culminated in "a display of the paintings that provoked the most bewilderment and notoriety in 1913: Cubist works by Picabia and Gleizes, along with Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2)"...and Matisse's "Blue Nude", a blast of Fauvist wildness."
The American segment, by contrast, seemed almost staid and conventional. One of the exhibitors looked back on it as "a complete disaster" for American art. Another remarked to a fellow artist, "We are now old fogies, my dear man." But others found that the show "...set off a blast of dynamite in a cramped space--it blew everything wide open. I feel that art can really be free here now."
Many art critics were outraged by the avant garde portions of the exhibit, regarding them, in the words of one New York Times critic, as "a general movement to disrupt and degrade, if not to destroy, not only art, but literature and society too."
The "Denver Armory Show" of 1919
Its real title was was "The 25th Annual Exhibit of the Denver Art Association at the Denver Public Library." (The Denver Art Association was the second incarnation of the 1893 Denver Artists' Club, which in 1923 became the Denver Art Museum.) But, because the show produced the same kind of outraged hostility, from art critics and many members of the public, as the earlier show in New York, it became known as the Denver Armory Show. Some newspaper headlines proclaimed it "A Fraud", "A Monstrosity", and "Bolshevism in Art."
26 artists were in the show, representing a variety of artistic styles, but it was those labeled as modernist - including relative newcomer John E. Thompson (3) and his students Josef Bakos and Walter Mruk - who provoked the most virulent criticism.
Public defenders of the new and unprecedented artistic expressions were few, especially those with recognized standing in the artistic establishment. Facing significant opposition to the "modernist" movement even within the Denver Artists' Association itself, Anne Evans published a vigorous defense of the "Denver Armory Show" in the Rocky Mountain News.
Anne Evans' Defense of the "Armory Show"
The Rocky Mountain News of April 20, 1919, ran an article headlined NEW TENDENCIES REVEALED IN CONTRIBUTIONS OF MODERN ARTISTS AT DENVER LIBRARY. It was written by Anne Evans, as Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Denver Art Association. The article is an exercise in public education about the state of art in these early years of the twentieth century, and a plea for a mental attitude of willingness to appreciate both the traditional work in the exhibit and the more experimental efforts.
She began by asserting that, "It is the right of men who have worked seriously for many years, and who have received recognition from the most conservative and most academic of juries and critics, to express their own convictions in paint, even tho they differ very greatly from certain accepted standards."
The majority of the article is a description of the impressive qualifications of many of the artists whose work is in the show, including the modernists like J. E. Thompson (3), detailing their training and accomplishments and awards earned.
Ann Evans concluded her article with a plea:
With such records of achievements, these artists may surely claim serious consideration from the visitors to the gallery. It is the unquestionable privilege of both artist and layman to differ as to taste, and to arrive at diametrically opposed conclusions. The Association welcomes all honest and fair criticism.
Support from Elisabeth Spalding
A complementary piece by artist Elisabeth Spalding, Anne Evans' longtime ally in working for better understanding of art, artists, and the goals of the Denver Artists' Association, was also published in the Rocky Mountain News. Spalding's article took the form of answering typical questions asked by gallery visitors to the "Armory Show" who were baffled by the paintings and sculptures of the modernists.
Questioner: "I don't know anything about art but I know what I like."
In reply," An honest liking is the best way to begin to understand art. But don't stop with just the things that first strike your fancy. Try to see what the artist wants to express in the pictures that you don't like, and to be sympathetic with his efforts."
"Why don't they paint all the details so the painting would look finished?"
"The important thing is the big structure, in form and color, of a landscape or figure, and it is often better to leave details to the imagination."
"Why do artists try all these new experiments? We don't understand all these new things."
One artist's reply, "It would get dreadfully monotonous, wouldn't it! I like to try new ways of expression. Variety is stimulating, and constant repetition does make one dull!"
"Well, I like a picture that tells a story, and I like plain facts."
"We artists have nothing against either the story or the fact, but we prefer color harmony without facts, to the statement of facts without color or harmony."
"But I never saw anything look like that!"
"The great English artist Turner once said, when someone made that remark to him: "Madame, it would be worth £20,000 to you if you could!"
(1) This was an OLLI West class, facilitated by Karen Lindsay
(2) The quotes in this section are from a New York Times article of 10/11/13, "Reliving the Show that Dropped Like a Bomb."
(3) In the Kirkland Museum's description of its 2011 show, 15 Colorado Artists, co-curated by Hugh Grant and Deborah Wadsworth, Thompson was described as "the first truly modernist artist in Colorado...He initially came to Colorado in 1914, when he was doing both Fauvism and Impressionism. He returned permanently in 1917. He and other artists were in the controversial, landmark exhibition held in 1919 at the Denver Public Library."