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Art Review: Chaos & Classicism

European Art Between the Wars:
Pay No Attention to that
Rubble Behind the Column

In her thoughtful classic, Trauma and Recovery, Judith Lewis Herman addressed the fickle nature of society’s attention to the wounds of war (as well as to other human-inflicted assaults on individuals, like the sexual abuse of children).

Citing the medical community’s involvement in the treatment of “shell shock,” the diagnosis that emerged from the Great War, which conflated explosions’ concussive effects on the brain with the emotional damage inflicted by the horrors of trench warfare, Herman described how “[w]ithin a few years after the end of the war, medical interest in the subject of psychological trauma faded once again.”1

Otto Dix, Skin Graft (Transplantation) from The War (Der Krieg) (1924, etching, aquatint, and drypoint, 7-7/8″ x 5-3/4″), The Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS).

It returned during World War II, disappeared soon after, then reemerged again with the United States’s military involvement in Vietnam, officially becoming Post-traumatic Stress Disorder in 1980.  Now, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans’ struggles–both on battlefields and stateside–to manage their traumatic stress, once again challenges psychiatry to attend to the psychological wounds of war.

In keeping with humanity’s innate drive toward attaining pleasure and avoiding pain, and reeling from the devastation of a war that killed over 16 million and injured millions more, leveled cities and obliterated landscapes, what was left of the population of Europe retrenched, desperate to embrace any semblance of order.

In a masterful curatorial feat, Kenneth E. Silver dove into a sea of European art from the 20s and 30s and emerged with works to support his thesis about the resurgence of the classical ideal during those in-between years.  In Chaos & Classicism: Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918-1936 [2], an exhibit at the New York Guggenheim Museum [3], he has chosen mostly paintings and sculptures, with occasional photographs and film, to highlight this unsurprising recoil from the intolerable reality of the ruins of the first world war.  Silver interprets this turn to columns, monumental edifices and figures, and machine-inspired precision, as evidence of Europe’s compelling need to retrieve the grandeur of a much earlier period in Western civilization and forget about its capacity for mass murder and destruction.

Retreating from the free-wheeling creations of the pre-war avant-garde, culture in the years leading up to the next conflagration veered right in its insistence on constraint and conformity, and on adherence to newly established standards.  A shell-shocked populace, artists included, hitched their hopes to rising stars who promised security but instead delivered up Fascism and Nazism, logical but disastrous consequences of suppressing difference and dissent.

The exhibit begins at the bottom of the building’s ramp, opens with Pablo Picasso’s Bust of a Woman [4] and some words of his that set the tone for what ensues.  “The art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not an art of the past; perhaps it’s more alive today than it ever was.  Art does not evolve by itself, the idea [sic] of people change, and with them the mode of expression.”

Following that, one can stroll into the nearby gallery and view a selection of 15 prints from Otto Dix’s Der Krieg (War) [5], graphic depictions derived from personal experience of exploded buildings, mangled bodies, and other trench detritus.  Reminders for those too eager to forget, these images refuse to participate in the collective denial epitomized by the balance of the work on display.

To strengthen the point of the exhibit, the curator omitted works by artists who, like Dix, insisted on portraying reality.  In Germany, the prints of Käthe Kollwitz (Never Again War! [6] [1924]) and Max Beckman (Hell [7] [1919]), and almost everything by George Grosz, stand out as exceptions to the general trend presented here.  Even Salvador Dalí, known for his self-serving, right-leaning politics, painted forebodings about Hitler (The Enigma of Hitler [8] [1938]) and the Spanish Civil War (Soft Construction with Boiled Beans [9] [1936]).

Pablo Picasso, The Source (La source) (1921, oil on canvas, 25-3/8″ x 35-3/8″), Moderna Museet, Stockholm © 2010 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS).

Although well represented with a number of paintings from his classical period, Picasso continued to march to no one’s drummer but his own.  Appalled by the 1937 bombing of Guernica, that same year he lavished considerable creative energy on producing one of Europe’s greatest anti-war paintings, Guernica [11], in a distinctly nonclassical manner.

The art included in the exhibit after Dix, perhaps because of its regression toward the norm, mostly lacks depth and in many cases, craft.  Interfering with the viewing experience, the architecture of the Guggenheim building forces the interested to stand some five feet from the paintings and ricochet between the elusive wall text and its distant referent.

Mario Sironi, Leader on Horseback (Condottiero a cavallo) (1934–35, mixed media on canvas, 114-3/8″ x 108-1/4″), MART Museo di arte moderna e contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, Italy © 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS).

Arranged in seven categories, roughly chronological, the exhibit takes the viewer upwards toward the rise of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco.  The best of the work reaches back to Greco-Roman and Renaissance art for the sake of meaningful expression rather than for the glorification of Nazi and Fascist leaders, although in the final gallery illustrating The Dark Side of Classicism, Mario Sironi’s almost ten-foot-high Leader on Horseback (Condottiero a cavallo) (1934-35) excels in its ability to exploit the power of paint on canvas to aggrandize a military personage.

Self-portraits, like those of Carl Hofer (1932), Fridel Dethleffs-Edelman (1932) and Dix (1931), along with portraits by Alfred Courmes (Peggy Guggenheim [1932]) and, especially, Picasso’s Olga [13] (1923) use a variety of approaches to excellent psychological effect.

Paintings by Marcel Gromaire (War [La Guerre] [14] [1925]) and Barthel Gilles (Ruhr Battle [Barricade] [15] [1929-30]) demonstrate that art could still convey the reality of war within the confines of existing styles.

An unusual sheet-iron figure, Antinous [16] (1932) by Pablo Gargallo, while Greek in subject matter uses flat planes and lines to define a figure in space, deviating significantly from the other, far more representational, figurative sculptures.

The excellent catalog accompanying the exhibit convincingly links many European artists and their oeuvre with the rise of right-wing ideologues, some because of their own political beliefs, others out of expediency.  Apparently little had changed since Greek and then Roman sculptors and painters served power hungry aristocrats and clergy, benefiting from the lucrative patronage.

One wonders what curator Silver might uncover after rummaging around in the art produced in Europe since World War II.  Would he find European artists still turning to the rich and powerful for support and if so, what form does that patronage take now?  While waiting for the sequel, viewers can enjoy the gems in this show at the Guggenheim and work off that frappuccino hiking up the ramp.
1 Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 1992, 23.

Chaos & Classicism:
Art in France, Italy and Germany

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Muesum [3]
1071 Fifth Avenue (at 89th Street)
New York, NY 10128-0173
(212)423 3500

Catalog available.