THE painter Georges Braque once wrote: "Nobility comes from
contained emotion. I love the rule which corrects emotion." A
classical credo. It might almost be the motto for an exhibition
here called "On Classic Ground."
At the Tate Gallery (through Sept. 2), this show explores a
period in the history of 20th-century art when "classicism" - once
the academic, traditionalist bedrock of painting and sculpture -
became for a decade the language of the "avant garde" itself.
Jean Cocteau used the phrase "a call to order" to describe this
somewhat paradoxical turn. Its seeds were sown before World War I,
when even Cubism, for all its radical modernity and disruptiveness,
was in many ways classical: linear, lacking color, and imposing an
order on the seen world. But the budding of the new classicism
occurred during that catastrophic conflict, and its flowering
belonged to the decade between the end of the war and 1930.
It was a wave that seems to have washed over most of the
prominent European artists who were the previous progenitors of
Modern art: Fauves, Expressionists, Cubists, Futurists. They did
not, however, for the most part just return to some kind of
realistic figurative vision. They turned consciously to the
antique-classical, the forms and balances, the heroism and antiquity
of Greek and Roman sculpture, for something old which they could use
in a new way.
They transformed their models, sometimes ironically, sometimes
admiringly. And they looked wider than the academicism of the 19th
century had usually done - espousing as "classical" less-known,
archaic (and sometimes recently excavated) art, early Greek or
Etruscan for instance.
They also, particularly the Italian ex-Futurist Carlo Carra,
emulated painters of the early Italian Renaissance like Giotto, as
well as the quiet, mathematical compositions of Piero della
Francesca - which gave their work a lucid order both classical in
its stability and "primitive" in its directness, without the
overworked familiarity of Raphael or Leonardo.
Overall, artists who had before the war been out to "destroy the
art of the museums" discovered it again. One of their more recent
heroes was Cezanne who, in his time, had worked to mate the
transience of French Impressionism with the solidity of the Old
Masters in the Louvre.
These neo-classicists of the '20s, though wanting classical
order, were at times also interested in the ecstatic side of
antiquity, or at least in its Arcadian vision (though this must have
been difficult to believe in without irony after that war).
Picasso's "Race," for example, in which two gigantic women run in
glorious frenzy along a beach, can hardly be called tranquil
classicism. "Spring" by Emil-Othon Friesz is characteristic of the
idyllic Golden-Age strand, exuberantly ideal in subject, jauntily
contemporary in execution. …