When Modernism Ruled Europe

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 many different ways, including as an attempt to seek order in a tumultuous time, a way to cloak a modern ideology 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.

This odd chapter in modern art is the subject of the Guggenheim Museum’s current exhibition 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.

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