The Trial of Henry Hair Mattress
Post #1586 • January 21, 2013, 8:10 AM
James Polchin reporting for The Smart Set:
On a spring day in 1913 students at the Art Institute of Chicago held a mock trial for the aesthetic crimes of the artist Henri Matisse. The event was a response to the Art Institute's exhibition of works from the large Armory Show held earlier that year in New York, which was the first encounter many Americans had with European modernism.
The trial was a well-staged performance for a crowd of students and patrons held on the south portico of the Institute, its archways providing a proscenium for the theatrics. Guards brought in the satirically named artist "Henry Hair Mattress," his hands manacled as he was pushed in front of the court at the "point of a rusty bayonet," according to the Chicago Daily Tribune. The prosecution presented the evidence of three canvases — said to be that of the artist but, in fact, rough copies of three Matisse works from the show: "The Blue Nude" (1907), "Le Luxe I" (1907) and "Goldfish" (1912). The crimes were read to the jury and included "artistic murder, pictorial arson, artistic rapine, total degeneracy of color, criminal misuse of line, general esthetic aberration, and contumacious abuse of title." (In case you were wondering, contumacious is a "stubborn or willful disobedience to authority" though this "crime" seems the lesser one of the list.)
The copies of Matisse's paintings were so unsettling to the all female jury (an irony in 1913 before women had the right to vote) they caused a collective fainting. The verdict was unanimous. The canvases were burned to the excitement of the crowd, and then, in a moment of pure Greek tragedy, the executioner stepped forward and the "shivering futurist, overcome by his own conscience, fell dead." His body was carried to the other side of the Art Institute with onlookers in procession, ending in a humorous funeral where a student read a eulogy, concluding: "You were a living example of death in life; you were ignorant and corrupt, an insect that annoyed us, and it is best for you and best for us that you have died." With this, they planned on burning Matisse in effigy but the police stepped in before the image of the French modernist could be set ablaze. Even for this performance, burning the artist went a bit too far.