This past Friday I went to the New-York Historical Society to see “The Armory Show at 100.” This N-YHS exhibit is in observance of the groundbreaking 1913 event at the 69th Regiment Armory. The 69th Armory is on East 25th Street, not five blocks from the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace. Many of the original pieces are on display. I had seen some of them before because many are now famous and situated in major museums. Still, seeing so many in one place is something different entirely.
The 1913 Armory show was a huge event, attended by many thousands and written about extensively. For many Americans, it was the first time they had seen a Matisse or Picasso. One self-described layman who attended was Theodore himself. In fact, the Colonel even penned a review for Outlook magazine describing his thoughts on the show. “A Layman’s View of an Art Exhibition” hit newsstands on 29 March 1913.
One may not associate art with Theodore Roosevelt but there is a stronger connection than one might realize. When Theodore was a child, the Roosevelts spent considerable time in Europe, Egypt, and the Middle East soaking up art and culture. His father was one of the founders of both the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As president, Roosevelt had given a guiding hand in the creation of the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C. He was also a good friend of sculptors Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Frederic Remington. What’s more, he had sat for many painters over the years, including John Singer Sargent.
So, Roosevelt was a layman but one who knew a little more about the art world than he let on.
Reading Roosevelt’s article one cannot help but think of Marshall McLuhan’s adage that art is whatever you can get with. At one point he compares the Cubists to P.T. Barnum. More than once he calls them extremists. Still, he is not entirely skeptical; at times he is even generous. Modernism per se did not seem to bother him, just certain elements within it. For a man seemingly ambivalent he has a lot to say. In the last line he explains that “All I am trying to do is point out why a layman is grateful to those who arranged this exhibition.”
The show at the New-York Historical Society runs through 23 February 2014.
(image/Armory Show postcard)