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The PICTURE: Classic Catastrophe

The Guggenheim's new exhibit takes Euro-chic anti-fascism too far.

I am deeply disturbed by “Chaos and Classicism,” a survey of the arts in Europe from the end of World War I to the beginning of World War II that is currently at the Guggenheim. I know many people have been excited by this exploration of classical tendencies in France, Germany, and Italy between the wars. The subject matter has been treated in major shows in Europe—such as “Les Réalismes” in Paris in 1980 and “On Classic Ground” in London in 1990—but is not so well known over here. There is certainly much to see on the ramps of the museum, including magnificent paintings by Picasso, Braque, and Gris, and Italian sculpture that will be unfamiliar to most American museumgoers. But fueling this exhibition is a belief I find abhorrent, a belief in the ideological nature of artistic style. “Chaos and Classicism” is a lousy history lesson wrapped in the prettiest Euro-chic package.

In order to get at what’s wrong with “Chaos and Classicism” we need to go back to the fundamentals. Art begins with the athleticism of the imagination. The great painters and sculptors have great thoughts, true enough, but those thoughts are embodied in craft, in sensibility, in the spontaneous mastery of the artist at work. Thought in art is not like thought anywhere else. Thought in art is elusive, unfixed, a matter of sensibility and suggestibility. The specificity of art is in the working out of the thoughts, in their actualization as indivisible pictorial facts. A particular painterly touch can turn a meaning inside out. The trouble with “Chaos and Classicism” is that it nails the imagination down, presenting a chillingly deterministic view of style. The classicism that interested many artists in the 1920s and 1930s, so we are told, was a reaction to World War I. Chaos was the cause. Classicism was the effect. And suddenly we find that a style has acquired an a priori meaning. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

What precisely is the meaning of the small painting with which the show begins? This is a Picasso from 1922, a monochromatic study of a woman’s head and torso, blunt and bold in its sculptural echoes of Greco-Roman images of idealized female beauty. What does this canvas have to do with or tell us about World War I? Nothing whatsoever, so far as I can see. And the fact that Picasso’s friend Jean Cocteau was at the time speaking about “a return to order” does not prove anything, one way or the other. Picasso’s Bust of a Woman, Arms Raised, tightly contained by the rectangle of the canvas, has the disquieting power of a fragment. What this Bust of a Woman, Arms Raised suggests has nothing to do with the art of the Roaring Twenties and everything to do with Picasso’s earlier classical avowals, especially his Rose Period. And the classicism of the Rose Period cannot possibly have anything to do with World War I, which was nearly a decade away. Was the revulsion against the chaos of World War I a strand in the creation of this little idealized head? Maybe so. But another factor was surely the dream of a Spanish-Hellenistic Golden Age that had been discussed in bohemian circles in Barcelona when Picasso was hardly more than a boy. Classicism, properly understood, is a complex cluster of inclinations and dispositions, a realm of possibility that can mean just about anything an artist wants it to mean. Bonnard had done illustrations for a classical pastoral poem, Daphnis and Chloe, in 1902. One of Braque’s greatest Analytical Cubist still lifes, Homage to Bach, is a masterpiece of austere classical architecture, with its verticals and horizontals suggesting a skeletal Doric temple. As for Picasso’s classical figures of the 1920s—the works included in “Chaos and Classicism”—they have more in common with his unruliest images of women, those in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, than with the ice-capades good manners of some of the French and German figure paintings at the Guggenheim.

“Bust of a Woman, Arms Raised,” Pablo Picasso, 1922

Forgive me for trying to make sense of one little painting by Picasso. “Chaos and Classicism” rushes right by that Picasso. Kenneth Silver, the art historian who organized the exhibition, is determined to think big. So the show becomes a series of razzmatazz acts: “Crazy for Classicism,” ”Classicizing the Everyday,” “Performance/Anxiety.” I enjoy this material. The elegant porcelain objects by Gio Ponti are fun to see; they’re as yummy as Milanese pastries. “Chaos and Classicism” is generous-spirited enough to include gently romantic photographs by Edward Steichen of Isadora Duncan at the Parthenon, her arms raised in the exuberant gesture of the Winged Victory of Samothrace. And Silver naturally brings the Ballets Russes into the picture, including one of de Chirico’s ingenious costumes for George Balanchine’s 1929 Le Bal, which turned the dancers into elaborate architectural objects (and may have helped to turn Balanchine off fancy costumes). But even the wittiest byways in “Chaos and Classicism” are leading you inexorably in one direction and one direction only: up the Guggenheim’s ramp to “The Dark Side of Classicism,” a climactic gallery focusing on the Fascist and Nazi infatuation with perfect bodies and imposing architectural structures. I have a problem with an exhibition that begins with Picasso and more or less ends with a composition of nude women representing the four elements by Adolf Ziegler, which we are told hung in Hitler’s apartment in Munich. Ziegler was the head of the Reich Chamber of Visual Art. Students of contemporary art will note how closely Ziegler’s simpering nudes resemble the work of John Currin, whose own nit-pickingly realistic soft-porn paintings are now the trophy art of choice among hedge-fund guys. That does not mean that Currin is a closet Nazi, only that he is a lousy artist.

"The Four Elements: Fire, Water and Earth, Air," Adolph Ziegler, pre-1937

And how would I explain my objections to a show that begins with Picasso and ends with Hitler? People will say this is just how the story goes. My feeling is that given the way Silver tells the story, he needs those Fascists and Nazis at the end. They give him his “Gotcha” moment. Classicism, we now discover, is not just any old response to chaos. This is the authoritarian response to chaos. Silver could have concluded “Chaos and Classicism” in any number of ways. He could have closed with a selection of Picasso’s studies of the Minotaur from the 1930s, but that would have made classicism look too personal, too expressionistic, too Freudian—a matter of what the Communists (who also had a taste for an authoritarian classicism) called bourgeois individualism, and in that sense as politically irrelevant as Mondrian’s most stripped-down abstract paintings. Mondrian’s compositions, come to think of it, are arguably the greatest classical works of the 1920s and 1930s, but they are probably too elusively otherworldly to fit into Silver’s socio-political scheme. The appeal of the totalitarian fascination with classicism is that it is all about predetermined meanings, about the belligerent insistence that classicism is stable, conservative, maybe even inherently oppressive. And that’s what Silver is insisting that classicism signifies right from the start. Yes, I know, I am pressing a little too hard on this point. Silver is far too knowledgeable about the byways of the period to quite fall into any trap. I am certainly not saying that Silver sympathizes with Fascism; I understand that in his catalogue essay he refers to the Fascist fascination with classicism as “Classicism Hijacked.” But to the extent that the Fascists see classicism as a provocative straightjacket they are definitely on Kenneth Silver’s wavelength. In the scheme of this show, Picasso’s classicism is just one more decadent cosmopolitan bohemian experiment to which Mussolini and Hitler bring some final classical order.

“Chaos and Classicism” is a show in which everything is labeled and nothing is left to experience. You can go through and ignore the thesis and have a great time. The Italian sculpture, especially the work by Marino Marini, Arturo Martini ,and Guido Galletti, is extraordinarily impressive, a bold, supple vision of modern masculine beauty, perhaps anti-classical in its angled austerities. I stopped to look at Peter Foerster’s 1924 Still Life with Oranges, not a major work but an alluring one, with its brittle modernization of Flemish realism. (If this is indeed some version of classicism, it has nothing much to do with the classicism of the Mediterranean, except in the sense that still life was invented by the Ancient Greeks.) But the dark shadow of political correctness—the idea that each artist, each work of art, and each element in each work of art has some particular socio-political meaning—dominates the show. I was startled by a wall label next to a portrait by Mario Sironi that identified him as “probably the most talented Italian Fascist painter.” Yes, Sironi was a Fascist, and was involved with large-scale mural projects for Mussolini. But the label is also meant to tell the museumgoer that the character of Sironi’s politics is at least as important as the quality of this portrait of an architect, which has, so far as I can see, no explicit political content. I believe a line has been crossed with this wall label, and it is a line that should never be crossed. It is as if a portrait of a woman by Picasso, done in the 1950s, were identified as by “the most talented Spanish Communist painter,” for after all Picasso was not only a member of the Communist Party but was also allowed some of his images of doves and young people to be used as what arguably amounted to Soviet propaganda. Who knows, maybe we are going to be seeing museum labels that identify Picasso as a Communist? That might be next.

"Water Sports," Albert Janesch, 1936

Kenneth Silver is far too susceptible to the artistic pleasures to be discovered in the works of the 1920s and 1930s to ever allow “Chaos and Classicism” to turn into an art-and-politics crash-and-burn operation. (I had thought he had set aside ideology back in 2001, when he organized a show called “Making Paradise: Art, Modernity, and the Myth of the French Riviera”—but political correctness will not die, at least not in the academic art history circles where Silver is a significant figure.) At moments, whoever it was who wrote the wall labels seems to be winking at political correctness, which is itself rather disturbing. A painting by Albert Janesch of muscular, bare-chested men out on the water is described as “a veritable navy of Nazi athletes [who] paddle, row, and sail their way across this image.” I don’t see a single Nazi insignia anywhere. Which leaves me wondering if curators do museumgoers any favor by suggesting that one can accuse any muscular, bare-chested man in a German painting of the 1930s of being a Nazi. I see this as yet another instance at “Chaos and Classicism” where the rights of the individual are sacrificed to a particular kind of group think. What puts this show beyond the pale, so far as I am concerned, is Silver’s decision to present select examples of Nazi and Fascist neoclassical high camp in the same narrative as the ineffably individualistic visions of Braque, Derain, Gris, Morandi, and Balthus. This turns art history into group think, artistic guilt by association. I do not believe that Picasso and Ziegler can be included in the same narrative, much less in the same exhibition. Kenneth Silver may say that history made him do it. But there is an ideology behind his history, and it is an ideology that rejects the history of artistic quality. A narrative that denies the freedom of the imagination is not a narrative I will follow.

Jed Perl is the art critic at The New Republic.

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