The Art Institute of Chicago Celebrates 100th Anniversary of Controversial Armory Show

The Art Institute of Chicago Celebrates 100th Anniversary of Controversial Armory Show
A selection of art from the original 1913 Armory Show is on view in Gallery 391. Photo Credit: Art Institute Chicago

It’s hard to imagine the works of Henri Matisse being called “the most hideous monstrosities ever perpetrated on long suffering art” as one art critic suggested in a 1913 review of the Armory Show.  Equally surprising was the outrage expressed in the 1913 Chicago Tribune’s biting editorial suggesting “The nudes (in the Armory show) pervert the ideal of physical perfection, obliterate the line which has heretofore distinguished the artistic from the lewd and obscene, and incite feelings of disgust and aversion.”

To put it mildly, the Armory show of 1913 was controversial.  The show featured Europe’s most radical artists alongside their progressive American contemporaries–a Who’s Who of early Modern artists including: Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Vuillard, Rodin, Renoir, Munch, Matisse, Kandinsky, Gauguin, Picasso, Braque, Kirchner, and many others–forever changing the artistic landscape for artists, collectors, critics, and cultural institutions in the United States.

Today (March 24, 2013) marks the official 100-year anniversary of the Armory show that from the beginning had been characterized as a circus igniting even the students of the School of the Art Institute to hold a protest of the show that took the form of a burlesque with a mock trial of  “Henry Hairmatress” (Henri Matisse), whose Blue Nude, Le Luxe II, Goldfish and Sculpture were causing quite a stir.

If you want to step back a century to see what all the buzz was about, the Art Institute has put together a mini re-creation of the 1913 Armory Show in conjunction with the museum’s major exhibition Picasso and Chicago.  The much smaller exhibit, in Gallery 391 in Modern Wing of the museum, showcases a sampling of works in the museum’s modern art collection that were displayed at the original 1913 Armory Show.

The presentation is complemented by a display of archival materials in the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries that offers a glimpse of the artistic landscape of the museum as it was in 1913.

Although the Armory show was hosted in other cities, the Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibition drew the largest crowds. During the 23 days, from March 24 to April 16, 1913, that the Armory Show was on view in Chicago, 188,560 people visited.  Unlike the other venues for the Armory Show in New York and Boston, which were private institutions, the Art Institute had the distinction of being the only art museum to host the exhibition and as such, making it the first in the United States to present the works of such artists as Constantin Brâncusi, Marcel Duchamp, Henri Matisse, and Picasso to the public.

In addition, the museum has prepared an extensive online exhibition focused on the Armory Show, which features photographs of the galleries, stories of the individuals who brought the exhibition to Chicago, rare documents and publications, and the often excoriating response to the exhibition in Chicago and elsewhere.

If you visit the Picasso and Chicago exhibition, now through May 12, 2013 in the Art Institute’s Regenstein Hall, you will want to take a little extra time to stop by Gallery 391 to see some of the works from the original Armory show and try to view them through the lens of the past to see how they could have created such an outcry.

Related Events.

Lecture: The 1913 Armory Show and Chicago Collectors
Thursday, March 28, 2013
6:00 p.m., Fullerton Hall
Vivian Barnett, independent scholar, discusses the groundbreaking exhibition and its impact on the city.

Symposium: Picasso and Chicago
Friday, April 19, 2013
10:30 a.m., Fullerton Hall
Michael FitzGerald, Trinity College; Janine Mileaf, Arts Club of Chicago; and Diana Widmaier Picasso, art historian, explore three major historical moments: the 1913 Armory Show, the 1923 Arts Club of Chicago exhibition (Picasso’s first solo exhibition outside a gallery), and his 1967 sculpture in Daley Plaza.

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