PRINT January 2011


On the occasion of the major survey “Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918–1936,” organized by Kenneth E. Silver and on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York through January 9, Artforum asked art historian and critic Hal Foster and contributing editor Robert Pincus-Witten to reflect on the renewed fascination with—and recent relevance of—the oneiric yet chilling “return to order” in European art between the wars.

Adolf Ziegler, Die vier Elemente. Feuer, Wasser und Erde, Luft (The Four Elements: Fire, Water and Earth, Air), ca. 1937, oil on canvas, three panels, from left: 67 x 33 1/2“, 67 3/8 x 75 1/8”, 63 1/2 x 30 1/8".


SEVERAL CURRENTS run through “Chaos and Classicism,” an unusual show about representational art in France, Italy, and Germany entre les guerres. Curated by Kenneth E. Silver, the New York University professor who has written the best book on the French part of the story, Esprit de Corps: The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War, 1914–1925 (1989), “Chaos and Classicism” presents us with a return to the classical nude and so to figurative painting and sculpture; a revival of ancient themes that extends to film, fashion, and the decorative arts; an attempt to reconcile traditional ideals of order with modern techniques of construction in architecture; a focus on typical objects and social types in still lifes and documentary photographs; a fascination with performers in sport, the circus, the carnival, and commedia dell’arte; and the gradual annexation of many of these interests by the Right, especially in Italy and Germany, which were, of course, more aligned with each other than with France both aesthetically and politically.

Two larger claims govern these lesser themes. The first is that, horrified by the destruction of World War I, many artists rejected the “chaos” of prewar modernisms such as Expressionism and Cubism, embraced “classicism” in a retour à l’ordre, and in doing so reanimated this tradition and were reanimated by it. (Classicism was nationalistically inflected: In France it could mean Poussin and David as well as antiquity, in Italy Giotto and Piero as well as imperial Rome, in Germany Dürer and Cranach as well as ancient Greece.) Though less overt in wall texts and catalogue essays, the second thesis is suggested by the installation, which begins with Bust of a Woman, Arms Raised, 1922, a statuesque painting by Picasso in his classical mood, and concludes with the prologue to Olympia (1936–38), Leni Riefenstahl’s spectacular film of the Berlin Olympics, in which, among other sequences that advance a spiritual affinity between ancient Greeks and modern Germans, the Discobolus of Myron (ca. 450 BCE) metamorphoses into the contemporary decathlete Erwin Huber. Here the implication, taken up by reviewers of the show, is that the classical revival in art of the 1920s prepared the Fascist and Nazi appeals to ancient authority in the 1930s. Grounds exist for both theses, to be sure, but much of the art runs counter to them: Even when it was driven by a conscious wish for reanimation through the classical, it often betrays an unconscious drive toward the deathly, and rather than a convergence between aesthetic and political programs in authoritarian Italy and Germany, there is a telling disconnect.

The classical, Picasso declared in 1923, is “more alive today than it ever was”; this claim is echoed by Silver, who highlights “a powerful desire for regenerative order and classical beauty” in the art of the period. Yet as often as not, the classical here is hardened, more reified than regenerative, more dead than alive; and there is a persistent uncanniness to its appearance (to which the curator is also alert). Intimations of the uncanny, Freud tells us, include a ghostly doubling, a confusion between animate and inanimate states, and a tendency toward compulsive repetition. These attributes are abundant in the exhibition, especially in its first section, “A More Durable Self,” where twinned figures in flesh and stone by German painters Julius Bissier and Georg Scholz face off as though in a contest of petrification. When Freud published his essay on the uncanny in 1919, he was on the verge of his theory of the death drive, delivered the next year in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, which is perhaps the most radical insight of the period. This concept is historically specific (Freud was motivated in part by his personal tragedies during the war), and a force much like it is often felt in the show. For the classical world appears less as a revival than as an atavism, less as an origin in the sense proposed by artists and critics—a touchstone of renewed tradition, a fount of reawakened life—than as an origin à la Freud, an inanimate state prior to the dynamic tensions of both modern life and modernist art. Indeed, antiquity here is less a pastoral of life than an arcadia of death, a return to order, perhaps, but of an ultimate kind. If Picasso claimed the vitality of the classical, de Chirico, the other great avatar of the exhibition, pointed to a different attraction. “Go to the statues,” he urged, “to dehumanize you a little, you who in spite of all your puerile devilries were still too human.” This Nietzschean call to dehumanize was the motto of other artists, too, such as Wyndham Lewis, who extrapolated it along these paradoxical lines: If you can’t beat death (actual death in the war but also the death-in-life of industrialization and commodification), you must embrace it, and seek in such dehumanization a “more durable self,” one that might survive an inhuman modernity.

As Silver argues, much of the work is amnesiac about the recent past of art and war alike, yet this “self-conscious forgetting” also involves a distorted remembering, and signs of this past do persist. Thus classicism is not entirely other to chaos, whether the latter is understood as Expressionist distortion or Cubist fragmentation, the physical mutilation evoked by Dadaist dummies or the psychic castration suggested by Surrealist mannequins. (This is clear enough in a painting like Greeting Virgin, 1928, by the Cologne Progressive Heinrich Hoerle, who depicts a female torso as a shell of deathly flesh à la Max Ernst.) Even as this art attempts to negate these modernisms, then, they at times become internal to it, and the same goes for the modernity of fragmentation and reification already associated (by Georg Lukàcs) with the machine and the commodity. So what is involved here is less a “sublimation” of the past, as Silver proposes, than a reaction-formation to it, in which what is opposed by the art is also carried forward in it.

Julius Bissier, Bildhauer mit Selbstbilsnis (Sculptor with Self-Portrait), 1928, oil on canvas, 30 3/8 x 24 1/8". © Estate of Julius Bissier/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

I propose the notion of reaction-formation not as the truth of the work but as a way to come to terms with its weirder aspects, in particular with why it often appears so conflicted, at odds with its own program.¹ For Freud, a reaction-formation is a way to defend against a desire but also, paradoxically, a way to gratify it through this very denial; his prime example is obsessive cleanliness as an inverse form of anal eroticism. “From the clinical point of view,” Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis write in The Language of Psycho-Analysis, “reaction-formations take on a symptomatic value when they display a rigid, forced or compulsive aspect, when they happen to fail in their purpose or when—occasionally—they lead directly to the result opposite to the one consciously intended.”² “Rigid, forced or compulsive”: These attributes are everywhere in this art. “Fail in their purpose”: Rather than classical nudes, the figures here often resemble “scarecrows damaged and dismembered by a patched-up arrangement of dreams” (as Adorno once wrote of the neoclassical pieces of Stravinsky).³ A “result opposite to the one consciously intended”: This occurs here, too, especially when “self-conscious forgetting” gives way to a conflicted acting-out of this disastrous period. Finally, to see this art in terms of reaction-formation is also to see it, necessarily, in a relational field that includes not only the disfigurations of the body in Expressionism, Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism but also the reconstructions of the body in Constructivism and the Bauhaus. As Lewis wrote in “Power-Feeling and Machine-Age Art” (1934) with his usual nasty precision: “What is afoot [is] the living statue—which comes upon the scene hand-in-hand with the robot-man—the herd of machine-minders mingling, without recognition of a difference, with the herd of Hoffmann puppets.”⁴

As for the second thesis implicit in the show—that the “return to order” in art supported the turn to authoritarianism in politics—the work does indeed make repeated appeals to traditional authority, and as we move further into the period of Fascist and Nazi rule, these appeals become more oppressive. “Each politically historical epoch searches in its art for the link with a period of equally heroic past,” Hitler declared in 1933 soon after he seized power. “Greeks and Romans suddenly stand close to Teutons.” Yet in the art on display at the Guggenheim, these identifications usually fail, especially in the late going. The final gallery of the exhibition includes three studies for monumental murals by Mario Sironi from the mid-1930s, with such grand subjects as “Soldier” and “Leader on Horseback.” Impressive though these figures are, they are also abstracted and stilted, as if they could not bear up under the opposite demands of historical specificity and allegorical import. And Gladiators at Rest, 1928–29, by de Chirico, is downright absurd: His coiffed warriors, long and limp in posture, inhabit a world somewhere between El Greco and Tony Curtis and look ready for battle in the Satyricon more than in the Colosseum. Finally, there is the kitschy combination of prurience and pornography that is The Four Elements: Fire, Water and Earth, Air, ca. 1937, by Adolf Ziegler, who here refashions classical goddesses as Teutonic ice queens. Hitler hung this triptych by the “painter of pubic hair” (as Ziegler was once dubbed) over his mantel in Munich.

This failed identification with the classical suggests not a convergence but a tension between the art and the politics of the time, which might be related to the contradiction between an appeal to authority in matters of culture and a flouting of such authority in matters of law. For Fascist and Nazi regimes operated routinely in a state of emergency, with old codes suspended and new rules made by decree. The great apologist of this mode of operation was the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, who, for reasons that are obvious enough, has become current again for his concepts of the “state of exception” to the law and “decisionism” in politics (according to which an action is validated by the authority of the ruler alone—“I’m the decider,” as Bush liked to say). The problem might be framed in this way: How to represent a regime via allusions to “Greeks and Romans” when that regime repudiates the democratic or republican principles that, rightly or wrongly, are often associated with classical antiquity? Schmitt is also known for his theory of the “enemy” as an essential device for any state to use in order to manipulate its subjects on grounds of “security.” In the infamous “Degenerate Art” show of 1937, which was overseen by the aforementioned Ziegler, the Nazis associated the modernist artist with their prime enemies, the Bolshevik and the Jew. Eradicated in art even before they were in life, theirs are the bodies (the “bare life,” Giorgio Agamben would say) that haunt the classical figures in the show. Here is indeed a connection between the aesthetic and political, one made through absence.

“Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918–1936,” organized by Kenneth E. Silver with the assistance of Helen Hsu and Vivien Greene, is on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York through Jan. 9; travels to the Guggenheim Bilbao, Feb. 21–May 15.

Hal Foster teaches at Princeton University. His Design and Crime (and Other Diatribes) is being reissued this month by Verso and a new collection of his essays, The Art-Architecture Complex, is forthcoming this spring.


1. In The Picasso Papers (1998), Rosalind Krauss deploys the concept of reaction-formation to account for the fact that, despite his resistance to photography, Picasso reproduces some of its attributes, as in the hard, impersonal line of his portraits of the mid-1910s. As suggested here, however, I think the concept has a wider relevance.

2. Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: W. W. Norton, 1973), 377.

3. Theodor W. Adorno, Musikalische Schriften, vol. 2, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1978), 391.

4. Wyndham Lewis, Wyndham Lewis on Art, eds. Walter Michel and C. J. Fox (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1969), 287.