How the times have changed! Duchamp and the Armory Show

Submitted by Marsha Morrow on

The International Exhibition of Modern Art, better known as the 1913 Armory Show, introduced Americans to the experimental styles of the European avant-garde, including Fauvism, Cubism, and Futurism.  The now infamous exhibition displayed over 1,000 works of art by more than 300 artists. Exhibiting artists included Picasso, Matisse, Manet, and Cézanne, all relatively unknown in this country.  Debuting his Cubo-Futuristic work Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), Marcel Duchamp provoked epic outrage from the viewing public.  People packed the Lexington Avenue Armory by the thousands to gawk, ridicule, and revile it. 

Today the painting hangs quietly in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and it takes an effort to grasp what the provocation was about. No longer looking like the “explosion in a shingle factory” it was said to resemble, it is a well-constructed, small, brownish, semi-abstract image of angled stairways, banisters, balustrades, a landing, and a sort of stop-action stick figure. It’s still visionary in its ideas, but hardly shocking.

Viewers didn’t just dislike the painting; they saw it as a threat, un-American, a ruse, and a challenge to their religious faith. Avant-garde art had yet to reach American shores.  Most Americans sought representative art: history paintings, Hudson River landscapes, portraits of Presidents, and Cowboys and Indians. Nudes were popular too, but they needed to be idealized figures.  Duchamp’s painting broached cognitive boundaries. Viewers were unable to handle his redefined originality, and his attempt to shatter what he considered a dead academic language of painting. In retrospect, there were good reasons for the scandal: gallery visitors faced a living, breathing image of rebellion and a fear of the unknown. 

To critics and the public, nudes should not move, they were expected to do “what they did best – descend from Mt. Olympus and…lay there”. Duchamp’s rebellion against this norm was at the core of the scandal.  In the aftermath of the exhibition the painting took on a life of its own, far eclipsing that of its creator. When Duchamp traveled to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Arensberg, collector friends who bought the work in 1927, the artist learned that the Nude was on loan to the Cleveland Museum of Art. Upon his arrival at the museum Duchamp discovered that the museum knew so little about the artist that next to the year of his birth they gave the year of his death – three years prior to the date of the visit.  Duchamp looked at the mistake from a philosophical standpoint – his Nude Descending a Staircase became far greater than the artist.

Now considered a Modernist masterpiece, Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) has graciously been loaned to CMA by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in celebration of our centennial.  It will be here until July 3rd.