Classical Echoes in Modern Art Tate Gallery Show Explores the Time from World War I to 1930, When Traditionalist Art Became the Language of the Avant Garde

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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. …


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