From Picasso to Munich

John Haber
in New York City

Chaos and Classicism: Between the Wars

Not every exhibition ends in Hitler's living room. Fewer still get there by way of Picasso.

"Chaos and Classicism" offers a frightening alternative history of modern art. It sees art between world wars turning away from Cubism and experiment, toward something solid and certain. It places familiar names alongside many more rarely in the history books, more than a few of them collaborators with Fascism. It mixes artistic movements with political ones, to the point that one can easily forget which was trying to sweep away the other. Every so often its embrace of bad art is comic or even liberating, but not often. This is revisionism with a deadly vengeance. Pablo Picasso's Woman in White (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1923)

The artists here turn from the horrors of war and the dynamic rhythms of thought itself. They prefer art as a "harmonic cleansing," to quote a critic in 1925. And the Guggenheim Museum sees that refusal as dominating the years from 1918 to 1936, especially after Benito Mussolini rose to power in 1922. It slides easily from harmonic cleansing to the ethnic cleansing of National Socialism. Stranger still, it roots everything in Neoclassicism, a move by Picasso himself. What saves the exhibition—and adds insight into European history—is that creepiness rather than classicism becomes very much the point.

Classicism as a blunt weapon

"Chaos and Classicism" does indeed begin with Pablo Picasso—and little in the way of overt chaos. His idealized oil portrait of 1922 mimes the precision of charcoal on paper and the solidity of marble or plaster. The woman's raised arms stick close to her head, as if molded or carved from a single block. Her heavy limbs and smooth features have a masculine toughness. Her drapery conceals her breasts and echoes antiquity. In dismissing Cubism at the very peak of its achievements, it also puts off the usual conflicts and confrontation in Picasso's drawings and Picasso's women.

For all that, drapery wraps her tightly, as if to deny her will. Her very arms weigh her down, and her down-turned gaze looks joyless and weary. Sure enough, in the tall gallery off the first ramp, one encounters three actual sculptures of standing men and women—two in bronze and one in wood. They have no hint of distortion, fragmentation, or abstraction. The wood rejects the hacked outlines of a primitive totem or medieval woodcut, as in German Expressionism, for a polished tribute to a material still associated with German national tradition. Yet one bronze has a coruscating green oxidation, the men and women are sexless, and their strides speak less of boldness than the duty of an automaton.

I could name the German and Italian artists, but minor names start to fly by so quickly that this once I shall pass. The curator, Kenneth E. Silver of New York University, is not so much after revisionism in the sense of rediscovery anyway. He does bring attention to a woman artist, Suzanne Phocas. Her portrait of Jean Metzinger, her husband, simplifies the geometries of his Cubist style. Beating Metzinger at his own game, though, does not take much talent. And so much else had best remain forgotten.

More to the point, those first paintings and sculpture set the tone for nearly everything to come. As in his influential writings on art in Paris, Silver argues for a reaction to the chaos of war, and the show displays hardly a trace of militarism—aside from chilling sculptural tributes to Il Duce that convert his head into armor and a blunt missile. (For those who care, Hitler chose four bland nudes for his living quarters in Munich.) The poverty and hunger of the Depression vanish as well, apart from the coffin borne toward the baker in Balthus's The Street. One can hardly tell leftist tributes to the community of labor from right-wing portraits of submission to the state. Either way, bare human dignity faces grim necessity.

The tributes to Greece and Rome keep coming. Picasso's fashion statement becomes an actual one in fabric. Where the Futurist Manifesto declared that the "racing car is more beautiful than the Winged Victory of Samothrace," Mussolini based the very term Fascism on an emblem of Roman magistrates, and somehow Hitler decided that ancient Greece was really Nordic. Art here has no use for racing cars or much else of modern life, even as all sides modernized their industries and armies. Even Fernand Léger gets his portraits and pillars, but no machine imagery.

The show departs from chronology in favor of themes. Some correspond to such movements as Magic Realism and the Bauhaus, others to matters of sexuality and theater. This allows a last look at Cubists and Futurists who embraced a greater realism to portray harlequins. It also places them right at the entrance to the final room, for Hitler's circle—so that one society of the spectacle seems to foretell another. Still, everything blends together. The themes, too, are easily forgotten, leaving the unrelenting human tragedy.

Old and new objectivity

Some of this even makes sense. Everyone knows that Picasso passed through Neoclassicism, as in his more fluid 1923 Woman in White. Besides, Picasso can claim to have invented almost anything. Everyone knows, too, how Giorgio Morandi flirted with Mussolini. So did the author of the Futurist Manifesto, while a founding artist, Carlo Carrà, joined with Giorgio de Chirico in Magic Realism. Even the show's subtitle, "Art in France, Italy, and Germany," sounds like a standard European history, from the Treaty of Versailles in 1918 to Fascism.

And most people know—or think they know—how it all hinged on World War I, as Modernism's optimism crumbled along with a stable Europe. For its token chaos, "Chaos and Classicism" exhibits War, by Otto Dix. Dix shows a child's innocent or devilish smile amid the ruins, corpses reduced to skeletons, and soldiers reduced to apparent skeletons by their gas masks. In their place the German art of Neue Sachlichkeit, or the New Objectivity, promised something plain, static, quiet, pure, and engrossing. Franz Roh introduced this vocabulary in 1925 along with "artistic cleansing." He renounced the Romantic ideals and psychic conflicts of the primitive in favor of the "civilized."

Dix himself joined that movement, and he was not alone. Nor does the exhibition claim to present the entirety of art. If Piet Mondrian does not get to boogie-woogie, fine. He had to leave for America anyway. The Guggenheim also tries not to level left and right. Wall labels point to a lingering flattening and fragmentation in the first, like a painting not all that far in style from Paul Klee, and it states which artists the Nazis declared "degenerate."

For all that, the leveling is there, right on the walls. The show's ingenious thesis sounds half crazy for good reason—because it is. It selects what to include, and those selections bear a terrible weight. Paris lives without Mondrian and the Bauhaus without Klee or Wassily Kandinsky. Picasso's flirtation with stasis comes to define nearly twenty years of modern art. More to the point, the exhibition levels the origins of Modernism.

Cubism was not solely dismemberment, just as Henri Matisse and the Fauves were more than "wild beasts." They followed from the search for meaning in ordinary life, building on Paul Cézanne and Post-Impressionism. As John Russell notes in his textbook history, Futurism may have had a problem with the Winged Victory, but Umberto Boccioni, a Futurist, all but quotes it. Conversely, the horrors of war brought more than conservatism and denial. They underlay Surrealism. Even the Great Depression gave fresh relevance to a dynamic vision of modernity, as American and other artists combined Cubism and an homage to the working class.

Picasso's personal shifts alone tell quite a story. A drawing on display from 1920 connects to his later Neoclassicism, but it also reflects his rivalry with Matisse. He had a personal rather than political crisis as his evolution from Analytic to Synthetic Cubism demanded more, while the easier triumphs of his rose period must have looked awfully good to him. The masculine outlines and stern faces at the Guggenheim relate to his usual ambivalence about women. And in no time he was back to a slightly academic version of Cubism to tear them apart. If there is a wavy line from Woman in White to Munich, there is a line, too, to Picasso's sympathies with the Spanish republic and to late Picasso in Southern France.

The blood of a poet

Along with its selections, "Chaos and Classicism" makes some questionable and damaging connections. I have trouble reducing the Bauhaus to Neo-Platonic, unless every household object subject to mass production mirrors a Platonic form. I have even more trouble leaping from its clean lines or from Plato to tradition. Not every formalism is draped in a toga. I have trouble, too, reducing the elegance of Jean Cocteau to classicism. He is out to transform and destroy classical form, quite as much as Cubism and Surrealism, and he calls his film The Blood of a Poet.

The Guggenheim never can sustain its thesis, itself the mirror image of a postmodern critique of Modernism as patriarchal and dictatorial. Yet its very failure makes it fascinating after all—and a truer portrait of Europe. One can nurture Picasso's ambivalence or the grim strides of those statues. One can imagine Fascism seeped in the blood of a poet. While the wall labels identify the victims of the Nazis, one can see how lives slipped between collaboration and condemnation. One can see how a return to representation or tradition never did produce much in the way of optimism. Faced with a choice between chaos and classicism, artists could only repress and express chaos.

Despondency and chaos drive even the most party-line art. A painting of the goddess Diana, the virgin huntress, flaunts her sexuality, and two loving couples lurk in the background. Other images of the body struggle between homophobia and desire. A hymn to the state makes even more explicit its reliance on the unconscious. A woman reaches up as in a revival meeting, a white-shirted man collapses into a woman's arms, and a child steps forward, freed of adult supervision. The street behind them converges ominously, in an exaggerated perspective out of the early Renaissance or Expressionism.

The exhibition's forced juxtapositions contribute, too. August Sander used clean outlines to photograph the gritty details of working life, not unlike Walker Evans in America. This context distorts his art, but with a useful shock. One can have trouble telling a parody by Hannah Höch from fascist art as self-parody, just as one can have trouble telling left from right. The curator himself has trouble. When it comes to Antonio Donghi's Circus, a 1927 double portrait of a clown and a man in a tuxedo, he cannot say for certain who gets the last word.

That late return to Cubists and Futurists marks "Chaos and Classicism" at its best and worst. Earlier, one saw how Picasso's evolution parallels the more gradual quieting in Georges Braque. Now Juan Gris, André Derain, and Gino Severini send in the clowns. The cheap trick with time cheapens everyone involved, but the awkward poses and false noses cheapen their surroundings as well. Picasso's 1915 Harlequin already left nothing behind the masks and no one to shuffle the playing cards. They make a fateful invitation to the Nazi triumph.

That triumph includes the single example of breathtaking art as collaboration, Leni Riefenstahl's film on the eve of the Olympics. For eight minutes the camera lingers over the Temple of Zeus at Olympia and the Parthenon as a graveyard, haunted by ghosts of fallen statues. At the end a copy of the lost Discobolus morphs into the Nazi champion discus thrower. One has no trouble piecing out the intended message: true civilization, left to rot by a degenerate West, now returns to heroic life. In practice, one cannot avert one's eyes from a cult of death.

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"Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918–1936" ran at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through January 9, 2011.


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