Feb. 17, 2011

Art Sanctuary

by Nikki Giovanni

I would always choose to be the person running
rather than the mob chasing
I would prefer to be the person laughed at
rather than the teenagers laughing
I always admired the men and women who sat down
for their rights
And held in disdain the men and women who spat
on them
Everyone deserves Sanctuary a place to go where you are
Art offers Sanctuary to everyone willing
to open their hearts as well as their eyes

"Art Sanctuary" by Nikki Giovanni, from Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea. © Harper Perennial, 2002. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1913 that the Armory Show opened in New York City, the first comprehensive exhibition of modern art in this country. At the time, American art was dominated by the ultra-conservative National Academy of Design, which had no interest in non-representational or experimental work. In 1912, a group of artists had gotten together and formed the Association for American Painters and Sculptors. One of these artists was the painter Walt Kuhn, who wrote to his wife: "My idea about the new society is this: a big broad liberal organization embracing every kind of art, even those which I do not like, one that will interest the public ... the thing must be started so that it can grow and be as big or bigger than the academy within two or three years."

The group decided that the best way to compete with the Academy would be to have a well-publicized exhibition. Kuhn and fellow artist Arthur Bowen Davies traveled to Europe to collect art for the show. They brought home work by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, Marcel Duchamp, Paul Cézanne, Wassily Kandinsky, Vincent Van Gogh, and many other artists. They also invited American artists to participate, although in general even the more cutting-edge Americans seemed traditional next to the Europeans.

For the exhibit, the Association for American Painters and Sculptors chose the new 69th Regiment Armory, which covered the block from 25th to 26th streets along Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. Because it was just one big room, they constructed temporary walls and covered them in burlap. They decorated with pine trees and boughs in honor of the Association's emblem, a pine tree, and then hung artwork.

The opening reception was on this day in 1913, at 8 p.m., by invitation only. After that, anyone could come if they bought a ticket — a visit to the show cost one dollar for adults and 25 cents for children. It was the event of the season. The show stayed up for a month, and by the time it moved on to Chicago on March 15th, it was estimated that 100,000 people had attended — 10,000 on the closing day alone. Twenty-five thousand people took home free buttons decorated with a pine tree and the words "The New Spirit." Enrico Caruso drew caricatures of the art and then gave them to people to send as postcards. The Association set up a post office at the Armory just for mailing postcards from the show.

The critical response was mixed. Some critics loved it, but many were incensed or just plain confused by the art. The art historian Milton W. Brown said, "American critics were as unprepared for the European visitation as they were for an exhibition of art from Mars. Harriet Monroe, the founder of Poetry magazine who championed modernist writers like James Joyce, was unsure of the show; her headlines were: "Art Show Open to Freaks … American Exhibition in New York Teems with the Bizarre ... All Schools Welcome ... Queer Conceptions of 'Insurgents' Vie with Conservative's Works." She is also said to have described Matisse's work as "the most hideous monstrosities ever perpetrated on long suffering art." One critic described the show as a "refuge for bunko artists," another said, "the nudes pervert the ideal of physical perfection, obliterate the line which has heretofore distinguished the artistic from the lewd and obscene, and incite feelings of disgust and aversion." The show's next stop after New York was Chicago, and the Chicago Record-Herald even wrote a poem for the event:
The cubists are coming, ho, ho, ho, ho;
The cubists are coming, ho, ho, ho, ho;
The cubists are coming from stately Manhattan;
The cubists are coming, ho, ho.

The art director has gone before.
He's said goodbye for a month or more;
The cubists are coming, and that's enough;
He cannot stand the futurist stuff.

Even Teddy Roosevelt had something to say about the Armory Show. He apparently walked through the rooms waving his arms and shouting, "That's not art! That's not art!" at various paintings and sculptures. He wrote an article about the show, and he said: "Why a deformed pelvis should be called 'sincere,' or a tibia of giraffe-like length 'precious,' is a question of pathological rather than artistic significance." About the show's most controversial piece, Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, whose title he got slightly wrong. Roosevelt wrote: "Take the picture which for some reason is called A naked man going down stairs. There is in my bathroom a really good Navajo rug which, on any proper interpretation of the Cubist theory, is a far more satisfactory and decorative piece."

But the bad press not only enticed a lot of people to come see the show, it also got a lot of the artwork sold. The Metropolitan Museum of Art bought a painting by Cézanne, the first American museum to do so; every single piece by Marcel Duchamp and his brother, Jacques Villon, was sold (including Nude Descending A Staircase, purchased sight unseen by an art dealer in San Francisco). Works by Duchamp and Picasso sold for less than $400.

It was on this day in 1904 that Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly premiered in Milan, Italy, at Teatro alla Scala. Puccini had first been introduced to the story while he was in London for the premiere of his opera Tosca. There, he saw a one-act play called Madame Butterfly, written by the American playwright David Belasco. Belasco had based his play on a short story of the same name by John Luther Long, who claimed it was a true story told to him by relatives who were missionaries in Japan. Long was probably lying, though, because his story was very similar to a French novel called Madame Chrysanthème (1887) by Pierre Loti.

Even though Puccini had only a basic command of English, he was sure that Belasco's play had the makings of an opera. He wrote to his friend and publisher, Giulio Ricardo: "The more I think of Butterfly the more irresistibly am I attracted. Oh, if only I had it here, that I might set to work on it! I think instead of one act I could make two quite long ones: the first in North America and the second in Japan." He worked on the opera for four years, trying to improve on Belasco's plot and pacing, and consulting frequently with the wife of the Japanese ambassador for advice on names, music, and characters. In November of 1902, he wrote to Giulio: "The action must move forward to the close without interruption, rapid, effective, terrible! In arranging the opera in three acts I was making for certain disaster. You will see, dear Signor Giulio, that I am right."

So on this night the opera debuted, in two acts. Earlier in the day he wrote to his leading lady, the soprano Rosina Storchio: "My good wishes are superfluous! So true, so delicate, so moving is your great art that the public must succumb to it. And I hope that through you I am speeding to victory. Tonight then — with sure confidence and much affection, dear child."

But opening night was a disaster. The public hissed and yelled at the actors. Rosina Storchio was so distressed that she announced she would never sing the role of Butterfly again. Madama Butterfly closed after just one night, and Puccini wrote to Storchio: "And so, my Butterfly, the love-sick maiden, would leave me. You seem in your departure to be taking away the best, the most poetical part of my work. I think that Butterfly without Rosina Storchio becomes a thing without soul. What a shame! After so many anxious fears, after pouring out such riches of your keen and delicate intelligence, to receive the reward of brutality. What a disgrace it was! But I am sure that this horrible impression will soon be wiped out of our minds, and so, with warm affection and confidence in the future, I wish you good luck."

He spent the next few months rewriting the opera — he even changed his mind, again, and gave the opera three acts. It reopened at the Teatro Grande in Brescia on May 28th, 1904, with a new Buttefly, the Ukrainian soprano Salomea Kruszelnicka — otherwise, the cast was the same. This time, it was a huge success, with multiple encores, and Puccini was called on stage 10 times.

From the archives:

It's the birthday of economist Thomas Robert Malthus, born in Surrey, England (1766). In 1798, he published a pamphlet called An Essay on the Principle of Population, in which he argued that the human population of the earth was growing at a faster rate than the food supply, and that war, disease, and famine were necessary in order to prevent overpopulation.

One of the things he recommended to help keep the population down was deferring marriage until middle age. Critics accused him of being cold-hearted and inhuman — but he actually had a passionate love affair as a young man, and when he was 38 he married a 28-year-old woman. He wrote in his diary: "Perhaps there is scarcely a man who has once experienced the genuine delight of virtuous love...that does not look back to the period, as the sunny spot of his whole life, where his imagination loves to bask ... which he would most wish to live over again."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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