Showing posts with label Harriet Monroe. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Harriet Monroe. Show all posts

Friday, February 15, 2019

Modern Art Throws a Bomb at American Culture—The Armory Show

The Armory Show by James Huntsberer.

The International Exhibition of Modern Art, better known to history as the Armory Show opened on February 15, 1913 at the 69th Regiment Armory (The famous Fighting 69th of Civil War and World War I fame) in New York City.  The exhibition, sponsored by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, was the first introduction of modern art to the American public.

Armory Show poster.

It featured many artists who were well established in Europe, particularly France including all of the leading Impressionists, Pointillists and Expressionists including Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Auguste Rodin, Georges Seurat, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gaugan, and Vincent van Gogh.  Also featured were Americans who had studied and worked in France like James McNeil Whistler and Mary Cassatt.  Today these artists are so familiar to us that they do not seem daring.  But the American public, even the sophisticated, art consuming classes of the New York elite, steeped in traditional representationalism had never seen anything like it. 

Americans had never seen anything like Vincent  Van Gogh's Olive Trees, Pale Blue Sky and that was just the tip of the shock iceberg.

The public was even less prepared for the younger artists.  Henri Matisse and Edvard Munch were taking Expressionism to even bolder extremes.  But it was the Cubists who both outraged and captured the public’s attention.  They included Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso.  Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Stair Case was the most talked about—and derided picture—in the exhibition.  It was described as an “explosion in a shingle factory.”  The painting and other Cubist work was denounced by the President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt himself who thundered (did he ever talk any other way?) “This is not art.”  

Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Stair Case became the most notorious painting exhibited in the Armory Show.

Critics fretted if it was bad for the morals of the community and that it might induce “societal psychosis.”  Predictably, there were calls to close down the exhibition, even to arrest the organizers.  Authorities, however, demurred and let the exhibit run its scheduled course through the Ides of March.  

The curious of all classes flocked to the show to see what all of the fuss was about. They found 1300 works by 300 artists arranged in 13 galleries at the sprawling armory.  Top American artists from New York, Boston, and Chicago were included.   The exposure of the American artists to the avant-garde freed them to undertake their own experiments in modernism.

The Chicago newspaper that published  Harriet Monroe’s review of the Armory Show before it moved to the Art Institute  used the kind of shock and derision that was standard in much of the press but the forward thinking poet was much friendlier: “It is enthusiastic, exuberant; it offers the glad hand to any one, young or old, who has something special and personal to say in modern art. And its welcome is generous; each man has space enough for all his moods…. We cannot always tell what they mean, but at least [the cubists] are having a good time.”

When the show closed, the Metropolitan  Museum of Art, considered the ultimate judge of important art in the US, signaled its at least partial approval of the new developments when if purchased one picture from the show—View of the Domaine Saint-Joseph by Cézanne. 

Cézanne's View of the Domaine Saint-Joseph.

The exhibition went on to show at the Art Institute of Chicago and to Copley Hall in Boston, where work by American artists was removed due to a lack of space.

The Armory Show was just one of the cultural tsunamis shaking up provincial and complacent American culture.  In a few short decades a wave of new inventions from the light bulb and telephone to automobiles, moving pictures, and airplanes had changed the way people lived at what seemed a galloping pace.  Waves of immigration were transforming American cities into stews of swarthy aliens with foreign religions and politics.  Socialism and class warfare were on the rise.  Notions from evolution to psycho-analysis were altering world views.  The revolution in the visual arts was paralleled in rag time and jazz music, new forms of theater, the rise of the novel as the primary literary expression, and movies bringing the world to both Main Street and Broadway

Wassily Kandinsky’s Black Stroke I  even anticipated the abstract expressionism of the post-World War II era.
The adoption of the work shown at the Armory that year by the educated classes was then and is still resented by a deep strain of populist anti-intellectualism. In fact recent cultural events show that the backlash is actually more than a hundred years later as the most reactionary elements of society gain traction by rejecting all traces of modernism.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Sara Teasdale—Vachel Lindsay’s Shy One-That-Got-Away

The beautiful young poet who captured Vachel Lindsay's Heart.

Like, yesterday’s featured poet Vachel Lindsay, Sara Teasdale was once enormously popular with critics and public alike but has fallen out of favor and into a kind of obscurity.  In fact, she and Lindsay were contemporaries, Midwesterners from prosperous and religious families whose lives paralleled each other and intersected.  Lindsay once tried to woo the lovely young poet, but was rejected, probably because of his near poverty and bohemian life style.

Sara Teasdale was born August 8, 1884 in St. Louis, Missouri.  She was the youngest child of large family, born when her parents were both in their 40s.  She was small, frail, sickly, and under the care of a nurse most of her life.  Her parents adored, sheltered, and spoiled her.  She was tutored at home until she was nine and had almost no contact with other children except for her much older siblings.  She learned to imitate adult conversation and cultivate adult praise.  He mother thought she was “drawn to beauty.”

She completed her education at a series of private schools, but her infirmities and shyness kept her from being close to other students.  She began to write lyrical poems in school and was first published in a local newspaper.

After leaving school she traveled as often as she was able with a companion including influential trips to Europe and spent a good deal of time in Chicago where she became part of the group around Poetry Magazine.  Harriet Monroe encouraged her and provided a literary audience for her for the first time.  Teasdale’s first collection, Sonnets to Duse, and Other Poems was published in 1907.  The title reference was to dancer Eleanora Duse, who she read about but never saw perform.  The book was a popular and critical success.  Critics admired her deceptive simplicity, lyricism, and musicality.  As one said,  Miss Teasdale is first, last, and always a singer.”

Two more volumes were published in the next few years, Helen of Troy, and Other Poems in 1911 Rivers to the Sea, in 1915.

Just before the latter volume was published, Teasdale married Ernst Filsinger, who had courted her, off and on, since their teens.  Ernst had been wooing her at the same time as Lindsay, who inundated her with passionate letters.  But she chose the more stable businessman, although the two poets remained close the rest of their lives.  Lindsay never really got over her—which might explain his decade of  exile in that Seattle hotel room.  One of his greatest poems, To a Chinese Nightingale was said to be inspired by Teasdale.

Teasdale as she rose to fame.

By all accounts, however, Sara and Ernst were at first deliriously happy young couple.  Together they moved to New York City.  Her 1917 book Love Songs reflected their happiness. The following year she was awarded the first Columbia University Poetry Society Prize—the award that would be re-named the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry—on the strength of that book.

She continued to write during the 1920’s and critics began to note an increasing depth—even hints at an underlying philosophy, that they felt had been missing from her earlier work.  These were Flame and Shadow in1920, Dark of the Moon  in 1926, and Stars To-night  in 1930. 

Even as she was achieving professional respect as a poet, Teasdale’s personal life was unraveling.  She was in despair over Ernst’s frequent and extended absences on business.  She divorced her husband against his will in 1929.  Following the break-up she re-established her relationship with Lindsay by correspondence, but he was married with young children and battling his own demons over not being able to support them.

She spent the rest of her life as a semi-invalid, seldom venturing far from her Manhattan home.  Her writing began to explore a world in which she could not quite extract a sense of wonder and beauty as she had before. 

Near the end, London 1932.

Teasdale fell ill with a protracted and devastating case of pneumonia.  In despair, she swallowed the contents of a bottle of sedatives and died on January 29, 1933,  just a few months after Lindsay took his life. 
Strange Victory, hailed as her most mature work, sophisticated in its deceptive simplicity, was published posthumously the same year. 

Was this inspired by Lindsay?

Advice to a Young Girl
No one worth possessing
Can be quite possessed;
Lay that on your heart,
My young angry dear;
This truth, this hard and precious stone,
Lay it on your hot cheek,
Let it hide your tear.
Hold it like a crystal
When you are alone
And gaze in the depths of the icy stone.
Long, look long and you will be blessed:
No one worth possessing
Can be quite possessed. 

–Sara Teasdale

In this one she contemplates the choice she made.


Life has loveliness to sell,
All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
Soaring fire that sways and sings,
And children's faces looking up,
Holding wonder like a cup.

Life has loveliness to sell,
Music like the curve of gold,
Scent of pine trees in the rain,
Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
And for your spirit's still delight,
Holy thoughts that star the night.

Spend all you have for loveliness,
Buy it and never count the cost;
For one white singing hour of peace
Count many a year of strife well lost,
And for a breath of ecstasy
Give all you have been, or could be.

–Sara Teasdale

Here is a poem from that some believed it to be Teasdale’s suicide note.  It was included in her posthumous collection but it dates to 1915 and first appeared in Rivers to the Sea.

I Shall Not Care

When I am dead and over me bright April
      Shakes out her rain-drenched hair,
Tho’ you should lean above me broken-hearted,
      I shall not care.

I shall have peace, as leafy trees are peaceful
      When rain bends down the bough,
And I shall be more silent and cold-hearted
      Than you are now.

–Sara Teasdale

Although not a combatant and far away from the carnage, like other poets of her generation she was deeply moved and disturbed by World War I.  This poem envisions nature reclaiming a battlefield and even imagined human extinction, the kind of post-apocalyptic theme that did not become widespread until the nuclear age.  The poem inspired Ray Bradbury’s 1950 science fiction story of the same name and was played on an automated tape recording by a robotic house after its family, and apparently all humanity have been wiped out in a nuclear war.
There Will Come Soft Rains
There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools, singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,
Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

–Sara Teasdale