The Classical Revival in Modern Art
20th Century Imitation of the Forms and Aesthetics of Antiquity.

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Young Italian Woman Leaning on her Elbow (1900) by Cezanne.

Large Bather (1921)
Musee de l'Orangerie, Paris.
By Pablo Picasso.

The Classical Revival in Modern Art (c.1900-30)
Figure Painting and Avant-Garde Classicism of the 20th Century


The Revival of Classicism
Classic Themes
The Return to Order in France
Novocento Neoclassicism in Italy
Noucentista Movement in Spain
The Classical Response to Impressionism
Avant-Garde Classicism
Futurist Opposition to Classical Antiquity
Impact of the 1905 Salon d'Automne: Maillol and Ingres
Cubism - A Form of Classical Art
20th Century Classical Aesthetics

For a general guide to the evolution of painting, sculpture and
other artforms, see: History of Art (2.5 Million BCE -present).

Nudes against a Red Background
(1923) Kunstmuseum, Basel.
By Fernand Leger.

The Revival of Classicism

When war was declared on 2 August 1914, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was staying in Avignon in the south of France. While he was there he painted two pictures - one abstract (Portrait of a Young Girl, 1914, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris), the other naturalistic (The Painter and His Model, 1914, Musee Picasso, Paris) - which look so different that it is hard to believe they were painted by the same man, let alone at the same time.

Perhaps only Picasso could have changed the direction of modern art with such casual ease. Three years later, pretending to be the neoclassicist J.A.D. Ingres (1780-1867), he depicted his fiancee in a beautiful gown (Olga Picasso in an Armchair, 1917, Musee Picasso, Paris), and his return to classicism was confirmed. (See: Neoclassical Figure Paintings by Picasso, for more details.) At about the same time Gino Severini (1883-1966), associated in the public mind with the provocative Futurists and pictures such as Suburban Train Arriving in Paris (1915, Tate), suddenly produced Maternity (1916, Museo dell' Accademia Etrusca, Cortona), which looks like a Mantegna or a Ghirlandaio. Their 'defection' from the avant-garde movement aroused excited debate, and anticipated a general shift within the art world after the war. It is this shift that is the main theme of this article.

'The classical revival', 'the call to order', 'the return to order' - the names by which this movement is most often known - gathered momentum during the First World War in France and Italy, and spread rapidly after peace was declared. In other countries directly involved in the fighting - for instance, Germany and Britain - there were parallel movements. In this article however we focus exclusively on the return to classicism, rather than a more general return to the tradition of figure painting, and thus to concentrate upon the Latin countries, where it was claimed, with a certain justification, that the classical tradition was the native tradition - the heritage and source by natural right.

NOTE: For details of styles, see: History of Art Timeline (from 800 BCE - Present). For specific periods and trends, see: Art Movements.



This impulse to return to the constants of the Great Tradition has been seen as conservative and reactionary, because avant-garde, individualistic styles of one kind or another were rejected or modified in the interests of greater clarity, order and universality, and because the changes usually met with the approval of the Establishment - bourgeois patrons and their favourite dealers, critics who had been hostile to avant-garde styles, and political leaders on the right who championed racial purity in the arts. The fact that the Fascists embraced classicism for propaganda purposes (please see Nazi art and also also Socialist Realism), and that whenever artists were required to celebrate the aspirations or the power of their country they turned to classical models, as if there were no possible alternative, has led to mistrust of the language of classicism itself. There is the suspicion that it is at worst authoritarian and oppressive, at best rhetorical and sham. Indeed because of its presumed backward-looking nature, the post-war classical revival has received scant attention until quite recently, and the work produced has often been treated with contempt. Yet that work is often of the highest quality, and the accusation of conservatism (in the pejorative sense of reaction against innovation and invention) does not stand up.

The First World War has, rightly, been seen as a catalyst in the post-war 'return to order', inducing a craving for the stability and proven value of tradition following disruption, carnage and vandalism on a scale unparalleled in living memory. There is no question that such a craving existed, and that it was articulated passionately by many of the lastingly important figures of the time, as well as by the soap-box orators. It had a wider context than the war itself, however, for it was the response of nations that had witnessed rapid, often devastating waves of industrialisation - given dramatic and horrific impetus by the war - and that had been engulfed by the materialist values of the nineteenth century which placed supreme emphasis on 'progress' and 'development'. In contrast, the classical tradition offered a haven of relative tranquillity.

NOTE: Classicism in art involves the imitation of forms and aesthetics associated with the art of Classical Antiquity - viz, Greek art and (later) Roman art. Although it is convenient to consider separately the situation in France, Italy and Spain, for there were real local differences, it is in the very nature of classicism that there should have been shared concerns and shared solutions, for classicism claims to be both universal and timeless. The reputation of Paris as the capital of the art world meant that in practice most Italian and Spanish artists spent time there - some even making it their permanent home - so that a network of contacts developed, encouraging a rapid exchange of ideas, as well as, paradoxically, a sense of national identity.

Classic Themes

At the simplest level there was uniformity in subject matter, for painters of all three nationalities addressed the 'classic' themes and worked within the established genres of female nudes, figure composition and still life. Maternity was, for instance, a favourite subject. It might be treated naturalistically, as in Sunyer's painting of his wife and baby (Maternity, 1921, private collection), or in an explicitly Renaissance style, with overtones of the Madonna and infant Christ, as in Severini's picture (see above), or in a neoclassical manner by Picasso (Maternity, 1921, Collection Bernard Picasso, Paris). Underpinning the shared subjects was their common cultural heritage. Greek sculpture (and to a lesser extent Roman sculpture) was a source for much painting and plastic art; while the Italian Renaissance inspired not only the Italians but also the French and the Catalans, many of whom travelled to Italy in quest of the Great Tradition as generations of artists before them had done; Poussin, Ingres, Corot and Cezanne were important to painters as diverse as, say, Fernand Leger and Salvador Dali. Above all, we notice certain 'constants' in the approach to classicism, certain recurrent and dominant myths.

Perhaps the most potent myth of all is that of the Mediterranean world as Arcadia - an earthly paradise protected from the sordid materialism of the modern industrialised world, free from strife and tension, pagan not Christian, innocent not fallen, a place where a dreamed-of harmony is still attainable. The myth, nourished by the pastoral poetry of Theocritus and Virgil, and by innumerable pastoral landscape paintings of earlier periods, generated sensual images of sweeping fertile landscapes bathed in sunlight, calm blue seas, confident and handsome nudes, and peasants going about their daily lives as if nothing had changed for centuries. At its heart there lurked the potential for profound melancholy - the sense of loss and the knowledge that the ideal can never be attained. And just as melancholy pervades the pastoral paintings of Claude and Poussin and Corot, so it pervades the work of some of the new classicists Derain, Picasso and Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) especially. Occasionally the myth assumed the old Ovidian guise. But even when the setting was apparently contemporary there was always an intentional ambiguity, so that the present was seen through the perspective of the past, and thus idealised and made more resonant.

The painters and sculptors who lived part at least of their lives on the Mediterranean coast were especially susceptible to this myth. It permeates the late paintings of Renoir (Seated Bather in a Landscape [Eurydice], 1895-1900, Musee Picasso) and his forays into sculpture (Venus Victorious, 1914, bronze, Tate), the paintings of Matisse (1869-1954) in his Nice period (Plastic Torso, Bouquet of Flowers, 1919, Museum of Art, Sao Paulo; The Three O'Clock Session, 1924, private collection), and the idylls of Bonnard (The Green Blouse, 1919, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC). All three used the richly coloured, painterly style derived from Venetian painting which was traditionally associated with sensuality. De Chirico employed the same style in theatrically disposed scenes of Renaissance buildings, animated by classical statues and figures in modern dress (The Uncertainty of the Poet [1913, Tate, London], Song of Love [1914, Museum of Modern Art, New York], Roman Piazza, Mercury and the Metaphysicians, 1920, private collection), and in order to evoke the almost oppressive voluptuousness of the fruits of the south (Melon with Grapes and Apples, 1931, private collection). For Picasso the summers spent at Biarritz, Saint-Raphael, Juan-les-Pins, Antibes and Cannes generated great paintings like The Pipes of Pan (1923, Musee Picasso), in which the Mediterranean acts, nostalgically, as the site of the ideal. The myth permeates the bucolic imager) of the Catalans - Joaquim Sunyer (1874-1956), Enric Casanovas (1882-1948), Manolo (Manuel Hugue) (1872-1945), Joan Miro (1893-1983), Pablo Gargallo (1881-1934), Julio Gonzalez (1876-1942) and Josep de Togores (1893-1970); it ennobles the Poussinesque landscapes of Derain (View of St Paul-de-Vence, 1910, Ludwig Museum, Cologne); it receives a monumental statement in Woman in the Sun (1930, Museum of Modern Art, Trento and Rovereto) by Arturo Martini (1889-1947) and The Three Nymphs (1930-38, Tate) by Aristide Maillol (1861-1944); it invests the sculpture of Henri Laurens (1885-1954) with a lyrical dimension; it motivates the series of still lifes before windows that open out on to the sea by Juan Gris (The Bay, 1921, private collection).

It is a dream which also lies behind the contemporary architecture of Le Corbusier (Charles-Edouard Jeanneret) (1887-1965), with its flat roofs, white walls, expanses of window, balconies, cool tiled floors and open-plan interiors.

The theme of the continuity of peasant life, inseparable from the wider Arcadian theme, generated certain recurrent images. There are, for example, many Italian Novecento paintings in which a generalised peasant costume is used to confer an air of universality on a scene which might otherwise be interpreted either as contemporary, or as located in a specific period in the past, or as having a particular meaning. Thus Virgilio Guidi (1891-1984) rendered ambiguous the meeting between an old and a young woman in his trance-like The Visit (1922, Museum of Contemporary Art, Milan), and Achille Funi (1890-1972) suggested an indefinite span of time in his allegory of fruitfulness (Earth, 1921, private collection). Antonio Donghi (1897-1963) in Washerwoman (1922, private collection), Salvador Dali in Seated Girl Seen from the Back (1925, Reina Sofia, Madrid) and Josep de Togores in Catalan Girls (1921, Museum of Modern Art, Barcelona), used an unspecific rustic costume to give their models the dignity of types. And by the mere addition of a peasant hat, Martini was able to give two generalised figure studies an earthy innocence (La Nena, 1928, terracotta, Middleheim Sculpture Museum, Antwerp; and Woman in the Sun - see above). Folk costume was used, particularly in France, for poetic and nostalgic effect, and to evoke reminiscences of the Old Masters: thus, Derain (The Italian Model, 1921-22, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), Matisse (The Italian Woman, 1916, Guggenheim Museum, New York) and Braque (Woman with a Mandolin, 1922-3, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris) allude not simply to folk traditions, but to the Italian costume-pieces of Corot. And salvaged from the classical world was the ubiquitous white drapery which, cast over the models of Sironi or Picasso, lent them a vaguely antique air, without, however, necessarily detaching them from the present of the artist's studio. In all these cases costume alone lends that added dimension: anecdote is not involved.

The commedia dell'arte provided another set of standardised types. Derain (Summer, 1917, Fondation M.A.M. St-P), Picasso (Harlequin, 1917, Museu Picasso, Barcelona), Andreu (Figures from the Commedia dell'Arte, 1926, Theatrical Institute, Barcelona), Gris (The Pierrot, 1922, Galerie Louise, Leiris, Paris) and Severini (The Two Pulchinellas, 1922, Haags Gemeente museum, The Hague) were among those who plundered this resource. In part they were motivated by traditional images of the commedia, whether those by painters like Watteau and Cezanne or by 18th- and 19th-century print-makers and illustrators, for there was much interest in the 'call to order' period in the old, endangered traditions of popular theatre. In part the stimulus came from Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929), and his commissions to leading avant-garde artists for sets and costumes for his Ballets Russes (1909-29). (Parade in 1917, designed by Picasso, was an important event because its drop-curtain suggested, in the context of a public spectacle, the rich potential of this kind of poetic imagery.) But most important of all perhaps was the fact that the old Italian Comedy, with its stock characters, costumes and situations, suggested a viable alternative - still Latin in its roots - to classical mythology.

The Return to Order in France

In France after the war the 'call to order' - the resonant phrase was used by the writer Jean Cocteau, an influential voice at the time - took a number of characteristic forms, and the idea of the French tradition as the ideal model for the new generation was an article of faith with many critics, ranging from the advanced to the conservative. Picasso and Braque (1882-1963) were among those to adapt neoclassical imagery, while Picasso also worked in a great variety of traditional 'naturalistic' styles. His best classical revivalist works include: Two Nudes (1906, Museum of Modern Art, New York); Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race) (1922, Musee Picasso, Paris); Large Bather (1921, Musee de l'Orangerie, Paris); and Seated Woman (Picasso) (1920, Musee Picasso, Paris). Juan Gris (1887-1927) returned to figure subjects in the middle of the war and made free transcriptions of old master paintings, and in the early 1920s his flat, Synthetic Cubism gave way to an increasingly volumetric and descriptive manner. Matisse's work after he settled in Nice in 1917 became more naturalistic than it had been for many years, and all obvious indications of his previous interest in Cubism disappeared. Laurens's sculpture became gradually less geometric, and in the late 1920s approached that of Maillol. Maillol himself was at the height of his reputation by the mid-1920s and produced a great sequence of life-sized classical statues, while Emile Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929) and Charles Despiau (1874-1946) were admired for their ability to adapt Greco-Roman and Renaissance prototypes to their own expressive ends. Andre Derain (1880-1954), who maintained a constant dialogue with the art of the past, was widely seen as one of the greatest modern artists of the period. Fernand Leger (1881-1955) ceased to fragment his figures, made allusions to great paintings from the past, addressed himself to traditional subjects, and often worked on a grand Salon scale. See, for example: The Mechanic (1920, National Gallery of Canada); Three Women (Le Grand Dejeuner) (1921, Museum of Modern Art, NYC); Nudes against a Red Background (1923, Kunstmuseum, Basel); and Two Sisters (1935, Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin). The Purist painters, although they practised a radical, abstracted style, set about codifying and ordering pre-war Cubism according to aesthetic and philosophic principles derived from antiquity and the Renaissance. And it was typical of the period that drawing should be regarded as an important discipline, and given special status in monographs and exhibitions.

Novocento Neoclassicism in Italy

In Italy the war, and the short history of national unity, engendered fiercely patriotic sentiments. The contacts with France were close, for an important group of Italian painters, which included Severini, de Chirico and Alberto Savinio (1891-1952), was resident in Paris. But the overriding concern was with the Italian tradition. The ideology of the 'call to order' was promoted after the war by, among others, the painter and theorist Ardengo Soffici, and the critics and artists associated with Mario Broglio's art journal Valori Plastici, published in Rome between 1918 and 1922. Here the metaphysical painting of de Chirico, Carlo Carra (1881-1966) and Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) was illustrated, and the distinctive qualities of the Italian and the French tradition debated and analysed. The reaction against Cubism in France was paralleled by a reaction against the narrative subject matter and the fragmented, abstracted style of Futurism (fl.1909-14). The writings as well as the paintings of de Chirico and Carra during these years reflect their close study of Renaissance traditions. De Chirico, who had received an intensive academic training, now demanded the most rigorous classical standards, made a number of close copies of Renaissance paintings (La Muta, after Raphael, 1920, private collection), and like several of his compatriots, including Severini and Martini, became fascinated by largely disused historic techniques. For Carra, once he had turned his back on Futurism, the Trecento and the Quattrocento represented the ideal source - pure in form and mysterious and spiritual in content. See, for instance, Carra's The Drunken Gentleman (1916). For Martini Pre-Renaissance painting was initially just as important. But he was soon drawn to the recently excavated sculpture of the Etruscans, which he saw as the purest Italian expression of classicism. For Sironi, Funi, Guidi, Felice Casorati, Ubaldo Oppi and other painters associated with the Novecento movement, which was promoted from 1922 onwards in a series of exhibitions and essays by the critic Margherita Sarfatti, the ideal was a marriage between the artistic tradition of the Italian Renaissance and the 'pure' plastic concerns of avant-garde art of the early 20th century. Their pictures reflect their sense of the continuity between past and present in frank allusions to favourite artists including Raphael, Bellini, Piero della Francesca, Masaccio and Mantegna.

Some of the artists associated with the Novecento, in particular Sironi and Funi, were from an early date supporters of the Fascist Party, to which Sarfatti herself was fully committed, and which deployed the imagery of classicism to foster nationalist sentiment and the dreamed-of revival of the glorious triumphs of the Roman Empire in Mussolini's modern state. But Mussolini himself, despite his personal relationship with Sarfatti, never officially endorsed any particular style or group, and association with the Novecento group did not automatically imply any specific political allegiance on the part of the artist concerned. Indeed an overtly propagandist stance was a significant feature only in the 1930s, when opportunities arose for large-scale public murals and sculptures celebrating Fascist ideals. For the longing to see modern art enjoy the genuinely social role and influence that it had had in the past - an aspiration shared by artists on the political left, such as Leger - was a powerful motive behind the political activities of Sironi, who instigated the 'Manifesto della pittura murale' in 1933, and of Carra, Funi and Massimo Campigli (1895-1971), who were among those to sign it. (See Carra's cartoon-scale drawing: Study for 'Justinian Liberates the Slave', 1933, private collection.)

Noucentista Movement in Spain

In Catalonia the situation was somewhat different, not least because Spain was not involved in the First World War. The Noucentista movement, masterminded initially by the writer and art critic Eugeni d'Ors (1881-1954), was established as the leading movement in Barcelona between 1906, when d'Ors first began publishing his 'Glosari' in La Veu de Catalunya, and 1911, when the Almanack des Noucentistes came out. The movement was dedicated to the promotion of a modern form of classicism, which in painting was largely dependent on the example of Cezanne (and to a lesser extent on Renoir and Puvis de Chavannes), and in sculpture took Maillol as the ideal model. Noucentisme was thus intimately involved with developments in France, and much was made of the shared cultural history of southern France and Spanish Catalonia, as well as of the broader links with Latin culture in general.

This said, Noucentisme had a strong local identity, and as a movement closely connected with Catalan nationalism was committed to the revival of Catalan folk art and the great native traditions of the past, such as the Romanesque. It was also committed to the overthrow of Modernisme, which had prevailed in Barcelona in the late nineteenth century and in the 1900s. Modernisme, the equivalent of Art Nouveau, was seen as 'decadent' because of the strong influence from northern countries, particularly Germany, Austria and Britain - influences which had diverted the 'pure' Mediterranean course of Catalan art and because of its emphasis on the experience of contemporary urban life. For Noucentisme saw itself as a movement of reclamation and restoration, and the recent successful excavations at the Greco-Roman site of Ampurias generated a sense of continuity between antiquity and modern times.

A neoclassical strain in Noucentisme was evident from the first in the paintings of Joaquin Torres-Garcia, a close associate of d'Ors and an influential theorist in his own right. His mural paintings for public buildings in Barcelona were directly inspired by the work of Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98), and were intended both as an alternative to anecdotal painting, whether naturalist or symbolist in style, and as proof of the continuing viability, and indeed necessity, of modern art on a public scale. The neoclassical Noucentista style was given more convincing expression in sculpture than in painting, however, particularly in the work of the hugely successful Jose Clara (1878-1958), and of Enric Casanovas (1882-1948), in whose stone carvings it took a distinctive primitivist orientation.

Puvis-style neoclassical painting found few adherents of consequence besides Torres-Garcia. But the lessons of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), and especially of Cezanne (1839-1906), had long-lasting impact through the new work of Sunyer. Pastoral (1910, private collection) was hailed as a masterpiece of modern classicism and above all as the sign of a Catalan renaissance in painting. Sunyer's influence was considerable, and among those affected was Picasso, who spent several months in Barcelona in 1917 and was encouraged by the example of old Catalan friends to pursue his own 'return to order' in Harlequin (1917, Museu Picasso, Barcelona). The identification with Catalan folk-traditions and rural life remained a key motive behind the work of Joan Miro (1893-1983) long after he had ceased to be influenced by Sunyer or d'Ors's form of Noucentisme, and was central to most of the work of Manolo. Indeed for all those touched by the movement, the sense of their Catalan heritage was of prime importance, expressed not only in loving depictions of the landscape, but in the symbolic image of the statuesque country women of Catalonia, taken as the emblem of the survival of the true Mediterranean spirit into the present - the very incarnation of living classicism.

The Classical Response to Impressionism

Even so schematic an account of Noucentisme draws attention to the fact that the 'return to order' movement significantly predates the outbreak of the First World War. Maurice Denis (1870-1943), formerly a member of Les Nabis group, and a mural painter who worked in a manner developed from that of Puvis de Chavannes, was a vocal champion of classicism in his critical writings in the decade preceding the outbreak of the war. These were gathered in 1912 in his treatise Theories (1890-1910): Du symbolisme et de Gauguin vers un nouvel ordre classique - a book whose very title is a manifesto in miniature. Denis locates the roots of the new classicism of the 1900s in Post-Impressionist painting, and it is there that we must look for the origins of the 'call to order' of the wartime and post-war period. In France, Italy and Spain there was almost universal agreement on the immense importance of Cezanne's achievement. He is seen as the great hero by Denis himself, by Soffici, and by d'Ors. Renoir's status was never quite as high, but he too was widely admired in all three countries. Impressionism, on the other hand, was condemned by writer after writer, with a degree of consistency which shows just how dangerous a threat it was felt to be once it had become an officially accepted style. It was, went the general argument, too naturalistic, too preoccupied with merely ephemeral effects, too anarchic, too individualistic - incapable, in short, of universality of meaning, or of beauty of a grand dimension. The following passage from a piece by Guillaume Apollinaire is fairly typical:

"Ignorance and frenzy - these are the characteristics of Impressionism. When I say ignorance, I mean a total lack of culture in most cases; as for science, there was plenty of it, applied without much rhyme or reason; they claimed to be scientific. Epicurus himself was at the basis of the system, and the theories of the physicists of the time justified the most wretched improvisations."

The Purists agreed. The first issue of their magazine, L'Esprit Nouveau, published in 1920, carried six photographs of works designated as 'good' and 'bad'. On the good side were an archaic Greek statue, an African mask, Seurat's 'Chahut', and a still life by Gris, and on the bad, a sculpture by Rodin and a water-lily painting by Monet.

This hostile judgement recapitulates quite closely that of the early critics of Impressionism, who, even if they were prepared to admit that it had charm and that it was remarkably truthful in its rendering of fleeting visual sensations, were shocked by its sketchiness and by, in their view, the absence of structure or seriousness. Emile Zola, an unremitting opponent of the empty pretensions of academic Salon painting, had been an early supporter of first Manet, and then Monet, Pissarro and the other members of the Impressionist group because he approved of their realistic subject matter. But by 1880 he had come regretfully to the conclusion that the emphasis on ephemeral effects and a correspondingly rapid technique precluded the creation of great art: "Nowhere, not in the work of any one of them, is the formula applied with true mastery. There are too many holes in their work; they neglect their facture too often; they are too easily satisfied; they are incomplete, illogical, extreme, impotent."

The leading Impressionist painters privately expressed similar anxiety, and by the early 1880s a 'crisis' had developed, with widespread defection from the group shows, and individual efforts to strike out in new directions. For Cezanne and Renoir this took the immediate form of a classicist orientation. Renoir went to Italy to study Raphael and the Old Masters, and for a time practised a tight, draughtsmanlike style combined with Impressionist prismatic colour; this experiment was short-lived, but his subjects and compositions were altered ever afterwards as he embarked on a process of idealizing and mythologizing the women and landscapes that remained his favourite motifs. Cezanne retreated to Provence to forge a style bridging the visual truth and colourism of Impressionist plein-air painting and the grand compositional structures of Poussin and Chardin (Bathers, 1899, Baltimore Museum of Art). Even Monet began to rely increasingly on synthesising his 'impressions' in the studio away from the motif, and, omitting all specifically contemporary references, used a serial method to dignify and universalise his chosen subjects. Pissarro (1830-1903), temporarily converted to the rigorous technique of Pointillism developed by Georges Seurat (1859-91), focused increasingly on generalised rural themes in which the figure played a much more important role than hitherto. Meanwhile the new paintings of Seurat and Gauguin were conceived in direct opposition to the fundamental characteristics of Impressionism. Seurat's huge figure paintings were created from drawings and oil sketches in a painstaking process based on the academic method of composition, and drew on sources from the classical tradition. Gauguin addressed himself to the creation of a mythic, primitive Arcadia, depending on a wide range of artistic references to give his figure paintings an iconic depth and power. Both were directly influenced by the neoclassical murals of Puvis de Chavannes.

Avant-Garde Classicism

The 'avant-garde classicism' of post-Impressionist painters reached a climax of visibility around 1904-7. A series of exhibitions was mounted in the Salon des Independants and the Salon d'Automne: retrospectives for Cezanne, Puvis and Renoir were held in the Salon d'Automne of 1904, a Seurat retrospective at the Salon des Independants in 1905, an enormous Gauguin exhibition in the autumn of 1906, and a memorial Cezanne show in the autumn in 1907. A barrage of critical analysis accompanied these events.

The term 'avant-garde classicism' has been used to draw attention to the vital distinction between the kind of classicism practised by the post-Impressionists and the classicism of the academic arriere-garde. Politics aside, if classicism is now generally assumed to be conservative and reactionary, so that we are almost reluctant to admit its centrality to the work of the 'progressive' 19th- and 20th-century artists we admire, it is because of our lurking fear that academicism is a little too close for comfort. For, whether or not we identify the beginning of the modern movement with the Romantics, with Courbet, with Manet, or with the Impressionists, we invariably identify it with a rejection of academicism. These artists are our heroes precisely because they refused to conform to the rigid and stifling standards set in the art academies. Our notion of an avant-garde battling against the dead weight of the academic classicism of meretricious, super-successful 'pompiers' like Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904), Alexandre Cabanel (1823-89) and William Bouguereau (1823-1905) - see, for instance, Bouguereau's Birth of Venus, 1879, Musee d'Orsay) - has made us deeply suspicious of later classical revivals: might they not also be rearguard academic revivals? Because by the middle of the 19th century the classical tradition no longer had the weight of absolute authority it once enjoyed, we tend to assume that innovative artists were bound to reject its principles, abandoning it in favour of alternative traditions that were fresh and new (such as, say, Asian art). But this assumption does not stand up under scrutiny. For all the evidence suggests that the avant-garde in the 19th century made an absolute distinction between 'true' and 'fake" classicism, and actually used experience of alternative traditions as a means of looking anew at the classical tradition, thus providing the model for the twentieth-century avant-garde. (Note: the French word "pompier" [fireman] was a derogatory term applied to pretentious academic history painting of the 19th century. It derives from the wearing of firemen's helmets by artist models, as a substitute for Roman military headgear.)

The training of all European painters and sculptors around 1900 was still a training in classicism. The curriculum was more or less standardised, and whether or not the student intended to be a painter or a sculptor, he or she had to 'imitate' the antique by making accurate drawings from plaster casts of celebrated Greco-Roman sculptures, and by figure drawing from the live model posed in the manner of a statue. Familiarity with the antique was augmented by the study of Renaissance and Neoclassical art, since these traditions were assumed to reinforce the same values, and copying from the great masters was routine. Of course, different teachers applied these standards more or less rigidly. But even in the free academies, drawing from plaster casts and from the nude model, and the study of museum art, were regarded as fundamental disciplines: when Matisse opened a school in 1908, he required his students to draw from the antique. Meanwhile in the secondary schools a basic knowledge of classical literature and history was regarded as synonymous with education. This is the fundamental difference between the situation in the second half of the twentieth century and that in the first: today one cannot assume a general knowledge of the achievements of antiquity - whereas, then one could.

Where the academics and the avant-garde parted company was over the complex issue of 'imitation'. The academics, believing that the apex of civilisation had been reached in Periclean Athens and Augustan Rome (and attained once again in Italy at the time of Raphael), required a high degree of conformity to the outward forms of the past, and were consequently suspicious of innovation. The avant-garde, believing that it was the essential principles of classicism that were lastingly valuable, took a much more liberal view of formal invention. The academic attitude to classicism owed a great deal to the 18th-century writer and archeologist Johann Winckelmann, whose purpose was to combat the 'decadence' of the prevailing Rococo style. From his study of Greek art Winckelmann had come to the conclusion that:

"its most eminent characteristic is a noble simplicity and sedate grandeur in Gesture and Expression."

Because of the absolute supremacy of Greek art, Winckelmann was convinced that "There is but one way for the moderns to become great, and perhaps unequalled: I mean by imitating the ancients." Although for him 'imitation' was not the same as 'copying', that subtle distinction was all too easily eroded, and by the beginning of the 20th century Winckelmann was being seen by the avant-garde as the apostle of 'fake', not 'true' classicism - the classicism of the pompiers who dominated the official Salon and appealed to a pretentious but ignorant public. This was the view of Apollinaire:

"It was the German aestheticians and painters who invented academicism, that fake classicism which true art has been struggling against ever since Winckelmann, whose pernicious influence can never be exaggerated. It is to the credit of the French school that it has always reacted against his influence; the daring innovations of French painters throughout the 19th century were above all efforts to rediscover the authentic tradition of art."

Futurist Opposition to the Art of Classical Antiquity

The acute moral pressure applied by the academic tradition was felt perhaps most painfully by young artists in Italy, for nowhere else is the classical tradition so much a part of the consciousness of the present. Not isolated within abandoned historic sites or immured within the Vatican museums, it lives on in every town or city of consequence in the thousands of still functioning buildings that bear the visible imprint of Roman architecture and statues of every kind. The sense of desperate frustration induced by this obsession with the past found one kind of outlet in iconoclasm - the iconoclasm of the 1909 Futurist Manifesto, written by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944):

Do you, then, wish to waste all your best powers in this eternal and futile worship of the past, from which you emerge fatally exhausted, shrunken, beaten down? When the future is barred to them, the admirable past may be a solace for the ills of the moribund, the sickly, the prisoner. But we want no part of it, the past, we the young and strong Futurists!

The name for the new movement, "Futurism" (fl.1909-14), was, of course, pointed - intended to rally all those Italians who felt fettered by the past. The same reaction marked much Dada activity during and after the war. Their program of stage-managed events, conducted in Paris with the maximum publicity, was intended to rally the endangered forces of anarchy and protest within the avant-garde. Especially in the pages of Francis Picabia's "391", the 'call to order' movement was repeatedly and brilliantly satirised. Picabia's contempt was expressed in typically terse style in his 'Homage to Rembrandt, Renoir and Cezanne' of 1920, where the three 'great masters' were lampooned as 'still lifes' and represented collectively by a stuffed and moth-eaten monkey. Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) not only elevated his "ready-mades" (bottle-rack, urinal) to the status of masterpieces, but also indulged in schoolboy graffiti with his reproduction of Leonardo's 'Mona Lisa' - entitled L.H.O.O.Q. (1919, private collection).

But iconoclasm could not offer a long-term solution, however useful it might be in the short term as a means of achieving a tabula rasa. The long-term solution involved detaching the Great Tradition from all association with the academic concept of 'imitation', and in insisting on its potential as a source for innovation and invention. This is precisely what Apollinaire had done, in the passage quoted above, when he differentiated between 'fake classicism' and 'the authentic tradition of art'. Here Apollinaire was appealing to the concept of the abstract essence rather than the outward forms of classicism. When this crucial distinction was made, then the classical tradition could be claimed as the source for radical modernism. After his attack on Winckelmann, Apollinaire had immediately invoked 'the daring innovations of French painters throughout the nineteenth century'. He was thinking, among others, of the post-Impressionists who had invented new styles, but from the basis of a search for 'the authentic tradition of art'; and he went on to argue that Derain was the ideal example of a modern artist who 'studied the great masters passionately', whose new work was 'now imbued with that expressive grandeur that stamps the art of antiquity', but who had known how to avoid all 'factitious archaism'.

Impact of the 1905 Salon d'Automne: Maillol and Ingres

In the history of the new classicism of the 20th century the Salon d'Automne of 1905 was a climactic moment. It was, of course, the Salon in which the 'cage of the wild beasts' was the succes de scandale. But it was also the Salon in which Aristide Maillol (1861-1944) exhibited The Mediterranean (1905, bronze, Musee Maillol, Paris), and emerged as a major new sculptor who offered a radical alternative to the romantic expressionism of the then all-powerful Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). The importance of this piece was that although it was classical, it was not so in the pompier sense. For it was abstracted in form, and totally devoid of anecdote. Exhibited under the neutral title 'Femme' (Woman), it made not even a glancing reference to mythology, and offered instead a generalised type. For Andre Gide it was both beautiful and without meaning.

The autumn Salon of 1905 was also the Salon of a great retrospective for J.A.D. Ingres (1780-1867). We have been accustomed to see the contribution of the Fauves as the major event, but the Ingres retrospective was, arguably, more important in the sense that it had a wider influence. It is worth pausing to consider why. Partly because of his famous rivalry with Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), partly because in later life he had become a leading master of academic art with a following of undistinguished imitators, Ingres had come to be regarded after his death as a reactionary force in French painting of the mid-19th century. Yet, after a brilliant beginning - he won the Prix de Rome in 1801 - Ingres's career had been far from straightforwardly successful. His submissions to the Salon were often greeted with hostility and rejection - see: The Valpincon Bather (1808, Louvre) and La Grande Odalisque (1814, Louvre) - and he did not win the great public commissions he craved. Much of the contemporary criticism turned on Ingres's subversive interpretation of classicism - the eccentric distortions of the anatomy of his figures, the attention to surface detail rather than illusionistic depth, the 'Chinese' play of line, the references to 'primitive' art. But when Ingres was rediscovered by the 1905 generation it was these subversive aspects that were found exciting.

The great value of Ingres to the post-1900 generation was that he showed that the classical tradition could still have meaning and life if it was regarded as a stimulus to innovation, not as a pattern book. But his paintings might have made less impact had they been experienced in isolation. As it was they were not. They were seen in the context of the work of Cezanne, Renoir, Seurat, Gauguin and Rousseau, and the connections between his innovations and theirs were thrown into relief. For Apollinaire, writing a few years later, the stylisations of Ingres were a source for Cubism. His very eccentricities focused attention on the whole question of the fundamental nature of classicism. And here there was a wide measure of agreement within and without the avant-garde.

Concerned primarily with the ideal in content as well as in form, classical art, it was agreed, was conceptual rather than perceptual, contemplative rather than anecdotal. Governed by rationally determined rules, which were dependent on systems of harmonious proportions and precise measurement, its ultimate goal was 'universal' and 'timeless' beauty, achieved through a lucid, economical and impersonal style. It was serene and calm, and its effect was supposed to be ennobling, since the aim was to transport the spectator beyond the vagaries and trivialities of the here and now to the contemplation of a higher, purer and more perfect reality.

Classicism in avant-garde art in France was consolidated in the years that followed the 1905 Salon d'Automne. After his success with Mediterranean, Maillol went on to create a steady flow of monumental works before the war. Bourdelle's break with the expressionist style of Rodin belongs to the same time. In 1904-5 Picasso, anticipating d'Ors's rejection of Modernisme, abandoned the symbolist manner of the Blue period, and within a year was working in an archaising classical style which culminated in the great series of paintings and drawings executed in the autumn of 1906 following his return from a trip to Catalonia (Two Nudes, 1906, MOMA, New York). By 1907-8 Matisse and Derain were already moving away from the spontaneous, individualistic, 'wild' manner typical of Fauvism, in favour of a more synthetic, restrained and volumetric approach indebted to Cezanne and the old masters. That Matisse thought of works such as Bathers with a Turtle [see above] as classical in essence, is evident from his 'Notes d'un peintre', published in December 1908. For this much quoted passage from the essay uses the familiar terminology of the classical aesthetic: "What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of depressing subject matter, an art which could be a soothing influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue." The climax of this development in his art was reached in 1916 with Bathers by a River (1916, Art Insitute of Chicago), a painting which rivals the monumental series of bathing groups by Cezanne, known as The Large Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses) (1894-1906) in the National Gallery, London, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Barnes Foundation, PA.

Cubism - A Form of Classical Art

Cubism, despite its unprecedented outward appearance, was a manifestation of the same classicist impulse. For its typical subjects are traditional and stereotyped, and treated in a suggestive, non-anecdotal and emotionally neutral way; the accent (especially in Analytical Cubism) is on structure and form, both being determined by rationally conceived systems based on geometry; colour is subordinated to line and to composition; handling is impersonal, even anonymous; the effect sought is generally harmonious and contemplative. In the hands of the Salon Cubists, such as Robert Delaunay (1885-1941) and Henri Le Fauconnier (1881-1946), the connections with the classical tradition of figure painting were more immediately apparent than in the more hermetic analytical works of Picasso and Braque, and references to antique sculpture or to Renaissance masterpieces were not uncommon.

The early defenders of Cubism stressed its opposition to Impressionism, its dependence on Cezanne, and its classical foundations, even while insisting upon its innovative character. In an essay entitled 'Cubisme et Tradition' published in 1911, Jean Metzinger (1883-1956) emphasised the 'exemplary discipline' of the Cubist painters, who, he claimed, used the simplest, most complete and most logical forms. The conceptual nature of Cubism led not infrequently to direct comparisons with the art of the past that was felt to possess a similar basis. Thus in 1913 Maurice Raynal (later associated with the Purist movement) contrasted Cubist painting with the 'cunning' illusionism of High Renaissance art, but compared it to the plastic 'logic' of Giotto and the Primitives, and concluded by citing Phidias whom, he said, did not look for his models among men but in his mind.

20th Century Classical Aesthetics

The language of classical aesthetics was easily appropriated by avant-garde critics and artists who supported abstraction and 'purity' in art. And the magic words 'structured', 'ordered', 'harmonious', 'constant', 'ideal', 'invariable', 'synthetic', 'calm', 'serene', and the like, ring out again and again in essays published after the war, whether written by art critics in Paris for an avant-garde periodical such as L'Esprit Nouveau, or the less radical pro-'call to order' review L'Art d'Aujourd'hui. In Italy similar sentiments were expressed in the pages of Valori Plastici, by Carra in his essays for L'Ambrosiano, and by Soffici in such important publications as Periplo dell'arte. The sheer generality of the principles involved meant that an immense range of styles from the figurative to the purely geometric could be accommodated and understood as representing essentially the same tendency.

Nevertheless, in all the writing of the period the question of the closeness of an artist's relationship to the traditions on which he drew - the issue of being neo-this or neo-that - was an acutely controversial one, as it was bound to be at a time when proximity to the old enemy of academicism induced anxiety and mistrust. For instance, it was in order to resist the current tendency to imitate past styles that Sironi and Funi launched the manifesto 'Contro tutti i ritorni in pittura' in 1920. The 'copies' that were made reflect these tensions. De Chirico, defiant in his claim to be a 'pictor classicus', made copies that were as close as possible to the originals (La Muta, after Raphael, 1920, private collection), and earned the contempt of the Surrealists as a result. Braque and Gris preferred the less controversial solution of the 'homage' - a free transcription in their own stylistic terms (see, for instance: Bathers after Cezanne, 1916, pencil drawing, private collection - by Gris). The debate is summarised in the simplest terms in an editorial published in 1926 in the middle-of-the-road English review Drawing and Design, in which the modern movement is defined as a search "to establish order and to make the canons of art much more severe." The author continues: "Its guiding principle may be suggested by the adjective 'classical' - which has nothing to do with the classicism of Jacques-Louis David or with the resuscitation of the art and history of the Greeks. We should not nowadays attempt heroic canvases of Thermopylae or carve the straight nose and curling lip of Phidias; we aim at being classical in the far deeper sense. The modern ideal is assuming the formal, the exquisite, and passionless quality, which is the true classicism. An artist of the past who was classical in this definition is Raphael. The modern exemplar, we suppose, is Picasso."

The reference to Picasso is significant, because the course he steered so adroitly, even in his most overtly neoclassical paintings, between outright imitation and a freely personal interpretation of the past, seemed to many an ideal solution. So much so, indeed, that his new classical paintings quickly became 'classics' in their own right, and an inspiration to many other artists, such as Campigli (Woman with Folded Arms, 1924, Museo Civico di Torino), Laurens (Two Women, 1926, terracotta, Galerie Louise, Leiris, Paris), and even de Chirico (Roman Women, 1926, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow). But for certain groups of artists the outward dress of classicism was not easily acceptable in post-Cubist art, and a high degree of formal abstraction was the only valid means of reconciling the avant-garde with the classical. Had not Plato himself offered the perfect justification for an art based on relationships between pure geometric forms? Accordingly Plato was often cited by the Purists when they wished to find unimpeachable support for the rigorous 'purity' of the art they promoted. And it was only by claiming that there was no difference in the degree of plastic purity between Picasso's Cubist and his neoclassical works that Maurice Raynal could defend the new orientation in the work of the artist he admired above all others.

For sculptors the issue was perhaps especially sensitive, because the authority of the Greco-Roman tradition as the surest antidote to nineteenth-century naturalism and anecdotalism was even greater. Thus Christian Zervos was very careful to emphasise the formal abstraction of Maillol's work, rather than any debt to the outward forms of the antique: "Above all Maillol sees the continuity of form. There is not one work by him which is not marked by his patient search for architectural structure and geometry. All his statues give the impression of mass, of the search for the beauty of volume. They are inscribed within powerful geometric forms, the square or the pyramid, and their foundations are grand and simple planes."

A solution to this delicate problem was provided by the art of the past which, though belonging to the classical tradition, was recognised as primitive. It was a solution with immense appeal because ever since the Romantic period primitivism had been associated with an avant-garde position - with the idea of purity and authenticity and the escape from the supposed decadence and over-sophistication of the present. The myth of the purity of the primitive has been the great myth of modern times, and indeed all the classical revivals that have occurred from the time of Winckelmann onwards have been intimately bound up with this ideal, for the return to the classical past is conceived as a return to origins. However, as each generation, through repetition, creates its own fixed norms, so that what was once new comes to represent the oppressive Establishment, the succeeding generation becomes dissatisfied, demanding a renewal and a greater purity, a return to yet more 'original' forms. Thus David's followers, dubbed 'les Primitifs', demanded a severer, more archaic style. For Winckelmann, who had seen relatively few examples of classical art, Hellenistic art was the ideal, but soon Hellenistic art came to be perceived as decadent and over-sophisticated, and the earlier periods of Greek art seemed infinitely preferable. By the beginning of the 20th century it was the relative anonymity and abstraction of archaic or early Classical Greek sculpture that seemed purest of all to the avant-garde: by then the 4th century BC (let alone the Hellenistic) seemed too sweet, too naturalistic, too individualised. Maillol's strong dislike of Praxiteles, but love for the sculpture of Olympia, was a characteristic position.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries witnessed intense archeological activity, and the boundaries of 'classical art' were stretched in every direction, permitting these major shifts in taste. There was much interest in provincial forms of classical art because they, like the archaic, were not the hackneyed exemplars of the academics. Picasso's excitement at the exhibition of Iberian prehistoric art held in Paris in the spring of 1906 was the excitement of someone who had discovered a native classical tradition hitherto unknown and untapped, and therefore uncontaminated by official academic sanction. For Italian artists, such as Martini and Marini, the discovery of Etruscan art provided the same guarantee of authenticity, of inviolate naivete. In a similar way, there was intense interest in the Trecento and Quattrocento, periods felt to possess a quality of sacred innocence, and a series of critical studies appeared on such artists as Giotto, Uccello and Piero della Francesca. For de Chirico, Casorati and Severini the research into the 'lost' methods of the old masters was a search for a 'true' technique. For Bernard and Casanovas the direct carving of intractable local stone was synonymous with authenticity. To be a 'primitif classique' had become the ultimate ideal.

Works reflecting the style of this art movement can be seen in some of the best art museums in the world.


• For more about the revival of classical forms in early 20th century art, see: Homepage.

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