In Defense of Neoclassicism

Arno Breker, Orpheus and Eurydice, 1944.

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Arno Breker, Orpheus and Eurydice, 1944.
Despite its ugly political connotation acquired in the decades that followed the inception of twentieth-century neoclassicism, this artistic movement fully expressed the cultural zeitgeist of interwar Europe.

Despite its ugly political connotation acquired in the decades that followed the inception of twentieth-century neoclassicism, this artistic movement fully expressed the cultural zeitgeist of interwar Europe.

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Adolfo Wildt, Pure Fool, 1930.

“The work of art is not [intended] for the eyes, but for the soul. Sculpting means infusing the spirit into the matter.”

Adolfo Wildt

Something was going on in the Paris art world in the immediate aftermath of World War I. “In France—yes in France!—the country that up until yesterday laid down the law in matters of art, in France, the very geniuses whose praise Apollinaire sang in his lyrical book on cubism, in France, these much lauded geniuses are now busy drawing careful sketches of the human figure,” observed Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978) in his programmatic essay “Return To Craft,” which appeared in 1919 in the magazine Valori Plastici. “To think that these painters are now doing something done years ago by others whom they used to consider absolute imbeciles!”

After the First World War, European artists—in the realm of all arts, including the visual arts, music, and ballet—started rejecting the extreme avant-garde and looked back to the past centuries. “A Holiday from Modernism” is how The Guardian described the phase in a 2009 review of the National Gallery exhibition Picasso: Challenging The Past.

“The origins of neoclassicism are usually located in the disruptions of World War I. Writers hostile to it have often attempted to write it off as a war-bred hysteria, of which the chief outward manifestation, to quote its fiercest antagonist, was ‘retrogression into the traditional,’” writes Richard Ruskin in the book chapter “Back to Whom? Neoclassicism as Ideology” in his book The Danger of Music. Unfortunately, the value of twentieth-century neoclassicism was tarnished by its being favored by totalitarian regimes: Fascism, National Socialism, and Soviet totalitarianism all display a penchant for classicized plasticity in the arts, either on the ethereal or on the brutalist spectrum.

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Picasso, Pierrot, 1918.

In his Mein Kampf (1925), Hitler notably referred to Cubism and Dadaism as symbols of cultural and political decay: "Just as one could hardly imagine sixty years ago that the greatness achieved by Germany would undergo a political collapse, so it was unthinkable that there could be a cultural collapse that began to manifest itself in futuristic and cubistic art forms after 1900.” We have since come to identify Nazi art as an accumulation of hagiographic portraits of heroized soldiers, and curiously lifeless landscapes, uninspired reproductions of classical art and anodyne nudes.

Arno Breker (1900–1991), the most famous sculptor of the Nazi era who somehow managed to keep working even after World War II, is perhaps the best embodiment of this style. His statues combine expressionism with a marked classicist bent and depict male nudity as a conduit of national strength and purity. “Such statues were designed to convey the ‘natural’ harmoniousness of nationhood and of the bourgeois family. They were images of chaste and self-controlled virility,” writes Steven Kasher in “The Art of Hitler,” an article appearing in the magazine October.

Yet, before the movement took on the dark political connotation that caused its undoing, neoclassicism had, undeniably, its own artistic merits.

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Giorgio de Chirico, The Song of Love, 1914.

Among European countries, Italy made neoclassicism modern. In 1919, metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico explored his stance on painting in the art publication Valori Plastici. “It is by now obvious that the painters who for the last half a century have worn themselves out striving to invent schools and systems, sweating through continual effort to appear original and flaunting their personality, now hide like rabbits behind the banner of multifarious ploys. As a last defence to their ignorance and powerlessness, they posture spirituality,” he explained in his essay “Return to Craft”. “These painters now return prudently with outstretched hands like men walking in the dark towards an art less encumbered with trickery, towards clearer and more concrete forms, towards surfaces that can testify, without beating around the bush, to one’s knowledge and capability. In my opinion this is a good sign.”

The spectre looming on this return to order is, in De Chirico’s words, the human figure, which painters, after decades spent deconstructing still-life scenes and indulging in primitivism, now struggle to reproduce, despite wanting to. He excused himself from this narrative of general lack of proficiency in the face of the renewed interest in the human form. “As for me, I am calm, and define myself with three words that I wish to be the seal of all my work: Pictor classicus sum,” he said in concluding the essay: he is a classically-trained painter.

His paintings are replete with references to classical art: his work depicts eerie interpretations of Mediterranean cityscapes, or cluttered interiors with mannequins, and deconstructions of classical statues: The Song of Love features the bust of a classical sculpture and a rubber glove affixed to a bare wall of a nondescript alley. The Disquieting Muses has classicized bodies of statues with disproportionate mannequin heads. De Chirico’s work impressed André Breton to the point that he is credited with influencing and spearheading the birth of Surrealism.

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Giorgio de Chirico, The Disquieting Muses, 1947.

His mannequin “is a personification of the clairvoyant poet, a kind of ultra-man with voice and sight beyond the human range: they are muses, seers or medieval troubadours (whose archetype should be sought in the ancient-greek bards), and these enigmatic and mute characters often sit in deserted squares, in front of blackboards with mysterious scribbling, indicating the revealing and prophetic function of art,” writes Cristina Santarelli in “Disquieting Muses and Tired Troubadours,” which appeared in the academic journal Music In Art in the fall 2012. His use of common objects and cityscapes is meant to convey luminous revelations.

“The work of art is not [intended] for the eyes, but for the soul. Sculpting means infusing the spirit into the matter.” These are the words of sculptor Adolfo Wildt (1868–1931), a self-taught artist who, by his untimely death in 1931, had amassed fans in the likes of the futurism-movement founder Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Nobel-prize winning playwright Luigi Pirandello, and Italy’s premier aesthete Gabriele d’Annunzio. In 1927 he joined the faculty of Milan’s Brera Academy of Arts, where he taught Lucio Fontana, the founder of Spatialism. His sculptures might appear as a nod to classicism from the outset, yet their contortions, their anguished expressions, and their empty eye sockets place Wildt closer to the Secession and Symbolism than pure neoclassicism: Vir Temporis Acti (Ancient Man) and The Pure Fool, are eminent examples of this style.

But neoclassicism is not to be confused with conservatism. After the war, even Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) most notably abandoned cubism in favor of a more traditional art style. In the 1920s, he painted statuesque peasants, dancers, and female nudes. These works, however, are not just throwbacks, they are representative of the moment he lived in–a moment when the world was seeking meaning amid colossal change. “Picasso's neoclassicism isn't conservative, or empty, at all,” argues The Guardian. “It's a continuation of some of his deepest themes.”

To fully understand, and perhaps appreciate, neoclassicism we must strip bare the signifiers of classical art and emphasize the structural elements of said works over the merely decorative ones, where artists were able to go beyond a standardized return to order. Despite its ugly political connotation acquired in the decades that followed the inception of twentieth-century neoclassicism, this artistic movement fully expressed the cultural zeitgeist of interwar Europe.

About the Author

Angelica Frey

Angelica Frey is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. She writes about art, culture, and food.

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