By Patricia Reaney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A century after the controversial 1913 Armory Show in New York challenged America's perception of art, a new exhibition is celebrating the event with works from the original including masterpieces by Henri Matisse, Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia.
"The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution" opens at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library on Friday and runs through February 23 next year. The exhibit recreates, on a smaller scale, the experience of the 1913 show that shocked New Yorkers and introduced them to the European avant garde.
"We couldn't let the 100-year anniversary go by without doing something. The Armory Show was probably the most important art exhibition in America," Marilyn Satin Kushner, the co-curator of the exhibition, said in an interview.
"This is a landmark time in terms of the history and in terms of the history of art in America."
The exhibition includes 100 works from the original show by artists such as Duchamp, whose masterpiece "Nude Descending a Staircase" was mocked and compared at the time to an explosion in a shingle factory, and Matisse's "Blue Nude," considered depraved for its distortion of the female form.
Francis Picabia's "Dances at the Spring" was likened to a patchwork quilt.
Using artifacts, historical documents and archival photographs and films, the exhibition puts the works in the context of 1913 New York.
"It will introduce people to what was going on in New York in 1913 because one can't understand the Armory Show completely unless one understands that New York at that time period was the age of discovery, the age of freedom, the age of independence, the age of youth marching in the streets for women's rights," said Kushner.
THREATENED BY THE ART
The 1913 show, officially known as The International Exhibition of Modern Art, was organized by a small group of young American artists called the Association of Painters and Sculptors. They were looking to showcase their work, as well as that of other artists. It was considered a turning point because it introduced Americans, accustomed to classical art, to the European avant-garde.
The show, which attracted thousands of visitors, shocked some viewers and sparked harsh criticism.
"They were very threatened by the art," said Kushner. "There were people on both sides of the fence but the noisiest people didn't get it, didn't want to get it and couldn't understand it."
The exhibition includes photos of the original show and a chart showing how it was organized so modern-day viewers can get an idea of what visitors saw 100 years ago.
Many of the paintings and works on paper were by American artists, such John Sloan's "Sunday, Women Drying Their Hair" and "Landscape with Figures" by Maurice Prendergast.
Other galleries feature Impressionist works, which were already accepted by Americans in 1913, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "Algerian Girl," and paintings by the precursors to modernism, Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh.
But it was the avant-garde work, which is featured in the final galleries, that was thought to be the most scandalous.
"They were befuddled by the 'Nude Descending' and they were angered by the 'Blue Nude,'" said Kushner about viewers in 1913, adding the art was a threat to their ideals of traditionalism and beauty.
(Reporting by Patricia Reaney; Editing by Piya Sinha-Roy and Cynthia Osterman)