LOOKING around at art today, one might almost suppose controversy was the whole point of making art at all - at least in some circles.
Back in 1907 a group of American artists got together, skillfully exploited the press's penchant for sensationalism, and produced a powerful exhibition. The press dubbed the artists "The Eight," and the show they produced at the Macbeth Galleries in New York changed the American art scene forever. Yet the eight artists never again exhibited together as a group.
Well, "The Eight" have returned in a generous new exhibition organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum. Works by Robert Henri (pronounced "hen-rye"), William Glackens, Ernest Lawson, George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, Everett Shinn, John Sloan, and Arthur B. Davies are gathered together for the first time since 1907. The show is much larger than the original, including the artists' earlier and later work. One section is devoted to the original show's paintings - one from each artist.
Presented here is a juicy slice of American art history that looks better the more one looks at it. Davies's dreamy obsessions with mystic and mythic themes have nothing in common with the techniques of the other painters. The peculiar American interpretation of Impressionism in Prendergast and Lawson breaks open windows of light amid the darker city streets of Luks, Sloan, and Shinn.
It is a genuine pleasure to walk through the "City Streets" section, though, and wonder why these hardened visions of urban realities might have shocked anyone. A quick glance, however, at the soothing sentimentality of a picture that met the repressive standards of the National Academy of Design makes these raw presentations of real life seem brash or harsh. It is no wonder that later critics dubbed some of this work the "ash can" school, though apparently there is little to support the theory of a "sch ool."
Still, George Luks's "Hester Street" brims over with street drama and the vitality of crowded humanity bustling about its business. His "The Spielers" defies sentimentalization of children. Here two young girls, poor urchins in a dark room, dance with all their might, their flushed faces and flying hair glowing out of the center of the darkness - a moment of ebullience in a dreary environment.
John Sloan's "Easter Eve" seems strangely soothing. Though the street at night is dark and dingy, the lamps of the flower shop beckon shoppers.
Glackens's "May Day at Central Park," on the other hand, is high-energy youthful frolic. Even the trees drip painterly liveliness as if he couldn't paint fast enough to take it all down just as it happened in a moment in time. His "Central Park Winter," with its dark and snowy landscape, still tingles with movement.
Glackens and Shinn went to the theater and found Edgar Degas's vision accurate. "White Ballet" by Shinn borrows heavily from the French. Indeed, all these men except for Sloan studied in Europe and spread the ideas from the Old World among their colleagues and students.
While "The Eight" did paint on the cutting edge, the real controversy lay not so much with the paintings as with the defiance of the National Academy of Design.
Henri was the hero of the day. The magnetic artist was a member of the academy, but when paintings by friends whom he respected were refused space in the annual exhibition, Henri grew indignant - and vocal. When the academy then tried to punish him, he went to the press, and with an unerring sense of the power of publicity he publicly slapped the academy in the face.
Henri was a powerful and persuasive teacher and new ideas swirled around him with every season. A successful portrait painter and landscape artist, his influence spread far. He was a powerful force at the New York School of Art. And he was the impetus behind what the newspapers called the "secession" from the academy. The dispute grew more heated when the academy refused membership to several young artists whom Henri considered first rate.
The press jumped at the chance to find something controversial in the normally placid art world and when Henri organized his friends for the 1907 exhibit at Macbeth Galleries, the headlines screamed "New York's Art War and the Eight 'Rebels.
As Henri argued that the academy rejected artists who were truly American, the press portrayed the rebels as heroic patriots, Davids all, embattled against the Goliath of the academy.
"The Eight" exhibition promised a new vision of reality unacceptable to strict academy standards. The depiction of everyday American life was the grist for Henri's mill. The press loved the back allies and the dark streets of New York depicted in many of these paintings.
Truly, there is a journalistic impulse at work in many of these paintings, the impulse to capture the moment as it happens or as one remembers it happening. Luks, Sloan, and Henri were attracted to the life of the streets. Sloan considered himself a newspaper man, but Glackens, Luks, and Shinn had all captured the news events on paper for newspapers and magazines. Their hands knew how to record the essential without sentimentality.
Yet capturing the feeling of the moment was important, too. In Henri's full-length portrait of his own student, "Portrait of Miss Josephine Nivison," the woman's bright and questioning diffidence seems palpable. In "Portrait of George Luks," the expression of amused intelligence emerges from the gray shadows as the pressing reality of the piece.
"The Eight" exhibition has been credited with hastening the decline of the National Academy of Design as the primary sponsor of American art shows.
The exhibition managed to change the way artists related to their public. Self-promotion was born.
The value of publicity had been learned and was further developed for the Armory show of 1913. "The Eight" directly foreshadowed the Armory Show where 1,200 paintings and sculptures told the history of American art and foreshadowed the future of abstraction here.
The American artist as rebel was born here, too. And the art of social concern may well have been launched, though none of the eight artists represented were political in the contemporary sense.
What the viewer takes away from "The Eight the '90s version - is a feeling for the liveliness of that fertile period in American art. No one painting overwhelms with its greatness. But the consistent skill with which paint is laid down on canvas, the passionate preoccupation with the American scene - whether urban, suburban, or dreamscape - still challenges the viewer to look about with fresh vision at the daily lives and even the dour environs of our own culture. 'The Eight' is at the Denver Art Museum through Feb. 16. It will be on view at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa from April 16 to June 7, then at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York from June 26 through Sept. 21.