Clare Briggs, March 20 1913.
Modern art famously came to America in a burst at the Armory Show that opened to scandal and praise in New York on February 17, 1913. The story is often told and it’s true enough. But not quite the complete truth. In fact, there had been exhibits of modern art as early as 1911 in W. Scott Thurber’s gallery in Chicago. And on February 25, 1925 the Art Institute of Chicago hosted an “Exhibition of Contemporary Scandinavian Art” which can be seen as strongly paralleling the more famous New York show.
Frank King April 24, 1913.
For our purposes what is important is the number of top notch cartoonists who went to the show, including Frank King, Clare Briggs, and John T. McCutcheon. The show was much mocked in the press but was a popular success, attracting many ordinary Chicago residents (including Frank King’s wife Delia who went to see it by herself).
John T. McCutcheon, April 3, 1913
For months afterward, cartoonists would use cubist and futurist imagery in their work. Intriguingly, many of these comics weren’t done in the typical philistine “you call this art” mode. Rather, these artists seemed to be affectionate to the new art, and tried to assimilate it into more homespun, familiar experiences, notably Briggs’ jest that the quilt maker was the first cubist. Another cartoon showed a bear cub (symbol of the local baseball team) done in a cubist mode: “our own little cub-ist.” In effect these cartoonists were domesticating modernism.
L.W. Newbre (?), March 25, 1913
Frank King of course remained obsessed with modern art for many years, leading to the great Gasoline Alley Sunday pages where Walt and Skeezix enter into the world of abstract painting. In his personal papers, King often alluded to Picasso.
There has already been one academic paper written about the 1913 show and Chicago cartooning. Alas that paper is as yet unpublished. But more work remains to be done. The crucial question I think is this: was their a hidden affinity between comics and cubism? Did the encounter with modern art liberate King and other cartoonists to free themselves from illustration and become more abstract and cartoony? This is a story that has yet to be written.
NOTE: Robert Boyd makes an important point in a comment posted below. The Armory Show travelled to Chicago. This would explain all the cubist cartoons printed above, except the Clare Briggs one which ran before the show moved from New York to Chicago. This renders moot my speculation that the artists might have seen modernist art in earlier gallery shows. Oh well, we can still enjoy the cartoons.
So to clarify: Briggs, who did at least 2 cubist inspired cartoons, might have gone to the Armory Show in New York. King, McCutcheon and L.W. Newbre probably went to the Armory show in Chicago. The show that Delia went to was the Armory show in Chicago, not the earlier exhibit of contemporary Scandinavian art.