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Interwar Classicism Collage

Interwar Classicism - History and Concepts

Started: 1919
Ended: 1939
Interwar Classicism Timeline

Beginnings of Interwar Classicism

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.

A New Classical Order

Maurice Denis' 1900 work <i>Homage to Cézanne</i> shows how Denis lauded Cézanne as the prophet of a new classicism.

The origins of Interwar Classicism can be seen in the work and writing of conservative artistic figures, such as Maurice Denis, prior to World War I, but became widespread and polymorphous in the 1920s and 1930s, shaping avant-garde movements alongside the mainstream. Denis was a prominent critic of the desire to capture life as it was experienced, instead arguing that art should fulfil a spiritual function. His own painting practice focused on nudes after Renaissance sculptures, attempting to balance rationality with sensuality. He set out his beliefs in a book, Theories: From Symbolism and Gauguin Towards a New Classical Order, published in 1909, which argued that art should aspire toward the nobility and order he associated with classical sculpture. He celebrated Paul Cézanne, who rejected the Impressionist enthusiasm for ephemeral visual perception in favor of a more material approach, and encouraged others to follow Cézanne's example.

France and Purism

During World War I, those involved in more avant-garde movements, such as Cubism, began to have misgivings about contemporary practices. In 1916, Amédée Ozenfant, a prominent Cubist painter and writer, announced a "crisis in Cubism" and argued that it was necessary to streamline the movement by looking again at Classicism. This was due, in part, to the increased popularity of Cubist style, which Ozenfant felt encouraged artists to repeat themselves, thereby transforming Cubism into something predictable and easily commoditized. It was due also, however, to nationalist sentiments encouraged by the war.

Ozenfant and Jeanneret's book cover (1918)

Purism, Ozenfant's answer to this problem, was among the earlier adoptions of classicism toward avant-garde ends. Ozenfant, with architect and painter Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (later known as Le Corbusier), published a manifesto entitled After Cubism (1918), which argued that the end of the war meant a need for "order and purity" to organize and clarify life. Ozenfant explicitly linked this with the pain of World War I, writing that "faced with agony, the civilized pull the curtain." These ideas were adopted by others, including Fernand Léger, who combined a modern interest in abstraction, flatness and the machine-made with classical themes and simple compositions. Le Corbusier's buildings, like Léger's paintings, borrowed from classicism an interest in simplicity and refinement whilst rejecting the more obvious features of the aesthetic, such as columns, porticos and symmetrical plans, adopting a more utilitarian approach. These artists, aesthetically, adopted Classicism without rejecting Modernism.

Italy and Novocento

In Italy, classicism had long been linked with national pride and the growing interest in returning to antiquity and Renaissance ideals drew attention to those artists who rejected the more avant-garde Futurism often associated with interwar Italy and the celebration of modern warfare. In 1918, Carlo Carrà published an essay, 'Our Antiquity,' which criticized the zest for originality and novelty, arguing instead that Italians should look to their celebrated past. Giorgio de Chirico shared Carrà's reverence of the past, publishing 'A Return to Craft' in 1919; in this essay, de Chirico argued that artists should study classical sculpture extensively in order to learn from it.

Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico was influential in leading painters back in time as they reevaluated their artistic direction.

After the war, as nationalistic fervor intensified in Italy, other painters joined Carrà and de Chirico in their celebration of the past. In 1922, Il Novecento Italiano, a group of artists who aspired to create an artistic style based on the ideas of Benito Mussolini, was formed, focusing their efforts around classicism, though Mussolini himself spread his support across a range of artistic movements. Carrà was among the members of the group, alongside others including Leonardo Dudreville and Achille Funi; their collective work sought to celebrate Mussolini through works that aligned him with the nobility and glory of the Roman empire.

Germany and Neue Sachlichkeit

Carlo Carrá and Giorgio de Chirico's essays were both quickly translated into German, extending their influence beyond Italy. In 1921, painter and theorist Max Doerner wrote The Materials of the Artist and Their Use in Painting, a book intended to guide German artists away from Expressionism, which he viewed as too exuberant and undisciplined for the somber mood of the post-war era. Doerner, like de Chirico, associated classicism with craftsmanship and wrote that this attention to craft was a "road to lead us out of the chaos," basing his book on studies of Flemish and Italian Renaissance art.

The nudes of Neoclassical master Jean August Dominique Ingres inspired the artists cultivating the new objectivity.

The German variant on Interwar Classicism was labelled as Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity). The artists involved with the movement, including Max Beckmann and George Grosz, aspired toward representational art, unemotional and realist rather than abstract and dynamic, as was the case with other artworks associated with Weimar Germany; the New Objectivists, alongside the Expressionists, would come to be condemned in the 1930s, however, as representative of Weimar decadence and immorality. The classical was associated with the timeless and with a conservative model of beauty, with Michelangelo and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres chosen as models for contemporary artists to follow. New Vision photography, adjacent to New Objectivity, borrowed from its classical presentation, representing subjects against sparse backdrops, whilst maintaining a more avant-garde interest in the possibilities of contemporary life.

More broadly, Germany's classical turn manifested itself in a widespread interest in the idealized body, with emphasis on health as depicted physically through the sculpting of the human form. This was seen in the popularity of gymnastics, dance and sport, but was also clearly evident in the widespread adoption of the body as a subject in art. This interest was shared across the political spectrum, with those on the left associating this interest in the body with ideas of the collective and the proletariat while those on the right saw physical strengthening as closely linked with national strengthening, having lost the war.

Interwar Classicism: Concepts, Styles, and Trends


Picasso's <i>Seated Nude Drying her Foot</i> (1921) is a famous example of an avant-garde artist turning to more classical topics

Across Europe, painters influenced by classicism worked in traditions including portraiture, the allegorical nude, still life and landscape, selecting their subjects and modelling their compositions after those of antiquity, the Renaissance, and the neoclassical period that followed the French Revolution. The early twentieth century, including the interwar period, was a time of immense artistic fracturing, with a variety of different styles emerging to make sense of the changing world. These included Dada, which celebrated the absurdity of modern life through mixed-media work, Expressionism, known for being raw and emotional, and Cubism, which fractured and reorganized the world into hard lines and abstract spaces. Classical painters argued against these styles, seeing them as individualistic in a time when rebuilding required collective endeavor and as inappropriate for nations traumatized by World War I, alternately labelling avant-garde approaches as too playful or too disturbing.

Interwar Classicism was distinguished by easily readable images that sought, through developed technique, to conceal their painting process, directing the audience's attention on the represented object rather than the means of representation. Prominent painters, including Jacques Mauny, Mariano Andreu and Gino Severini, utilized cool tones and traditional compositions, with clearly delineated foreground and background. This shift toward the traditional did not simply mean painters who favored classical styles came to prominence, but also that some associated with avant-garde traditions reconsidered their practice, as was the case for Pablo Picasso and André Derain, both of whom moved toward naturalism, with a focus on traditional draftsmanship and refined shading, in their representations of the female body. Others, such as Fernand Léger, maintained their interest in modern forms of representation even as they turned to traditional genres such as still life and portraiture.


<i>La Douleur</i>, Aristide Maillol, 1922

The increased popularity of classical styles during the 1920s and 1930s contributed to the prominence of sculpture, believed by many to be the most appropriate form for art. Marble, associated with the works surviving from antiquity, was favored by sculptors and patrons, speaking to a desire for the solid, permanent and stable. The material was used in styles akin to those of antiquity, with an emphasis on smooth, considered carving. The Romantic style associated by Auguste Rodin, whose rough figures favored emotion and movement over finish, was usurped by the more academic tradition associated with Aristide Maillol, who sought to position the viewer at a remove, separated by plinths and by poses that provided a sense of unity and self-contained wholeness, so as to prompt evaluation of work intellectually rather than emotionally. This approach was followed by others throughout Europe, including Henri Laurens in France, Georg Kolbe in Germany, and Guido Galletti in Italy.

Sculpture, the quintessential classical medium, was especially strong in interwar Italy - the home of Michelangelo, Donatello, and Bernini. Artists such as Maillol, Guido Galletti, Georg Kolbe and Henri Laurens found sanctuary in the literal solidity of works of sculpture, and the requirements of care and craft taken in their production. Silver said: "Sculpture, the three-dimensional vestige of classical humanity in its least abstract, most tangible form, played an important role in art discourse between the wars. As both the symbol of an ancient heritage and the correction for unreliable, contingent, perishable life, sculpture became a touchstone for the arts."

As such, painters across Europe depicted themselves as sculptors in studios; Julius Bissier and Giorgio de Chirico for example, while others such as Suzanne Phocas and George Scholz would include paintings of busts and statues on their canvases.


The Palais de la Porte Dorée, designed by Albert Laprade and built for the 1931 Colonial Exposition, used classical structure to reinforce European power.

The politicization of the visual during the interwar period is clearest in evaluating the neoclassicism of European architecture, much of which was state-sponsored. The French, Italian and German governments all chose, as they rebuilt after the destruction of the war, styles that prompted comparisons with classical empires. These buildings were often monumental, symmetrical and made of stone, often lined with columns or topped with porticoes, in order to impress a sense of strength and order on visitors, but were often stripped of decorative detail and geometrically sharper than their classical precedents. Adolf Loos, a Viennese architect based in France during the 1920s, played a significant role in shaping modern attitudes to ornament, arguing that decoration was hierarchically beneath structure and linked with less 'civilised' races, an argument that appealed to European audiences uneasy about an influx of immigrants from the colonies after World War I. These ideas had an impact across the aesthetic spectrum, with conservative factions rejecting decoration in order to emphasise their place in a European tradition while the avant-garde embraced white walls and minimal detailing in order to emphasise utilitarian value and structural innovation.

Photography and Film

<i>Isadora Duncan in the Parthenon, Athens</i> (1921) is Edward Steichen's modernist photograph that looks back at Classical art

The influence of classicism on photography in the interwar era can be seen in pared down compositions and historical allusions. Photography, as a very recent development, had no clear precedent to which to look, and so photographers' approaches to classicism are often more playful and irreverent than those taken by artists in other media; Edward Steichen, for example, photographed Isadora Duncan in a white dress framed by the Parthenon, emphasizing her mythical status in the world of dance, while Karl Blossfeldt entitled an image of maidenhair ferns Nature in Ionic Mood (1924).

The engagement of film with classicism is indicative of the multiplicity of approaches to the past employed in interwar art. Jean Cocteau, whose phrasing of the period as offering "a return to order" was borrowed by Kenneth Silver as descriptive shorthand for Interwar Classicism, largely rejected the call to intellectualism and remove that drove conservative painters, sculptors and architects. Instead, Cocteau and others were inspired by the Dionysian love of pleasure and literary tales of surreal transformation and dreamlike journeys, the influence of which can be seen in Cocteau's Blood of a Poet (1930), in which a young artist is lured through a mirror by a statue, and René Clair's The Imaginary Voyage (1925), in which a young man follows an old woman through a fantasy that moves from modern to medieval.

Later Developments - After Interwar Classicism

Fascist Era

As Europe moved closer to World War II, classicism became increasingly linked with authoritarian governments. In Italy, Benito Mussolini's interest in reviving the Roman Empire leant itself to the efforts of Il Novecento Italiano, even as Mussolini continued to court the support of both classical and modern artists. Across the French Empire, the use of European styles to represent Metropolitan French institutions, while local styles were used for local institutions, lead to the association of classical architecture with European control.

The links between conservative artistic styles and fascism became unassailable in Germany, where classicism became indelibly associated with the Nazi Party. Adolf Hitler, who had trained as a painter and felt modern styles to be responsible for his failures as an artist, deployed classical models to support his eugenicist policies. The widespread interest in health and fitness was coopted as a means of propaganda, with idealized classical bodies presented as models for a German race. The Great German Art Exhibition and the Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937 linked aesthetics with morality, labelling expressionism and Dada as decadent and corrupt. The political use of art by the Nazi Party reached its zenith with Leni Riefenstahl's film Triumph of the Will (1935), which positioned Adolf Hitler as a Wagnerian hero, introducing order and unity to Germany.

Into Contemporary Art

The Nazi Party's propagandistic use of classicism led to subsequent wariness. After many years, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, artists and architects involved motivated by a range of different factors have attempted to revive classical styles and subject matter. These have been particularly prominent beyond Continental Europe.

In the late 1960s, a movement critiquing modern architecture, New Urbanism, emerged to advocate for a return to classical principles. In the United States, this manifested in the creation of Classical America, now known as the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art, an organization arguing for the preservation of historic buildings and their continued presence in architectural curricula; in the United Kingdom, the Prince's Foundation for Building Community plays the same role. While advocates for New Urbanism claim that classical townscapes provide pleasant experiences for those living in and visiting them, many prominent advocates for the classical revival in architecture, including Quinlan Terry and David Watkin, have been outspoken about their conservative political beliefs, linking a perceived decline in morality to changing aesthetic standards and thus contributing to an ongoing association of classical architecture with repressive politics. In the 1980s, postmodern architects, such as Michael Graves, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, began to deploy classical motifs in unconventional ways in order to challenge hierarchies and critique the staidness of the academic establishment.

In visual art, approaches to classicism have been more subversive, with artists borrowing from classical traditions in order to expand consideration of race, sexuality and gender. Bill Viola's Nantes Triptych (1992) adapts a form associated with religious traditions to open up questions of what has enduring value in a culture where science is valorized. While Léo Caillard's interventions into sculpture, dressing figures in contemporary clothing, challenge the associations of allegorical figures and prompt considerations of culturally-constructed presentation of the self. Felix Gonzalez-Torres's Untitled (Orpheus Twice) (1991) plays with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, revising the story through which Orpheus destroys Eurydice through his gaze in order to consider gender dynamics and the role of the audience in art. Other works, such as Patricia Watwood's Susannah in the Moonlight, are revised simply through their presentation in a contemporary setting; this painting of the Biblical story in which two men threaten to blackmail a young woman takes on unsettling tones when painted in the context of the #MeToo movement.

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.
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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.

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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]. . TheArtStory.org
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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