In honor of today’s U.S. holiday, Presidents Day, and yesterday’s 100th anniversary of the opening of the historical 1913 Armory Show, ARTINFO thought it fitting to revisit an American president’s review of the infamous exhibition that changed the course of modern art. Though neither of the U.S. presidents who were in office during the groundbreaking show of European Cubists in America (William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson) nor, for lack of a time machine, the president whose birthday Presidents Day marks — George Washington — attended, former president Theodore Roosevelt did, and then wrote an extensive, regressive, nationalistic, and hilariously vicious review of the exhibition.
His 1,677-word review, which was published in Outlook on March 29, 1913, two weeks after the Armory Show closed on March 15, is humbly titled “A Layman’s View of an Art Exhibition.” The views articulated therein, however, are hardly humble. He expresses them hilariously, though, particularly in passages attacking the Futurists and Cubists, for whom he devises a series of satiric alternative names.
In this passage, for instance, Roosevelt attacks Cubism and singles out what can only be Marcel Duchamp’s legendary “Nude Descending a Staircase,” deeming it inferior to a Navajo rug that hangs in his bathroom:
The Cubists are entitled to the serious attention of all who find enjoyment in the colored puzzle pictures of the Sunday newspapers. Of course there is no reason for choosing the cube as a symbol, except that it is probably less fitted than any other mathematical expression for any but the most formal decorative art. There is no reason why people should not call themselves Cubists, or Octagonists, or Parallelopipedonists, or Knights of the Isosceles Triangle, or Brothers of the Cosine, if they so desire; as expressing anything serious and permanent, one term is as fatuous as another. Take the picture which for some reason is called “A naked man going down stairs.” There is in my bath-room a really good Navajo rug which, on any proper interpretation of the Cubist theory, is a far more satisfactory and decorative picture. Now if, for some inscrutable reason, it suited somebody to call this rug a picture of, say, “A well-dressed man going up a ladder,” the name would fit the facts just about as well as in the case of the Cubist picture of the “Naked man going down stairs.” From the standpoint of terminology, each name would have whatever merit inheres in a rather cheap straining after effect; and from the standpoint of decorative value, of sincerity, and of artistic merit, the Navajo rug is infinitely ahead of the picture.
Roosevelt also takes on the art-speak of his time, proving that even a century ago International Art English was driving people mad:
Admirers speak of the kneeling female figure by Lehmbruck—I use “female” advisedly, for although obviously mammalian it is not especially human—as “full of lyric grace,” as “tremendously sincere,” and “of a jewel-like preciousness.” I am not competent to say whether these words themselves represent sincerity or merely a conventional jargon; it is just as easy to be conventional about the fantastic as about the commonplace. In any event one might as well speak of the “lyric grace” of a praying mantis, which adopts much the same attitude; and why a deformed pelvis should be called “sincere,” or a tibia of giraffe-like lengths “precious,” is a question of pathological rather than artistic significance.
At one point Roosevelt even disses Aubrey Beardsley for absolutely no reason:
This figure and the absurd portrait head of some young lady have the merit that inheres in extravagant caricature. It is a merit, but it is not a high merit. It entitles these pieces to stand in sculpture where nonsense rhymes stand in literature and the sketches of Aubrey Beardsley in pictorial art.
Though Roosevelt spends the bulk of his review blasting the “European extremists” for their Cubist and Futurist follies — at one point comparing the latter, unfavorably of course, to prehistoric cave paintings — he does find time to praise “acknowledged masters” featured in the exhibition like Whistler, Monet, Cézanne, and others. However reactionary his evaluations of European modern art may be, Roosevelt presciently suggests that what is most significant about these movements is the ways in which American artists are being shaped by and responding to them:
In some ways it is the work of the American painters and sculptors which is of most interest in this collection, and a glance at this work must convince any one of the real good that is coming out of the new movements, fantastic though many of the developments of these new movements are.
— Benjamin Sutton
(Photo via Wikipedia Commons.)