Friday, December 1, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Beauty of Living: e. e. cummings in the Great War, excerpt five)

from The Beauty of Living: e. e. cummings in the Great War by J. Alison Rosenblitt:

For the moderns, the departure from established aesthetics was fueled by a sense that exciting, explosive ideas about art were pouring out of Europe. One turning point for Cummings was provided by the controversial exhibit of painting and sculpture in New York in 1913 known as the Armory Show. It was called the Armory Show because it was held at the Armory of the 69th Infantry on Lexington Avenue. It took place from the fifteenth of February to the fifteenth of March, and it was open from ten a.m. to ten p.m., including Sundays, before traveling on to Chicago and then Boston. It was all about drawing an audience. To call it and “exhibition” barely expressed the magnitude of the event: it was a phenomenon. There were more than a thousand works of art on display, many imported from Europe. The catalogue was eye-watering. There were eleven paintings and a sculpture in wood by Paul Gauguin; a Kandinsky; eight paintings by C├ęzanne; two by Edvard Munch; two by Toulouse-Lautrec; seven Picasso paintings and a bronze bust; ten pieces by Henri Rousseau; four by Picabia; and fourteen by Van Gogh. There were also fourteen paintings by Matisse plus a sculpture; two works by Seurat; four by Monet; four by Pisarro; four by Renoir; five sculptures by Brancusi and two by Rodin. Beyond these, there are dozens of other names that would glitter in any lesser company.

The Cubist painter and sculptor Marcel Duchamp entered four works. Duchamp is best known for a piece displayed in 1917: a urinal, which he signed “R. Mutt 1917” and titled Fountain, and which has since spawned a hundred years of experimentation with “found” art objects that challenge or transgress traditional ideas about what constitutes art. In 1913, a piece by Duchamp, more conventional in its materials—an oil painting on canvas—became one of the celebrated controversies of the Armory Show. Painted during the previous year, 1912, and exhibited at the 1913 show, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 presented an abstract, geometric figure with warm-toned flesh against the planes of a dark buff-brown staircase. The full descent of the staircase is shown. The figure is in motion, painted in a kind of time-lapse, with the geometric limbs and bodies superimposed in sequence on one another as the figure moves down the stairs. Even by Cubist standards, Duchamp’s attempt to grapple with motion was cutting-edge. Cubism was not simply one style but a varied and multistrand movement, and the Armory Show brought Cummings into sudden contact with Cubism as a whole world of art.

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