The Cubies’ ABC: Advice or Satire?

In the wake of the 1913 Armory Show, art lovers were reeling from their first encounter with modern art. It was the first time Americans were exposed to the radical artistic seachange happening in Europe with the invention of Cubism. Many people were horrified. A rare artifact of this reaction against of the evils of modernity, and Cubism in particular, will be in our Art, Press & Illustrated Books auction on December 1.

 

Lot 203: Mary Mills & Earl Harvey Lyall, The Cubies' ABC, New York & London, 1913. Estimate $7,000 to $10,000.

Lot 203: Mary M. & Earl H. Lyall, The Cubies’ ABC, New York & London, 1913. Estimate $7,000 to $10,000.

 

The Cubies’ ABC  is a satirical alphabet book by husband-and-wife team Mary M. and Earl H. Lyall. It stars three pyramidal creatures who celebrate abstraction and deride tradition. Each drawing is accompanied by a poem describing the Cubies’ actions and beliefs. Here is the poem for the letter A:

 

A is for Art in the Cubies’ domain—

(Not the Art of the Ancients, brand-new are the Cubies)

Archipenko’s their guide, Anatomics their bane;

They’re the joy of the mad, the despair of the sane.

— A is for Art in the Cubies’ domain.

 

Our view of Cubism has shifted so dramatically in the last hundred years that it can be hard to read the book as satirical. Alexander Archipenko seems like a great guide. The Lyalls skewer other now-beloved artists whose work appeared in the Armory Show as well, including Constantin Brancusi, Marcel Duchamp, Wassily Kandinsky, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.

 

Cubies on the page for Q, observing ancient art and reinterpreting it in their style.

Cubies on the page for Q, observing ancient art and reinterpreting it in their style.

 

Each page, in alphabetical order, depicts the three Cubies engaging in an art-related activity with an anti-Modern poem at the left. They paint, they visit museums, they eat cube snacks. Some of the illustrations feature recognizable references to real works that had been included in the Armory Show.

 

The Cubies portray the letter P.

The Cubies portray the letter P, with Francis Picabia’s Dances at the Spring, 1912, and Pablo Picasso’s Tête de femme, circa 1909.

 

In 1913, an unknown number of The Cubies’ ABC sold for $1 each. Though some copies appear in institutional collections, it’s not clear how many still exist. They rarely appear at auction.

 

Title page for The Cubies' ABC.

Title page for The Cubies’ ABC.

 

The Cubies’ ABC is an important historical document not only by virtue of its age and artistry, but because it is a reminder that popular opinion changes and evolves constantly. Today, the Cubies’ rhymes seem more like advice than derision.

 

To see more rare art books, flip through our full catalogue.