This new year is full of important centennials marking several events in which modern art burst upon the public.
This post was inspired by a radio special produced by WNYC here in New York.
On May 29, 1913, a ballet by the bright new star composer Igor Stravinsksy opened at the brand new Theatre Champs Elysee in Paris. Stravinsky and the Ballets Russe had a spectacularly successful debut with The Firebird in 1910, a huge hit with both critics and the public. Audiences eagerly bought tickets to Stravinsky's new ballet The Rite of Spring. This is what they saw after the curtain went up:
Here is the Joffrey Ballet's 1987 reconstruction of the original 1913 premier performance of The Rite of Spring.
Audiences used to Giselle and Swan Lake were horrified. Instead of music with the fluid easy transitions that they were used to, Stravinsky confronted them with shrieking dissonances and pounding driving repetitive rhythms. Nijinsky's choreography likewise disposed of the grace and fluidity of 19th century ballet for violent jerking motions and for clapping and stomping. The sets and costumes by Nikolai Roerich were definitely not the taffeta confections audiences were used to. Roerich intended them to be reconstructions (not evocations) of pre-Christian ancient Russia.
Some in the audience began loudly booing and shouting catcalls and insults. Others who wanted to see the ballet began shouting back at the hecklers. Rioting broke out in the audience. Supposedly, the noise was so loud that the dancers could not hear the orchestra and Nijinsky had to shout rhythm counts and cues to his dancers from backstage. The critics in the newspapers pounced and public morality scolds editorialized about license and decadence.
The impressario of the Ballets Russe, Segei Diaghilev, was delighted. There's nothing like scandal to drive ticket sales and to establish a reputation for avant-garde bravery. The ballet continued for 5 more performances in Paris before moving on to London and the Drury Lane Theater.
The dramatic premiere of the Rite of Spring was one of many such debuts in 1913 that shocked and outraged audiences. What was going on? Why was art, our refuge from chaos and disorder, turning upon us and throwing that very same chaos right back in our faces?
Arnold Schönberg found himself booed off a stage in Vienna in 1913 for works such as this:
Schönberg's work, like Stravinsky's at the time, was full of dissonances as he searched for new music forms to replace what he felt to be an exhausted 19th century Romanticism.
Audiences felt that they were being mocked and ridiculed by artists. Who did these composers think they were, charging ticket prices to hear something that sounded like cats fighting?
Looking at these things now at a distance of a century, it is hard for us to imagine the aura of scandal and fraud that surrounded all of these works of music and art. For us, they are the stuff of standard repertoire and text books. For people of the time, these works were shockingly decadent and offensive. A woman once stood up in the middle of a performance of chamber music by Ravel (which we would find quite unthreatening) and loudly demanded to know if this was the sort of music suitable for decent people and for children. Such reactions are unimaginable to us now. I don't know if this says a lot about audiences of the time, or about us jaded post-moderns who count Gangsta Rap and Quentin Tarantino movies among our ordinary daily entertainments.
We live in an age of technological change with the advent of digital technology and the internet. But the changes of our era are but high tech toys compared with the huge upheavals in daily life wrought by the advent of the internal combustion engine and electrification that 1913 saw. In 1903, the most common mode of transportation was still the horse. City streets were filled with carriages and wagons, all horse drawn. By 1913, city streets around the world were choked with automobile traffic. In 1903, electric lighting was still a novelty. By 1913, cities blazed with electric lights.
Sixth Avenue in New York in 1903
Fifth Avenue in New York in 1913
Science took off in radically new and incomprehensible directions. By 1913, the scientific accounts of space and time were at odds with centuries of received wisdom and with common sense. According to the new physics, space was no longer simply a void between objects, but was a kind of substance itself that could be bent, distorted, and even punctured by gravity. Space and time became inextricably bound up together. The time it took to cross a certain distance of space became part of that space. Einstein described matter and energy, for long considered two separate and unrelated things, to be interchangeable. In 1913, Max Planck was in the midst of his work on quantum theory which would later lead to quantum mechanics in which all the laws of physics and common sense would be completely suspended on the sub-atomic level.
The world of 1913 was filled with new and unprecedented experiences. People looked upon the world from vantage points no one had even imagined before, from speeding automobiles and soaring airplanes. "The world has changed less since the time of Jesus Christ than it has in the last thirty years," wrote Charles Peguy in 1913.
In 1913, the larger public got its first look at a form of painting which had been around for about 5 years, Cubism.
Picasso, Man With A Guitar, 1913
Man with a guitar? What man? What guitar? The title is telling me one thing, but what is this painting showing me? It doesn't make sense.
Actually, if you look carefully, you can begin to see a man in a top hat holding a guitar and sitting before an advertising poster.
Picasso loved puzzle pictures. He loved pictures with a double take where you see one thing, and then something else comes into view when you change perspective. Renaissance linear perspective composed the picture around the point of view of the person looking at the scene. Picasso noted that Renaissance perspective for the first time took account of the person looking at the picture, and he appreciated that. Except that Renaissance linear perspective assumes that the person looking at the picture is a passive recipient. Picasso wanted to make the viewer into an active participant in the picture, to make viewers work for it. Picasso noticed that a major aspect of modern life was its growing saturation of stimuli and increasing speed. The calm sense of resolution so valued by the classical aesthetic seemed to him no longer true to experience. The daily experience of modern life was anything but resolved and harmonious. It was the chaos and noise of speeding traffic and any number of things all competing for our attention. We make our way through it all by discerning patterns in a chaos of moving fragments. Picasso asked why shouldn't we value that chaos and disruption, that breakup of form that we all experience every day and incorporate it into art. Picasso, together with the artist George Braque invented Cubism which has nothing to do with cubes. It has everything to do with breaking apart the traditional perimeters of art; collapsing the distinction between the object and surrounding space, breaking apart contours, inverting mass and volume, creating something like a continuously changing stream of fragments out of which we begin to discern images.
Picasso organized all these shifting fragments around an ancient painter's device for transferring an image from one size to another, the square grid.
Drawing by Picasso from 1910
In classical art, the human figure is the central organizing principle of a picture. Picasso turns that on its head in this drawing of a female nude with her back turned to us. Her form is broken up and re-arranged on a grid, which itself is broken into fragments. Lines become no longer descriptive contours showing us an arm or a leg, but have their own reasons.
By 1913, other Cubist painters like Robert Delaunay began to take the Cubist breakup of form into the realm of abstraction. Cubism could somehow suggest the energies that passed between things, and could suggest larger cosmic forces.
It was the Italian Futurists who made Cubist form express the power and dynamism of modern urban and technological life, seen in this masterpiece by Giacomo Balla.
Giacomo Balla, Abstract Speed, 1913
Balla expresses accelerating mechanical speed in this brilliant painting. Contrast that with this monument from 1907 to a pioneer of motorized speed, Anton Levassor.
In this monument we see the limitations of classical form with its concentration on the human form and human action in expressing unprecedented modern experiences. Levassor and the spectators are the focus of this monument. We also get the slightly ridiculous spectacle of a marble automobile. This was the very thing that the Futurists wanted to destroy.
The Futurists were not "alternative" anything. They were bomb-throwing revolutionaries. They wanted to destroy the whole legacy of ancient classicism so that a new world of technology could be born. The Futurists remind us that so much of Modern Art up until World War II was an art of great expectations. It was not about the present, but about an anticipated future.
The Futurists did the first performance art, "Futurist Evenings" in which the artists would try to break up the common sense narrative direction of music and theater, and compel people to face the chaotic reality of a new technological urban world. They would stage spectacles with competing brass bands playing two completely different tunes simultaneously. They would bring in noises from off the street, car horns, sirens, and even factory whistles.
Futurist performance with factory whistles, 1920
The artists would sometimes deliberately shout insults at the audience trying to provoke them. Many a Futurist performance ended with the cops called.
We can get some glimpse into what these Futurist performances were like in this film by the artist Fernand Leger, a Cubist painter with close ties to the Futurists. The American composer George Antheil composed the score which uses a lot of the same noises that the Futurists incorporated into their performances.
What ordeals audiences had to endure in 1913!
Artists wanted to make art anything but a refuge. They wanted to provoke people, to shock people into letting the scales fall from their eyes and to embrace the banquet of new strange things laid out in front of them.
It was that very modern sense of great expectation that drove the first experiments with fully abstract painting around 1913.
In 1913, the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky continued to make the abstract paintings that he pioneered in 1910. Kandinsky was an enthusiastic follower of Theosophy, especially its apocalyptic pronouncement that the present world of the material would be destroyed and replaced by the world of pure spirit. Theosophy proclaimed that fundamentally all the world's religions are one, that the eternal unchanging world of the spirit was at war with the ephemeral world of matter. Kandinsky, likewise, believed that all the arts, music, painting, poetry, etc. had a fundamental unity. He believed that it was his task as an artist to prepare people for this coming apocalypse and life in the new world of the spirit.
Kandinsky, Little Pleasures, 1913
Kandinsky believed that abstract painting would save souls. It would save them by preparing them for life in a new world where the things by which we find our way in and make sense of the material world no longer existed. Kandinsky wanted to make an art that directly affected feeling without resort to any external references like imagery or narrative. He wanted to make art that would have as direct an impact on emotion as music. Indeed, he thought of his work in musical terms, of colors as notes on a scale that would somehow affect certain "nerve vibrations."
How to organize and make coherent paintings that had no imagery? How to do this without resort to the Cubist grid which Kandinsky thought confining and rooted in materialism? Kandinsky always warned about the danger of abstract painting reducing itself to decoration, to the patterns on a necktie. He knew that so much earlier abstract art was mostly pattern adorning something else from cups to domes. He wanted abstract art to have all the dramatic power and concentration of figurative painting. Instead of story telling and imagery, he let the counterpoint between lines and colors make their own drama.
Kandinsky, Composition with Black Lines, 1913
In 1913, the Ukrainian artist Kazimir Malevich began making the very reductive abstract paintings for which he is famous.
Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1913
Malevich did not exhibit this painting, or others like it, until 1915. When he did show it, he hung this painting in a place that would have a lot of meaning for a Russian audience, in the corner.
The Malevich exhibition in Saint Petersburg in 1915
Malevich hung his Black Square in what Russians would recognize as the icon corner of a traditional Russian house.
Malevich intended his very bare abstractions to speak to a largely illiterate and pious population, to likewise prepare them for life in a new world. That new world was not the Theosophical New Jerusalem, but a new world of science, technology, and rational thinking. Malevich wanted to reduce painting down to its most basic components in order to begin again, to start at a kind of Aleph of form.
Kazimir Malevich, White on White, 1913
Malevich believed that painting had the privileged position of mediator between the mind and the hand, between the imagination and practical intelligence. Malevich wanted to generate a new form language for design in a technological world.
Modern art made its debut with the American public with the Armory Show of 1913.
The show was put on by an independent group of American artists, the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, interested in developments in Europe and impatient with the stodgy conservatism of American art at the time. The organizers of the show, Arthur B. Davies, Walt Kuhn, and Walter Pach, traveled around Europe searching out the most modern work to bring back to the USA for exhibition. They organized a huge show of more than 13000 works of art. They chose a very original venue for their enormous exhibition, a newly completed National Guard Armory at 25th Street and Lexington Avenue in New York (it still stands). They organized the immense interior space into a series of small separate rooms designed around a theme, usually a particular school of modern art. The show included works by Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso, and many others.
When the show opened, it drew huge crowds who were shocked and scandalized by what they saw (which of course drew even more and bigger crowds). The New York tabloids had a Roman holiday making fun of all this crazy modern art in the show.
The dark star of the whole show was a French painter who was very little known at the time in Europe and in the USA, Marcel Duchamp. His painting, Nude Descending a Staircase became the unintended centerpiece of the whole show.
Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912
It doesn't look like a nude, and what would anyone be doing descending a staircase nude? Former President Theodore Roosevelt said that the painting looked like an explosion in a shingle mill, and it does look a little like an explosion in a shingle mill. He then went on to make dark comments about license and degeneracy in modern culture.
Marcel Duchamp was surprised and taken aback when he arrived in New York in 1913 to find himself already famous.
Later in 1913, Duchamp shocked the public even more with his next work of art, his first "readymade," the Bicycle Wheel.
Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, a 1950 recreation of the 1913 original
In works like this, Duchamp made the still very startling claim that what makes a work of art is not any skill of hand, but the idea, the conception. Also, Duchamp carried to its logical extreme the desire to knock art off the pedestal that 19th century Victorian sensibility had put it on, a desire that began with Picasso and Cubists when they deliberately incorporated cheap house paints and old bits of newspaper and wallpaper in their works.
The look of cities began to change dramatically in 1913.
The first wave of skyscraper building in New York began in 1913 with the completion of the Woolworth Building, the tallest and most ambitious building the city had ever seen up to that point.
Cass Gilbert, The Woolworth Building, photographed shortly after its completion in 1913
Frank Woolworth commissioned Cass Gilbert to design a "cathedral of commerce" that would be the tallest building in the city. Remarkably, Woolworth paid for the construction of this building entirely in cash, the only skyscraper financed without credit.
In form and size, this building would inspire the first wave of skyscraper building in New York that would culminate in the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center.
The building's height and size caused quite a lot of anxiety among city planners and ordinary citizens. Visions of New York streets reduced to dark narrow canyons by similar buildings led to the creation of the 1916 Zoning Laws that required buildings to be stepped back above a certain level in order to let in light and air onto the street below.
A young Italian architect who had not built anything yet, Antonio Sant' Elia, began exhibiting some remarkable drawings around Europe in 1913 of fantastic urban visions of the future.
Antonio Sant 'Elia, City, 1913
Sant' Elia was a member of the Futurist movement. He drew designs for imaginary cities without temples, palaces, monuments, or any kind of historical memory. They are built around imagined technology, usually having to do with transportation.
This drawing is Sant' Elia's conception of a combination railroad terminal and airport, 2 things never before imagined in combination until 1913.
Sant' Elia did not live long enough to realize any of these ideas in actual construction. These drawings would be around to inspire future architects, but even more so science fiction writers and illustrators. Like the best science fiction illustration, these are visions based on known technology. They are romantic visionary conceptions, as much as any celestial city imagined by William Blake.
A lot of people were imagining a coming apocalypse in 1913. Many were positively yearning for some kind of violent break with the present status quo. Everyone from Helena Blavatsky to Lenin to Theodore Roosevelt wanted some kind of purifying refiner's fire to purge Western Civilization of its accumulated corruption.
In 1913, an artist who mostly specialized in prints illustrating books and magazines, Ludwig Meidner, made an extraordinary series of apocalyptic paintings.
Ludwig Meidner, Apocalyptic City, 1913
Unknown forces rend and explode, destroying a city without any explicit or implied promise of a new beginning.
Ludwig Meidner, Burning City, 1913
Torn bodies lie scattered about the rubble in the foreground of this uncannily prophetic painting.
In the following year, 1914, the world really did end, though not in the way that anyone expected. No one, not Helena Blavatsky or Lenin or Theodore Roosevelt or Kandinsky or the Futurists, or Malevich or Meidner anticipated what began in August of that year.
Near Ypres, Belgium, 1917