The Modern Art Invasion: An Interview with Elizabeth Lunday

I’ve been looking forward to Elizabeth Lunday’s  The Modern Art Invasion: Picasso, Duchamp and the 1913 Armory Show That Scandalized America for several years now. *  Elizabeth tells the story of a piece of American history that is often forgotten, and just as often misunderstood** in an engaging style.  Because I read Big Fat History Books as part of my job, I usually switch over to fiction in the evening.  I kept reading The Modern Art Invasion after I was off the clock.

If you’re interested in art history, modernism, or early twentieth century America, you’ll enjoy The Modern Art Invasion.  But you don’t have to take my word for it.  She’s here to speak for herself:

You write about a wide range of arts, from music to architecture.  What caught your imagination about the Armory Show?

I was familiar with the outlines of the Armory Show, but it caught my attention when I wrote my first book, Secret Lives of Great Artists. I was fascinated to learn the show shaped the lives of both Marcel Duchamp and Edward Hopper. It’s hard to think of two more disparate artists than Duchamp and Hopper—urinals versus lighthouses—so how could this one show influence them both?

At first I thought the show might make a good subject for a magazine article, and I figured it would be easy to find books about the event. A quick look at Amazon and a university library catalog showed that, in fact, only a handful of books about the show had been written, and the most comprehensive was fifty years old. Bingo! I started the book proposal the next week.

Now, of course, the situation has changed—several new books have been published about the show to mark its centennial, but I’m happy to say mine is the only one for a general reader. The others are excellent, but they’re highly academic.

One of the things I liked best about The Modern Art Invasion was the way you place the story within the context of the larger social and cultural history of the United States at the time.  Did anything about the period take you by surprise as you did your research?

What’s amazing to me about 1913 is that it is both very different from today and very similar. On the one hand, technology was just in its infancy. It was a big deal that Armory Show organizers rented a telephone for their office—phones were still cutting-edge technology. Women couldn’t vote. The situation for African-Americans was going from bad to worse; segregation and Jim Crow laws were on the rise. America was strongly isolationist, and the Civil War was as close to their era as the Vietnam War to ours. If you landed in 1913 in a time machine, you wouldn’t recognize your own country.

Yet just when you get used to 1913 as a completely alien era, something will come up that seems eerily familiar. For example, it was a period of great income disparity. I was doing some preliminary research during the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the economic gap between the richest and the poorest today is a lot like it was then (although, to be fair, the overall standard of living has reached levels incomprehensible a century ago.) I found other curious similarities between the U.S. then and developing countries today. In the book, I talk about the terrible Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, in which 146 garment workers died in a locked factory in Greenwich Village. These sorts of tragedies happen with depressing regularity in Southeast Asia. The echoes kept coming up, and they always amazed me.

I was intrigued by the way ideas about morality and immorality colored American reactions to the show, particularly in Chicago.  Could you tell us a little bit about the “feelthy pictures” problem?

Public morals are one of the biggest differences between 1913 and today. This was an era of moral crusades; it was the height of the Temperance movement, for example. But while crusaders tackled some genuine social ills like alcoholism and prostitution, they could lose their minds over things that just seem silly. One of my favorite stories from the book is about reaction to the daze craze of the Teens, the Turkey Trot. People were horrified by the Turkey Trot—they considered it a threat to civilized society. A committee of society ladies, ministers, rabbis, and social workers held a meeting at the Delmonico Ballroom to investigate the menace; they invited Al Jolson to demonstrate the dance along with a showgirl, and when he snapped his fingers and pulled his partner close, the crowd gasped out loud. Today Miley Cyrus can prance half-naked on national television, and while some people make a show of being shocked, I think most of us are too accustomed to such spectacles to even care.

When you put the reaction to art in this context, it makes sense, but it’s still bizarre to read about school teachers, ministers, and matrons getting so incensed about nude paintings in an art museum that they petitioned the Vice Commission of the Illinois State Senate to launch an investigation. The situation was definitely worse in the Midwest than New York and Boston; the Armory Show received tons of criticism in these cities, but the morals of the art weren’t at issue. The East Coast cities liked to think of themselves as being more sophisticated and closer to European sensibilities, while Chicago prided itself on its traditional values. Some people were apparently genuinely shocked by what they saw, among them members of the museum board, who you would think would know better.

Ultimately, the scandal helped the Armory Show in Chicago—it attracted huge crowds to see what all the fuss was about. Among them were some sketchy characters who were only looking for the “dirty pictures,” and one of the show’s organizers, Walter Pach, had a lot of fun sending them off to look at French academic nudes, which are far more provocative than anything the modernists painted.

 Your book is full of colorful characters, not all of them artists.  Do you have a favorite?

I have several favorites! Walt Kuhn, one of the three main Armory Show organizers, is one, although I don’t think I necessarily would have liked him in person. He was completely relentless—when he decided to do something, he didn’t let anything get in his way. I admire his confidence that he could change the world if he just worked hard enough. A newspaper described him a walking through the show as the “light of the unconquered idealist gleamed in his penetrating eye,” which I think is wonderful.

John Quinn is another fascinating figure. His day job was as an attorney—he was hugely successful, representing major corporations in New York—but he also collected art and manuscripts and was a close friend of figures including William Butler Yeats, Constantin Brancusi, and Ezra Pound. He defended Joyce’s Ulysses in court against charges of obscenity, helped fund Irish nationalists associated with the I.R.A., and worked for the British Intelligence service. He’s an amazing guy, and one who has been almost totally forgotten.

Of course, that’s only a start—when your subject involves Picasso, Duchamp, Matisse, Gertrude Stein and her entire family, it’s going to be hard to pick. One final favorite has got to be Raymond Duchamp-Villon, one of Marcel Duchamp’s older brothers. He was a remarkably talented sculptor, but he also seems to have been a genuinely kind man and good friend. He enlisted in World War I as soon as the conflict started, served as a doctor at a field hospital, and died in 1918 of  complications from typhoid. Everyone who knew him was devastated. I wish he could have survived and continued sculpting—I have no doubt it would have been amazing.

Your title, The Modern Art Invasion, had echoes for me of the “British Invasion” of the 1960s.  Is that a fair comparison?

Interesting! I hadn’t made that connection. I can definitely see some echoes. When British pop hit U.S. shores, it was impossible for American musicians to ignore. They had to respond, either by adapting their sound or by sticking to what they knew. The same was true of art. American artists had to make some kind of response to the European modernism they saw at the show. Some tried to adopt it for themselves, while others dug in their heels and refused to change. Ultimately, the ripples from both invasions have continued for decades.

I suppose there is also a parallel to the popular sensation that was the British Invasion. Of course, nothing can approach the screaming mobs that greeted the Beatles, but getting a quarter of a million people to see an art exhibit was quite an accomplishment.

You argue persuasively that the Armory Show fundamentally changed the American art scene, though it took some time.  At the same time, today’s viewers often respond to modern art, particularly non-representational modern art, the same way viewers responded to Duchamp and Matisse did in 1913.  Is the struggle to understand an inherent part of viewing art?

I think the struggle to understand is an inherent part of viewing modern and contemporary art—I wouldn’t necessarily take it back further than that. From what we know about the goals of artists such as Rembrandt, they weren’t trying to make their art difficult; they had different goals, among them the faithful and traditional reproduction of a subject or scene.

Modern and contemporary artists are trying to do something completely different, and exactly what they’re doing can vary depending on the artist and the work. Often they’re deliberately challenging their viewers. Picasso was taking his subjects apart and putting them back together in a jumble of angles and forms. Duchamp was trying to get viewers to examine the whole notion of what made something “art.” Contemporary artists often raise all kinds of questions about race, gender, and culture. A new exhibit just opened here in Fort Worth by Mexican artists; they’re using art to tackle issues like poverty, political corruption, and violence. It’s a very challenging show.

I think the disconnect comes when audiences walk into a modern art exhibit with the same assumptions they would take to a Rembrandt show, and that’s just going to end in frustration. I think “art” still implies to the general audience faithful and traditional reproduction, and that could be the last thing on the mind of a modern artist. Modern and contemporary art demand that you approach them on their own terms, and that’s a lot of work. You have to figure out what the artist was trying to accomplish before you can begin to evaluate if they pulled it off.

I’m not sure what the answer is. I do think museums could do a better job setting the context for modernism rather than just being surprised and shocked when audiences don’t “get” it. Too often, I think, modern art acts like a kind of elite club that laughs to itself at all the rubes standing baffled in front of Duchamp’s urinal or whatever else is on display. (Unfortunately, this trend also goes back to the Armory Show, where some of the organizing artists mocked the ignorance of those confused by the new art.) I don’t think that’s fair. Modern art is still challenging, one hundred years later, and it takes time and effort to grasp.

For more information on Elizabeth and The Modern Art Invasion, visit her website:



*One of the benefits of having writer friends is that you know about books long before they’re in print.  It’s also one of the frustrating things about having writer friends.

**  I thought I knew something about the Armory Show.  Hah!  It turns out I knew very little and that what I did know wasn’t entirely correct.

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