Artworks and Artists of Interwar Classicism

Progression of Art
Pablo Picasso: Mother and Child (1921)

Mother and Child

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.

Oil on canvas - The Art Institute of Chicago

Giorgio de Chirico: Self Portrait (c.1922)

Self Portrait

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.

Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio

Aristide Maillol: 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.

Marble - Musée d'Orsay, Paris


War (La Guerre)

Artist: Marcel Gromaire

The War, Marcel Gromaire's best-known painting, shows five soldiers in uniform, their faces almost swallowed by their heavy grey helmets and high-collared coats. Three men sit, as if waiting, in a row that recedes from the left foreground, where the closest man's hands are clasped on his lap, into the right middle-ground, where the third falls into shadow; behind the last of these soldiers emerge two other soldiers, moving from the right edge of the canvas. In the background is the brown dirt of the trench and a glimpse of sky above. The painting is dark, with the half-light suggesting the men are waiting in the early morning. The scene is stylized, with facial features rendered indistinctly, downplaying the individuality of each soldier, and repeating geometric shapes emphasizing their likeness.

Gromaire's painting is modern in style, making use of abstraction and fragmentation, but borrows from classical attitudes toward war, portraying the soldier not as an individual but as a type and imbuing that type with nobility. Those who chose to depict war during the 1920s often had personal experience of it, as was the case for Gromaire, who was injured at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and these shaped their depictions. While some others chose to focus on the horrors of war, creating realistic and gruesome images that made it difficult for audiences to romanticize violence, Gromaire cast his experiences in a more ambiguous light. The stillness of the figures emphasizes the dignity of the soldiers while their metal helmets, which establish the setting as modern, signal strength and durability. This portrayal of war aligns itself with classical perspectives of soldiers, sacrificing individuality for an abstract cause, as possessing a timeless beauty.

Museum of Modern Art, Paris


Seated Girl from the Back

Artist: Salvador Dali

This painting shows a woman seated in a chair, looking away from the viewer and toward a group of plain buildings with white external walls and small windows. In the background, on the left side of the canvas, is a hill where town gives way to countryside. The figure has long hair, brown and curly, tied at the nape of her neck, and wears a loose white dress with pale stripes that is slipping from her right shoulder. The viewer is unable to see the figure's face, instead encouraged to follow the apparent direction of her gaze toward the white buildings in the middle-ground. The palette is composed of natural, earthy tones, with white, beige, brown, and red dominating; there are very few bright colors.

Seated Girl from the Back encourages a nostalgic mood in the viewer through the use of such colors, associated with the classical Mediterranean, and through the stillness of the image; the dress slipping from the shoulder conveys a sense that the woman is relaxed and at ease, neither too warm nor too cold, while the neat arrangement of her hair suggests reason and balance. The plain walls of the buildings at which the figure gazes provide a space in which the viewer's own thoughts can peacefully roam and the eyes can rest. This painting, particularly when compared to the unsettling and visually surprising compositions for which Dali is best-known, reflects the use of classical tradition as a means of providing tranquility and respite in a time of widespread anxiety and rapid change.

Oil on canvas - Centro de Art Reina Sofia, Madrid


Woman Holding a Vase

Artist: Fernand Léger

This stylized portrait of a woman, shown against a plain grey backdrop, is striking for its bold colors and flat, graphic forms. The woman appears expressionless, though her eyes are fixed forward, looking at, through or above the viewer without appearing to address them in any way. The woman's top is blue, with a yellow collar, while the vase that she carries beneath her left arm is bright red, attracting the attention to the upper two-thirds of the image; the vertical lines of the grey skirt similarly guide the eyes toward the upper body. The left side of the vase is, in Léger's representation, neatly sliced off, creating the impression that the vase is completing the torso of the woman and emphasizing the connection between the pair.

The theme of a woman with a vessel is classical and Léger pays reference to this through the structure of the vase, which resembles a Tuscan or simplified Doric column, with the capital close to the woman's head, the shaft alongside her torso and the base at her waist. This echo between the body and the object carried operates as a play on the supposed similarities between women and vases, emphasized by interwar artists influenced by Freud, but also emphasizes the solidity of the figure, aligning her with an architectural tradition (signified by the column) with longevity and a material (marble) known for both strength and grace. All the while Léger is also presenting her as having the physical power to lift and carry an object as large as a toddler.

Oil on canvas - Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York


Berlin Coal Carrier

Artist: August Sander

Berlin Coal Carrier shows a man emerging from a dark cellar, stepping upward, through two open doors, and toward the camera, framed by the bricks at the edge of the doorway. He has a wicker basket slung over his left shoulder and his clothes appear worn but sturdy. The darkness of the cellar beyond, in which no details can be discerned, contrasts abruptly with the sunlight into which the man is stepping. This man, identified as a coal carrier by the photograph's title, was one of many portraits composing August Sander's People of the Twentieth Century project, begun in 1922 and ended by the Nazi Party's destruction of much of his work in the 1930s; Sander protected his work by hiding negatives, retrieving and reprinting these after World War II.

August Sander's work illustrates the ways in which classicism's influence on photography was subtle yet significant. Sander divided people into groups based on profession and class, arranging society into types and using photography to illustrate these types, with the belief that such a typology would provide a catalogue of humanity. This belief in the existence of universal archetypes is in keeping with the interwar interest, among those involved with the classical revival, in stripping humanity of complications in search of unadulterated ideals. Sander's image draws also to the influence of classical theatre, with the setting used to underscore existing ideas of professional hierarchy; Sander believed that laborers were among the lowest in society and associates the coal carrier with the basement from which he emerges in order to suggest that this place was spatial or inevitable, rather than socially constructed, and to invest this hierarchy with a nobility implied by the man's idealized costume and confident step.

Gelatin silver print - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich: The Barcelona Pavilion (1928-29)

The Barcelona Pavilion

Artist: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich

The Barcelona Pavilion, designed to represent Germany at the 1929 Barcelona International Exhibition, is a single-story building of glass, steel and marble. The pavilion consists of a number of low, intersecting rectangles, with the structure itself balanced by and reflected in a shallow pool in a large courtyard. The primary structure has a flat roof which overhangs glass and marble walls. Inside, visitors found only simple furnishings and textiles, designed and arranged by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich. Outside, posed on a plinth in the reflecting pool, is a neoclassical sculpture of Georg Kolbe of a young man, celebrating the idealized male body, athletic and proportionate, entitled Dawn.

Mies and Reich's Barcelona Pavilion is unusual in that it was designed solely as a reception space, free from the constraints imposed by housing exhibits, as was usual for national pavilions at International Exhibitions. In the absence of content, the building itself became the exhibit, drawing attention to the quality and polish of the materials; Roman travertine, green Alpine marble and gold onyx appear as if works of art. Given the context, such materials - closely linked with the ancient Mediterranean - served to link Germany with the classical empires of Greece and Rome. The strength of the building lies primarily in the ways in which classical influences are reimagined in a modern vocabulary. The Barcelona Pavilion, unlike many other interwar buildings, was not overtly neoclassical, with a free spatial plan and no reference to the classical orders, but reconciled the traditional and the modern through subtle links. The ratios of the plan and profile of the Barcelona Pavilion draw their rhythm from Euclid's golden ratio, while the placement of the structure on a large podium of marble creates a sense of the space as analogous to a classical temple. This building indicates the presence of classical influence even in architecture that looked forward and aspired to modernize, rather than celebrating the past.


The Street

Artist: Balthus (Baltusz Klossowski de Rola)

This Parisian street scene shows the lives of a number of figures, distinguished by costume and activity, overlapping against a backdrop of shopfronts and awnings. On the left, a man grabs a young girl, gripping her wrist and pulling at her skirt, pressing his body against her, while she resists, her body leaning forward. Below her, a child plays with a ball; in the background, a baker, easily identified by his tall white hat, walks with his hands in his apron pockets. At the center, a worker in white carries a large plank that obscures his face. On the right, a man in a suit strolls along the road, toward the center, while two women, with long skirts and pronounced waists, walk away, their backs to the viewer.

The Street draws upon classical precedent in order to mythologize everyday life, imbuing it with a sense of timelessness. The receding street and the flatness of the facades, combined with the placement of most figures in the foreground, creates a sense of the painting as occurring on a stage, heightening the grandeur of quotidian life. This technique borrows from that of Piero della Francesca, whose work Balthus had studied, as do the soft, warm colors; the pinks, creams and browns recall early Renaissance frescoes and Italian churches and create a dreamlike mood. This mood, which heightens the remove of these figures from the viewer and imbues the scene with a sense of timelessness, is heightened by the scene's subtle divergence from the lifelike, with figures that pay no attention to one another despite their close proximity. This eerie independence is made particularly obvious by the assault occurring on the left side of the canvas, overlooked by those sharing the space, locked into their own predetermined activities. Balthus's use of colors associated with the ancient and Renaissance worlds, along with his theatrical treatment of space, indicates the ways in which Classicism and modernity were increasingly linked during the interwar period.

Oil on Canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Before 1937

The Four Elements: Fire, Water and Earth, Air

Artist: Adolf Ziegler

This triptych represents the four elements as nude women, posed atop a bench before a blue backdrop, their feet resting on a neatly paved black and white floor. The left panel shows a fair-haired woman holding a torch, representing fire; she is placed at the center of the panel, with knees turned inward toward a red towel. This composition is mirrored in the right panel, representing air; the woman, here, holds nothing, her hands instead resting on the bench, beside her yellow towel, while her blonde curls flutter lightly, as if blown from behind her ears. There are two women in the central panel; Water, dipping her fingers into a bowl, looks down toward her knees, sitting atop a turquoise towel, while Earth, holding a bundle of corn in her right arm, looks toward the right side of the panel and lifts her white towel with her left hand. These women are all beige-skinned, with rosy cheeks, and have small facial features, light hair, and clearly defined breasts, waists, and hips.

The Four Elements: Fire, Water and Earth, Air is representative of the ways in which Neoclassical painting served to reinforce conservative discourse during the 1930s. The women in this painting represent the Aryan ideal favored by the Nazi party; the use of such figures as archetypes positions such figures as universal ideals for physical beauty. These women, who do not meet the viewer's gaze, appear calm and unthreatening, while the polished realism and balanced composition provide a sense of satisfaction and completism, offering a vision that could be balanced against the chaos and fragmentation that the Nazi Party ascribed to modern life. This painting was installed by Adolf Hitler above his fireplace in Munich and Adolf Ziegler was appointed Director of the Reich Chamber of Visual Art, a position from which he labelled certain artists and styles as "degenerate," linking morals and aesthetics in his promotion of classicism.

Oil on Canvas - Sammlung Moderner Kunst in der Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich

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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]. .
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Anna Blair
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First published on 09 Mar 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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