Crazy for Classicism
“Greek and Roman history and myth, which had long provided the West with a common narrative, abounded in the visual arts between the wars as it never would again. The supposed purity, simplicity, and high-mindedness of Greek art and thought were especially influential.”
The classical craze swept across Europe and could be seen in Fascist-approved art in Italy, in draped garments emulating antiquity by high-fashion designers in Paris, and in the choreography of George Balanchine (1904–1983) as he worked on his ballet Apollo (1928).
In Germany the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement called for a realistic mode (in contrast to Expressionism and abstraction), while in France the Purists “criticised the fragmentation of the object in Cubism” and “proposed a kind of painting in which objects were represented as powerful basic forms stripped of detail,” to lend a “timeless, classical quality.” Even the Surrealists were persuaded. As Sigmund Freud (1856– 1939) had used Greek myths in developing psychoanalysis, the Surrealists—who were influenced by him—took classicism as their new pictorial language.
“The return to order that pervaded interwar painting and sculpture also appeared in objects for daily use. Rather than mere copies, models from the glorious past were treated to novel modernizations, effectively updating classical imagery—along with the attendant values of antique harmony and proportion—for contemporary life.”
A pioneer of Italian modern design, Gio (Giovanni) Ponti (1891–1979) was vital in bringing the modern classical aesthetic to the decorative arts. “He interpreted Roman subjects in ‘a modern and quirky vein,’ producing delightfully self-conscious send-ups of serious historicism.” In the urn An Archaeological Stroll (La passeggiata archaeologica, 1925), Ponti modified the Greek lekythos, a vessel for oil or perfume that features a long shape and a thin neck. The pattern on Ponti’s flask resembles Roman brickwork, and its color is like marble masonry. Fashionable figures in period dress appear among various relics, including columns, sundials, vessels, and candelabra, that mix classical motifs with a playful modern attitude.
Gio (Giovanni) Ponti
- Have students look carefully at thislekythos (lek-uh-thos) and describe it in detail. Does it remind them of anything they have seen before? What might it be used for?
- As a class, create a list of words associated with the term “classicism.” How many of those words apply to this object? Which ones do not?
- Although this lekythos was inspired by Greece, it was created in 1925. What qualities of this object seem modern?
- Ponti titled this work An Archaeological Stroll. How does knowing the title help one better understand the object?
- Compare Ponti’s urn with one from ancient Greece. How are they similar? How are they different?
- Before you begin this activity, visit metmuseum.org/toah/hi/hi_
cepaeu.htm to view a selection of lekythoi. Students should
describe the characteristics of this type of ancient vessel
in preparation for planning their own designs for a classically
Begin with a sheet of 11" x 14" paper. Fold it in half the long way. Beginning at the top center, draw half of the silhouette for the lekythos, remembering that the fold will be the center axis of the vessel. Next cut the shape out with a pair of scissors. Unfold the paper, and the shape will be symmetrical. Try a number of possibilities by altering the proportions.
Although Ponti’s lekythos was inspired by Greek pottery, it is not a copy. It demonstrates a more modern approach to design and decoration. Using paint or colored pencils, create a surface design that is inspired by antiquity but also has references to contemporary society. When the class is done, discuss the various designs and personal approaches to mixing ideas from antiquity with those from today.
- Ponti was one of Italy’s most influential designers, and his oeuvre
includes automobiles, furniture, interiors, and buildings. Working
with a multitude of materials, he is a pivotal figure of 20th-century
architecture and design, and young practitioners are increasingly
rediscovering his work today. Research Ponti’s other work and
describe his approach to design. Which object do your students
like the most? Why?
- The Neue Sachlichkeit movement was centered in Germany in the
1920s. Artists Otto Dix (1891–1969), Georg Grosz (1893–1959), and
Georg Schrimpf (1889–1938) are among its most famous members.
Research their work and describe the characteristics that they have
- In France, the founders of Purism, “artists Amédée Ozenfant and
Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (better known by his pseudonym, Le
Corbusier), titled their manifesto ‘Apres le cubisme’ (‘After Cubism’)
and dismissed their Cubist predecessors’ work as outdated
decoration.” Ozenfant and Jeanneret along with their closest
colleague, the painter Léger, believed that art should be “precise”
and “attuned to the science and industry that permeated modern
life.” Students can learn more about these three artists and then
describe which qualities their work shares.