Chaos and Classicism at the Guggenheim

Or, Classicism, Propaganda . . . and Jury Duty

Man in hospital bed; brain is visible through skull fragments

Otto Dix, Skin Graft (Transplantation)

I’ve always thought that history could best be taught through art and music.  So cheers to the Guggenheim for putting together a great history lesson with Chaos and Classicism:  Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918-1936. The show blew my mind, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I saw it almost two weeks ago. What follows is a simplified summary, along with some personal digressions:

We begin in 1918, at the end of the first World War, with 15 million people dead and another 20 million wounded. This destruction was made possible by the debut of weapons of mass destruction such as mustard gas. And yet, many soldiers survived what would once have been mortal injuries because of simultaneous advances in medical technology. Skin Graft (Transplantation) shows a soldier in a hospital bed, awaiting surgery to re-attach his nose and put his face back together.  This is the dilemma facing the world in 1918: modern technology has literally broken this man apart; modern technology will also attempt to fix him.

Severely wounded faces of World War I veterans

This was a difficult bargain to live with, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the chaos and destruction of the war (seen here etched on the body but also having taken its toll on the land and on the psyche of Europe), led to a desire for solidity and security. In this context, looking back to the distant past was reassuring.

But artists had to reach way back. The art movements which had been in vogue before the war (such as Cubism, Expressionism and going a bit further back, even Impressionism) seemed too ephemeral, dealing with fragmented reality and moments in time. There was a renewed desire to show stable “things” (like figures, and still life objects) rather than abstract ideas. Figures were depicted as idealized beauties, harking back to those seen in Classical (ancient Greek and Roman) statues: physically perfect, muscular, almost hairless (the better to showcase each muscle), young. Whole. This was a far cry from the scars visible in the real world of 1918.

The show called this the desire for “a more durable self”, a nice turn of phrase. You can see the shift clearly in Picasso for example, as he moved from Cubism with its pointy edges and shifting perspectives, to this solid, simple, Classical beauty.

Nude, angular, Cubist-style woman, with mask-like face, collaged together from multiple viewpoints, plays mandolin

Pablo Picasso, Woman Playing Mandolin, 1910

Beautiful woman in toga-like dress sits and gazes calmly

Pablo Picasso, Woman in White, 1923

Other Cubists like Fernand Léger also couldn’t resist the turn back to Classical, sculptural figures:  he nods to Greek architecture here not only with the vase shaped like a Greek column but the figure itself: her solidity, rigid posture, even the pleats of her dress are reminiscent of a column with flutes.  But there is a clear updating of the figure as well:  she is stylized and sleek for the machine age, with a breast like a cannonball and fingers like pistons.

Sturdy woman looks at viewer while holding vase shaped like a Greek column

Fernand Leger, Woman Holding a Vase, 1927

The return to Classical aesthetics was reflected not only in painting and sculpture, but in dance, furniture design, photography, fashion, film, and architecture. Note the arms of the sofa, like Greek columns, as well as the white dresses, themselves either hanging straight like columns, bypassing the curves of the waist, or gauzily clinging and similar to what the goddesses of Greek statuary wore.

Sofa with flat seat cushions, clean lines, and perfectly symmetrical round armrests

Emile Jacques Ruhlmann sofa

1920s woman in flowing, pleated dress

1920s fashion

Circle of women in white, flowing dresses like togas

May Day, 1920

Which brings me to a particularly arresting point of the exhibition — how the desire for more stability in the years after WWI, reflected in the art of this time, led to increased nationalism in the arts, even to the point of propaganda as political leaders began to use the arts to advance their own causes. The exhibition shows how the Classical aesthetics were reconstituted for the purpose of the Fascist and Nazi regimes, taking on a new life in service of their agendas. Artists who did not adhere to the program were in trouble.  The Germans even had a name for this — Degenerate Art — and a method of dealing with it, but that’s for another post.

Architecture provides an illustrative example, especially in Italy where Mussolini actively worked to redesign Rome in order to put his visual and ideological stamp on it. It’s possible there, and in Sicily, to compare examples of Classical architecture with nearby Fascist buildings, and to see the common lineage, while also identifying the differences in style and agenda.

Six-story building that seems very impersonal, all windows are same, no entrance visible

Palazzo della Civita del Lavoro, EUR

Even though Classical Greek art and architecture can be massive in size, they were always developed on a human scale using a strict proportion that governed height to width. The Greeks, and the Romans who copied them, endeavored to always make their architecture accessible to the eye and human frame (the Parthenon was designed to house a large statue of Athena so had the human body in mind from its inception). The Greek aesthetic was to inspire awe through beauty. Decorative touches such as friezes and statuary placed above and within the architecture were designed to enliven the structures, and further delight the human eye.

In contrast, the architecture developed under Mussolini shows no grace, no sign of a human touch, such as a tapering of a column or a decorative capital at the top of a column. This human element was removed from governmental architecture in particular in order to signify the absolute strength of the government. Buildings take on a massive, dehumanizing, impersonal look which dwarfs the individual. Mussolini’s architecture program was especially active in the south of Rome, in a neighborhood now called EUR and in Palermo, Sicily. I’ve visited both, and the contrast between these buildings and others based on the Classical (the Colosseum, the Pantheon, temples at Greek sites such as Agrigento and Siracusa in Sicily — not to mention Greek ruins on Greek soil) is marked. There is no detail where the eye may linger, seemingly no room for a human body. The sense that the individual is alone against a monolith is overwhelming. It looks and feels cold and unfriendly and alone.


While we’re talking about ancient Greece and architecture, let’s pause to mention my current surroundings.  I’ve already mentioned that the exhibition had struck a chord with me in the way it was able to illuminate history and the connection between art and historical events. Coincidentally, I was summoned for jury duty and found the message driven home in an even more thorough way.

NYC, Supreme Court Building, 60 Centre St.

I’m writing this as I sit in the jury pool room at 111 Centre Street, where Classical Greece, nationalism, and my present day experiences have all intersected. References to ancient Greece have been the order of the day here at the courthouse. An orientation film shown in the morning mentioned Aristotle several times, and lovingly lingered over images of courtroom decor, featuring paintings of figures copied from Greek vases.

I look out the window and see elements of Classical architecture in Lower Manhattan: white stone buildings with friezes along the tops, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns, rooftop statuary with flowing robes (does it sound like the Acropolis yet?), arches and rotundas–all harking back to the Classical aesthetic of Greece and Rome. All communicating the lofty ideals of Order, Reason and Law. In this part of town, dominated by court buildings and police headquarters, it makes sense that the architecture would also be deployed in the service of encouraging law and order.

Golden goddess statue stands on top of dome

Statue atop Municipal Court building, NYC

I’ll be the first one to say that the references to ancient Greece in the film were ennobling and tapped into a sense of undeniable patriotism and duty within me (as they were certainly designed to do). Yet, there is also more than a tinge of nationalism on display: in the orientation film, past jury members (real or actors, I don’t know) pose in front of the same architecture I can see out the window, and praise a sense of patriotism inherent in the legal process, and the ennobling of spirit that comes from performing one’s duty in a society bound by the rule of law. One woman comes out and says what others have only implied: “America has the best system in the world”.

Over at 60 Centre Street, where I was brought into another jury pool, the building’s interior and exterior echoed even more dramatically the Classical aesthetics.  In addition to the columns inside and out and other elements of Classical architecture, there is more Classically-inspired artwork on display inside.  (Even the minor wall decorations feature acanthus leaves, which were prominent in Classical artwork).

The walls of the jury room on the fourth floor are filled with painted canvases glued to the wall to seem like ancient frescoes.  The paintings are of historical scenes of clipper ships in New York’s harbor, horse-drawn carriages on the city’s streets, a map of New Amsterdam (as New York City was once called), the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, and a street scene with citizens in tri-corner hats in front of Federal Hall with its Classical columns and pediment.  These are attempts to idealize the past and make it relevant to the current day in order to encourage civic engagement. Downstairs there is a rotunda ringed with Corinthian columns and capped with an elaborate and colorful ceiling fresco which draws together many figures from history.  

Ceiling rotunda, ringed with a mural depicting judges

Note Corinthian columns supporting rotunda at bottom, and Greek figure at bottom center, right

Included in the assembly are famous judges such as King Solomon, as well as an ancient Greek (identifiable by his white robes) and the Roman emperor Justinian. Pilgrims, and other identifiable Americans such as Washington and Lincoln are also included in the tableau, with a turkey and bald eagle painted on pedestals as though they were stone statues in the Greek style.  The idea is to include Americans in a long line of great thinkers and doers, and by extension, to reach out to those with business in the court building (such as jurors like me) and include them too in this stately company.  Again, to encourage lofty ideals and behavior such as civic engagement, all with a nationalistic tinge.

So my experiences in the court buildings show me that the turn back to the ancient past for purposes of inspiration still works today, and manages to support our own feelings of nationalistic pride and patriotism.  As I mentioned, the ideas put forth in the Guggenheim show continue to percolate and prove themselves to still be relevant.

Leaving architecture and returning to the fine arts, images of physical perfection shift during the strengthening of the Nazi and Fascist regimes during the 20’s and 30’s and become displays not just of strength and bodies in their prime, but displays of brute force. This was in keeping with the might of the dictatorships in Germany and Italy during this time, and a symbol of the gearing up for World War II. Men are often overly muscled, mask-like to the point of seeming dead inside, or faceless; figures are oversized.

Statue on pedestal seen from behind, a nude man with overly defined, hard, grotesque muscles

Statue in EUR neighborhood, Rome

Fascist propaganda poster depicting hard, expressionless men in profile

Take a look at this photo of Mussolini with his helmet, and then the sculpture of Mussolini called Profilo contino del Duce (Continuous profile of Mussolini), from 1933 by Renato Bertelli.  It is Classical and sleek, and may seem abstract but if you look at the edges, you’ll see it’s Mussolini’s profile, looking in every direction at once. This is symbolic not only of the speed of bullets, cars and machines, but also of his all-seeing, all-knowing nature as dictator.

Profile of Mussolini in helmet

Bullet-shaped cylinder with ridges that reveal as forehead, nose, mouth etc of Mussolini

Profilo Continuo (Testa di Mussolini) Copyright: © IWM. Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/2247

Take a look also at this painting of a German rowing team from 1936, the year of the Berlin Olympics, which was to be a showcase of German power on and off the athletic field. These men are almost grotesquely muscled, having taken the ideal of muscular Greek beauty to an extreme show of might.

Overly muscled men row crew in four perfect rows

For me, the scariest — because it’s the most illustrative of the dark strength of Fascism–is the sculptural portrait of Mussolini called Il Duce (Condoltierro [Dux]). Made in 1929 of iron, it is a blend of bullet, phallus, and ancient military helmet all at once, combining multiple symbols of masculine strength but not a shred of humanity. As a symbol of darkness and cold power, this sculpture is also a direct ancestor of Darth Vader’s mask.

Sleek, cold, faceless depiction of Mussolini

Il Duce, iron, Thayat

Speeches, sanctioned biographies, and other writings reinforced the link between the Classical aesthetic and the Nazi or Fascist agenda. Mussolini’s mistress, Margherita Sarfatti, in her biography of Mussolini, wrote:

Originality and tradition are not contradictory terms. By returning to the purest traditions…one does not renounce the originality of modern times, but only polishes off the rust and purifies our art of imitative alloys”.

In the context of what was to come in Europe, the word “purifies” makes my blood run cold.

Hitler, similarly, directly linked ancient Greece to Germany in 1936:  

Never was Mankind closer than now to Antiquity in its appearance and its sensibilities”.

The exhibit ends with an excerpt from a film called, appropriately enough, Olympia. It was created by Leni Riefenstahl, famous Nazi film director, using footage from the Acropolis in Greece as well as the Berlin Olympic games in 1936. Over the course of the film clip, haunting but impressive sequences of the Parthenon morph into Greek marble statuary, with their beautiful faces and pale marble skin. The wall text just outside the screening room, which quoted Hitler as (almost laughably) calling the Greeks “Nordic” and attempting to link them physically and genealogically to the Germans, almost floated in front of me as I watched the camera lovingly caress these pale, perfect faces. Eventually, on film, the statue of a Greek discuss thrower morphs seamlessly into a German athlete in the same coiled crouch, the same cocked arm, the same muscled form. The German then spins, in slow motion, and releases the discus into the sky.


It’s stunning to see this propaganda draw a direct genealogical line from ancient Greece to Nazism, in just a few images.  Those were Hitler’s Olympics, the first time his ambition for Germany (along with his disdain for “non-Aryan” athletes such as Jesse Owens) was unveiled to the world.

This show is on view until January. While this period of artistic development has never been a personal favorite of mine, as a history lesson, it’s priceless. I guarantee it will keep working on you for days.