The Rite of Modernism: Sensation and Shock in New York/Paris 1913
One hundred years ago, on both sides of the Atlantic, two seminal events occurred which were breakthroughs in the worlds of art and music — forever altering the cultural landscape of the 20th century. Over the course of four weeks, in the Winter of 1913, close to 75,000 people made their way to the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue at 25th Street to visit the International Exhibition of Modern Art which was organized by the “Association of American Painters and Sculptors.” Of the roughly 1,300 works on display, of which two thirds were American-made, it was the “Foreign Art” that caused all the sensation. For months, talk of the show dominated the conversation, ensuring its success. A small brown canvas titled Nude Descending a Staircase (No.2), by Marcel Duchamp in “The Cubist Room” was the real shocker. Nudes were NOT supposed to be walking down stairs, they had always been relegated to the chaise longue, and this one was hardly recognizable even as a figure!
Image: “Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2)” 1912 Marcel Duchamp, Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Everyone was alternately disgusted and curious about what The New York Times called an “explosion in a shingle factory.” The critics’ columns were full of descriptions of the “grotesque” paintings that had been shipped over from Europe. The avant- garde art on display was joyfully derided by one critic as full of “eccentricities, whimsicalities, distortions, crudities, puerilities and madness.” It caused a sensation. The public, eager to participate in the experience of the Shock! and Horror! for themselves, descended en masse to the Armory for this group ritual of entertainment.
Less than four months later, the inaugural performance of Diaghilev’s “The Rite of Spring,” orchestrated by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, premiered at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris. On opening night, a riot almost broke out among the audience, threatening the dancers and musicians with their shouts, hisses and catcalls. The choreography by Nijinsky of pagan rituals, and Stravinsky’s musical theme without a melody, shattered the audience’s expectations of the familiar. What they heard were dissonant, totally unpredictable tonalities that were pulsating and jarring, with irregular accents. In 1921, Ernest Newman acknowledged Stravinsky’s “genius” for “expressing a new spirit and making a new language.” It was a revolutionary work that shocked everyone who saw it. Its innovations contributed to its reputation as the now legendary performance that every generation of composers since has had to address.
Image: “Portrait of Igor Stravinsky” 1920 Pablo Picasso, Musee Picasso, Paris, France.
Modern art in America began with the provocations of the Armory show, introducing the rituals of sensation and shock that continue to this day. Whether 14 foot tiger sharks in tanks of formaldehyde by Damien Hirst, or a painting of the Virgin Mary covered with elephant dung by Chris Ofili at the Brooklyn Museum in a show titled “Sensation” (that Rudolph Giuliani called “sick” and brought a court case to remove) the tradition begun a century ago is now well established among contemporary artists.
The notorious premiere of “The Rite of Spring” in 1913 and its complex musical score, was also intended to shock. Its savage primitivism repudiated the aesthetics of Impressionism that dominated Parisian musical tastes of the day. George Benjamin, the composer, writing in The Guardian in London, says that Stravinsky’s composition was, “in a way, …cubist music – where musical materials slice into one another, interact and superimpose with the most brutal edges, thus challenging the musical perspective and logic that had dominated European ears for centuries.” Nothing was discreet, there was deliberate intention to assault the sensibilities of the audience. The score is widely regarded as a masterpiece, and is regularly performed by symphony orchestras to sold-out crowds around the world. No longer inclined to shout obscenities at the stage, the familiarity enhances the experience, not least by early introductions to the music in childhood as the introduction to Walt Disney’s Fantasia. It’s a new generation of contemporary composers now that are creating curiosity and confusion with their compositions, as evidenced, for example, in one current project, Symphonies for Short Wave (radios) (really.)
Presented by Christopher H. Gibbs Ph.D.
James H. Ottaway, Jr. Professor of Music at Bard College. Co-Artistic Director Bard Music Festival. Co-Author The Oxford History of Western Music 2013 with Richard Taruskin.
“The Rite of Spring” in Paris and the “SkandalKonzert” in Vienna marked the birth of musical modernism, drastically breaking with centuries of musical traditions. Composer collaborations with leading artists of the day created a charged synergy that enervated both the worlds of art and music. Image: “Portrait of Igor Stravinsky” 1920 Pablo Picasso, Musee Picasso, Paris, France.
Presented by Laurette E. McCarthy Ph.D.
Independent Scholar and Curator. Author, Walter Pach (1883 – 1958): The Armory Show and the Untold Story of Modern Art in America.
The insider in Paris, Pach was essential in bringing the European modernists to New York, thus making the Armory Show the most important art exhibition in the history of the United States. As critic, agent, and liaison, his work helped win the acceptance of modern art throughout North America. Image: Walter Pach, 1909. Photograph by Pach Brothers. Walter Pach papers, 1857–1980. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Presented by Gail Stavitsky Ph.D.
Chief Curator, Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, New Jersey. Curator, with Baltimore Art Museum, “Cezanne and American Modernism.” Co-author exhibition catalog.
Overshadowed by the avant-garde Europeans, American art and artists made up two-thirds of the work on exhibit at this legendary show. Critical reappraisals challenge the long-held notion that their work was provincial, and establish the inherent artistic quality and vitality of the variety of American art on view in 1913. Image: “Family Group” 1910-1911 William Glackens, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Presented by Larry Witham
Author of 14 books, award-winning journalist nominated for Pulitzer Prize.
The separation of art in the 20th century into “retinal art,” or visual, and “idea art,” known as Conceptual Art, largely originated in the Cubist Room of the New York Armory Show 100 years ago. These two diametrically opposite views and approaches toward modern art and the controversies they engender continue to this day.
We hope you enjoy this 2013 Art Lecture Series. Due to the importance of this period to the art and musical worlds, there are several videos and upcoming events that celebrate these shocking events. Below please find links and information on a select few.
- “The Rite of Spring” – The Joffrey Ballet in Chicago’s 1987 reconstruction of the historic original in Paris, May 1913 – video
- “Rite of Spring” – Orchestral score performed by the Dutch Radio Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jaap van Zweden, Concertgebauw in Amsterdam – video
- WNYC Radio presents Culture Shock 1913 – podcast
- Greenwich Historical Society presents The New Spirit and the Cos Cob Art Colony: Before and After The Armory Show – further details
- New York Historical Society presents The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution exhibition opening October 11, 2013 – further details