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Chaos and Classicism

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao

Art in France, Italy, Germany, and Spain, 1918-1936. An exhibition of paintings, sculpture, the decorative arts, and fashion produced between 1918 and 1936 in Italy, Germany, France, and Spain. The works included demonstrate a return to classicism at the heart of the avant-garde during this period of extraordinary creative activity marked by major political events that influenced, for better and for worse, creative thought.

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Curated by: Kenneth E. Silver, Professor of Modern Art, New York University; Helen Hsu and Vivien Greene, Assistant Curator and Curator of 19th- and Early 20th- Century Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Since 1997 the BBVA Group and, starting this year, the Fundación BBVA, has sat on the Board of Trustees of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Foundation and honored its commitment to support some of the main temporary exhibitions organized by the Museum within its art program. China: 5,000 Years was our first major collaboration, and since then we have navigated countries, artists and creative expressions represented by Dürer, Degas, Picasso, Nam June Paik, Calder, Rosenquist, Kiefer and Cai Guo-Qiang, among others, until our most recent participation in the show The Golden Age of Dutch and Flemish Painting from the Städel Museum, which gave us a chance to enjoy Vermeer’s beautiful masterpiece The Geographer.

Continuing in this tradition of collaboration, on this occasion the Fundación BBVA is sponsoring an exhibition that focuses on one of the most difficult moments in history—the years between the First and Second World Wars, when Europe, devastated by the aftermath of the conflict, found itself at an artistic crossroads, forced to depict a world of razed cities whose life had yet to be revived and a decimated population that had plumbed the depths of human atrocity but also of human greatness. Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, Germany and Spain, 1918–1936 clearly shows how the prewar avant-garde movements such as Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism were set aside in favor of a return to classicism, to order. Greek and Roman history and mythology began to attract widespread interest once more, often providing inspiration for the new modern vision.

The desire to classicize the everyday is obvious in many of the works featured in this exhibition. Picasso, for example, produced his most classicist work in the years immediately after World War I, though not without a certain melancholy aura, as evidenced by his Woman in White (Femme assise, les bras croisés). On the other hand, the gleaming tubular surfaces of Fernand Léger proposes a mechanized aesthetic that reflected the hope of describing modern life in classical terms without resorting to Antiquity, as seen in Woman Holding a Vase (definitive state) (Femme tenant un vase [état définitif]). The synthesis of the classical form and Germany’s modern technology was condensed in the pure forms of the Barcelona Pavilion designed by Ludwig Mies van der Roher. And the Italians were influenced by Etruscan and Roman art as well as the painters of the Quattrocento, a relationship that is evident in works like Ubaldo Oppi’s The Fishermen of Santo Spirito (I pescatori di Santo Spirito).

More than ever before, the works of art produced during this period in France, Italy, Germany and Spain reflected the concerns, values and aspirations of a Europe struggling to reorganize itself. The social function of art in times of crisis and recovery is, for our foundation, one of the most admirable facets of human creativity. Finally, I would like to say that the Fundación BBVA is proud to maintain our longstanding and productive collaboration with the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and its foundation, whose quality and dedication have been proven once more by this itinerant exhibition, a reflection of the international nature of this leading cultural institution of which the BBVA Group considers itself an active part.

Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, Germany, and Spain, 1918–1936 is an exhibition that focuses on the vast transformation in European culture between the world wars. Sponsored by Fundación BBVA, the exhibition will be on view at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao from February 22 through May 15, 2011.

Rising from the horror of the war, European artists sought a return to order and an embrace of rational organization and enduring values, in contrast with the prewar emphasis on innovation by all means. As a consequence, during the interwar period, the balance and force of classical forms engendered a fusion of modernity and antiquity, turning away from the two-dimensional abstract spaces and fragmentation of Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, and other avant-garde movements of the early 20th century. With more than 150 works by more than 90 artists, comprising painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, film, fashion, and the decorative arts, this exhibition examines the return to order in the interwar period in Europe. Chaos and Classicism presents works by established masters of the first half of the 20th century, including Georges Braque, Carlo Carrà, Giorgio de Chirico, Otto Dix, Pablo Gargallo, Fernand Léger, Aristide Maillol, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Pablo Picasso, Gio Ponti, Emile- Jacques Ruhlmann, and August Sander.

Chaos and Classicism: Art if France, Italy, Germany, and Spain, 1918–1936 is organized by New York University Professor of Modern Art Kenneth E. Silver, a renowned authority on European art between the wars, assisted by Helen Hsu, Assistant Curator, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, with Vivien Greene, Curator of 19th- and Early-20th- Century Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, as curatorial adviser.

Bilbao Exhibition Overview

The years after World War I were marked by a striking modernist avowal of traditional aesthetics: a retour à l’ordre (return to order) in France, a ritorno al mestiere (return to craft) in Italy, and Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) in Germany.

This exhibition, which was widely acclaimed at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, examines the return to order in its key manifestations: the poetic dream of antiquity in the Parisian avant-garde; the politicized revival of the Roman Empire under Benito Mussolini; the functionalist utopianism of International Style architecture that originated at the Bauhaus; and, ultimately, the chilling aesthetic of nascent Nazi society. In line with European trends, in Spain there was also a classicist restoration, despite its having not participated in the First World War. The show in Bilbao adds some twenty works by outstanding Spanish artists, some who resided abroad and others who remained in Spain, creating art in line with the new times.

In France, Picasso proved to be particularly influential in promulgating a classical aesthetic from 1918 to 1936. A Spaniard based in France from 1904 onward, his great classical figure paintings of the early 1920s demonstrate how decisively the Parisian avant-garde adopted the new post–World War I aesthetic. Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, Germany, and Spain, 1918–1936 presents several of his works from this period, as well as other examples of this return to order, such as Fernand Léger’s canvases of mechanized figures and commedia dell’arte paintings by André Derain and Paris-based Gino Severini. The notion of a Latinate civilization comes to the fore in the emerging influence of Jean Cocteau, and the exhibition features excerpts from his 1930 film The Blood of a Poet (Le sang d’un poète), where American photographer Lee Miller appeared as the classical statue of an augur.

Furthermore, Le Corbusier’s architecture and design, as well as the Purist paintings he created alongside Amédée Ozenfant, forge a visual link with abstraction and Synthetic Cubism. Madeleine Vionnet’s neo-Greek fashion designs and Art Deco objects by Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann translate the more abstruse aspects of classicizing art and theory into functional items. In Italy, Giorgio de Chirico’s paintings, along with those of Carlo Carrà, bridge the transition to the New Sobriety of Italian art immediately after the war. De Chirico’s essay “Il ritorno al mestiere” (“The Return to Craft”), published in 1919 in the influential journal Valori Plastici, was especially vital for this classicizing moment as it renewed interest in the Italian Renaissance painters Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesca.

Chaos and Classicism also includes paintings by artists such as Massimo Campigli and Giorgio Morandi. Architectural models and design objects, including a version of Giuseppe Terragni’s Casa del Fascio in Como, Italy, and porcelain by Gio Ponti, demonstrate the power of the neoclassical paradigm for postwar Italian modernists. Sculpture, the quintessential classical medium, was especially strong in interwar Italy and is represented throughout the exhibition.

In Germany, Mies van der Rohe’s synthesis of classical form and modern technology was central to the ethos that challenged Expressionism in interwar Germany: iconic elements of his Barcelona Pavilion (1929), including Georg Kolbe’s Morning (Der Morgen, 1925), the life-size nude sculpture so well known from original photos of Mies’s seminal structure, are featured in the exhibition. Renowned Bauhaus teacher Oskar Schlemmer’s modernist figurative paintings testify to the German translation of the Italian revival (Schlemmer was deeply influenced by the art of Piero della Francesca, among others).

Moreover, after the perceived excesses of Expressionist art, the Neue Sachlichkeit movement represented the search for aesthetic Klarheit (“clarity”) in Weimar Germany. Works by Otto Dix, Georg Scholz, and Georg Schrimpf, reveal this rationalist approach along with August Sander’s radically pared-down photographic portraits. However, modern German aesthetics also leads viewers toward the exhibition’s dramatic conclusion. As the Weimar Republic collapsed and Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, the new classicism—Parisian myths, Italian role-playing, and the German search for objectivity—was monstrously transformed into a quasiscientific doctrine of human perfection under the Nazis.

While the countries involved in the war tried to get over it and get back to normal life in all aspects, including economics, Spain had become financially stronger after the war. Immersed in a politically and socially uncertain period, Spain was not immune to the return to order in the artistic field. In the industrialized regions of Catalonia and the Basque Country, there was a burgeoning modern middle class that contributed to the introduction and spread of the classical ideal in art. Artists traveled to France and Italy and got in contact with the artistic trends of the moment, and when they returned home, they showed to others what was going on beyond the Pyrenees.

Some of the artists that best embodied the yearning of the period’s classical revival in Paris, such as Picasso, Juan Gris, Pablo Gargallo, and José de Togores, were Spanish and in constant dialogue with artists and critics across the border of the Pyrenees. Like in the rest of Europe, the classical past in Spain was rescued from the consciousness of the modern condition.

Exhibition installation

Focusing on works from a number of international institutions and private lenders created between 1918 and 1936, the exhibition on the third floor of the museum is organized into eight sections, developed in a loosely chronological installation, that illuminate the dominant concerns and subliminal drives of European art and thought in this highly charged period.

An introductory section titled In the Shadow of War features a selection of 15 prints from Otto Dix’s portfolio The War (Der Krieg, 1924), which recollect the destruction and trauma of World War I. These graphic depictions of the horrors of war are juxtaposed with works by French artists Aristide Maillol and Auguste Guénot, as well as Italian and German sculptors such as Amleto Cataldi and Anton Hiller, whose classical works can be viewed as an aesthetic rehabilitation of the ravaged body according to antique balance and measure.

A More Durable Self

This section examines artists’ enthusiasm for depicting sculpture from antiquity or incorporating sculptural models into their compositions as exemplars of the human form—as more durable versions of the self, epitomized in Julius Bissier’s painting Sculptor with Self-portrait (Bildhauer mit Selbstbildnis, 1928). Other artists represented include Heinrich Hoerle, Suzanne Phocas, Pablo Gargallo, and Mario Sironi.

The Avant-Garde Looks Backward

In the years after World War I, the fragmentation and optical experiments of Cubism strikingly contrast with Picasso’s voluptuous, Grecian-robed women, ambling in the Mediterranean sun, or seated in peaceful repose, and Georges Braque’s monumental canéphores (basket carriers). The postwar subjects of the classicizing artists, including Fernand Léger, Henri Laurens or Julio González, as well as photographer Edward Steichen, indicate a renewed interest in the roots of civilization, in Greece and Rome and their ruins. Several of Picasso’s most important works of this period are on view in this section, including Three Bathers (Trois baigneuses, August 1920) and Woman in an Armchair (Femme dans un fauteuil, 1922) from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Crazy for Classicism

The revived interest in Greek and Roman history and myth, which had long provided the West with a shared narrative and archetypes, proved inspirational in not only painting and sculpture, but also photography, film, fashion, and the decorative arts. This section includes a film excerpt by Jean Cocteau, photographs by Florence Henri and George Hoyningen-Huene, design objects by Gio Ponti, furniture by Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, and dresses by Edward Molyneux and Madeleine Vionnet.

Classical Bodies, New Humanity

The postwar search for a reassuring artistic language from the past led logically to sculpture. The idealized human form was reconceived by an international group of major sculptors including Georg Kolbe. This fascination with the whole and intact body lent itself to politicized idealizations in the work of Rudolf Belling, Marcel Gromaire, and Fernand Léger on the left, and to the Italian Fascist art of Massimo Campigli and Ubaldo Oppi on the right.

The Constructors

This section focuses on the architectural interpretations of classicism and the metaphors of construction and reconstruction that became ubiquitous in the wake of World War I’s devastation. The new modernist language sought a resolution of architecture’s past with the industrial present. Platonic ideas of geometric harmony and the beauty of new materials, especially glass and metal, were brought together in unprecedented combinations. Examples include Le Corbusier’s architecture and design, as well as the Purist paintings he created with Amédée Ozenfant. Works on view also consist of newly fabricated models of buildings by Le Corbusier and Giuseppe Terragni, objects and furniture designed for Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion, chairs by Piero Bottoni for the Casa Minerbi in Milan, and paintings by Aurelio Arteta and Joaquín Torres García.

Classicizing the Everyday

Still lifes and portraits crystallizing the German Neue Sachlichkeit and Italian Novecento (1900s) movements demonstrate these rigorous approaches to representation and the desire to capture objective reality. The exhibition presents traditional painted portraits and self-portraits by Fridel Dethleffs-Edelmann, Carl Hofer, Giorgio Morandi, José María de Ucelay, Luigi Trifoglio, and Feliu Elias, among others, as well as August Sander’s typological photographic portraits, all of which assert classic fixity amid the flux of modern life.


The performing body became a key element of modern culture between the wars. Developed, remade, and “perfected,” the body was the new measure of objective value, in contrast to the mind. Among the most notorious modern portrayals of antique Rome were paintings of gladiators by Giorgio de Chirico, who was attacked by the Surrealists for his artistic collusion with the Fascist regime. Artists as stylistically and politically diverse as Willi Baumeister, Franco Gentilini, Marcel Gromaire, Albert Janesch, and Lorenzo Lorenzetti. invoked the theme of sport in their work of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Circus, carnival, and commedia dell’arte imagery was treated by an equally diverse group including Mariano Andreu, Antonio Donghi, Juan Gris, Erich Heckel, and Gino Severini.

The Dark Side of Classicism

The exhibition concludes with a sobering look at the pursuit of cultural roots and perfection, as gradually appropriated by the political right. The 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin were a classicizing spectacle, recorded and refashioned by the greatest Nazi propagandist and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl in her Olympia (1936–38), excerpts of which are in this final section.

Educational Spaces

There are also two educational spaces throughout the exhibition, where, on the one hand, visitors will find a selection of key political, historical, literary, and artistic developments between the two world wars. On the other, they will also be able to browse original archived recordings of historical figures, including Nancy Astor, Jean Cocteau, Gandhi, Miguel Hernández, Adolf Hitler, and representatives of the Bauhaus, such as Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius .

Exhibition Catalogue

Chaos and Classicism is accompanied by a catalogue and supplement published by the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, with an overview essay by Kenneth E. Silver; additional essays on the artistic developments in France, Italy, Germany, and Spain by James Herbert, Professor of Art History and of Visual Studies, University of California at Irvine; Emily Braun, Distinguished Professor, Hunter College; Jeanne Nugent, independent art historian; Ma Dolores Jiménez-Blanco, Professor of History of Art, Universidad Complutense de Madrid; and thematic plate entries by Helen Hsu.

Sponsored by: Fundación BBVA

For more information: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Communications Department
Tel: +34 944359008
Fax: +34 944359059

Image: Antonio Donghi, Circus (Circo equestre), 1927
Gerolamo and Roberta Etro, Milan

Opening 22 February 2011

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dal 22/10/2015 al 6/2/2016

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