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A Royal Disaster: Cortissoz Critiques the Armory Show

In February and March 1913, thousands of New Yorkers poured into the 69th Regiment Armory for an “International Exhibition of Modern Art.” By the time the so-called Armory Show had completed its tour of the U.S., a half million people had seen the exhibit—one of the most influential in American art history. Up to that time, the nation’s galleries, patrons, and schools of art were firmly in conservative hands and favored staid, traditional European art. The self-consciously “modern” Armory show challenged the artistic establishment. Two-thirds of the 1,600 works were by Americans, and the Europeans whose works were exhibited—Picasso, Matisse, Seurat, Van Gogh, Gaughin, and Duchamp among them—were far from the conservatives that Americans were used to. Of course, not everyone accepted the new direction. In this Century magazine article entitled “The Post-Impressionist Illusion,” the influential art critic Royal Cortissoz equated the (allegedly negative) influence of modernism on American art with that of immigrants on American society.

It is said that when the former President of the French Republic, M. Fallieres, went to the opening of the autumn Salon of 1912, he looked long at the paintings of the Cubists and Futurists. “Charming!” he murmured to the Under-Secretary for Fine Arts, who stood at his elbow, and then he added anxiously, “But you won’t have to buy any for the state galleries, will you?” I know perfectly well how that anecdote must have been received whenever it was repeated in Post-Impressionist circles. “Oh, Fallieres! But he was always a bourgeois, anyway.” It so happened, however, that the solicitude of the French functionary has been shared by all kinds of people, including some quite competent artists; and I note this fact at the outset because the confusion in which the whole subject of Post-Impressionism has been enveloped has been rendered worse confounded by much foolish recrimination.

The Post-Impressionists themselves have not made most of the noise. This has been developed largely in print, and hierophants of the “movement,” which as I shall presently endeavor to show, is not, strictly speaking, a movement at all, have made tremendous play with one of the favorite devices of those who traffic in the freakish things of art and letters. “Behold this masterpiece!” they say. “What! you see nothing in it? You find it ugly? Well, well, what a besotted idea of beauty you must have! Repose yourself before this canvas. It is saturated in beauty. You do not see it because you have the Philistine eye; but with patience and reverent study you may hope to unlock the secret of our great man.” And so on, with many a delicate suggestion of compassionate good will. It is an old trick. The playgoer who does not like dirty plays is denounced as a prude; the music-lover who resents cacophony is told he is a pedant; and in all these matters the final crushing blow administered to the man of discrimination is the ascription to him of a hidebound prejudice against things that are new because they are new. If he declines to be convinced of this, he is reminded triumphantly that all revolutionaries in the domain of thought, from Galileo and Columbus to Wagner and Manet, have been for a time persecuted and derided. Ergo, since the Post-Impressionists have provoked a vast amount of scornful mirth, they are necessarily great men.

It is not my purpose to laugh at them, nor do I wish to swell the flood of recrimination of which I have spoken. In the foregoing remarks I have sought merely to clear the ground of the cant which often encumbers it. Let us look at Post-Impressionism for what it is, regardless alike of its acolytes and its equally furious opponents. I said just now that it was not a movement at all. A movement, I take it, represents in art, at all events, what men do when they are pretty closely allied by strong sympathies and by fidelity to a body of principles susceptible of some sort of definition. Such a group need not be wedded to a formula, but it cannot well avoid subscribing to a fairly definable scheme of ideas. . . . I must take the risk and state what, after careful study, I have gathered to be the Post-Impressionist aim. It is to eschew such approximately accurate representation of things seen as has been hitherto pursued by painters of all schools, and to cover the canvas with an arrangement of line and color symbolizing the very essence of the object or scene attacked. For some occult reason it is assumed that a portrait or picture painted according to the familiar grammar of art, understood of all men, is clogged with irrelevant matter. The great masters of the past, to be sure, are not invalidated, and they need not be sent to the lumber-room; but their day is done, and with the Post-Impressionists we must slough off a quantity of played-out conventions before we can enter the promised land.

The temptation to go deeper into the metaphysics of the subject is not, I admit, very strong, for I do not like to chew sawdust, nor do I enjoy going down into a cellar at midnight without a candle to look for a black cat that isn’t there. . . . The cat, I maintain, is not there. That is the nubbin of the whole argument. Post-Impressionism as a movement, as a ponderable theory, is, like the cat, an illusion. The portentous things we hear about it are not the adumbrations of an intelligible and precious truth, but are mere ex-parte assertions. . . .

These are the days of impossible beliefs, but not of lost causes, and the first belief engendered in the Post-Impressionist is an immeasurable belief in himself. What chiefly impresses me about him as a type is his conviction that what he chooses to do in art is right because he chooses to do it. This egotism is doubtless compatible with some engaging qualities. I have read the volume of letters written by Van Gogh to his friend Bernard, and I have read the latter’s introductory pages. It is plain that these two were full of a candid enthusiasm for painting, keenly interested in the masters, ancient and modern, and ardently desirous of solving technical problems. But of each it may also be said that he had “too much ego in his cosmos,” and in the case of Van Gogh, the result was disastrous. . . . Passionately in love with color, and groping toward an effective use of it in the expression of truth, he gives you occasionally in his thick impasto a gleam of sensuously beautiful tone. But as he grew more and more absorbed in himself, which is to say more and more indifferent to the artistic lessons of the centuries, his pictures receded further and further from the representation of nature, and fulfilled instead an arbitrary, capricious conception of art. The laws of perspective are strained. Landscape and other natural forms are set awry. So simple an object as a jug containing some flowers is drawn with the uncouthness of the immature, even childish, executant. From the point of view of the Post-Impressionist prophet, all this may be referred to inventive genius beating out a new artistic language. I submit that it is explained rather by incompetence suffused with egotism. The man was unbalanced. Once, when he was staying at Arles, a girl of his acquaintance received from him a packet which she opened, expecting it to reveal a welcome present. She found that it contained one of the painter’s ears, which he had that morning cut off with his razor. The incident is too horrible, intrinsically and in its suggestion of the most tragic of human ills, to be lightly employed for purposes of argument. Nevertheless, it is legitimate to affirm that the hero of this anecdote, who spent some time in an asylum and ultimately committed suicide, was unlikely to think straight. That has been the trouble with all the Post-Impressionists. They have not thought straight.

The thinking they have done, and they have done much, has been invertebrate and confusing. Steadily, too, it has led them to produce work not only incompetent, but grotesque. It has led them from complacency to what I can only describe as insolence. If these seem hard words, let me recall an incident of the Post-Impressionist exhibition in London two years ago. Mr. Roger Fry, writing in defense of the project, cited various persons who were in sympathy with it, and named among them Mr. John S. Sargent. In the course of a letter to the London Nation that distinguished painter said: "Mr. Fry may have been told—and have believed—that the sight of those paintings had made me a convert to his faith in them. The fact is that I am absolutely skeptical as to their having any claim whatever to being works of art, with the exception of some of the pictures by Gauguin that strike me as admirable in color, and in color only." The italics are mine, and I hope I may be pardoned for using them, for it is important, I think, that the testimony in this case of a master like Sargent should not be overlooked. . . . If Matisse were: the demigod he is assumed to be, there would be at least some hints of an Olympian quality breathed through his gauche puerilities. Picasso, too, the great panjandrum of the Cubist tabernacle, is credited with profound gifts. Why does he not use them? And why must we sit patient, if not with awestruck and grateful submissiveness, before a portrait or a picture seemingly representing a grotesque object made of children’s blocks cut up and fitted together? This is not a movement, a principle. It is unadulterated “cheek. . . .”

I make no excuse for ignoring a multitude of names in this brief survey. Why dwell upon names that mean nothing?

It is the dull sterility of this so-called “movement” that offers the chief point of attack for those who resent its intrusion into the field of art. Let the Post-Impressionists and their loquacious friends wax eloquent among themselves as to what constitutes beauty and what they may mean by the theories through which they assume to develop its secret. Their debatings are worthless so long as they go on producing flatly impossible pictures and statues. The oracular assertion that the statues and the pictures are beautiful and great is merely so much impudence and “bounce.”

It is, after all, a little cool for ill-equipped experimenters to take themselves so seriously. The dabster in music or the drama or literature is usually expected to acquire some proficiency in his medium before he undertakes to speak out. By some mysterious dispensation, which no one yet has accounted for, the artist, and especially the painter, is early let loose upon the world, whether he has acquired a decent training or not.

Here, from the incomplete, halting methods of Cezanne, there has flowed out of Paris into Germany, Russia, England, and to some slight extent the United States, a gospel of stupid license and self-assertion which would have been swept into the rubbish-heap were it not for the timidity of our mental habit. When the stuff is rebuked as it should be, the Post-Impressionist impresarios and fuglemen insolently proffer us a farrago of super-subtle rhetoric. The farce will end when people look at Post-Impressionist pictures as Mr. Sargent looked at those shown in London, "absolutely skeptical as to their having any claim whatever to being works of art."

Source: Royal Cortissoz, “The Post-Impressionist Illusion,” Century, 85 (April, 1913): 805–810, 812, 814, 815. Reprinted in Roderick Nash, ed. The Call of the Wild (1900–1916), (New York: George Braziller, 1970).