Chaos and Classicism

Special exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum through January 9.

I think I would have guessed that romanticism is the more dangerous end on the classicism-romanticism continuum. Extreme romanticism has a perverse infatuation with insanity, mania, and death; extreme classicism … well, I probably would have brushed that off as mere cold rigidity about aesthetic formulae. No doubt that’s the casual assumption of one trained in music, where classicism really is that harmless, but after wandering through the Guggenheim’s exhibition on art in France, Italy, and Germany from 1918 to 1936 (alarm bells!), I feel rather stupid.

Not that everything in Chaos and Classicism is fascistic. Some artists were simply reacting to the destruction and horror of the first World War by turning back toward classical order and beauty. The literature associated with the exhibit makes this sound almost cowardly (“Rather than frank confrontation, a self-conscious forgetting determined many of the significant new forms of art”), but I think that’s unfair (and perhaps unintended). Some of Pablo Picasso’s neoclassic paintings, for example, are heartbreakingly lovely, and that kind of beauty holds its own sort of truth—a very different truth from something like Guernica, obviously, but an invaluable truth nonetheless.