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Book Review

struggle over modernism


Sue Ann Prince (ed.), The Old Guard and the Avant-Garde: Modernism in Chicago, 1910-1940. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1991. Pp.280 with 20 color plates and 75 figures. $35. (cloth).

George J. Mavigliano and Richard A. Lawson, The Federal Art Project in Illinois 1935-1943. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990. Pp.257 with 32 plates and 3 figures. $24.95 (cloth).

Second cities, whether Manchester, Lyon or Chicago, have always struggled to assert themselves as places of culture as well as manufacturing and trade. For a brief period early in this century Chicago could claim to be a vital, even pacesetting city in two fields: architecture and literature. Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris, Poetry magazine and The Little Review forced even New Yorkers to look west. But there was never a moment when people in New York, Boston or Philadelphia needed to look to Chicago for new movements in painting or sculpture. As the essays recently collected by Sally Prince make clear, Chicago for all its brashness and risk taking elsewhere, held out against modernism in the visual arts as long as possible.

Prince's book is bound together by the theme of conflict, with each essay tracing clashes among a particular set of players, whether patrons, collectors, dealers, critics or the Art Institute and its School of Art. Many artists are mentioned, but there is only one chapter devoted to modern art produced in Chicago; apparently most of Chicago's would-be modernists, like many of its writers, soon left for points east. Thus, the real focus of the book is the struggle among the various consumers of art over whether modernism was to be tolerated in the city. Like most such battles it usually had no clear public front, taking place in the classrooms and studios, in boardrooms and museum offices, in encounters between collectors and dealers.

The one great public event in the dispute was occasioned by the New York Armory show, which came to Chicago in 1913 and provoked an even greater furor there than in the East, with the voices of ridicule drowning out the few positive reviewers like Harriet Monroe, founder of Poetry magazine; Margaret Anderson, founder of The Little Review, and Clarence Bulliet, critic for the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Evening Post. The conservative head of the Art Institute, who had reluctantly arranged for the show, left town for the duration, and the students at the School of the Art Institute paraded Matisse in effigy.

Perhaps the most amusing organization generated by the conflicts over modernism was Sanity in Art, made up of wealthy, conservative women who combatted modernism not only through behind-the-scenes pressure and letter-writing campaigns but also by sending small groups to the modern art gallery of Katherine Kuh in order to harass potential buyers. Of more lasting importance was the Arts Club of Chicago, run by the heiress Rue Winterbotham Carpenter and her assistant Alice Roullier, who organized modernist exhibits from 1918 on, even borrowing space in the Art Institute for several years until they lost their friendly connections on the Art Institute Board.

Part of what makes the Prince collection delightful reading are its vivid portraits of the heroes the critics Monroe, Anderson and Bulliet, the collectors Martin Ryerson and Arthur Eddy, and the dealer Katherine Kuh as well as the villains, like Tribune critic Ellen Jewett (who got her job because she was a McCormick relative) and Art Institute director William M.R. French. This is a story we have heard over and over: the courageous, persecuted avant-garde battling a bunch of narrow-minded, self-righteous, puritanical ignoramuses. None of the contributors seems aware of the recent literature exploring the myth of the avant-garde, which might have suggested a more ironic story, nor does anyone take advantage of feminist theory to examine the central role that women critics, dealers and collectors played on both sides, particularly with respect to the issue of morality in art. But these are minor complaints about a book that is generally well conceived, researched and written (at least eight of the dozen essays are first-rate) as well as excellently designed and illustrated.

Mavigliano and Lawson's study of the WPA art project in Illinois also focuses on Chicago. The first 80 pages offer a brief history of the Illinois Art Project, centering on its three consecutive directors and their handling of typical Federal Art Project problems, such as the tension between providing relief and producing quality art or between encouraging "American Scene'' subject matter and permitting artistic autonomy. The authors have done a great service in digging through archives and collections of letters, and above all, in taking oral histories from dozens of

Part of what makes the Prince collection delightful reading are its vivid portraits of the heroes . . . as well as the villains . .

former project participants. Two-thirds of the book consists of photographs of people and art works, lists of participants, titles and locations of murals and sculptures, employment and salary statistics, etc.

Reading these two books together, one is surprised to discover that although their subjects overlap in time and place, neither book seems aware of the issues raised by the other, and hardly any of the same names appear in both. It is difficult to believe that the Illinois Art Project, which employed hundreds of artists in Chicago for most of the decade, had no influence on the reception of modernism in that city, or that the debates over modernism were not involved in some of the conflicts which broke out within the Illinois Art Project.

Larry Shiner is professor of philosophy at Sangamon State University, where he teaches aesthetics. Shiner reviews the arts for Illinois Times.

May 1991/Illinois Issues/33

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