Ways to support us
About The Art Story a 501(c)3 Non-Profit Org
Interwar Classicism Collage

Interwar Classicism

Started: 1919
Ended: 1939
Interwar Classicism Timeline
"When the Greek chisel ceased to resound, night settled on the Mediterranean. It was a long night, illuminated only by the half-moon (the reflected light) of the Renaissance. Now we feel the breeze again on the Mediterranean. And we dare to think it is the dawn of a new era."
1 of 7
Painter Fausto Melotti
"This is the point we have reached. This is the state of confusion, ignorance and overwhelming stupidity in the midst of which the very few painters whose brains are clear and whose eyes are clean are preparing to return to pictorial science following the principles and teachings of our old masters."
2 of 7
Giorgio de Chirico Signature
"All true artists always attempt to construct an interior and classic vision, which is based on an exclusively classic order."
3 of 7
Jean Metzinger Signature
"What will matter tomorrow, and what I and all the others need, is a fanatical, fervent naturalism."
4 of 7
Painter Ludwig Meidner
"To be modern is not a fashion, it is a state. It is necessary to understand history, and he who understands history knows how to find continuity between that which was, that which is, and that which will be."
5 of 7
Le Corbusier Signature
"The craft of painting has virtually disappeared. There is hardly anyone left who really possesses it. For evidence one has only to look at the painters of this century."
6 of 7
Balthus Signature
"We who were decimated by gunfire and who suffered strangely in our flesh and our heart, nonetheless had the compensation, at certain moments, to feel ourselves in the presence of God, a kind of frozen and timeless illumination, and we can't forget that."
7 of 7
Painter Marcel Gromaire

Summary of Interwar Classicism

After World War I, the Great Depression and social and demographic changes taking place internationally encouraged a revival in classical artistic techniques and subject matter in Europe. Many artists, some of whom had previously worked in avant-garde styles, sought to step away from fragmentation and expressionism toward idealized bodies and calm, balanced composition. In architecture, this classical movement manifested in a turn away from decoration and toward symmetry and the grandiose. There were, across the 1920s and 1930s, a range of different rationales and approaches to Classicism in art (reaching as far back as the Greeks and Romans), ranging from xenophobia to critiques of heterosexual love. Interwar Classicism, also often known as the rappel a l'ordre (return to order), is often closely linked with the political rise of fascism in the 1930s, such that the movement was largely rejected after World War II.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • Interwar Classicism is a movement that challenges the idea of modern art history as driven by progress. Instead of looking forward (and building upon the innovations of Dada, Fauvism, Cubism et al), artists turned toward the past, believing that novelty and innovation was unnecessary and inappropriate. While some artists combined elements of both classicism and modernity, the movement as a whole can be characterized as regressive and nostalgic.
  • It is difficult to separate the aesthetic turn toward tradition from the politics of the interwar era. Many artists found classicism to offer security in the wake of trauma, while others imbued certain styles with moral qualities. While this occurred across the political spectrum, it was particularly pronounced on the conservative end of the spectrum, where the strength, hierarchy of values and veneration of "civilization" key to classical art and architecture resonated with the authoritarian celebration of ancient European empires.
  • "Interwar Classicism" can be seen as an umbrella term that encompasses a range of different approaches. Some artists turned toward sculpting or painting idealized bodies in the style of ancient or Neoclassical art while others were influenced by the enthusiasm for simplicity whilst maintaining a machine-age aesthetic. Some artists venerated the order associated with Apollo while others embraced the Dionysian pursuit of pleasure.

Overview of Interwar Classicism

Interwar Classicism Image

Following World War I, with an estimated twenty million deaths and widespread destruction, European society sought new ways of coming to terms with modern life. Artists and writers, prior to the war, had largely celebrated modernity through experimentation with new forms of expression intended to match the potential of new technologies. World War I, a conflict through which modernity became closely linked with destruction, led to widespread uncertainty as to the appropriate response to the tragedy and to other changes associated with industrialization and globalization. Artists responded to this ambivalence in a range of ways, among which was a nostalgia for the past that manifested itself in the revival of classical aesthetics and ideas.

Key Artists

  • Picasso dominated European painting in the first half of the last century, and remains perhaps the century's most important, prolifically inventive, and versatile artist. Alongside Georges Braque, he pioneered Cubism. He also made significant contributions to Surrealist painting and media such as collage, welded sculpture, and ceramics.
  • Giorgio de Chirico was a Greek-Italian painter and sculptor commonly associated with Surrealism. Initially discovered by Picasso and Apollinaire in France, de Chirico's best known Surrealist paintings incorporated metaphysical subject matter and sculptural still-life. Instead of land- or cityscapes, de Chirico's art is more emblematic of a dreamscape.
  • Maillol sculpted powerful and balanced statues of female nudes that avoided the flowing, romantic forms that were popular in his time.
  • Salvador Dalí was a Spanish Surrealist painter who combined a hyperrealist style with dream-like, sexualized subject matter. His collaborations with Hollywood and commercial ventures, alongside his notoriously dramatic personality, earned him scorn from some Surrealist colleagues.
  • Influenced by Cubism and Futurism, the French painter Fernand Léger developed a unique style of Cubism using cylindrical and other geometric forms with mechanically smooth edges. Often colorful and punctuated by patterns, his paintings range from still lifes and figures to abstract compositions.
View all

Do Not Miss

  • Classicism refers to the art and architecture of ancient Greece and Rome - a highly dynamic period that is at the root of most art.
  • Looking back to the arts of Greece and Rome for ideal models and forms, Neoclassicism was a major art period that set standard and redefined painting, sculpture, and architecture.
  • The High Renaissance, the epitome of Italian art before the modern era was the exemplified in the works of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael - among others.

Important Art and Artists of Interwar Classicism

Mother and Child (1921)

Artist: Pablo Picasso

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 (c.1922)

Artist: Giorgio de Chirico

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.

Mediterranean (1923-27)

Artist: Aristide Maillol

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.

Useful Resources on Interwar Classicism

video clips
Do more

Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Anna Blair

"Interwar Classicism Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Anna Blair
Available from:
First published on 09 Mar 2019. Updated and modified regularly
[Accessed ]