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 a 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 Durer 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 a 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 a 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 Lukacs) 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.
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.
(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. Walrer Michel and C. J. Fox (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1969), 287.
"Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918-1936," organized by Kenneth E. Silver with the assistance of Helen Hsu a and Vivien Greene, is on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York through Jan. 9; travels to the Guggenbeim 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.
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 lycees, 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 Compiegne 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 Franchise), 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 Wolfflin'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 Praxirelean 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 mentalite 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 mutiles 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 Ile-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 Andre Derain. I also find I resist the more acclaimed Fernand Legers 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 Amedee Ozenfant strikes me as designerish and stale. To be sure, Leger, 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.
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 II 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 "GroBe 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 Franchise. 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 II Duce's historicist national agenda. Carlo Carra'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 Salo 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.
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|Title Annotation:||Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918-1936|
|Author:||Foster, Hal; Pincus-Witten, Robert|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2011|
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