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.

As much as an art exhibition, Chaos and Classicism functions as a history lesson. The fact that Picasso even had a neoclassic period was news to me (I thought the honorary Frenchman was done with representational painting after he passed out of his Blue and Rose periods), and more broadly, the exhibition does a great job of capturing a broad spectrum: how painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, film, fashion, and decorative arts all were affected by the retour à l’ordre/ritorno al mestiere/Neue Sachlichkeit. The curators clearly have endeavored to create a comprehensive portrait of the period, which is fascinating—though it sometimes means that a work on display seems to have been selected more because it exemplifies the time than because its own intrinsic quality. The epitome of that are three paintings that once hung in Hitler’s Munich apartment: flat, uninspired Aryanizations of mythical Greek harvest figures (apparently Hitler liked to think of the ancient Greeks as Nordic) with an appallingly bad color palette—ugly in every sense.

Even when works aren’t directly associated with Hitler or Mussolini, though, an ominous pall hangs over the exhibition as a whole. As much as I adore Picasso’s Bust of a Woman, Arms Raised (the nuanced use of a limited range of color! the tension between the idealized features and the sorrow they express!), there is something rather sad and regressive about other works on display. And with the specter of fascism ever-present, the tendency to venerate authority and idealize a very specific human aesthetic makes even the more innocent works feel faintly distasteful and menacing in a way I never would have expected from classical art. There’s nothing quite like Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympiad to color everything you see after it.

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