Showing posts with label New York City. Show all posts
Showing posts with label New York City. 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.

Monday, February 4, 2019

No One Stayed Up All Night for the Results of the First Presidential Election

George Washington was the totally unsuprising winner of the first U.S. Presidential election.  This is the first portrait painted from life after taking office in 1798 by John Ramage in New York City, the temporary capital.  Interestingly Washington still chose to be painted in his Continental Army uniform wish his Order of Cincinatus medal.

The least exciting Presidential Election in United States history was held on February 4, 1789.  On that day the votes of the first Electoral College under the shiny new Constitution were opened, read, and counted before the House of Representatives in the new temporary capital of New York City. Earlier, the Electors of each participating state had assembled in their capitals to cast their votes.  Of the 69 Electors who voted, 68 were Federalists—not yet a party but avowed supporters of the new Constitution—and one, from Georgia, was an Anti-Federalist.
Electors were chosen in a variety of ways.  A minority were directly elected either state-wide or by Congressional or special electoral districts.  Most were elected by state legislatures, usually by a state’s upper chamber or Senate.  Because of that, property restrictions on voting, exclusion of Blacks slave or free, and of women, less than 1.3% of the adult population of the nation got to cast a popular vote for an elector, and thus indirectly for President.  The total popular vote was only 38,818.

The first campaign buttons were literally clothing buttons like these brass ones for George Washington.
Only 10 of the 13 states participated in the election.  North Carolina and Rhode Island could not because they had not yet ratified the Constitution.  In New York Anti-Federalists led by Governor George Clinton and Federalists controlled by Alexander Hamilton deadlocked in the state legislature and failed to select their allotted eight Electors.  In addition, one Virginia district failed to report returns and was thus had no Elector.  One Virginia and two Maryland Electors did not vote. A total of 12 candidates were nominated for the Presidency, led by Revolutionary War Commander in Chief George Washington.  
A map showing Washington's sweep of the Electoral College--the only President ever elected unanimously.
But at first it was not certain that Washington would accept the post.  Other candidates either hoped that Washington would stay in Virginia, or hoped to be selected Vice President.  The candidates included the well-known— Minister to Great Britain John Adams, Governor John Hancock of Massachusetts, Secretary of Foreign Affairs under the Articles of Confederation John Jay, General Benjamin Lincoln, and governors of  Connecticut, South Carolina, and Georgia.  New York Governor Clinton was the best known Anti-Federalist.  And there were less well known candidates—Robert H. Harrison of Maryland, Georgia Secretary of State John Milton, and James Armstrong who was so obscure that historians are not entirely sure about who he was or if he was from Pennsylvania or from Georgia, where one Elector pledged to him was elected.
In fact all of the secondary candidates had at least one pledged Elector, with Adams leading the pack.
John Adams was elected Vice President by comming in second in the Electoral College.  Alexander Hamilton engeneered several votes to be witheld from Adams resulting in a very narrow margin of victory.  That would set the two future leaders of the emerging Federalsit Party at bitter odds with each other.
When Washington finally signaled his willingness to serve, all participating Electors cast their votes for him, making him the only man ever unanimously elected president with 69 votes.  But under the new Constitution, each Elector cast two votes for President.  The top total vote-getter—if he achieved a majority in the College—would be President and the second place finisher would be Vice President.  Although locked out of the procedure by New York’s stalemate, Alexander Hamilton, acting as a Federalist whip, made sure that votes were withheld from Adams to ensure a clear victory for Washington.  Other electors cast their second vote among the other candidates.  Adams won with 36 votes, only one more than the needed 35.
Adams felt slighted by Hamilton’s work to keep his support down among Federalists.  It was the beginning of a long, bitter rivalry for leadership of the Federalists as they morphed into a real political party.