The Cubies’ ABC (1913)

The 1913 Armory Show in New York City introduced the American public to the works of “a number of foreign artists,” as the journalist Frederick James Gregg wrote at the time, “who, though they are well known in Europe, are for the most part but names to New York and America”. These unfamiliar foreign artists included not only indisputably cutting-edge Cubists and Futurists, such as Braque, Picasso, Brancusi, and Duchamp. This was also the first time most American had the chance to see paintings by a number of 19th-century painters long become canonical in Europe — among others Ingres, Delacroix, Cézanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh.

In the face of all this novelty, the public was confused, dismissive, and more than occasionally outraged. When, for example, a New York Times questionnaire asked an anonymous American artist for a “straight-from-the-shoulder opinion on the Cubists and the Futurists,” he replied:

The Cubists and the Futurists simply abolish the art of painting. They deny not only any representation of nature, but also any known or traditional form of decoration. They maintain that they have invented a symbolism which expresses their individuality, or as they say, their souls. If they have really expressed their souls in the things they show us, God help their souls!

We tend to forget, now that the Cubists and Futurists have become as integral to the history of art as the painters of the Dutch Golden Age and the Italian Renaissance, how hostile most people — even most artists — felt toward the non-representational innovations of the artists on display at the Armory.

For every open-minded viewer like William Carlos Williams, who later said he was “tremendously stirred” by what the show represented, there were dozens who felt more like the anonymous American quoted above — or like Mary Mills and Earl Harvey Lyall, who immortalized their disgust with “the Cubies”, stars of a novel alphabet book published sometime before the end of 1913.

The mean-spirited, if sometimes hilarious, text of The Cubies’ ABC was composed by Mary (1879–1963), about whom nothing is known. The equally mean-spirited, if somewhat cutesy, illustrations were done by her architect husband, Earl (1877–1932).

Mary’s poems primarily take aim at the artists featured in the Armory Show:

B is for Beauty as Brancusi views it.
(The Cubies all vow he and Braque take the Bun.)
First you seize all that’s plain to the eye, then you lose it;
Next you search for the Soul and proceed to abuse it.
        (They tell me it’s easy and no end of fun.)
D is for Duchamp, the Deep-Dyed Deceiver,
Who, drawing accordeons [sic], labels them stairs,
With a lady that must have been done in a fever,—
His model won’t see her, we trust, it would grieve her!—
        (Should the stairway collapse, Cubie’s good at repairs.)

But she also saves some abuse for Gertrude Stein (“Eloquent scribe of the Futurist soul”) and reckons, fairly honestly, with the fear that anti-modern “standpatters” such as the Lyalls felt on seeing the Armory Show:

Q’s for the Queerness we Stand-patters feel
When Progressive young Cubies start Art reformation.
They’re strong on Initiative, praise the Square Deal:
“Though the Cubic is best!” they aggressively squeal:
        “Painting things as you see them is rank deformation!”

Within a few decades, of course, the non-representational art many Americans thought was an aberration had become the norm on both sides of the Atlantic. To quote Frederick James Gregg, summing up the whole Armory affair in Harper’s Weekly only a few weeks after the show opened: “The moral is that there is nothing final in art, no last word, and that the main thing is not to be taken in on one hand, and not to be blind on the other.”

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