Even without its notorious provenance, the painting that once hung over Hitler’s mantelpiece—“Die Vier Elemente: Feuer, Wasser und Erde, Luft (The Four Elements: Fire, Water and Earth, Air)” by Adolf Ziegler (1892 – 1959)—looks malignant and bankrupt. An absurd grafting of prettified Aryan faces onto perfectly molded Renaissance bodies, Ziegler’s undated triptych is hardly the most visually unsettling work in the Guggenheim Museum’s Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918 – 1936, but it does give you pause. Installed inside a room filled with outsized Fascist art, it nestles at the core of an infernal culture’s preening self-regard. You’ll never look at kitsch—or its modern-day, fine-art incarnations—the same way again.
Despite its title, chaos rears its ugly head exactly once in Chaos and Classicism, in the form of Otto Dix’s 1925 etching suite Der Krieg (The War)—Western art’s most powerful evocation of the barbarity of mechanized warfare and the one truly great work on display. Arrayed across long vitrines at the base of the Guggenheim’s ramp, the rest of the exhibition, spiraling upward, flees it like a contagion. And that’s exactly the point.
As the introductory wall text tells us, “After the chaos and horrific destruction of World War I, a powerful desire for regenerative order and classical beauty emerged in Europe. Artists turned away from prewar experimentation toward rational organization, objective values, and a heroic embrace of the human figure.”
Some, but not all. As demonstrated by Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s, the brilliant exhibition held four years ago at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (November 14, 2006 – February 19, 2007), chaos was not only a nightmarish memory or looming threat, but also a constant presence, upon which a notable group of artists trained their corrosive vision. In his catalogue essay for that show, Ian Buruma reminds us how far the Weimar Republic (1919 – 1933) was from anyone’s idea of Parnassus: “Nazi Brownshirts and Communists murdered each other in the streets of Berlin, as unemployment soared and the political center lost its grip. A sorry bunch of autocratic media moguls, disaffected generals, dim-witted aristocrats, Catholic reactionaries, and ultranationalist schemers took over the government of the dying republic, while Hitler bided his time.”
There is some overlap, but precious little, between the artists featured in Glitter and Doom and Chaos and Classicism, which could be viewed as a companion piece to the earlier exhibition, or more pointedly, its evil twin. Otto Dix (1891 – 1969), of course, appears in both, as well as Georg Scholz (1890 – 1945), but there is no room in the schema of the current show for Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Christian Schad, or Oskar Kokoschka, or for the less well-known Rudolf Schlichter, Heinrich Maria Davringhausen, Ludwig Meidner, Gert Heinrich Wollheim, Karl Hubbuch, and Fritz Lehmann. While this gang (with the exception of Beckmann and a few others) is commonly known as the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) group, the term, as a wall text in Chaos and Classicism points out, was coined by art historian and curator Gustav Hartlaub for a 1925 exhibition titled Neue Sachlichkeit. Deutsche Malerei seit dem Expressionismus (New Objectivity: German Painting Since Expressionism), which included both left-wing (Verist) and right-wing (Classicist) artists.
Needless to say, no one in Glitter and Doom was a Classicist. And, as mentioned above, only two Verists are admitted into Chaos and Classicism. While the latter exhibition’s big-tent approach succeeds admirably in citing the multiple iterations of interwar neoclassicism, it is instructive to stay mindful of what is not there. As Buruma writes in his Glitter and Doom essay: “When men and women are reduced to their lowest appetites, we live in a state of barbarism. Weimar Period artists painted people in this state, for this, in their view, was what society had become. Their honesty would cost them. When the Nazis made barbarism official, these artists were the among the first to go—into exile, concentration camps, or inner emigration.”
In this context, the concept of classicism, as reborn in the 20th Century, ultimately turns sinister. For every purist like Le Corbusier (1887 – 1965), who was among the few to extract nobility from its underlying geometry; or nouveau-riche avant-gardist like Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973), who entertained classicism as a passing fancy; or dissident like Hannah Höch (1889 – 1978), who called it out as reactionary propaganda, there were dozens of toadies, greed heads, ideologues, and naïfs who placed their talent, such as it was, at the service of image-conscious politicians and fashion-conscious oligarchs. That there were leftist and Communist practitioners of the style (such as Barthel Gilles, 1891 – 1977) illustrates not so much the elasticity of classicism as the proscription on asking too many questions or thinking too deeply that party lines of any stripe demand of their followers. As the ever-acerbic George Grosz observed on his visit to Soviet Russia in 1922 (quoted by Matthias Eberle in his brief history of Neue Sachlichkeit for the Glitter and Doom catalogue): “Many of [the Soviet citizens] acted like living pamphlets in red bindings and were even proud of it. As a signal to the masses, they naturally tried to suppress entirely their remaining smidgens of individuality and would have preferred to have gray disks of cardboard for faces, with red numbers on them in place of names”—an image that recalls his watercolor “Republican Automatons” (1920), painted two years before his trip.
This failure of inquiry, both political and aesthetic, is at the source of the leaden sentimentality suffocating the majority of the works in this exhibition. Instead of confronting the complexities of their subjects, the artists streamlined them according to a set of principles that would ensure the timelessness of their work (but in the end delivered it dead on arrival). Picasso’s familiar line attesting to the relevance of historical masterworks is quoted in the exhibition’s introductory text (“The art of the Greeks, the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not an art of the past; perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was”), but the spirit of past art is not revived by glazing the present with a milky scrim of nostalgia, as he does in his “Femme assise, les bras croisés (Woman in White)” (1923), but by interrogating the vitality of ancient forms. In this regard, the Verists, excluded from this show, are the true heirs to the classical tradition. If their means of expression became more solid and straightforward after the butchery of World War I, it was not because, as another wall text in Chaos and Classicism claims, they “found the disjunctive modes of prewar art unappealing and the reassurances of time-tested forms newly compelling,” but because “their realistic, carefully executed paintings and drawings were intended to loom like beacons above the flood of ordinary modern pictures … ‘capturing’ reality [and] stopping it in its tracks so it could be studied and analyzed” (Eberle). Beckmann, Dix, Grosz, and company took on the Greeks from the inside out, not the outside in. While once-radical artists like Carlo Carrà (1881 – 1966), André Derain (1880 – 1954), and Giorgio de Chirico (1888 – 1978) were clouding their vision with the fog of antiquity, these Weimar painters were dissecting the human psyche with a savagery and directness worthy of Attic tragedy.
Inside the Valhalla of the exhibition’s topmost gallery, surrounded by hulking monstrosities by de Chirico, Mario Sironi (1885 – 1961), Georg Kolbe (1877 – 1947), Arturo Martini (1889 – 1947), and the appalling Adolf Ziegler, we are left to imagine what kind of hell these images represented to those still-rational souls who watched as their governments stamped out free thought and their compatriots sank to their basest impulses. The Sironis—sooty and colorless fragments of mockups for even larger monuments—cast a pall over the entire exhibition, like blasted and burned-out ruins. Seeing them today, they appear as remote, pathetic, and vacant as the short-lived triumphalism that brought them into being.
Did the artists who enabled totalitarianism, by omission or commission, actually believe in a new order based on “rational organization, objective values, and a heroic embrace of the human figure?” Or was it more a matter of cold ambition abetted by willful ignorance? Either way, their rise traded on retrograde illusionism and hackneyed motifs that glossed a patina of antique glory over thuggery and murder. Their Icarus flight, by any measure, wasn’t worth the trip.