From Avant-Garde to Kitsch: Modernism and Miss Morn

September Morn, Kitsch, and Controversy

The strange affiliation between Chabas's painting and the avant-garde on the grounds of controversy alone, however, morphed into the stark antagonism Greenberg describes between kitsch and the avant-garde. When, more than four decades after the initial controversy surrounding Chabas's painting, the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased September Morn in 1957 it generated controversy again. This time the controversy concerned not the supposed indecency of the painting, but its value as art.

The painting was donated by William Coxe Wright to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Wright had initially offered the painted to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But they declined to accept the paint, according to the Museum's president Robert Sturgis Ingersoll, "because of no significance in the twentieth-century stream of art" (Mitgang 72).

In accepting the painting, the Met, however, seemed equally hesitant to dignify it with the name of "art," preferring instead to note its historical (rather than aesthetic) significance. Theodore Rousseu Jr., the museum's curator of paintings described the painting as a sort of object lesson in changing taste: "Chabas was fashionable in France fifty years ago, and it is interesting to see what everybody liked then and what we like and dislike today" (Mitgang 72). The museum's secretary, Dudley T. Easby, admitted its value because it was "part of art history" and an "art document" ("N.Y. Musuem Acquires"). One New York Times story suggested it was "installed with honor in the Great Hall of the Metropolitan Museum, more as an art historical curiosity, vapid yet poetic, than as a significant work of art" (S.P.). A story in the New York Times Magazine noted "The art critics have had their say," noted one story, "Chabas and his nude are interesting historically but much, much less than great" (Mitgang 22).

For Emily Genauer, writing in the New York Herald Tribune, this was not an entirely successful defense. Genauer contrasts the value of Chabas's painting with that of another painter who provoked controversy—Jackson Pollock:

For all the controversy [Jackson Pollock] has provoked (and I'm among those who have never been convinced of Pollock's greatness) there are informed and discerning collectors and experts who esteem him very highly indeed. Posterity may vindicate their judgement. The Chabas controversy, however, never had anything to do with the picture's aesthetic merit. It hinged solely on whether or not the picture was indecent. The Metropolitan's method of announcing and displaying it cannot even be interpreted as a justifiable educational gesture indicating how art tastes have changed. It is witness, rather, only to how standards of decency have chagned . . . which cannot possibly be construed as the museum's function. And it suggests that even the great Metroplitan has fallen victim to the current epidemic of vulgarization, to which, apparently, nothing is any longer immune.