Arts Curriculum

Chaos and Classicism

October 1, 2010–January 9, 2011

Following the chaos of World War I (1914–1918), many European artists moved toward more representational approaches and away from the fragmented compositions and emphasis on experimentation that had dominated the opening years of the 20th century. For nearly two decades after the armistice, art’s return to order and enduring values dominated the discourse of modern art. Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918–1936 traces this interwar trend as it worked its way from a poetic, mythic idea in the Parisian avant-garde; to a political, historical idea of a revived Roman Empire, under Benito Mussolini (1883–1945); to a neo-Platonic High Modernism at the Bauhaus, and then, to the chilling aesthetic of nascent Nazi culture. This Resource Unit parallels the exhibition’s themes, follows this vast transformation of modern art, and provides techniques for exploring both the visual arts and other curriculum areas. The images may be used for education purposes only and are not licensed for commercial applications of any kind. Before bringing your class to the Guggenheim Museum, we invite you to visit the exhibition, read the guide, and decide which parts of the show are most relevant to your students. For more information on scheduling a visit, please call 212 423 3637.

Themes

The Avant-Garde Looks Backward
The Avant-Garde Looks Backward
Classical Bodies, New Humanity
Classical Bodies, New Humanity
Crazy for Classicism
Crazy for Classicism
The Constructors
The Constructors
Classicizing the Everyday
Classicizing the Everyday
Performance/Anxiety
Performance/Anxiety
The Dark Side of Classicism
The Dark Side of Classicism

Exhibition Overview


After the horrific destruction of World War I, a powerful desire for regeneration, order, and classical beauty emerged in Europe, lasting until World War II. Between the wars, artists turned away from prewar experimentalism toward a heroic embrace of the human figure, objective values, and rational organization. Chaos and Classicism examines this interwar aesthetic through seven themes discussed throughout this resource unit. Presenting painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, film, fashion, and the decorative arts, Chaos and Classicism is the first exhibition in the United States to focus on this international phenomenon in a variety of media across three different nations.

In France, Italy, and Germany, three key artists proved particularly influential in promulgating a classical aesthetic from 1918 to 1936: Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978), and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969). Picasso, although Spanish, was based in France from 1904 onward, and his great classical figure paintings of the late 1910s and early 1920s demonstrate how decisively the Parisian avant-garde adopted the new post–World War I aesthetic. Canvases of mechanized people by Fernand Léger (1881–1955) along with commedia dell’arte paintings by André Derain (1880–1954), Picasso, and Paris-based Gino Severini (1883–1966) figure here too. The notion of a Latinate civilization comes to the fore in the emerging influence of Jean Cocteau (1889–1963), and the exhibition includes excerpts from his 1930 film The Blood of a Poet (Le sang d’un poète). Architecture and design by Le Corbusier (1887–1965), as well as the Purist paintings he created alongside Amédée Ozenfant (1886–1966), forge a visual link with abstraction and Synthetic Cubism. Splendid neo-Greek fashion designs by Madeleine Vionnet (1876–1975) and Art Deco objects by Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann (1879–1933) bring the more abstruse aspects of classicizing art and theory into functional items.

In Italy, de Chirico’s metaphysical paintings, along with those of Carlo Carrà (1881–1966), bridge the transition into the New Sobriety of Italian art immediately after the war. De Chirico’s 1919 essay “Il ritorno al mestiere” (“The Return to Craft”) was especially important in prompting renewed interest in Fra Angelico (ca. 1400–1455) and Piero della Francesca (ca. 1415–1492). The exhibition includes still-life works by Giorgio Morandi (1890–1964) along with paintings by lesser-known modern classicists like Massimo Campigli (1895–1971), Felice Casorati (1883–1963), Achille Funi (1890–1972), and Ubaldo Oppi (1889–1942). Novecento Italiano (Italian 1900s) artist Mario Sironi (1885–1961) is known not only for his easel paintings and murals but also his bridging both the avantgarde and Fascist-approved culture. The idea of reviving Roman greatness for modernity was pervasive after Mussolini’s March on Rome in 1922. Architectural models and design objects, including the Casa del Fascio by Giuseppe Terragni (1904–1943) in Como, Italy, and porcelain by Gio (Giovanni) Ponti (1891–1979), demonstrate the power of the neoclassical paradigm for postwar Italian modernists. Sculpture, the quintessential classical medium, was especially strong in interwar Italy. Marino Marini (1901–1980) and Arturo Martini (1889–1947) created three-dimensional works at once materialist and otherworldly, and a chance to see their sculpture, which rarely travels to the United States, is a particularly exciting aspect of Chaos and Classicism.

In Germany, Mies van der Rohe’s synthesis of classical form and modern technology was central to the anti- Expressionist ethos of interwar Germany: iconic elements of his Barcelona Pavilion (1928–29), including Morning (Der Morgen, 1925) by Georg Kolbe (1877–1947), the life-size nude sculpture so well known from original photos of Mies’s seminal structure, are featured. Modernist figurative paintings by renowned Bauhaus teacher Oskar Schlemmer (1888–1943) testify to the German translation of the Italian revival (Schlemmer was deeply influenced by the art of Piero della Francesca, among others). The search for aesthetic Klarheit (clarity) in Weimar Germany after the perceived excesses of Expressionist art led to the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) style; works by Otto Dix (1891–1969), Wilhelm Schnarrenberger (1892–1966), Georg Scholz (1890–1945), and Georg Schrimpf (1889–1938) reveal this rationalist approach along with the radically pared-down photographic portraits of August Sander (1876–1964). Modern German aesthetics also lead toward the exhibition’s dramatic conclusion. As the Weimar Republic collapsed and Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) came to power in 1933, the new classicism—Parisian myths, Italian role-playing, the German search for objectivity—was monstrously transformed into a quasi-scientific doctrine of human perfection in Nazi Germany. “The new age of today is at work on a new human type,” Hitler proclaimed the year after the 1936 Berlin Olympics. “Tremendous efforts are being made in countless spheres of life in order to elevate our people, to make our men, boys, lads, girls, and women healthier and thereby stronger and more beautiful. . . . Never was Mankind closer than now to Antiquity in its appearance and its sensibilities.” To recast the insight of German philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), Fascism rendered aesthetics political. Mies’s collaborator, Kolbe, made classicizing sculpture for the National Socialists, just as Leni Riefenstahl (1902– 2003) produced quasi-documentary propaganda films for the regime. The prologue to Olympia (1936–38), her epochal account of the Berlin games, brings Chaos and Classicism to a close.

The exhibition is curated by New York University Professor of Modern Art Kenneth E. Silver, a renowned expert on European art between the wars, assisted by Helen Hsu, Curatorial Assistant, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, with Vivien Greene, Curator of 19th- and Early 20th-Century Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, as curatorial advisor.

This exhibition is supported in part by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and The David Berg Foundation.