It is impossible today to imagine an art exhibition--a mere art exhibition and not a ballyhooed million-dollar international all-star blockbuster--arousing the kind of furor stirred up 75 years ago by the first (and last) show of paintings by "The Eight."
The rebellious American artists who paid to put up their paintings for two weeks in a New York commercial gallery in early February 1908 very much wanted the show to become a landmark event in American art. When the controversy erupted, they could feel confident that they had succeeded.
Because of their art, their timing and their obvious enjoyment of the fray, the eight painters managed to get themselves called, among other epithets, "inartistic," "unhealthy," "coarse," "vulgar," "the gang" and "the revolutionaries"--and all this despite the fact that most of the reviews of the exhibition were favorable. Directly, or by implication, the critics agreed that the show was an important one, a challenge to the reigning taste.
The pendulum of taste has made a few more swings since then, so that the work of Robert Henri and other members of the group--John Sloan, George Luks, William Glackens, Everett Shinn, Ernest Lawson, Arthur B. Davies and Maurice Prendergast--has gone up and down in critical and public estimation. Today the group is level-headedly rated not too high, not too low, somewhere in the middle--in other words, just about right.
The Hirshhorn Museum marks the anniversary today with a show of nearly 50 works selected from its own holdings of works by The Eight. It is not surprising to find so large a collection of these paintings at this museum: Everything in the show was in the original donation by Joseph H. Hirshhorn, whose enthusiasm for an artist or whole group of them, once they caught his eye, led him to buy works in clusters.
Critics of the original show, even sympathetic reviewers who had been systematically cultivated by Henri, the tireless teacher, were somewhat puzzled by the diversity of the styles on view. In a way, though, diversity was the key to the event, one of the points the artists wished to make in the battle with the National Academy that stimulated their "independent" show. The artists were similar, Henri told a newspaper editor, "only in that they all agree that life is the subject and that view and expression must be individual."
This attitude accounts for the otherwise almost inexplicable inclusion of Davies in the group (and the somewhat less surprising presence of Lawson and Prendergast, the other non-"Ashcan School" artists in the show). Even today, viewers at the Hirshhorn will experience something of a jolt when they turn from the vivid, gritty city in Sloan's "Rain, Rooftops, West 4th Street" to the dreamy pastorales of Davies, who seems altogether in another stream of time. Davies was not considered an artistic revolutionary even then.
He was, however, Henri's equal in independence, meaning he possessed a similar contempt for the academic stultification. He also had a much more inquiring eye and was an organizational whiz. As it turned out, of course, his impression on the course of American art was at least as large as Henri's, because he became the chief force behind the Armory show--the huge independent exhibition of contemporary art, including much of the European avant-garde, that opened in New York in 1913 and was a key event in the still-bubbling crucible of modern culture in the United States.
That is, however, another story. The specific significance of the exhibition of The Eight, beyond its healthy, general contribution to a climate of freedom in the arts, was to open up a fresh street for American realism to go down at a time when moralistic gentility dominated the visual arts in this country.
In the 1950s and 1960s, when abstraction and avant-garde art proclaimed a lasting triumph, this may have seemed a slight accomplishment, but today it looks a lot different--a lot better--to a lot more people. Presumably, this is not just another spin on the wheel of fashion, but a sign that we are becoming stronger and more tolerant (in other words, more mature) as a culture. Then again, maybe not. At the very least, The Eight exhibition is far enough removed in time that it can be evaluated with some dispassion.
This awareness helps to open a viewer's eyes at this Hirshhorn exhibition, which is familiar terrain seen in mostly familiar works. Only four or five pictures have never been seen on the museum's walls. Each artist, except Glackens, who is represented by a solitary oil sketch, gets reasonable attention.
There are some surprises, although not big ones: Henri's really wonderful East River view in slate-gray winter tones, Whistler-esque though stronger than Whistler; Prendergast's Post-Impressionist portraits of children, persuasive character studies despite the formality of their construction; Davies' "Hosanna of the Mountains," an arcadian scene that is in many ways typical of Davies but stiffer and stranger and more lively than most; and a few others.
But mostly it is a question of looking at familiar qualities with fresh respect: Sloan's ability with colors and the brush, and his vitality; Henri's vigor, often excessive; Luks' two portraits of women, strong in color and physical presence, tremendously solid pictures.
The show ends, in a way, just where it should. As you leave it, you see a painting by Edward Hopper, "11 a.m.," that testifies to both the importance and the limitations of the Ashcan artists. Hopper, of course, was a student of Henri's and, as it turned out, a much greater artist who carried the belief in an everyday, American subject matter to a truly powerful, enigmatic conclusion.
The Hirshhorn exhibition continues through March 15. On Sunday, Feb. 13, the Smithsonian Resident Associates will host an all-day symposium on the subject.