The Guggenheim Museum’s "Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy and Germany, 1918-1936," is a strangely discombobulated, unfocused exhibition. At one extreme, there are works by Willi Baumeister, Charles-Edouard Jenneret (Le Corbusier), Henri Laurens, Fernand Léger, Jean Metzinger, Amédée Ozenfant and Pablo Picasso, known for their avant-gardism, more particularly, their abstract innovations. Here we see them "classicizing" themselves, as though acknowledging that their experimental days are over -- that their best art belongs to the past, and is now "classical." For them to classicize meant to clarify, reify, and historicize themselves, suggesting a certain self-satisfaction, a complacent looking back to the glory days of their creativity, as though to deny their uncertainty about whether they had any creative juice left in them. They were once ahead of their times, but now they seem frozen in time. They’ve turned their backs on their past by giving it "classical" form, in effect idealizing it by mummifying it.
At the other extreme of "turncoat" classicism -- I’d like to say propaganda for classicism -- there’s pseudo-classical Fascist art, enlisting classicism in the service of ideology, particularly the works suggesting that we had better follow the strongman leader, exemplified by Mussolini, classicized in Adolfo Wildt’s portrait bust, ca. 1925, idealizing his authoritarian grandiosity and brutality. But the Fascist leader takes another form, equally pretentious but more populist -- and probably more effective as uplifting propaganda for the Fascist cause -- in the inspired athlete hero, whether triumphantly standing proudly alone, as Bernardo Morescalchi’s Soccer Player, ca. 1932, does or standing homoerotically with his clones, their arms raised in what would later become a Hitler salute, as in Jean Droit’s poster for the 1924 Paris Olympics. They’re tangled together in a frantic mess in Giorgio de Chirico Gladiators (Triumph), 1928-29, and working together like cogs in a perfect machine in Albert Janesch’s Water Sports, 1936.
The difference between de Chirico’s klutzy gladiators, unable to line up in a military formation and unfit for battle -- hardly worthy of being called an army -- and Janesch’s pure-bred specimens of disciplined Aryan manhood briskly moving forward, suggests the difference between sloppy Italian and well-organized Nazi Fascism. Mario Sironi’s Fascist Work, 1932, features a sturdy, heavyset Italian soldier in armor, standing stiffly at attention and faceless and oddly ancient, not to say antiquated, but he’s outclassed by Georg Kolbe’s naked Young [German] Soldier, 1936, with his limber body, fresh face, raised arms, and altogether more dynamic and ready-for-action body. The Italians looked to the past for their glory, the Nazis looked to the future for their glory and found it in the present.
Perhaps the most triumphant -- certainly the most esthetically ingenious and conceptually brilliant -- transformation of the Classical Hero into the Fascist Athlete occurs at the end of the beginning sequence of Leni Riefenstahl’s innovative film about the 1936 Olympics: the statue of the ancient Discobulus becomes the living statue of an Aryan discus thrower. The transformation of classical themes into contemporary form in Adolf Ziegler’s The Four Elements: Fire, Water and Earth, Air, 1937 -- apparently Hitler’s favorite painting (it had pride of place in his Munich apartment) -- is second-best, for the four pretty maidens, that seemed to have stepped out of some 19th-century German painting, have somewhat more pedestrian bodies. (Ziegler confiscated modern art from German museums and organized the 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition that opened in Munich and toured Germany, drawing large appreciative crowds as well as curiosity seekers.) There’s a tendency to what might be called the higher banality in Fascist classicism, but the more sedate "classicism" of Picasso’s 1923 painting of Olga also hints of it, and Alfred Courmes’ 1926 Portrait of Peggy Guggenheim reeks of it.
Between the extremes of modernist pseudo-classicism and ideological pseudo-classicism are a strange mixture of nominally classicist works. Otto Dix and Fridel Dethleffs-Edelmann may wear artist’s smocks in their self-portraits (1931 and 1932, respectively), but that doesn’t make them classicizing artists, as their realist paintings make clear. Then there’s the decorative classicism of Anne Carlu’s Diana the Huntress, 1927 -- her body is Manneristically elongated, and she stands in a quasi-Quattrocento landscape -- and Gio Ponti’s Noble Activities: Our Ancestors, 1923-24, whose bodies are also elongated and have nothing to do with the athletic strongman body favored by the Fascists. The distorted borrowings of classical themes must have been reassuring in troubled contemporary Italy -- paradoxically so, in view of Mussolini’s determination to modernize Italy, or at least make the trains run on time. Certainly the purpose of decorative art is to give us pleasure in an unpleasant world.
Then there are the works in which a living contemporary female and a classical sculpture of an idealized female are compared -- a noble classical head and a commonplace modern body in Georg Scholz’s painting Female Nude with Plaster Bust, 1927, and a thin, bony fashion model in a long gown and a more shapely and full-breasted classical torso of a female nude in George Hoyningen-Huene’s photograph of Toto Koopman, Fashion Augustabernard, 1934 -- to the distinct disadvantage of the modern female. The exhibition also includes some wonderful examples of kitsch classicism, most famously Jean Cocteau’s homoerotic film The Blood of a Poet, 1930 (the lipsticked classical sculpture looks like an armless man in toga drag). More sublimely kitschy is Achille Funi’s Publius Horatius Murders His Sister, 1932. It’s worthy of a Hollywood take on antiquity.
We see an abortive striving for a collective ideal in the so-called classicism of the works, be they quasi-avant-garde (passé avant-garde?) or propagandistic representational art. Classical art remains a distant ideal -- the works in which classical remnants are nostalgically strewn make this very clear -- which is why virtually all of the works in the exhibition have what might be called an incoherent classicism. Lacking an underlying understanding of the principles of classicism, the artists simplified and superficialized it to go with the collectivizing current ("corporate fascism," as Sironi calls it, a term which applies to the "corporate modernism" of the has-been avant-gardizing works in the exhibition), which is why their works have to be regarded as failures. They offer a toned-down classicism for the masses, a stereotyped classicism that drains it of its complexity. They fail to achieve the classicism they strive for, leaving us with a naïve "classical look."
But "Chaos and Classicism" is worth seeing, if only for its cultural significance, and because many of the works, especially the Fascist ones, are unlikely to be seen again for a long time in New York or anywhere in the United States. For all its incoherence -- chaos? -- the exhibition is a bold statement about a neglected period in art history, and neglected artists, who have a peculiar esthetic importance, because of their incoherent, compromised esthetics, caught between timelessly ideal beauty and an ugly contemporary society determined to make history. The miracle of ancient classicism is that it created the Ideal out of the Real. The sin of modern classicism is that it vulgarizes the Ideal until it seems crudely Real.
"Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy and Germany, 1918-1936," Oct. 1, 2010-Jan. 9, 2011, at the Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10128.
DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.