“The War to End All Wars.” It takes but a few minutes in the Guggenheim Museum’s new exhibition, Chaos and Classicism, to appreciate why people fervently hoped that World War I would put an end to armed conflict. And it only takes a bit longer to see why the opposite happened.
As exhibitions go, Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy and Germany, 1918-1936 is an overpowering experience. It is an affirmation, in the current difficult economic times, that museums like the Guggenheim can muster the resources and talent to present a major exhibition of art drawn from collections around the world. Mounted in the Guggenheim’s spiraling galleries, Chaos and Classicism also reveals how a perceptive reappraisal of art history can shift the cultural ground from under our feet.
Be forewarned, when you come to the final exhibition gallery of Chaos and Classicism you are not going to experience an epiphany of “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” There, on the uppermost level of the Guggenheim, you will literally confront the “dark at the top of the stairs,” the place where art leads to evil.
A feeling of cultural unease pervades this exhibition. One of the signature works on view, Antonio Donghi’s Circus from 1927 gives a hint of emotions that I certainly felt as I examined the 150 works of art on view. A sad, bemused clown makes eye contact with spectators. He knows what’s coming when the ringmaster starts to crack his whip. As the 1920’s gave way to the 1930’s, the world of art traveled the downward path from classicism to chaos.
Indeed, this emotion-jarring process begins at once. A group of nude statues greets you upon entering the opening gallery. Exultant in the healthy appeal of their bodies, these statutes affirm the vitality of human life when not menaced by mortar shells and mustard gas. Aristide Maillol’s 1925 nude, Ile-de-France, looks as though she is set to leap, unclothed, from her pedestal.
So alive, so free of the bondage of tight-fitting uniforms and restricting regimens, these statues may cause the viewer to miss a group of prints by the German artist, Otto Dix, from his series, Der Kreig or The War. Dix was a veteran of the Western Front and there is nothing quiet about these prints which show decomposing bodies and mutilated faces.
Skin Graft frames the face of a soldier against the metal struts of his hospital bed. One half of his face has been ripped away. Eye, ear, nose are gone MIA. We would like to think that Dix’s etching is a surreal vision of war, but in fact it is clinically accurate, as actual photos of World War I casualties reveal.
Dix’s Der Krieg, like Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War from the Napoleonic era, is not the kind of artwork that makes you want to linger. The beauty of Maillol’s Ile-de-France and the other nudes pleases our aesthetic needs, keeping us grounded in a realm of beauty. Look again, however, and recall that the 1920’s also saw the flowering of the Eugenics movement, which promoted a future for humanity shaped by racial “hygiene.” People whose bodies and personal traits conform to ideals of beauty, symbolized by these statues, would receive favored status. Those who did not would face compulsory sterilization – and worse.
Chaos and Classicism tells the story of good intentions that went terribly wrong. After the carnage of trench warfare, sensitive spirits in Europe craved artistic depictions of beautiful bodies, unscathed by shrapnel, and timeless, uncluttered architecture inspired by the Greek and Roman past. Yet, it was not long before this craving for life-affirming art was transformed into the soulless ideology of Mussolini’s Fascist Italy and Hitler’s Third Reich.
The French poet and filmmaker, Jean Cocteau, is usually given the credit for the title by which the neoclassical revival of the 1920’s and early 1930’s is known. Le Rappel a l’ordre or the Call to Order summoned the civilized world to its senses. These were the very organs, you will recall, that had been ripped away by a shell fragment in Dix’s Skin Graft.
This “call to order” actually had its roots in French wartime propaganda. The virtues of France’s Latin-based civilization were ranged against the Teutonic brutalism of the Germans. Before the war, néoclassicisme had languished like a discarded stage prop. In 1918, with the “Huns” surging for a second time toward the gates of Paris, Cocteau and others summoned the cultural icons of Greece and Rome to join the Allied ranks. That year, Cocteau published a book, Le Coq et l’Arlequin, which he revised and renamed in 1924 as Le Rappel a l’ordre. The message was the same, without the “us versus them” jingoism of the war: civilization must look to its ancient past to regain its bearings and enhance its vitality.
Cocteau’s thesis found an appreciative audience in many circles, including the United States. According to French writer Jacques Maritain, “what makes the purity of the true classic is … a subordination of the matter to the light of the form.” The discipline and dedication of the artist would admit only the essential elements of art into the work being created, excluding anything that would “debauch” the senses of the viewer.
Many of the works of art produced in response to the Call to Order drew inspiration from Europe’s classical past only indirectly. But some did reach the higher realm where Maritain’s “light of the form” could be found.
Examples of such stellar works in the Guggenheim exhibit are relatively few, but are all the more impressive for their ability to integrate the ancient origins of Western culture with the aspirations of the 1920’s. Pablo Picasso, ever alert to shifts in the cultural wind, painted a number of notable works hearkening to the new-found appeal of néoclassicisme. Picasso’s 1921 oil painting, The Source, from the collection of Sweden’s Moderna Museet, presents an “earth mother” of statuesque proportions and reassuring fertility.
A trio of striking photographs by Edward Steichen are also on view, another example of work of the highest caliber.
In 1921, Steichen traveled with the dancer Isadora Duncan to Athens in the hope that he could film her spirited movements among the ruins of the Acropolis. Duncan dragged her feet on the filming project once they got there. But Steichen did seize the opportunity to photograph Duncan at the west portal of the Parthenon. With a Kodak Brownie borrowed from a hotel waiter, Steichen captured images of Duncan in a characteristic pose. Raising her arms as if in worship, Duncan seems at one with past, present and future. Duncan’s gesture, Steichen later wrote, was “completely related to the columns… She was a part of Greece, and she took Greece as part of herself.”
The natural quality of Duncan’s gesture, in relation to the setting of Steichen’s photos, gives an authenticity to the three silver gelatin prints from this famous shoot on display in the exhibition. When the neoclassicism of the 1920’s remained true to the core values of Western art, it could work spectacularly well.
What was true for Steichen’s photos can also be said of two dresses inspired by antiquity that appear in the exhibition. The dresses, one by Edward Molyneux, the other a design of Madeleine Vionnet, were brilliant evocations of the simplicity and fluidity of ancient Greek apparel. Vionnet is especially noteworthy in the context of the Guggenheim exhibition because her signature design, the “bias cut” was inspired by Duncan’s dance movements. Vionnet designed her dresses to move with the motion of the women wearing them.
In the same gallery as these elegant examples of 1920’s couture is a small movie screen showing excerpts of Cocteau’s 1930 film The Blood of a Poet. In the section of the film on view, a young poet inadvertently awakens a classical statue. The armless statue, played by the fashion model (and later great photographer) Lee Miller, comes to life. The poet then finds himself trapped in the studio and the statue advises him to escape via the mirror, an ill-considered move as it turns out.
“Do you think it is so simple to get rid of a wound?” Cocteau’s statue asks the poet. That enigmatic question summarized the dilemma of the Call to Order and pointed to the increasingly sinister manifestations of art produced under its banner.
This occurred first in Italy after Mussolini’s Fascist Party gained control with the 1922 March on Rome. Support for a neoclassical revival began in Italy in the last years of the war, especially after the resounding defeat at Caporetto in 1917. Artists like Carlo Carra, a former Futurist, had grown disgusted with the “mess of hypotheses of doubtful taste” that characterized modernist culture. In 1919, the Greek-born artist Giorgio de Chirico sounded the call for a ritorno al mestiere or a return to craft. This produced a needed burst of cultural energy, with little of Italy’s neoclassical art during the early 1920’s expressing any overt political content.
Carlo Carra’s 1921 painting The Engineer’s Mistress however showed that Italian art was headed in a troubling direction. This stylized head of a young woman is painted as if it were a plaster model for art students. Where Cocteau’s statue comes to life, the portrait bust in Carra’s painting is drained of it. And with the rise of the Fascist movement in Italy and the pro-Fascist Novecento Italiano art movement, founded by Carra and others in 1922, Italian culture would soon be emptied of all its humanity.
You have only to glimpse several of the works from the Fascist period to fathom the depths to which Italian art plunged during Mussolini’s dictatorship. Giorgio de Chirico’s Gladiators at Rest, 1928-29, was a cartoonish paean to homoerotic comradeship. It was the type of work that would have found its only suitable audience among Hitler’s SA storm troopers. Mario Sironi’s nightmarish Leader on Horseback, 1934-35, might better have served as a counterpoint to one of the most celebrated works from the Renaissance, The Allegory of Good Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, painted in Siena during the 1300’s. Everywhere that Fascist art left its neoclassical fingerprints, Italian culture withered and died.
Where the Italian Fascists led, the Nazis followed. Germany had its own version of a Call to Order termed Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity during the 1920’s. Initially, it seemed all to the good. The Bauhaus school of architecture was the most impressive manifestation of the flowering of neoclassicism in Germany. Classical lines and proportions, built with the sleek, sharp products of Germany’s revived industry, were shown to advantage in Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s pavilion at the Barcelona exposition of 1928-29. Then came the economic crash, followed by Hitler’s 1933 takeover.
In a masterstroke of design, the curator of Chaos and Classicism, Kenneth Silver, chose a work of art to illustrate the Nazi annexation of neoclassicism that at first glance is anything but threatening. The Four Elements by Adolf Ziegler decorated the walls of Hitler’s Munich apartment. A member of the Nazi Party, Ziegler was charged by Hitler in 1937 to stage-manage the purge of modern art in the notorious Exhibition of Degenerate Art. Ziegler’s depiction of four nude women who symbolize fire, earth, air and water, the four elements of nature recognized in antiquity, personifies little but the pretentious sterility of culture under the Third Reich. Yet, it is the perfect embodiment of the banality of evil.
Ziegler’s painting is also a brilliant set-up for the final work on display in Chaos and Classicism, a screening of excerpts from Olympia. This 1938 documentary film by Leni Riefenstahl evoked the ancient past as a prelude to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Riefenstahl brought the “Call to Order” neoclassicism to its twisted, illogical conclusion. The excerpts shown in the exhibition display Riefenstahl’s mastery of film technique devoted to the service of Hitler’s warped ideology. She ranges her camera over the ruins of the Acropolis, before bringing the marble skin of a statue of an ancient discus thrower to life in the muscled flesh of a Nazi athlete.
The effect of watching Olympia left me stressed and disoriented. I walked up Fifth Avenue struggling with my emotions, not my usual state of mind after leaving an art museum. To witness art reduced to a tool of totalitarian rule is hard to handle. To see art transformed into a weapon of genocide is impossible to accept. If engendering that state of emotional turmoil was the intention of the curators of Chaos and Classicism, then they succeeded brilliantly.
Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy and Germany, 1918-1936 appears at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, October 1, 2010 – January 9, 2011, followed by a presentation at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain, from February 21 through May 15, 2011.