Photo Essays

When Modernism Ruled Europe

by Hrag Vartanian on October 14, 2010

Pablo Picasso, “The Source” (1921). Oil on canvas, 64 x 90 cm. Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Donation 1970 from Grace and Philip Sandblom, © 2010 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Between World War I and II, there was a strong gust of classicism that swept through the Western European avant-garde. Artists from across the continent embraced the language of the ancients as a way to reflect their own time and culture. This taste for antique forms can be interpreted in different ways, including as an attempt to seek order in a tumultuous time, a way to cloak a modern ideologies with powerful symbols, or a reaction to the radicalism of the previous decades. Regardless of the root cause or causes, the style that was at once familiar and dignified was a rich source of inspiration for artists, designers, and architects of all types.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, “Barcelona Pavilion (1928–29). Exterior view with Georg Kolbe’s ‘Morning’ (1925),” (1929) Gelatin silver print, 16.5 x 22.2 cm The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Mies van der Rohe Archive, gift of the architect © 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn Digital image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

This long recognized but rarely examined chapter in modern art is the subject of the Guggenheim Museum’s current Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918–1936, which is a very attractive exhibition that gathers together a remarkable array of objects associated with almost every -ism from the era. The power of classicism is partly due to its malleability and how it was able to lend its voice to any and every modern movement that sought refuge in its silhouettes, drapery, linear logic, and airs of history.

August Sander, “Secretary at a West German Radio Station, Cologne” (1931). Gelatin silver print, 26 x 17.1 cm Printed 1990 by Gerd Sander, edition 11/12 Courtesy Julie Saul Gallery, New York © 2010 Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur–August Sander Archiv, Cologne/ARS, NY (click to enlarge)

If Picasso’s robust figures or the sculptures of Georg Kolbe are easily associated with modern classicism, curator Kenneth E. Silver has gone beyond the obvious to include the photographs of August Sander and Le Corbusier’s distinctive round glasses as classically inspired compositions and forms that reveal a fuller picture of the time. Silver has expertly combined disparate things to tell a riveting story on the ramp and rooms of Frank Lloyd Wright’s building.

The genius of the show is that it doesn’t rely on masterpieces by widely recognized masters to make the case that modern classicism deserves our attention. Sure there are many big names on display (Picasso, Braque, de Chirico, Otto Dix, Mies van der Rohe, Aristide Maillol, Balthus … ), but the curator has left the bulk of the artistic story telling to lesser known names who never make it into the history of art survey books but are crucial parts of this tale. People like Julius Bissier, Yves Alix, Florence Henri, Thayaht, and Carlo Carrà reveal aspects of the modern infatuation with classicism of all types that we often don’t see in the more famous names. They are the major highlight of the show, but not the only one.

The other strength of the exhibition is the strong collection of objects associated with the Italian Fascist movement. Even if you disagree with their ideology, it is hard to argue that they weren’t the patrons of one of the most powerful artistic languages of the era. The genius of Giuseppe Terragni’s Casa del Fascio (1932-36) is hard to deny and the vibrancy of Renato Bertelli’s “Continuous Profile of Mussolini” (1933) is riveting, and if truth be told they represent some of the very best art produced during the period by anyone. The diversity of work in this splinter movement of modernism is stunning for its skill and riveting for the fact that it looks more contemporary than almost anything else on display — it was a realization that made me more uncomfortable than I at first wanted to admit. Fausto Melotti’s “Untitled” (1933-34), Felice Casorati’s “Prinkly Pear Cactus” (1928), and Piero Bottoni’s furniture for Casa Minerbi (1930) are works I would single out for their remarkably contemporary look.

In fascist Italy, and under the guidance of important artists like Mario Sironi, radical art was allowed to flourish. Even in the fascist era of Germany, which succumbed to more pedestrian versions of visual art, the films of Leni Riefenstahl demonstrate that right-wing ideologues could still commission great things even if they were downplayed in the post-war period. Now, seventy or eighty years later the world has changed and few of us feel the same knee-jerk rejection of fascism’s visual tastes, and it was a welcome treat to see them in context.

If there are weaknesses in the show they are easily overlooked. Alfred Courmes’s “Portrait of Peggy Guggenheim” (1926) and the Braques were some of the weakest on display but even they offered insight into yet another facet of the era’s diverse taste for classicism.

Like all great trends, if I can call it that, the appeal eventually dissipated when war broke out again. After the Second World War, Western European artists lost interest in classicism and preferred to look westward to America. The fascinating thing with this show is that it doesn’t chart a movement, a style, or an ideology, as much as a mood, and it’s fascinating to see how during two decades in the early twentieth century artists in France, Italy, and Germany were often looking back to see their precarious present.

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The curves of the Guggenheim’s spiraling ramp serve as a perfect frame for a show that explores modern classicism.

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One of the first things you see as you make your way up Frank Lloyd Wright’s massive ramp is this collection of figural sculptures — mostly bronze, with the exception of Hiller’s figure which is made of oak. (Clockwise from top left) Amleto Cataldi, “Galatea” (c.1925); Ernesto de Fiori, “Great Walking Man” (1921); Anton Hiller “Weibliche Holzfigur” (1932); and Aristide Maillol , “Ile-de-France” (1925).

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Julius Bissier, “Sculptor with Self-portrait (Bildhauer mit Selbstbildnis)” (1928).

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Georg Scholz’s “Female Nude with Plaster Bust” (1927) contrasts the naked body of a modern woman with the blank eyed stare of a classically inspired marble bust.

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Yves Alix’s “The Harvest Master” (1921) made me immediately think of the work of contemporary New York painter Dana Schutz. The resemblance is so striking that I can’t believe she isn’t aware of Alix’s work in some way.

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Balthus’s “The Street (La rue)” (1933) felt like an odd choice for the show but there’s no doubt the painter arranged his characters with the same careful linear logic of other classically inspired painters in history, such as Nicolas Poussin.

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Carlo Carrà, “The Daughters of Lot” (1919). Carrà seemed as inspired by early Renaissance interpretations of classicism as much as the ancient Greek or Roman variety.

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Heinrich Hoerle, “Masks” (1929).

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Franz Wilhelm Seiwert, “Four Men in Front of Factories (Hoerle – Faust – Seiwert – Haubrich)” (1926)

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A definite highlight of the exhibition was this small cluster of Italian fascist sculpture. Regardless of your feelings about fascism, these works reverberate with the power of modernism and its ability to forge radical forms. Left to right: Thayaht (aka Ernesto Michahelles), “Condottiero (Il Duce with Milestone)” (1929); Adolfo Wildt, “Portrait of Benito Mussolini” (c.1925); and Renato Bertelli, “Continuous Profile of Mussolini” (1933).

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Renato Bertelli’s “Continuous Profile of Mussolini” (1933) is a stunning masterpiece of radical modernism. Works like this demonstrate that the language of modernism was not restricted to one ideology and easily lent itself to any political movement.

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The intelligence of the installation was most evident on the top level, where various bronze sculptures seemed perfectly suited to the space and appeared to respond to the skylight. The three large bronze sculptures on display are (left to right) Lorenzo Lorenzetti’s “Boy Diving” (before 1931), Guido Galletti, “Prometheus Unbound” (c. 1935), and Marino Marini, “Pugilist [Fragment]” (1934).

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Georg Kolbe’s “Young Warrior” (1935) stands near large media media on canas works by Mario Sironi, including (far left) “Soldier” (1935-6).

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Fausto Melott’s “Untitled” (1933-34) was originally constructed for the living room of a banker’s home in Milan. It looks remarkably contemporary and represents a rather attractive strain of Italian fascist art that collides more antique forms with the hard edges of modernism.

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Le Corbusier’s signature glasses were on display in a gallery with other architectural models and details. These eyeglasses, which belong to the visionary modernist, are made of horn.

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Giorgio de Chirico is an artist we most often associate with classicism in the modern era but this three-piece wool suit in the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, was designed as a ballet costume for Nicolas Efimov as a male guest in George Balanchine’s Le bal (1929).

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This impressive and thoroughly modern looking urn by Gio Ponti, “An Archaeological Stroll” (1925), is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum and is a perfect example of the era’s reinvention of classical forms. Here Ponti’s design is checkered with various objects from antiquity.

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Hannah Höch’s “Roma” (1925), much like Frederico Fellini’s film of the same name decades later, finds the classicism of Rome somewhat absurd. All artists, including Höch, weren’t enamored with the classical heritage and looked at it critically. A Berlin Dadaist, Höch ridiciules Mussolini’s hyper-masculine cult. In this painting, she paints the heads of Mussolini and a Danish silent-film star on the bodies of two female swimmers.

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Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918–1936 at the Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, at 89th Street, Manhattan) runs until January 9, 2011.

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