Making Modernism

Floyd Dell's "Portrait of Murray Swift," 1913

In 1913, Floyd Dell, editor of the Friday Literary Review, received a postcard from his friend, David Dobson, inviting him to New York to see the infamous display of modern art at the Armory Show. Dobson’s postcard to Dell begins: “This is an unusually interesting exhibit . . . Almost becoming converted to ‘Cubism’ and ‘Futurism.’ It’s so easy to fake as those followers do.” After seeing the Armory Show when it came to the Art Institute of Chicago (the only public institution that would allow it), Dell wrote “Portrait of Murray Swift,” an unpublished short story about the power of portraiture. Both documents reveal the importance of artistic authenticity among the emerging avant-garde writers and artists in Chicago.

Dell’s “Portrait of Murray Swift” story opens in the Art Institute with Swift proclaiming, “I am disappointed. I have yet to discover a portrait of myself.” We then learn that Swift, a writer, and his friend Jimmy Selden had just spent the last hour viewing the Armory’s modernist canvases. Swift succinctly and simply explains Marcel Duchamp’s notoriously incomprehensible Nude Descending the Staircase. Yet he is “baffled and silent” before Henri Matisse’s Blue Nude. Over lunch, Selden, who says little in the gallery, suggests that they visit Nordberg’s studio to see “the greatest portrait of modern times.” Swift is so impressed with what he sees that he asks Nordberg for a portrait of himself. The story concludes with the finished portrait, in which Swift sees his true self on the Expressionist canvas. Swift stands “with stick and cigarette,” “observant, indecisive, inadequate, against a rose-colored background.”

Nordberg is an obvious reference to B. J. O. Nordfeldt, a Chicago artist who lived near Dell and had recently painted his portrait. In fact, Dell’s description of Swift’s portrait illustrates the same pose and composition as Dell’s. Throughout the story, Dell compares Nordberg to Matisse, a member of the French Fauves or “Wild Beasts.” Swift describes Nordberg’s technique as raw and primitive – “chaos of raw pigments, a whirling nebula of unimaginable forms and colors.” It was this raw style of Matisse that left Swift “intrigued” earlier that day at the Institute. Twice Dell (as Swift) is amazed by the same primitive authenticity of Nordberg, a Chicagoan. He declares, “A real painter – here, of all places, in Chicago!” And asks, “Is it possible that a wild creature like you could have been born and brought up in Chicago?” The story shows Dell’s allegiance to Expressionism over Cubism; America’s avant-garde is more primal and authentic, like Matisse, as opposed to the easily faked Cubists. Other members of the Chicago literary avant-garde, such as Margaret Anderson and Sherwood Anderson, would go on to seek inspiration from the expressive paintings of Matisse, Kandinsky and Gauguin exhibited at the Art Institute in 1913.

-Elizabeth Carlson, Lawrence University

Link to the finding aid for this collection

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