Classical Echoes In Modern Art

Tate Gallery show explores the time from World War I to 1930, when traditionalist art became the language of the avant garde

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THE painter Georges Braque once wrote: ``Nobility comes from contained emotion. I love the rule which corrects emotion.'' A classical credo. It might almost be the motto for an exhibition here called ``On Classic Ground.'' At the Tate Gallery (through Sept. 2), this show explores a period in the history of 20th-century art when ``classicism'' - once the academic, traditionalist bedrock of painting and sculpture - became for a decade the language of the ``avant garde'' itself.

Jean Cocteau used the phrase ``a call to order'' to describe this somewhat paradoxical turn. Its seeds were sown before World War I, when even Cubism, for all its radical modernity and disruptiveness, was in many ways classical: linear, lacking color, and imposing an order on the seen world. But the budding of the new classicism occurred during that catastrophic conflict, and its flowering belonged to the decade between the end of the war and 1930.

It was a wave that seems to have washed over most of the prominent European artists who were the previous progenitors of Modern art: Fauves, Expressionists, Cubists, Futurists. They did not, however, for the most part just return to some kind of realistic figurative vision. They turned consciously to the antique-classical, the forms and balances, the heroism and antiquity of Greek and Roman sculpture, for something old which they could use in a new way.

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They transformed their models, sometimes ironically, sometimes admiringly. And they looked wider than the academicism of the 19th century had usually done - espousing as ``classical'' less-known, archaic (and sometimes recently excavated) art, early Greek or Etruscan for instance.

They also, particularly the Italian ex-Futurist Carlo Carra, emulated painters of the early Italian Renaissance like Giotto, as well as the quiet, mathematical compositions of Piero della Francesca - which gave their work a lucid order both classical in its stability and ``primitive'' in its directness, without the overworked familiarity of Raphael or Leonardo.

Overall, artists who had before the war been out to ``destroy the art of the museums'' discovered it again. One of their more recent heroes was C'ezanne who, in his time, had worked to mate the transience of French Impressionism with the solidity of the Old Masters in the Louvre.

These neo-classicists of the '20s, though wanting classical order, were at times also interested in the ecstatic side of antiquity, or at least in its Arcadian vision (though this must have been difficult to believe in without irony after that war). Picasso's ``Race,'' for example, in which two gigantic women run in glorious frenzy along a beach, can hardly be called tranquil classicism. ``Spring'' by Emil-Othon Friesz is characteristic of the idyllic Golden-Age strand, exuberantly ideal in subject, jauntily contemporary in execution.

Bonnard had a streak of Arcady, too, as his inclusion in the show suggests, though his ``classicism'' can sometimes seem more of a pretext than an integral source of inspiration - as it is for Matisse. The exhibition shows how Matisse's art of the time was underpinned by the classical (not that this was something new for him), re-inventing the serenity of the ancient with a fresh and still surprising vigor.

A problem with this intriguing exhibition is that it sometimes stretches the many and various evidences of its theme too far. It seems its selectors may have an axe to grind.

We have in recent years witnessed our own version of a ``neo-classical'' revival, sporting its own interface with Modernism, and people like museum-curators and art-historians love that sort of cyclical action-and-reaction. They like to use it as themes for exhibitions. And perhaps the Tate exhibition tries a little too self-consciously to argue that our history of the 20th-century avant garde is a distortion, which we should see more correctly through today's eyes.

In a laudable attempt to reinstate - or recognize for the first time - minor artists or minor works by more central figures, it has brought out of museum cellars or obscure private collections quite a selection of forgotten paintings and sculptures. Some of them have not been unjustly ignored.

There really isn't anything particularly out of the ordinary, for example, in the chosen works by Italian artist Achille Funi, or in Virgilio Guidi's ``The Visit'' of 1922, described in the catalog as ``the fruit of years of attentive study of old masters.'' In the context of the 20th century, that, somehow seems pure regression - an unreal retreat into the past.

Andre Derain's later work is earning new respect not merely as reactive conservatism but as legitimate Modern art. Nevertheless his ``Still Life with a Melon'' of about 1927 might have been painted by a competent but old-fashioned art school student. Finally there are limits to unoriginality.

The female figure is the ubiquitous muse here, whether achieving a new balance in the consummate form of Maillol's bronze ``The Mediterranean'' or in Picasso's statuesque re-invention of Renoir's late classicism - in Derain's realistic, troubled portrait of Madame Kahnweiler, or in Felice Casorati's trance-frozen figure of a woman, eyes closed, in a centrally placed chair.

Fernand L'eger's classicism - often also concerned with the female figure, rendered almost mechanistic in apperance - is far less obvously indebted to the past. The classical character of his art is in inherent qualities rather than style. One critic, in 1928, called him ``the great constructor'' and said that his work had ``powerful stability'' and ``meditative peace.'' His art was thus Modern and at the same time firmly placed ``on classic ground.''

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