The 1913 Armory Show and Speculative Fiction

Originally published in the Apex Publications blog (now defunct), January 2014

In February 1913, one hundred (and one!) years ago, an amazing thing happened in America: it was introduced to Modern Art. The 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue in New York City was a far cry from the glamorous museum space one would expect to showcase Van Gogh, Picasso, Cezanne, and their contemporaries today. But in 1913, it was all they could secure, and all they could afford.

The Armory Show in New York was the launching point for this new brand of art in the United States, it had already paid its dues in Europe. One of the things new to this art movement is that it went beyond a mere visual experience with art and sought to interact with people on a deeper level. Cubism desired to show multiple angles of the same object simultaneously and accurately render a three-dimensional object in two-dimensional space. Picasso and Duchamp were famous for this. Fauvism approached colors in a new way, positing that colors had “vibrations” that could have an effect on emotions (something we know now as pretty close to the truth) so Matisse painted figures that were factually representative of the model but using a palette of vivid colors. Expressionism took that view a little farther and pushed the boundaries between the viewer and the artwork, hoping to create a unique experience for each person through a mix of color, subject matter, and painting style. (See my earlier blog post about Expressionism and Noir.)

Colors causing vibrations, 3D objects in 2D space, to me, that sounds a little like science fiction. I think what’s amazing about the speculative fiction world is how much it absorbs the real world and real history around it. I think the real world would do well to recognize when it has crossed that threshold as well. The rudiments of our modern sci-fi movement were in full swing by 1913, H.G. Wells and Jules Verne were well-known and the Oz books were being released to appreciative audiences. Dime- and pulp-novels features spaceships, ghosts, and monsters were a mainstay of many readers. 1913 was also the year Tolkien switched his major from Classics to English with an emphasis in Philology (the study of languages, his focus was the history of the English language) which would have a profound effect on his later career.

The world in 1913 was one on the brink of war in Europe, it was a world ready to move forward into modernity, a world willing to reach past the things it could see and touch and towards the unknown. What the Armory Show represents, to me, is those notions crossing the pond to America in a major way. The art in the Armory show was shocking, some even said grotesque. But the singlemost controversial painting, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, sold at that show for $264, about $5,500 in today’s money.

Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase

What that tells me is although people were shocked, people also wanted more. Humans like stability, but we also crave excitement and challenges to our way of thinking. Good art does that, and so does good writing. And the early days of the twentieth century were a fertile breeding ground for both. I see a parallel between early sci-fi and fantasy and early modern art because both looked beyond the confines of the establishment, both saw the world before them and asked “What if…?” I see no mere coincidence of timing between the emergence of both genres from the ending of the nineteenth century into the dawning of the twentieth, with the end of the millennium not so far in the future.

What if we could show in a static painting the motion of a woman walking down stairs?

What if we could travel through time?

What would happen if we could go to another realm (and an American had to save them? Ahhh, tropes…!)

What if we could reconstruct the pre-Normandy Invasion and pre-Christian myths and language of England?

One hundred years later and artists still ask “What if…?” and try to represent the world around us in ways that go beyond the merely visual. And more than one hundred years later, authors ask “What if…?” and invent futures, uncover hidden pasts, and make the whole thing up as they go along. All to satisfy that eternal question, “What if…?”


Suggested reading:

NPR’s coverage of the historic Armory Show (also audio!):

The International Print Center’s Armory Show Revisited illustrated checklist of artists

Science Fiction and Fantasy titles released in 1913



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