- Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy and Germany, 1918-1936Our PickBy Kenneth E. Silver / Guggenheim Museum / April 30, 2011
- On Classic Ground: Picasso, Leger, De Chirico and the New Classicism 1910-1930Our PickBy Elizabeth Cowling and Jennifer Mundy / December 1, 1990
- Esprit de Corps: The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War, 1914-1925By Kenneth E Silver / April 6, 1992
Important Art and Artists of Interwar Classicism
This painting shows a seated woman, clothed in a simple white tunic, holding a small child in her lap. The woman fits neatly into the rectangle of the canvas, with her crossed legs almost filling the horizontal plane while her torso, on the right of the image, occupies the bulk of the vertical plane. The child is almost at the center of the canvas, reaching up toward his mother's face; she gazes down at him, supporting his body with her left hand. The background consists of three strips, suggesting a horizon seen across a sea, and the palette of the painting is muted, composed of greys, whites, blues, beiges and browns. The figures both have calm expressions and the colors contribute to the painting's overall sense of serenity.
Pablo Picasso's interest in reviving classical art came after his 1917 visit to Rome, where he was impressed by religious imagery and early Renaissance colors. This is one of a number of paintings that show a mother and child produced by Picasso during the years that followed the birth of his own son, Paolo, in 1921. The classicism of these images is particularly evident when compared to the painter's pre-war work, in which figures are fragmented or hollow, rendered with harsh lines and discordant colors where Mother and Child features naturalistic curves and soft flesh tones. The subject matter, the landscape, the tunic of the mother and the simple title of the piece position the two figures as archetypes, placed at an idealistic remove to the modern world.
Self Portrait provides two different representations of Giorgio de Chirico; the horizontal plane of the canvas is divided into two, with a plaster bust of de Chirico occupying the left foreground of the image while the person of de Chirico looks out at the viewer from the right side of the painting. The division of the painting into two sections is reinforced by the background, with a strictly ordered and geometric building receding from the center, where it protrudes upward, creating a line that frames the figures to either side. These figures are further framed by dark curtains that reach from the top of this center line to the edges, creating triangles. The plaster bust is displayed in profile, as if looking directly at the artist; it is realistic in its modelling and the lack of color is underscored by a lemon with leaves placed before it on a narrow shelf at the base of the image. The representation of de Chirico on the right similarly aims toward realism, rather than abstraction, with subtle tonal and color shifts used to reinforce the sense of the figure's presence. The artist's face is supported with his right hand; his hair is combed backward and he is wearing a white shirt, red jersey and black jacket.
De Chirico played a central role in the classical revival, publishing an article entitled 'The Return to Craft' in 1919 which was influential in both Italy and Germany. In the article, de Chirico contended that artists found themselves in a "state of confusion, ignorance and overwhelming stupidity." In searching for a solution to this, de Chirico drew not only upon classical traditions, but also on Renaissance artistic considerations, such as the relationship between painting, sculpture and life itself. Self Portrait uses the contrast between the classical bust and the lifelike figure of the artist as a means of indicating art's ability to surpass the fleeting, serving as a demonstration of de Chirico's belief that painters must look to classical sculpture as a model so as to leave the messiness of humanity behind in favour of an ideal. The juxtaposition of the bust and the artist himself both emphasizes the contrast between the permanence of art and the fleeting nature of life and - through the realism of the figure on the right - makes a convincing argument for the strength of painting as the ideal artistic mode, one in which form and color can come together. This contention, too, is indicative of Interwar Classicism, prioritizing an artistic question from the Renaissance, that of competition between the two arts, over contemporary social or political questions.
This sculpture, in white marble, shows a woman alone and seated, her head bowed as if lost in thought. Her left knee is folded upward from the plain slab, doubling as plinth, on which she sits, while the other leg folds horizontally, with the foot tucked behind the ankle. The woman supports her body with her right arm, while the left arm rests on her knee, elbow bending back so that her hand rests behind her ear, creating a triangle that echoes that of the leg. She is solid in build and supported by the arrangement of her limbs, prompting a feeling of security in the viewer. The woman conforms to the ideal type of the period, with smooth skin and defined hips and breasts; she is far removed from the garçonne, or 'new woman,' that captured the attention of the avant-garde and troubled conservative ideas of gender during this decade.
Unlike many other prominent artists associated with Interwar Classicism, Aristide Maillol had been working in this style since the beginning of the twentieth century; a plaster version of Mediterranean had, in fact, been exhibited in 1905 under the title Woman. The primacy of Maillol's work is, perhaps, a reason why the "return to order" often synonymous with Interwar Classicism is sometimes dated to 1900 in sculpture. This copy in marble was commissioned by the French State in 1923, indicating the increased popularity and political cooption of the aesthetic in this period. The decision to entitle the piece Mediterranean is indicative of fashions and of Maillol's concerns early in the interwar period; he commented that the Mediterranean spirit, which he and others linked with the Greco-Roman region and antiquity, was "young, luminous and noble," like the figure in marble.