“When we consider the motion of form through space…”

Time—1913. Location—69th Regiment Armory, New York City Event—The Famed Armory Show

This Armory Show Exhibition accomplished the following: it shocked the nation; changed our collective perception of beauty/and what constitutes art in particular! The effects of this one exhibition—it traveled to Chicago and Boston—had a profound impact on artists, dealers, and collectors/patrons!

The Armory Show exhibition featured over 300 avant-garde American and European artists and over 1300 to their paintings, sculptures, and decorative works.

The shock manifested itself in extremist criticism, a myriad of critical, lampooning cartoons in newspapers, and word of mouth chaos/confusion. Theodore Roosevelt wrote: “It is vitally necessary to move forward to shake off the dead hand of the reactionaries; and yet we have to face the fact that there is apt to be a lunatic fringe among votaries of any forward movement!” (Theodore Roosevelt, in Outlook, 1913)

What are your thoughts on what appears to be an abrupt change which is shocking to the general public? The shock was mostly directed to Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase of 1912. Cartoons lampooning Duchamp were everywhere in New York, Chicago, and Boston as the exhibition arrived at the various venues. The attendance was huge and surprised everyone! The shadow cast by this exhibition of avant-garde American and European modernism was huge, profound, and still with us in some respects. “When the vision of the Nude flashed upon me, I knew that it would break forever the enslaving chains of Naturalism.” (Marcell Ducvhamp, 1920)

Photograph of Theodore Roosevelt
Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912
1913 Parody The Rude Descending a Staircase, New York Daily
People Lining Up to See the NYC Armory Show, 1913

Published by: roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.

33 Comments

33 thoughts on ““When we consider the motion of form through space…””

  1. Putting my self in 1913 at the Armory show, I definitely can understand why so many were shocked. In your class last semester I had learned that art was very traditional. Americans had wanted to see landscapes of different environments. Something resembling the whole Manifest Destiny. Even though there were already nudes of women and men being painted I think the whole CHANGE of the perception of nudity and its Futuristic Cubism just wasn’t “American” to them. I think that as a viewer of art you have to be able to accept change. You have to be able to try and put yourself in the artists shoes and mind to understand why they create such gifted pieces.

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  2. I can understand why the public audience would be shock or surprised. The event drew large crowds to see what the exhibit would feature. During the time, the artwork was focused on scenery and realistic motivation of what artists peer at. The abrupt appearance was probably a new experience that the public often is not used to huge changes, as usual, it is often casual change within the era. This leads to later face criticism on the Avant-guard style of futuristic cubism and nudity, while some artists perhaps found new inspiration or later on looked back in time to the artwork made. I believe Marcell Ducvhamp’s art pieces faced criticism at first like most artwork when starting off then gradually receive popularity or acknowledgment.

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  3. The reception of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase was to be expected. Before the emergence of Cubism in the early 20th century, came the Impressionist movement in the 19th century. Though, the Impressionism-styled works by painters like Claude Monet and Musée d’Orsay was better received in the 19th century versus Cubism in the 20th century. I think this is because Impressionism is essentially a more romantic take on Naturalism instead of Cubism which is abstract and vague. For example, in Mary Cassatt’s Lydia Leaning on Her Arms, you can clearly tell that it is a portrait of a softly painted woman in a yellow dress seated in a chair, shades of blue and red give life to the piece. It is completely different from Marcel Duchamp’s Descending a Staircase, which has angular and harsh lines, muted colors, geometric, blended harmoniously together. To be honest, if I did not see the title of this piece I would have absolutely no idea what the subject was supposed to be or what I’m looking at. Cubism is visually a complete rejection of traditional techniques and style. Both of styles rebel against the naturalist standards of art perpetuated by the art world and consumers of art.

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  4. I think Marcel Duchamp, perhaps knowing, and unknowingly accomplished what any artist wants. Shock, through his artwork. What better way to be recognized? No matter if the people like or dislike it, either way he was able to create a large conversation, and in the end creating basically a new era of art. His representation of an untraditional art style sets him apart from anything that came before, and helps propel Cubism. To break away from naturalism is what completely sets him apart, and also what shocks all patrons at this time. Nowadays, many artist strive for a similar style, and we can thank Duchamp for this.

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  5. Lizbeth Ramirez | Art 473

    Any type of abrupt change will be shocking to the public. In this case it’s because of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase of 1912. The public at the time was used to seeing more environmental and realistic based things, but the leap to a different style of art might have been unsettling because it wasn’t something they expected or might understand. I find it interesting how Duchamp approached nudity. At the time I probably would’ve been shocked myself or rather confused as to what I was looking but also I’d be intrigued by It because it’s different.

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  6. Marcel Duchamp’s Nude on the Staircase #2 makes sense, whether people at the time liked it or not. Change and innovation was coming, considering the time of avant-garde in art and the age of the machine and industrialization. Americans were used to (or perhaps holding onto) the classical romantic portrayal of natural beauty and has never expected the soft human figures to be portrayed this way. Naturalism will always be appreciated, but change was coming and art should be able to take any form that the artist wishes it to be.

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  7. It is definitely understandable why those of the time were shocked by the exhibition – humans are not one to openly accept change, and this radical shift in the arts definitely pushed people in ways they were not expecting. I praise the artists in the exhibition for their forward thinking regarding their art, and their boldness to display it, most likely knowing they would get pushback. Without the brave innovation of folks like these, the world of art would be stagnant and excessively repetitive. Without exhibitions like these, we would likely not be in the state we are in today, where artistic expressions of all kinds are widely accepted.

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  8. In this point in time of art history is great as it broke through the traditional ideology of previous art and explored different subjects such as Duchamp’s Nude Descending the Staircase, no. 8 with motion, Picasso with time and cubism, and Kandinsky exploring on flattening abstracting the nature of the spirit. Civilization was progressing rapidly for better and worse during this time as well. The shock from the public was of criticism because of an abrupt change in art ideology. This period’s art is very sensory-heavy and forward thinking and I appreciate it and enjoy viewing it. It makes me wonder if the world wars did not happen where would this form of art had grown into.

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  9. At first, I was wondering why there was so much shock when it came to the Armory show. The piece was ridiculed and parodied. Then looking back at the works previous shows, and the shows after, The Nude Descending a Staircase was presented at the Salon des Independants in Paris and was rejected by Cubists as being too Futurist. Then it was presented at the Galeries Dalmau’s Exposicio d’Art Cubista in Barcelona. When it hit the Armory Show in New York City, I feel that most Americans were just misled by its title.

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  10. I can understand the shock from the audience. An abrupt change in what you were expecting usually gets that result. Making people uncomfortable usually is what gets them talking. But without those uncomfortable strokes of innovation is what helps humans evolve. If you didn’t push the limits life would be boring. That includes the art world as well. making brave and innovative works of art will usually be responded with criticism, but these types of art is what pushes the art world forward.

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  11. I think Walter Pach hit the nail on the head when he said that a work of art, even incomprehensible art, reminds and remains in our mind, and even years later, produces an effect on them. I think the Armory show helped change art by doing just that. Even if some people originally considered things like futurism, “not art.” it was a shock, but that shock stayed in their minds for years to come, and later when they saw the work again, it became something else. As Pach put it “America was living off the canned foods of art, the things held over from years before. It knew, vaguely, that there was fresh fruit, fresh meat on the tables of Paris, and it wanted its share.” The general American public wasn’t entirely ready for something so different from naturalism, but they were prepared to explore, and the Armory show provided them with that ability. And that’s the best thing about good art, depending on your definition, it can either be something you like or something that strikes conversation in many, or both.

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  12. I believe that something like this needed to happen in the art world at the time. Something people would be shocked by was a breath of fresh air as art was in a stage of naturalism for a while. Without change, art would be rather boring. Art would be limited, but as long as there is change, art will be talked about more. As for the shock factor, that brought a lot of attention to the art world. It was beneficial to the art industry even though, at first, the art style of Duchamp was very new and shocking to the public which brought a lot of criticism. Over time, his art became really famous because it was a new movement and he was bold enough to try it out even though he would get crazy reactions from a lot of people.

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  13. Jonathan Quinones

    Roosevelt used his voice as a way to disagree with a new Era of Art. As a politician, he did not have a background in Fine Arts to understand that artists in the 20th century were limited with their creativity. Photography, paintings, and cartoons were a medium that artists and journalists utilized to create a strong political statement about what was going on within society. Modernism changed the way Art was perceived; Modernism disrupted norms and challenged traditions of what was considered ”normal”. Roselevet thought that modernism was immoral, and it was an idea supported by lunatics. People did not understand that modernism was an evolution of the naturalism and a new way for artists to use their creativity.

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  14. At the time of the Armory Show in 1913, the shift in style and expression was incredibly jarring considering that, up until then, art had been focused on realism and naturalism. Movements within art are oftentimes reactions against what came before, and the vehement criticism of such a showcase proves the passage and progression of ideas. Duchamp’s Nude Descending A Staircase, for example, received heavy mockery from the many that attended, but the fact that it was magnetic in drawing attention made it strong and profound. The newspaper challenging readers to look for the nude in the painting inadvertently fulfills Duchamp’s vision: to interpret “progressive motion” and expand their ideas on expression.

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  15. If I’ve learned something about media, it’s that something that shocks people also heavily attracts their attention. American society must have been startled by the emerging style presented at the Armory Show, but even if many people criticize it, the work was in everyone’s mouth, like the finest propaganda. This is one of the reasons why some artists opt to portrait something controversial, because its controversial aspect will make not only the artwork to be in the spotlight, but obviously also the artist’s name.
    In this case, Duchamp’s work was a perfect example of the difference of perspective. Before this time, landscapes, portraits, and still-life were the most common, and people related to the beauty of a painting with its similarity to life. It was a matter of time until society comes across a new type of art, in the realm of abstract (always challenging audiences), and adapt their perspective to it. We are constantly doing it because even if society seems like it resists to changes, there is always going to be a section of people who welcomes new stuff, and that’s the door for acceptance, either for good or for bad.

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  16. When looking back at what art had focused on prior to 1913, the focus was on realism and naturalism. Imagine the shock of the people upon seeing this Armory show. The shift in expression and free movement was unexpected and not something that was accepted.

    In most cases, that’s how most people have seen Art, throughout era. Something different and something that we don’t understand, which leads to persecution and criticism. Movements within Art can be overbearing and imagining the shock and disdain by the public after seeing the show, is justifiable. Still, with the transition to futurism and more expressive artworks, the need for acceptance and understanding is something that all artists seem to pine for, even if it does not happen initially.

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  17. I can understand why people were shocked; people resist and fear change. However, I believe that change makes evolution, innovation, and create a possibility for advancement. For example, back in history, the public resisted and rejected in Spherical Earth theory. In the end, however, the theory contributed so much to science and aid so much in our modern studies. If I was there in 1913 at the Armory Show, I would also be shocked. I would not be resistant, but I would be amazed by the power of the art that goes beyond any matter as it is not limited to any subject.

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  18. The sudden shift in style when the Armory Show came out was during a time where realism and naturalism dominated the art world. Many people do not like change. Whether it is good or bad, if they are comfortable with how things are in life, then they’re content with leaving things as they are. This has been prevalent even to this day. Things that people don’t understand will often be hated, but that hatred and scorn can often be used to market and spread word of this show even further than it had originally intended, which is what happened. As time went on though, more people were starting to appreciate the beauty of this newfound art style.

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  19. I can understand why people would be shocked to see Duchamp’s Nude Descending a staircase. I honestly would be confused at first to see the piece in 1913 because it was such an unfamiliar style of art. As a student I can appreciate it and accept it as a piece of art because I’ve been familiarized with this style. I think cubism is interesting because it deals with displaying an object through different viewpoints. Cubism to me is like looking at objects through a broken lens because the image is divided and broken into shapes. I think the reason why people were not fond of this work is because they weren’t familiarized with it. Knowing the context of what cubism is really helps people understand and appreciate it. People sometimes don’t know how to take in this type of style because they want a clear image, they want to know what they are seeing instead of having to interpret it. Like music, there are many forms and styles like there is art and I can see how music has influenced cubism. Cubism is like music because music is broken down into fragments in time and can have extended or cut out notes. I think this type of style showed a new perspective of how people see art and the world.

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  20. Annie Lin

    “When the vision of the Nude flashed upon me, I knew that it would break forever the enslaving chains of Naturalism” (Marcel Duchamp, 1920). This quote from Duchamp basically sums up everything. For the first time in centuries, a group of people completely breaks up traditional chains and free themselves in the realm of imagination. The idea that anything can be broken up to pieces, cubes, as well as the idea that by portraying abstracts shape of movements can transfer a common message into an unforgettable painting. When think about a nude descending a stair, a image of a classical nude gracefully walks down the stair, or at least a shape that I can tell what is stair and what is the nude. Never a image like Duchamp had depicted. At this point, I want to know how he came to this idea.

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  21. I believe the shock that the Armory Show garnered was expected, as the pieces that were involved in the show were not very traditional in terms of content and execution. For example, the pieces that contained nude figures were shocking to many viewers because they were not handled the way that traditional nude paintings were. The subject was pictured in action and the nudity was the main focus of the piece rather than it being an aspect of the piece. I also think the shock surrounding the Armory Show is what helped make the attendance so large- everyone knew it was shocking but they still had to see it for themselves.

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  22. I think that the shock did not necessarily come from the fact that the figures on the staircase are “nude.” You know, art has been depicting nude people for a long time. I think the shock factor came from the way Duchamp chose to depict someone descending a staircase. The lines and patterns that he chose communicate staircase in a new and exciting way. The shapes carry a descending energy, along with their highlights + shadows. To be able to see the entire motion of someone moving displayed this way… well it’s beautiful and it makes me look at the people around me and imagine I can see them moving like this painting. I can imagine my own movements trailing behind me and the words “flow state” come to mind haha. This painting is definitely something more difficult to comprehend and makes people think more about what they are looking at as compared to earlier impressionist style works.

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    1. Yeah, it is definitely due to how Duchamp depicted the figure. I still have a hard time reconciling the title with the composition. It is very aesthetically pleasing, but it is so far removed from how figures had been portrayed up to that point.

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  23. I understand why so many people would be shocked at this painting. While naturalism had been so prominent, seeing something like Nude would be extremely jarring. I love that Marcell knew that painting this would shake the table, and that he proceeded with it anyway. That’s so fun to me, and stirs up the art scene to start a shift. Based on the quote, using the phrase “enslaving chains” for naturalism shows that he wasn’t fond of Naturalism, or the idea of being realistic in a natural setting. He wanted change and he knew this vision of Nude was the key. It just takes one person to break the norm, and especially at such a large public event, things would’ve likely spread fast.

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  24. This was an interesting time for art, artists, and the movements that surrounded them. This state of sudden shock generally seems to happen whenever there is a new art movement or exhibition. Breaking from traditional artist values and techniques was still seen as taboo even during the early 1900s which really wasn’t that long ago. It is all part of the process. We need to learn to break free from what is seen as the norm and focus on implementing new styles and meanings to what art represents. Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, has always been a controversial painting. Not only does it have the word nude in the title, but it was completely in a new style that many during this time were not familiar with. I myself think it is good that paintings like this come to light because it forces a change in the artist community. Look at what kind of art is being produced today. People are free to create whatever they want without society looking down on it due to it being in a different style or having a controversial image. This is really the true beauty of art:)

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  25. When pondering the general public’s fierce reaction to Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, it is not entirely difficult to understand why they reacted so. The long-domineering naturalism that had been heavily ingrained in the minds of common art patrons had suddenly been cast into the void and replaced with wildly new and unorthodox. For someone who has never looked upon such an avant-garde style of art in the past, such a sight would have and certainly must have shaken them to their core. Duchamp’s utterly bohemian piece, along with other works from avant-garde artists of the day, presented the general public with a new way of thinking at a time when the world itself was transforming and the midst of significant change.

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  26. Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase of 1912 was surely jarring to the general public at the 1913 Armory Show. Constantly being exposed to naturalist art and having those examples define what art is to you would definitely lead you to believe that what you just saw in the Nude Descending a Staircase is obscenely unjustifiable as “art”, especially to purists who saw art as a single category. Of course, as everyone else says, people do not like to accept change and even fear it. Perhaps the people who attended the show saw this painting as the “degeneration” of society, as the painting depicts shards and cubes of nude, which align to maybe most of the older generations’ thoughts as the newer, more progressive generations rose in prevalence. They were probably thinking “What has this world come to?” in creating art like this. But this reaction is completely to be expected because such a shift in change from realism to cubism without ever experiencing that shift to most would be shocking.

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  27. The Famed Armory Show was organized at a time when society was not ready for innovative trends. It presented a turning point in introducing modern art to the art understanding of Americans accustomed to realist art. In Nude Descending a Staircase, the painting combines the multi-faceted cubist figure with a downward movement’s dynamism. I see it as usual that the Cubists of the period received a strong reaction. While capturing the movement of modernity was a futuristic ideal, Duchamp captured this with a cubist form. Despite the sensational reaction, the exhibition left a unique impression on American avant-garde artists and collectors. It ushered in the era of modernism that will leave its mark on American art.

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  28. Shock in art happens easily specially when new forms and techniques come out but “Art cannot be separated from life. It is the expression of the greatest need of which life is capable.”

    In 1913 art was revolve around realism and naturalism so to see the Nude Descending a Staircase painting to anyone not use to that style would have deemed this art piece as not art. I feel that Marcel Duchamp’s was very much aware of the shock his painting would create at the Armory Show. He was particularly fond of the current style that was domination the world at this time. His brave move to express himself I feel he knew would rile up the crowd.

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    1. I can sort of understand how many of the works featured in the exhibit would shock many who went to see it. When we look back at these pieces now we have the benefit of hindsight; we study the artists, their movements, and how they all fit and influence each other over the course of history. This is especially achievable in our day and age where we have the internet and a mass amount of information available to us for research and study. On the other hand, the way people were exposed to art during the early 20th century was much more limited. That the general reaction to the Armory Show was shocking and critical of the work and the artists can be seen as the general human reaction to things that are new, unconventional, and unseen before. Because these works have aged and we have the benefit of understanding the context and history of their creation, we see them in a much more appreciative light today.

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  29. To me this shock and awe over this piece is rather understandable. Up until this point natural and real looking art was what the people wanted. The people wanted to feel like they could reach into the canvas and grab the objects with their bare hands. This painting of people descending the stairs nude looks nothing like what it is supposed to be and that can be a huge shock but with it never being seen before it doesn’t surprise me.

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  30. I think whenever a new art movement is displayed to the public it is always met with resistance. Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime and now everybody knows his name. Going from a more traditional painting style to the Cubist movement is a huge jump. It makes sense that the public reacted the way they did. Nude Descending a Staircase is a beautiful piece, but very confusing to look at. Even for an art major who has studied composition and form. I’m sure reading the title card and looking at the painting was a bizarre experience for those at the Armory Show. The fact that it was displayed with hundred of other avant-garde pieces should have helped it blend in, however. If you look at pictures of the 1912 armory show you see other artworks similar, but I have to say, Nude Descending a Staircase would have stood out.

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  31. Arron Adams
    Art 473-1001
    People need to be given time to adjust to change; the more extreme and abrupt the change, the more time may be needed. I know that for my part, it can take days, weeks, months, sometimes even longer, for me to work out what my thoughts are regarding something new, and that’s when I’m actively trying to work it out. But not everyone does immediately try which can make it take even longer, and on top of that, before people have figured out what they think about a new thing, they tend to respond in an overly harsh way, particularly when others are already responding harshly. Given time, however, opinions can change; the initial reaction is not always a good thing to use to gauge what people think.

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