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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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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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