Friday, May 22, 2009

Anna B. Crocker ~ Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase

Anna Belle Crocker was responsible for many good things happening at the Portland Art Museum. From the time when her tenure began in 1909 until she retired in 1936, she worked relentlessly on behalf of the Museum. Crocker had the foresight to bring national touring exhibits to the museum. Portlanders were exposed to the new avant garde art from Europe shortly after the 1913 Armory Show rocked the art world when it opened in New York. Because of her efforts, the Portland Art Museum mounted an exhibition in late November, 1913 that had Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 as its centerpiece. At that November show, Portlanders were able to see original prints and reproductions of the art works of Cezanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, and Picasso, some of the same artists that had been part of the infamous Armory Show. Crocker augmented Portland's exhibition with lectures by Frederic Torrey, the famous art historian and San Francisco gallery owner. Both Crocker and Torrey hoped to bridge these modernists with their artistic predecessors. That didn't completely work though. Both Portland newspapers ran less than favorable headlines. The Oregonian ran a classic for its critic's review: "'Picture' Resembles Wrecked Shingle Mill."

Portlanders did come and see this new art though. Rumor has it that businessmen would make daily visits to the museum to see Duchamp's scandalous piece of art. For those of you interested in curatorial decisions, Crocker hung Nude Descending a Staircase with a piece of blue cloth behind it. Some accounts say that the blue was dull, others remember it as turquoise. In either case, Crocker wanted the painting to stand out from the cream colored walls. For all of her forward thinking though she was quite proper in what she saw as the role of the museum and was said to be horrified when her successor had invited the local garden club to have their annual flower show in the sculpture garden just off the lobby of the museum. What would she think of the Portland Art Museum today? My take on Anna Crocker is that she probably would have not flinched at the Colescotts currently hanging just off the main lobby and that the weddings and other events would be just fine as long as they remained in the Grand Ballroom of the Mark Building. She was one beautiful, smart, strong woman. There are not enough adjectives to describe Anna Belle Crocker.

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