Today in History, February 17

“Probably we err in treating most of these pictures seriously. It is likely that many of them represent in the painters the astute appreciation of the powers to make folly lucrative which the late P.T. Barnum showed with his faked mermaid. There are thousands of people who will pay small sums to look at a faked mermaid; and now and then one of this kind with enough money will buy a Cubist picture, or a picture of a misshapen nude woman, repellent from every standpoint.”—Theodore Roosevelt, “A Layman’s Views of an Art Exhibition”

The New York Armory show of 1913 opened on this date that year. It had nothing to do with the National Guard, but the International Exhibition of Modern Art organized that year by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors needed a huge space, so the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue was secured. More than 1300 works by about 300 artists were featured.

The exhibition introduced the American public to paintings by Matisse and Picasso and Derain and sculpture by Duchamp. The public was scandalized, having seen very little avant garde art before. Former President Theodore Roosevelt wrote a review for Outlook magazine in which he praised the American, realistic, paintings seen in the show, but said of the European works, “That’s not art!”

Roosevelt continued, “Admirers speak of the kneeling female figure by Lehmbruck—I use ‘female’ advisedly, for although obviously mammalian it is not especially human—as ‘full of lyric grace,’ as ‘tremendously sincere,’ and ‘of a jewel-like preciousness.’ I am not competent to say whether these words themselves represent sincerity or merely a conventional jargon; it is just as easy to be conventional about the fantastic as about the commonplace.”

Despite the derision, the exhibition was enormously influential. American artists were inspired and the next two generations of artists continued to compete with and continued to aspire to meet the standard they saw in the show.

* * * *
For the last several years, I have been publishing a This Day in History piece each day on my Facebook account. I have decided to run it here on the website as well.

* * * *
The Beatles released a double-A-side single in the United Kingdom on this date in 1967: “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever.” It was four days after they had released the single in America. In both countries, “Penny Lane” charted higher than “Strawberry Fields Forever,” peaking at number 2 in England and hitting number 1 in America. It was the first song from the group to miss the top spot in the United Kingdom. The song that held the top spot against the Beatles? Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Release Me.” (And now all three songs are somehow stuck in my head at the same time.)

* * * *
The Blaine Act passed the U.S. Senate by a vote of 63-23 on this date in 1933. It began the process of ending Prohibition. For the first and so far only time in U.S. history, an amendment to the Constitution was to be struck out in its entirety by writing in a new Amendment.

* * * *
Jiddu Krishnamurti died 30 years ago today.

* * * *
Hal Holbrook is 91 today. He continues to perform his one-man show, “Mark Twain Tonight,” just as he has for the last 61 years. Last week The Hollywood Reporter’s Jordan Riefe asked Holbrook, “How do you keep it fresh?” Holbrook replied:

The world keeps it fresh. The human race keeps acting like a bunch of asses and fools, all you got to do is look at what’s going on. Mark Twain wrote about all this—you and me and our behavior and our misguided ideas about who we are, the lies we tell each other, the lies we tell ourselves, it’s a part of our history. And Mark Twain, people dismiss him cause they thought he was being funny. Yeah, it’s funny. It’s funny up to the point where it’s not funny.

Holbrook performed as Mark Twain just last week. Many years ago, Holbrook memorized much of Twain’s work, and to this day, his Mark Twain show is a work of love and a prodigious feat of memory: he spends the afternoon before the performance selecting topics from today’s headlines and finds Twain quotes and stories that suit our times as well as they suited Twain’s.

Some more from last week’s interview:

What would Twain make of our current campaign season?
He said there’s probably no distinguishing criminal class in America except Congress. He excoriated politicians because they are liars and have been liars for decades and decades. If they’re not liars, they must be idiots. Anyone listening to the people running for president, anyone listening to them right now has to wonder if he’s really hearing what he’s hearing.
And what do you think of Washington outsiders like Donald Trump?
Oh, for chrissakes, Donald Trump is an ass. He’s a jackass. The trouble with politicians, almost every single one of them, except Bernie Sanders, they always say what they think might get them elected. They’re not telling the truth. If they’re telling the truth, they must be the stupidest bunch of people ever born on the face of the earth, and should be put on a barge somewhere.

* * * *
Barry Humphries (forever Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson) is 82 today. Jim Brown is 80 today. Rene Russo is 62. Mo Yan is 61. Richard Karn is 60. Loreena McKennitt is 59. Michael Jordan is 53. Larry Whitney (Larry the Cable Guy) is 53. Denise Richards is 45. Billie Joe Armstrong is 44. Paris Hilton is 35. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is 35. Ed Sheeran is 25 today.

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  1. LRose · February 17, 2016

    Thanks for the reminder it’s a nephews birthday!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gwenny · February 17, 2016

    Okay smarty, do one for every day for the next year.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. terryb · February 18, 2016

    After scrolling down your home page and finding this post, I have the answer to my last comment. I see that indeed, each date is chock-full of history! I’m looking forward to reading more 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Benn Bell · February 18, 2016

    Works both places!

    Liked by 1 person

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