PRINT January 2011


Giorgio de Chirico, Gladiateurs au repos (Gladiators at Rest), 1928–29, oil on canvas, 617⁄8 x 78". Estate of Giorgio de Chirico/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome.


APOLLONIAN DECORUM, totalitarian repression, elite chic: All these indexes and many more were coded in the newly minted or rediscovered classicisms inherent to European art in the decades following World War I. Some of the more pernicious strains became allied with triumphalist Fascism, a combination that reached its apex at the Berlin Olympics of 1936. That signal celebration of a putatively rationalist beneficence masked a racially pathological Europe nursing old grudges and on the sill of being reduced to ash, yet again. Chaos.

With its vast display of some 150 works by more than eighty artists (many as unfamiliar as their work is unknown), “Chaos and Classicism”—assembled by Kenneth E. Silver, the noted historian of the Paris avant-garde, and his team of ranking scholars—takes a bold step in overcoming present-day resistance to much of the art of this period. This resistance is understandable, given how tainted the revival of Greco-Roman idioms quickly became following the Nazi games and, in lesser measure, how antithetical this mode’s operations are to Abstract Expressionism’s supposedly unmediated appeal to sensory experience. Classicism, by contrast, requires that you know something, not just feel something. It is a style informed by the Homer and Virgil fundamental to the curricula of the old German gymnasiums, French lycées, and Edwardian public schools.

Jean Cocteau felicitously denoted this shift in sensibility as a “return to order,” one marking the intense reaction to the horrific destruction of World War I. That annihilation of person, property, and of a perhaps mythologized douceur de vivre was seen, especially when viewed through a reactionary glass, as both the natural outgrowth of the preceding Expressionisms, Cubisms, abstractions, and nascent Dadaisms, and the purgative to all those innate cultural “disorders.” From there it was but a moment before a link was established between classicism and the most odious of Fascist values inaugurated, to choose but a single date of inception, with the signing of the armistice in the Compiègne Forest that marked the end of World War I.

In the time directly following the fall of Central Europe’s great empires, however, both Right and Left sought classicizing emblems and stylistic tropes to buttress the new political movements—Fascism in Italy and Germany and related tendencies in France (whose ambivalent regime was sympathetic to Fascism—recall the violent anti-Semite Charles Maurras and his political party, the Action Française), as well as the countervailing Spartacist uprisings, Popular Front coalitions, socialist triumphs, and Communist states.

In 1925, Franz Roh, a German photographer and art historian, adapted the great Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin’s formal comparison between Baroque and Renaissance art to contrast the Expressionist biases of pre–World War I art with the emerging classicist sensibility, summing up with a description of what he called “Post-Expressionism”: a plenitude, following hard on privation, and typified by suave balance, sobriety, representationalism, shallow spatial illusion, austere coolness, smoothness, polish, harmony, purity, cultivation—taking into account as well the link between classicism and social critique that informed Neue Sachlichkeit, the art we call New Objectivity.

To the formal properties Roh charted, one could add the Zelig-like appearances of the Praxitelean Hermes, an array of Venus types (the Cnidian Venus, the Venus pudica, the Venus de Milo), Dianas and Apollos without number, as well as Nike, the Muses, Niobe, Orpheus, Hercules, and so on. Add gladiators to this mix, pediments and columns, amphorae, white-ground lekythoi (a source of Picasso’s supple mode of painting in the period)—and one sees how densely pervasive the stylistic atmosphere became. The Greco-Roman provided a legitimized response to an identity-destroying war, balm for a Europe whose mentalité had been cruelly warped on the battlefields of the Somme. A renewed emphasis on the whole and the pure—and on the buff and beautiful body—was a response to a generation of millions lost. Excruciating likenesses of survivors were seen, as evidenced in this exhibition, in the drypoint Transplantation (Skin Graft) and other works from Otto Dix’s 1924 portfolio of some fifty such images (not to mention the mutilés de guerre encountered daily in every tram).

The French artists in the show are by far the best known, not least thanks to Picasso’s disavowal of Cubism during the 1920s—well, not quite, as he worked in both his neoclassical and Cubist styles during that period (coincident with his disastrous marriage to Olga Koklova, a second-tier dancer in Sergey Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes). Apart from the Picassos, the muted panels of Georges Braque’s Canephorae, 1922, and the striding nudes of Aristide Maillol, notably Île-de-France, 1925, the French contingent of the show (though the exhibition’s divisions are not national but thematic, at times with absurdly didactic results) also contains some of the flattest material—soporific Jean Metzingers, for instance, and the moribund harlequinades of André Derain. I also find I resist the more acclaimed Fernand Légers of the 1920s, whose mechanistic goddesses were natural partners to the Esprit nouveau buildings of Le Corbusier. In the same vein, the worthy Purism of Amédée Ozenfant strikes me as designerish and stale. To be sure, Léger, Ozenfant, and the ruddy Marcel Gromaire demonstrate classicism’s pluralistic connotations, since, in a sense, their political views veer to the left rather than to the smart, often reactionary, biases of high-style Paris.

Heinrich Hoerle, Grüßende Jungfrau (Greeting Virgin), 1928, oil and sand on panel, 30 3/4 x 22 1/2".

The great strength of the exhibition, however, is the novel attention paid to the Italian Fascist component of interwar classicism. Arturo Martini, the exemplary figure among the Italian sculptors, is here given a context in which his extraordinary work decimates the feebler efforts that surrounded him. This is also the case with Marino Marini, whose later celebrity is such as to have made one forget his early connections to Fascism. Moreover, the dour sobriety of the Roman realist Mario Sironi rises far above the pedestrian realism of the other Novocentisti—particular beneficiaries of Fascist support—the finest of whom is the crystalline painter Felice Casorati (wastefully represented by a plaster sculpture of a cactus plant and a crisp still life, both works that too closely resemble Giorgio Morandi’s Metaphysical School–era still lifes). Animated by Il Duce’s appeal to il popolo, Sironi’s images of bleak Blackshirts here enter the world stage, having long been ostracized owing to the artist’s imposing Fascist commissions.

Though it focused exclusively on France, Italy, and Germany—scorching centers of the revival—the exhibition could (especially if its chronology had been expanded) easily have included work from the United States and Spain. The sheer ubiquity and multivalence of the classical template can be measured in a comparison between the anodyne Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, designed by the little-known architect Marion Sims Wyeth in 1941, with its colonnade of rectangular columns surrounding a central atrium, and the long facade of columns designed by Paul Ludwig Troost for the Haus der Deutschen Kunst in Munich—the latter built to embody art favored by the Nazis, opening, as it did, with the “Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung,” the official counterpart to the infamous 1937 “Entartete Kunst” or “Degenerate Art” exhibition, which included virtually every figure whom we regard today as canonical to modernism.

The various ends to which neoclassicism was put in this era point up the thorny paradoxes raised by ’20s and ’30s classicism—for example how, when placed at the service of leftist activism in the work of the Bauhaus, it became the very thing that had to be eradicated as Hitler consolidated power, even while the Nazis still embraced the classical paradigm. Nevertheless, many of the artists who began as revolutionaries, Dadaists, and the like were absorbed by degrees into the newer mode. Picasso is the standout figure, but this goes for Braque, too, and the Dadaist Picabia, who became court painter to collaborationist stage stars in the French “free zone.” Another Dadaist, the photographer Christian Schad, became a portraitist of glacial realism. Numerous German Expressionists (think Emil Nolde) chose to accommodate their work to the developing dispensations in the period that would come to be called “between the two wars.”

Another paradox of the era is that the male nude is, of course, rhapsodized in Fascist art—even if the sexual overtones of the new classical style are often masked within the “manly” theme of sports, Olympian competition, and pugilism, distant echoes of the ancient gymnasiums and the Panhellenic games. A stunner is the virtually nude rowers (in white Speedos, as it were) of Albert Janesch’s Wassersport (Water Sports) of 1936—a forebear of the locker-room decor surrounding the central stairwell of Abercrombie & Fitch today, and an example of the form of classicism that obtains as well in the photography of George Hoyningen-Huene. Given the film’s centrality to the mode, the exhibition naturally includes the opening of Leni Riefenstahl’s eurythmic Olympia (1936–38), her paean to the Nazi games.

The show’s strong sculptural focus grants the ambiguously affiliated German Georg Kolbe a prominent place, with a particularly militant male nude, Junger Streiter (Young Warrior), 1935, as well as Der Morgen (Morning), 1925, the famous female nude who was first met silhouetted against the travertine wall of Mies van der Rohe’s influential 1928–29 Barcelona Pavilion. But where is Arno Breker—Maillol’s student (and defender), and later Hitler’s preferred artistic adjutant along with Albert Speer? The beefcake attitudinizing of Josef Thorak’s Aryan monuments would also have been a natural inclusion.

Among the exhibition’s other omissions are the triumphs of the Art Deco sculptor Alfred Janniot, though New Yorkers are fortunate in having Rockefeller Center, which encompasses, among its many distinguished elements, Janniot’s 1934 golden panel Friendship Between America and France, with its beautiful three Graces reigning over the main portal to La Maison Française. Just down Fifth Avenue is another important work of the time, Attilio Piccirilli’s murkily lit glass relief Youth Leading Industry, 1936, which depicts a virtually Etruscan plowman conveying Mussolini’s commitment to the toilers of the land. In the Guggenheim show, Arturo Martini’s Il bevitore (The Drinker), 1934–35, offers another paean to agrarian labor, the porous tufa it is made of simultaneously suggestive of the dehydration of the soldiers then fighting Italy’s colonial wars in the Eritrean desert.

Mussolini’s classicism, promoted by the informed taste of his Jewish mistress, Margherita Sarfatti, stresses a kind of quattrocento Sienese landscape fully attuned to Il Duce’s historicist national agenda. Carlo Carrà’s stiff figures painted in bleached, frescolike color, for example, affiliate Mussolini’s Italy with the Italo-Gothic and early Renaissance of the warring Guelfs and Ghibellines, a period dominated by Mussolini-esque condottieri. In time, de Chirico also fell into line, with his paintings of Play-Doh gladiators and wobbly mannequins. Isabella Far, his second wife, was also a Jew, but it was not until the harsher imposition of Nazi racial laws in northern Italy during the (essentially German-run) Republic of Salò that she and her husband were, in 1943, forced into hiding. Millions were not so well protected. Small wonder, then, that with the scorched-earth policies of World War II and the genocidal horrors of the Third Reich, classicism came to be regarded as a toxic signifier—its acrid fumes only now lifting.

Robert Pincus-Witten is a contributing editor of Artforum.