From Avant-Garde to Kitsch: Modernism and Miss Morn

"as though lewdness equalled modernity": September Morn and Modernist Painting

Kenner's suggestion that a kitsch painting like September Morn may have informed the work of a modernist writer like James Joyce is at least a little surprising. In Greenberg's sense kitsch is the very antithesis of modernism, what Greenberg calls the avant-garde. And yet it is worth noting that when Chabas's painting first appeared it was not always so clearly dissociated from the movements that Greenbeg would associate with the avant-garde. Consider this brief story from the 1913 Washington Post:


Corcoran Gallery Also May Not Permit Displays by "Cubists."

Daring effects in nude art are not to be displayed at the Corcoran Art Gallery during the coming season, according to C. P. Minnigerode, in charge of exhibitions.

This means that such paintings as "September Morn" will not be seen, and there is also a strong probability that the examples of the "cubist" school will be denied a hanging. The question of the admission of cubist art will be decided by the trustees soon. It is expected that the Sunday free exhibitions will begin about November 1.

Washington Post, September 19, 1913, p. 14

Here "paintings such as 'September Morn'" and "the examples of the 'cubist' school'" are mentioned in the same breath. This seems a suprising conflation, but it is evident elsewhere. Joseph Masheck notes a similar tendency among some early twentieth century critics to conflate Chabas's painting with that other shocking painting of 1913—Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase. Masheck notes,

the idea of unacceptability held a certain positive appeal in the art world. If the middle classes like it, something must be wrong with it. . . Only this can account for the fact that more than one advocate of progressive art later found himself talking seriously about Nude Descending a Staircase in the same breath as Paul Chabas' well-known shivering female nude, September Morn (1912). Chabas' notorious barroom Venus taking a sponge bath by the water's edge is famous both as artistically reactionary and also as scandalously lewd—as though lewdness equalled modernity (on grounds of bohemianism). Oliver Sayler, in his Revolt in the Arts (1930), spoke of painters and sculptors as having been "long-suffering victims of specious curiosity ever since Duchamp's 'Nude Descending a Staircase,' Chabas' 'September Morn,' and Brancusi's 'Bird in Space.' . . . ' That seems like an improbable sorority until we realize that it was purely the notoriety of the Brancusi sculpture—the blocking by U.S. Customs of its admission as a work of art— that it had in common with the works of Chabas and Duchamp. (9)

Masheck also quotes an unpublished lecture by Marsden Hartley, "And the Nude has Descended the Staircase," in which Hartley compares Duchamp's nude with Chabas's as two nudes that "bothered so many people" (Hartley also notes, fascinatingly, a version of September Morn "in life size form in stained glass in a certain villa in Mexico City," qtd. in Masheck 9).

The controversy that September Morn encountered therefore provided it with an otherwise incongruous affiliation with modernist painting of the period—particularly with a controversial modernist nude like Duchamp's.