This post comes to us from artist and NBMAA docent Ronald Abbe.
One hundred years ago New Yorkers reacted with shock and awe to the Armory Show of 1913. This was their first encounter with European modernism as represented most notably by Picasso and Matisse. When the show moved on to Boston and Chicago the reception slipped to actual dismay. Students at the Art Institute of Chicago burned paintings by Matisse (in effigy).
In New Britain Museum of American Art, Highlights of the Collection, there is no mention of the Armory Show. This is not surprising since at the time the Museum was confined to a 14 x 32 ft. room in the recently constructed New Britain Institute building. The Institute had utilized their library committee to begin acquiring art in 1908. The Talcott art fund had provided them with an annual budget of $875.
Highlights of the Collection goes on to describe the taste of the committee as conservative. They seem to have had a preference for “dark and somber subjects” but under the guidance of William MacBeth, an important New York art dealer, they were introduced to the work of American Impressionists. In the New Britain of 1913, Impressionism was[RA1] acceptable; the urban realism of the Ashcan School was radical and the Modernism of the Armory Show was unthinkable.
Sixteen years after the Armory Show, the people of New Britain had their own shock and awe experience. Fanny J. Brown, the first curator of the museum (or Art room) mounted a show with many of the same modernists. Once again Picasso and Matisse aroused consternation. Somehow the small room also accommodated works by Andre Derain, Amedeo Modigliani, Raoul Dufy, George Bracque, Marc Chagall, Giorgio de Chirico, Marie Laurencin, and Maurice Vlaminck.
According to Highlights of the Collection, the show was controversial enough to receive attention from both local and national media. The New Britain Herald printed a critique by Dewey Van Cott, art director of the New Britain Public Schools, in which he sarcastically noted the absence of “…such utterly unessential things as how to handle brushes, how to draw, what the principles of good design are, and what constitutes good harmonious color.” Art News defended Fanny Brown observing that such criticism “…might have been quoted from the Boston papers of 1913, when the Armory Show invaded the sacred city.”
Ten years after Fanny Brown’s landmark event, the Museum had the funds and space to begin acquiring art at an accelerating pace. Some of the American modernists who had been influenced by the Armory Show of 1913 came to the museum in the 40’s and 50’s. The 50’s were especially fruitful. For example, Max Weber’s Abstraction (1913) was acquired in 1953. Many of these paintings are now on display on the Early Modernist gallery.
Visitors today can be challenged by artwork in the NEW/NOW gallery as well as the Contemporary gallery, but they are unlikely to be as disoriented as those who came to Fanny Brown’s show. The spirit of the Contemporary gallery is pluralistic. Traditional painting is interspersed with experimental works and new media reflecting the multiplicity of today’s styles. It is not hard to find an artist who is attempting to redefine art and viewers have the opportunity to grapple with the results just as they did in New York one hundred years ago.