-by William O’Connor

As the centennial of the 1913 Armory Show is here we are all inundated with retrospectives, articles and blogs about the importance of the exhibit that took place 100 yrs ago this February.  The 100th anniversary Armory Show will be taking place from March 7-10 at the Pier in NYC.  As I am the writer of an art history blog, I feel it my duty to share my opinion, but  being that this is Muddy Colors, I’d like to explore the impact this show had on fantasy art and illustration.

The thirty years between The Franco Prussian War and WWI was perhaps the most revolutionary time in human history.  The industrial revolution had created urban cities, skyscrapers, transcontinental railroads, electricity, photography, movies, the phone, the automobile and the airplane.  One of the most important changes was that the population of the world had nearly doubled over this period and most now lived in cities working in factories.  The ruling aristocracies which had governed the people for centuries no longer could control the population with rising concepts of Socialism and Worker’s Unions in the new modern world. (Fans of Downton Abbey can appreciate this conflict.)

The transformation of art during this time reflected this socio-economic change.  The invention of photography,  new mediums and ideas changed the way artists perceived their role in a world that was changing in front of their eyes.  Music, sculpture, literature and painting evolved from an academic craft to an intellectual philosophy.  The study of Fine Arts moved from the ateliers to the universities focusing on conceptualization rather than story telling.

In 1913 the new modern artists broke entirely with the academic salon system.  The armory show was one of the first true art conventions, and the forerunner of contemporary shows like ArtExpo and  ComicCon.  Private artists gathering together in a gymnasium to display new work in what was the largest hall in New York.  The show clearly demonstrated a new direction in art and drew a line in the sand between the victorian and modern period in art.

But, what does this have to do with fantasy illustration?  Everything.  During this transformation an entire generation of academic artists were going unemployed.  Once famous artists were forced to auction off their collections.  Photography took the place of portrait painting and Duchamp and Picasso were the new masters of the art world.  Fortunately, the very industrial technology that had usurped the Victorian art world, would create a new market for academic painters.  Artists adapted and the new publishing and advertising industries became the patrons of the traditional painters and put them to work producing some of the most beautiful images in what we now call, The Golden Age of Illustration, forming The Society of Illustrators in 1901, and creating one of the most iconic 20th century art forms, the illustrated book.   Pyle, Wyeth, Lyendecker, Rackham, Pogany  and all the rest, found themselves in high demand illustrating mass produced books thanks to the invention of offset lithography and industrial publishing.   The rise of newspapers, illustrated periodicals like Harper’s Weekly and The Saturday Evening Post, as well as pulp fiction publishers would lead to the development of comic books, posters and paperbacks in the 20th century, all requiring artists in the new field of illustration.

Today, at the beginning of the twenty first century we see a very similar transformation.  The internet and the computer have totally revolutionized the art world.  The influence of the gallery system and publishing industry that ruled the market in the last century are now fading, since artists can  communicate directly with a world-wide audience.  The invention of interactive virtual art that exists in virtual spaces transforms our ideas on what art can be, stretching its influence from New York to Bangkok.  The future of the art world is at as poignant a crossroads as it was 100 years ago.  What the future may hold is anyone’s guess, but the one thing we know will never change, is that everything will change, and art and its artists will be there.  I for one can’t wait to see what’s next!

Thank you,

For more on the 1913 Armory Show and the changing World of Art listen to the excellent NPR documentary:
1913 Culture Shock