“Chaos & Classicism” at the Guggenheim

“Chaos & Classicism” gets serious points for difficulty. Bringing together work by Italian, French, and German artists from 1918 to 1936, the Guggenheim’s new show covers the period art historians like to call the “retour à l’ordre” (“return to order”). Largely a response to the profound disorder and violence  of World War I (think trench warfare and nerve gas) the “return to order” saw Europe’s avant-garde rejecting Modernist fragmentation in favor of the stable, idealized bodies of ancient Greece and Rome. Needless to say, it’s not a period that’s gotten much love from art critics and historians, who tend to talk about it as an embarrassing detour on the triumphant march towards modernism. But this is precisely the view “Chaos & Classicism” seeks to debunk by illuminating what guest curator Kenneth E. Silver calls the “aliveness of the artistic past” during the interwar period.

Fernand Leger's 1927 painting "Woman Holding a Vase (definitive state)" from "Chaos & Classicism." Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 58.1508. © 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

Silver has his work cut out for him, but where “Chaos & Classicism” succeeds brilliantly is in showing us modern artists grappling with how to make the past new again. In a diverse range of work we see the heroes of the avant-garde – Picasso, Braque, Carra, Matisse, Höch, Ozenfant – trying to reconcile a modern sensibility to classical subjects. The exhibition notes do an admirable job of guiding us through: In “Woman Holding a Vase,” for example, we see Fernand Leger giving his Classical woman the industrial treatment. With a skirt like industrial “fluting,” hair “like sheet metal,” and a breast “like a cannonball” Leger’s Classical woman is thoroughly modernized.

You're guaranteed to stand out in the Village Halloween parade in your ionic column costume.

Though decidedly painting-heavy, the exhibition also incorporates examples of design, sculpture, and film. Here there are some definite surprises to be had. In this season of Halloween costume anxiety I was inspired by Giorgio de Chirico’s “Column Suit” (designed for a ballet) — a testament to just how far modern artists were apt to take the Classical trend. The exhibition ends with Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia,” a piece of Nazi propaganda publicizing the Berlin Olympic games, and a prime example of the new Classical aesthetic in film. It’s a forceful reminder of just how easily the fascist regimes of Italy and Germany co-opted the new Classicism – a theme that’s sounded often throughout the exhibition.

Whether you think the curators ultimately succeed in reclaiming the art of the interwar period will, I expect, largely be a matter of personal opinion (and your personal affinity for Roman statuary). But even if you don’t leave the exhibition a reconstructed Classicist, “Chaos & Classicism” is well worth a visit, if only to see Picasso “playing it straight.”

“Chaos & Classicism” is on view at the Guggenheim until January 9th. Get in free with your student CUID and semester validation sticker.

– Annie Minoff (’11 CC)

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