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An Idea of Order

The imagery of Europe spinning out of control.

Dec 27, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 15 • By JAMES GARDNER
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Chaos & Classicism

An Idea of Order

Art in France, Italy, and
Germany, 1918-1936
Guggenheim Museum
New York
Through January 9

Western art is like a deck of cards that scholars forever shuffle and reshuffle in hopes of finding new meanings in the hands they’ve dealt themselves. 

Consider the two decades that intervened between the armistice of November 11, 1918, and the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. As with Western culture in general over the past several centuries, a welter of styles and formal convictions competed, during these years, in the open marketplace of artistic practice. This period saw the emergence of Surrealism and the Bauhaus as well as the evolution of Expressionism, Dada—and much besides. But in this latest offering at the Guggenheim Museum, guest curator Kenneth E. Silver reads the cards differently, choosing to define the period as one of Classicism, which he perceives as having arisen in response to the chaos of the Great War.

Traditionally, the twenties are seen as a period of fairly orgiastic liberation after the pent-up privations and horrors of the Great War, when the better part of a generation was maimed or slaughtered in the trenches of Ypres and the Marne. But for Silver it is more importantly a rappel à l’ordre, a call to order, through a renewed insistence on craft, through a quest for serenity and return to realism after the systematic distortions of Expressionism and Cubism.

What informs the curator’s argument is the inarguable fact, too often overlooked, that a great many classically themed objects were made during this period. But a far greater quantity was produced in the years leading up to and including World War I. Thus to characterize the period as classical has more to do with how art historians arrange the cards in their hand than with any facts on the ground. Picasso, one of the major figures of the exhibition, had discovered Classicism—or something like it—in his Ballets Russes period (starting in 1917), while another luminary of the show, De Chirico, found solace in the “metaphysical style,” which Silver equates with Classicism, as early as 1910.

What Silver’s argument has going for it is that a great deal of the classical art produced during the years in question has not usually been viewed as a coherent strain of visual culture, but rather as a sequence of spasmodic interludes and aberrations. Perhaps this is because most art historians have insisted on seeing these years in the context of mainstream Modernism. What adds interest and consequence to this exhibition is that Silver removes the notional divide between Modernism and its enemies and usefully finds far more common ground among them than many critics and scholars had seen before.

But when Silver, a professor of art history at NYU, speaks of Classicism, he is really talking about two things: those artists who energetically invoked the forms and mythology of Greece and Rome, and those who merely rejected the Expressionism of the first 15 or so years of the 20th century, whether through realism, geometric abstraction, or some modified form of Cubism. It is with regard to the first group that Silver’s argument is most successful and engaging. The years in question were indeed marked by a ritorno al mestiere, or return to craft, after the riotous excesses (as they were now perceived) of the Cubists and Expressionists.

“The art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not an art of the past,” Picasso wrote in 1923. “Perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was.” It was in this spirit that he began to create his great reinterpretations of Ingres, a trend represented here by Picasso’s masterful depiction of his seated wife Olga (1923). This is a study in muted browns and grays, of diffused shadow moving across the sitter’s marmoreal face and hands like daylight stealing over the gnomon of a sundial.

Even more explicit in its classical longings is De Chirico’s Self-Portrait (1922), which depicts the artist from the chest up, beside a marble bust of himself in profile. But more explicit still are the pottery designs of Gio Ponti, who would go on, a generation later, to become one of Italy’s most successful International Style architects. Somewhat whimsically, he has created bone white urns and plates, accented with gold, burgundy, and blue, that are populated by naked figures in the art deco style.

It is with regard to the second category of artists whom Silver includes among the Classicists that he runs into trouble. It requires a rather energetic amount of good will to apply the term Classicism to Mies van der Rohe’s sundry designs for his famed Barcelona Pavilion, designs as spare and angular and unadorned as you would expect Bauhaus-inspired objects to be. The same might be said for Fridel Dethleffs-Edelmann’s Self-Portrait Wearing an Artist’s Smock, a powerful work of intense realism and keenest observation. If I understand the curator’s point, it is primarily included because its realism (like Mies’s formal simplicity) roundly rejects the uncontrolled exuberance of the previous generation’s Expressionism. But surely neither of these attributes, by itself, is sufficient to qualify as classical!

The frisson of transgression that runs through this exhibition consists in its including certain explicitly classical painters and sculptors who were much admired by Hitler and Mussolini and whose supreme Gesamtkunstwerk was the staging of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Among the works in question are several busts, fascinating in their absurdity, of Il Duce as the embodiment of the Nietzschean superuomo and reborn Roman emperor. One of the final paintings on view, and I suspect one of its secret stars, is Adolf Ziegler’s triptych, The Four Elements. This very nearly pornographic depiction of four Aryan women is rendered with a precision that, to many viewers, will doubtless recall the paintings of John Currin, one of the most esteemed artists of the moment. Ziegler’s Nazi bona fides were impeccable: He was entrusted by Hitler with the task of organizing the infamous exhibition of “degenerate art,” Cubists, Expressionists, and the like. The present work is said to have hung in the Führer’s bedchamber. But however odious a man he might have been, it must be said that Ziegler was an accomplished realist and that there is a beauty of sorts to the present work.

From an art historical perspective, his inclusion in the present show, like that of similarly classical artists, is defensible on several grounds. In recounting the progress of 20th-century art, historians have always indulged in clannish, even cliquish, triage: There is the In Crowd, which includes Picasso, Kandinsky, Pollock, and so on; there are those whose entrée is provisional on good behavior, like Salvador Dali and Andrew Wyeth; and finally there are accomplished realists like Fridel Dethleffs-Edelmann and Antonio Donghi, who never had a chance. But if one refuses to play that game, if one looks at the entire deck of cards laid out face up, it becomes clear that certain artists have been selected or omitted because they did or did not share such formal and intellectual convictions as appeared, until recently, to be nonnegotiable. Surely they cannot rival in consequence the great modern masters; but their purely artistic success is easily equal to that of many painters and sculptors whose names are more familiar to art lovers because they were Modernists, not antimodernists.

Now that Modernism has long since receded into historical canonicity, we are able to see that, politically and even formally, its luminaries shared more with their apparent opponents than has usually been appreciated: in their stylistic self-determination as well as in their sexual explicitness, and in those interludes of realism and Classicism explored in this exhibition. It is a constant of cultural history, though almost never appreciated, that at any given moment apparent antagonists, the followers of Rubens or Poussin, of Wagner or Brahms, of Pollock or Reinhardt, have more in common with one another than either has with anyone who lived in an earlier or later age.

James Gardner recently translated Vida’s Christiad (I Tatti Renaissance Library).

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