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.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Valentine—Saint Credentials Revoked but His Day Rolls On

An icon of St. Valentine
So just what do we know about this St. Valentine whose feast day is the occasion of all of today’s romantic hoopla?  Absolutely nothing, nada, zilch.  A Valentine was evidently venerated in the very early Latin Church and likely a martyr.  The name appears in the rolls of the Martyrologium Hieronymianum which was compiled from older and mostly lost local documents between 460 and 544.  In 496 when Pope Gelasius I was regularizing the calendar of saint feast days he assigned Valentine February 14 and listed him among the saints, “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.”  In other words at that early date, the Church knew nothing about his life.
Legends grew up about possibly two Saints Valentine who were celebrated on the February date, martyred, and buried somewhere along the Via Flaminia outside of Rome or perhaps they were the same man.  Later hagiographers elaborated on those sketchy oral traditions.  He has been identified as a 3rd Century bishop of Interamna—modern Terni.  He has also been identified as Roman priest of about the same period.

A church window celebrating the Bishop of Terni adopts the theme of secret forbiden weddings usually associated with the Roman priest known as Valentine.

A a miracle the Bishop promptly performed.  In gratitude Asterius, his entire family, and his large household inn elaborate story about the Bishop has him held under house arrest by a certain Judge Asterius with whom he discussed his faith.  Asterius challenged Valentine to show the power of God by healing his blind daughter. In gratitude Atserius and his entire household including slaves were all baptized.  He also smashed all of the idols in his villa and released all of his Christian prisoners.  Although the Bishop was off the hook with Asterius, he later fell afoul of other Roman officials, perhaps while visiting Rome itself, was tortured, refused to denounce the Faith, and was then executed in some suitably grizzly manner.

Other tales spoke of the Roman priest among whose crimes may have been marrying either/or Christians or soldiers who were forbidden to wed during their lengthy period of enlistment.  He also may have personally tried to convert the Emperor Claudius Gothicus (Claudius II) who ordered his execution.  Or so the stories went.  And perhaps the priest executed by Claudius was also the Bishop of Interamna…or not.

The beheading of St. Valentine from a Mideviel illuminated manuscript.
Even if they were not sure who they were venerating, Valentine was one of the more popular saints in the early Middle Ages and his feast was widely celebrated.  He was associated with love as the Patron of Affianced Couples.  That romantic connection may have been as much due to his feast being fixed the day before the pagan Roman festival of Lupercalia which was noteworthy for its sexual excesses.  As we saw in an earlier post this year on Groundhog Day/Candlemas Pope Gelasius also fixed the date of the Feast of the Candles near Lupercalia.  Both Christian feasts were supposedly helpful in luring stubborn pagans to the Church.
In the Age of Chivalry he became identified with courtly love.  Marriage between the feudal nobility and their knights was expected to be dynastic and business relationship meant to cement alliance, preserve or enhance wealth (estates and land) and produce children and heirs with prestigious blood lines.  Romance or love between the parties of the arranged marriages was neither expected nor encouraged.  For the excitement of love the noble young man or dashing knight was permitted to turn his attention to some lady of his court or some other lord and she was allowed to return his admiration.  The lady might be a maiden but more frequently was the dutiful wife of another.  The gentleman could woo her with poetry, dedicate his victories in battle or tournament often by carrying some token given to him by her, to perform routine acts of gallantry, defend her honor against all who would sully it, and slay any dragons that might annoy her.  In return she was supposed to inspire him to greatness and demurely adore him.

Courtly love and its later facination for the Romantics helped popularize St. Valentine's Day as a celebration of love in the Victorian  Era.
Theoretically this love was pure and chaste with the lady reserving her body for the production of her husband’s heirs.  In reality, of course, things were messier.  Husbands often had their own courtly love interests.  Sometimes everyone whistled and hummed ignoring what was plainly going on and tacitly accepting it.  Other times jealousy or mere possessiveness reared its ugly headthink the nasty Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot triangle.  More than one blood feud, war, or spousal murder was the result.
Either way, bards composed ballads some of which became folk songs and others which became literary epics. 
All of this happened under the apparent approving eye and protection of good ol’ St. Valentine, whoever he was.  None of it, however, applied serfs, peasants, and other commoners who were supposed to be slaves of carnal desire and indiscriminate rutting barely restrained by church marriages and expected to be fertile and breed in sufficient numbers as to insure a steady supply of field drudges and expendable levies of ground troops.  Also their wives and daughters were expected to be available for the less noble urges of their overlords.
Courtly love and St. Valentine took a hit with Renaissance, Reformation, and the rise of the absolute monarchs and the nation state.  Those reliable killjoys the English Puritans did their best to stamp out such nonsense as did Protestant Reformers in Germany, the Low Countries, and elsewhere in Europe.  Even in the Catholic Italian states, the, you should pardon the expression, throbbing heart of Valentine veneration things got dialed down for a while.
That changed with the rise of the Romantics and Victorians.  They ate up tales of courtly love and expanding on them in French poetry, Wagnerian opera, and in the insatiable appetite for Arthurian tales and Sir Walter Scott novels in England.  Young girls swooned over knights in shining armor and boys dreamed of winning fair damsels by daring do

A victorian hand made lace Valentine by Esther Howland circa 1870
St. Valentine’s fortunes also rose.  The custom among the better classes of exchanging elaborate handmade Valentines took hold and spread to the rising middle classes who followed the lead of their betters.  By the late 19th Century the development of inexpensive color lithography made commercial valentines available to the masses.  It turned out shop girls and ordinary clerks could dream of romance, too.

Valentine's Day was well on it way to being a commercial bonanza when a young Elizabeth Taylor was featured in this early 1950's Whitman Sampler magazine ad.
The discovery of the commercial potential of St. Valentine’s Day and its promotion by the greeting card industry, florists, candy makers, jewelers, restaurants, and entertainment venues is a story in itself.  Suffice it to say that Valentine’s Day has become a very big deal and the second biggest gift giving occasion in the United States.  It has also become an emotional test both embraced and dreaded by couples and lonely singles.
What of the Saint himself?  Well, he seems to have become crowded out of his feast day.  In the U.S. at least almost no one even calls it St. Valentine’s Day anymore. 
Although the Anglican Communion and Lutherans as well as some Orthodox Churches include St. Valentine’s Day in their calendars, he was dropped by the Catholic Church from the General Roman Calendar in 1969 because so little was known about him that his very existence might be called into questions.  He was not, however, completely erased from the roster of Saints like other popular but probably apocryphal figures like St. Christopher and St. George the Dragon Slayer.  Local Bishops have the option of keeping his Feast Day on February 14.  That was a tribute to his mythic power.

A relic suposedlyof St. Valentine's skull is preserved at the Santa Maria Basilica in Rome.  Other churches, including one in Dublin, Ireland also claim to have relics.
It should not have been a surprise.  In 1960 a St. Valentine’s Church was built to serve the athletes in the Rome Olympic Village.  When the Games were over the Church became the home of a new parish in the Eternal City.  It is one of the most visited churches in the city with a vibrant membership including many young adults and is frequently sought out by tourists. 
Proving you just can’t keep an old Saint down or the romance he invokes.