At the other extreme, the book is filled with anti-experimental rants, which typically use the rhetoric of decadence—images of social or physical decay—to question whether the art under discussion qualifies as art at all. A writer for L’Indépendance Belge in 1874 eviscerates Manet for “impressions” of landscapes that have “degenerated into fog and soot.” A letter to the London Morning Post from painter William Blake Richmond in 1910 denigrates Roger Fry’s selection of Post-Impressionist paintings at Grafton Galleries as “hysterical daubs” and “morbid excrescences,” concluding that they are “childish, not childlike!” And that’s not counting all of the Armory Show reviews comparing the exhibition hall to the psychiatric wards of Bellevue.
The book does a great service by gathering so many of these rants and raves in one place, vividly re-enacting the high-decibel debate that surrounded and fueled the development of modern art. At times, the level of hostility is nearly shocking. Do critics today even have that capacity for outrage? There’s also the perverse pleasure of reading venomous attacks on painters who are now household names by art critics who are rightfully forgotten, one notable exception being Theodore Roosevelt’s lengthy review of the Armory Show, which manages to be at once dismissive and thoughtful.
The abundance of newspaper clippings reprinted also helps us track a central theme in the rise of the avant-gardes. Over the course of these chapters, we see how various artists used publicity-seeking strategies and even courted media hostility as part of their projects. That is clearly the case in the Dada exhibitions, which were designed not just to épater la bourgeoisie but to become society (or anti-society) events, flashy enough to warrant ink in the daily papers. You can deduce from the chapter on the First International Dada Fair in Berlin in 1920 that the artists regarded the exhibition as a sort of riot, or riotous carnival, long before their critics did. Likewise, Salvador Dalí parked his Rainy Taxi—with live snails crawling on female mannequins inside the car—in the courtyard of the Galerie Beaux-Arts as bait for media coverage of the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme.
Not incidentally, by this point in the story the photographs have improved dramatically in quality over those in the first chapters, where exhibition shots are few and far between. Photography gradually goes beyond documenting installations, serving instead as a surrogate for the artworks themselves in a way keenly familiar to today’s students of performance art, earthworks and other process-based expressions.
Take John Schiff’s 1942 images of Marcel Duchamp’s Sixteen Miles of String. The two shots reproduced here show paintings by Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy and others caught in the white twine that Duchamp had strung from floor to ceiling and through the chandeliers of a room in the Whitelaw Reid mansion in New York. At the time, we learn, critics variously described the installation as a labyrinth to explore, as “stout cobwebs” designed to obfuscate meaning and as a symbol of the tiring repetitiveness that afflicted the Surrealist movement. But it’s Schiff’s images, with the twine looking like a spray of white graffiti or an abstract light-drawing on the surface of the print, that are etched into our collective memory. In a book that unpacks the archive, there are moments whenthe archival becomes the art.
JORI FINKEL isan arts writer based in Los Angeles.