Sunday, 7 May 2017

'THE MYTHIC METHOD: CLASSICISM IN BRITISH ART 1920-50'

(Onward with those art exhibitions reviewed after they close)


“Futurism and Vorticism have all gone under and we are in the full swing of a Classical revolution.”
- The Sunday Telegraph, 1919

The Classical Comeback

Which is more delightfully absurd? Going to the Sunday Telegraph to check what's the latest thing in Modernism? Or finding them to be on the money? Because artists who had been at the very cutting edge of Modernism one day shifted gear and came to embrace those cold marbles of Classicism. At the very same time that commercial art used it's solid-seeming reassurances to flog stuff.

Modernist Classicism - how did that ever happen? It sounds such an oxymoron. After all the very stuff the Impressionists had railed against had been quite literally wrapped up in Classicism. Why should figures in paintings pose around in togas, when they don't do any of that in the street? It's no coincidence that this antipathy was taken the furthest by the Futurists, who were based in Italy – centre of both Roman Classicism and the Renaissance. Who didn't want to transcend it so much as bin it. They'd look at all those noble-looking statues and column-fronted buildings and ask if anyone intended cleaning up around here. So vehement could they get that their manifesto was arguably one of their most accomplished artworks. Just taste some...

“It is from Italy that we launch through the world this violently upsetting incendiary manifesto of ours… we want to free this land from its smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, ciceroni and antiquarians. For too long has Italy been a dealer in second-hand clothes. We mean to free her from the numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards… Come on! set fire to the library shelves! Turn aside the canals to flood the museums!... Take up your pickaxes, your axes and hammers and wreck, wreck the venerable cities, pitilessly!”

And even if their actions did not quite live up to their incendiary manifestos, at least not as far as taking up pickaxes went, how did we get from there to yesterday's news becoming the latest thing? Of course the immediate spanner in the great bus of progress was the Great War. After it's carnage, to misquote Othello, Modernism seemed to have loved the machine age not wisely but too well. War Memorials didn’t just affect a respectful tone, they often stripped their subject from all references to Modernity. The classically proportioned figure was held at odds to the machine guns and barbed wire which blasted and tore apart the actual human body.

But even granted that, how did this last till 1950? Because of course it reflected a wider impulse, of which the immediate post-war mood was just the spark. One which wasn't oxymoronic at all. The past is like the proverbial river, it may seem to occupy an identical space but you soon discover you can’t jump into the same past twice. And they had never been reacting against Classicism so much as an earlier Neo-Classicism, from the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries. This was not your parent's past.

Through this lens Classicism was, or seemed to be, the setting of the aesthetic rules we now live by. Hence Escher’s poker-faced joy in “mocking our unwavering certainties”, appearing to adhere to Classicism’s rules while breaking them. Hence any distinction between Classicism and the Renaissance is considered as essentially trivial, as both are concerned with trying to enforce an arbitrary geometry on the world. The world was held to be measurable and classifiable. You learnt to be a surgeon or a builder by apprenticing yourself to the masters and learning the pre-set rules, and you learnt to be an artist the same way.

Is any of this actually true? Perhaps to some extent. But that’s not really the question. It just needed to be true enough to sound credible. Art movements are forever trying to paint their predecessors as a flat stereotype, the easier to bounce off them. Almost without fail, each successive Modernist movement would pull this trick on their forebearers.

This show's an effective sequel to the Pallant House's 'Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War' exhibition, with many artists straddling the two. But there throwing the lens over on a specifically British response had seemed a smart piece of focusing. The jury is more out over how well things work here. There's little doubt that, like Classicism before it, Neo-Classicism was essentially a continental import. So to isolate it's British element might seem wrenching.

On the other hand, we were on precisely the opposite end of things to the Futurists. We have little genuinely Classical art and architecture of our own, even when things are stretched to the Renaissance. Of course we had amassed huge collections of the stuff, in the British Museum and other places, the plunder of empire. But that was the equivalent of best china, not for use but display. In our daily lives we did not move among the remains of Classicism, as people did in Italy or Greece. And that exacerbates an effect seen across Neo-Classicism...


To see this at work, look at the way John Armstrong's lithograph 'Pheidippides 490 BC (Greek Messenger)' (1935, above) reproduces a version of the Classical figures from a Greek urn. But with them come the shape of the urn. In fact the suggested curve of the urn is used to enhance the perspective, pushing the messenger ahead of the other figures.

Classicism is not just being cited but self-consciously referenced, a frame within a frame. The Victorians saw the Classical world as composed of distant relations, who had clearly intended us to inherit their fortune, even if no actual will was to be found. While Modernism essentially brought the distance back. It's no longer being assumed Classicism was explicable to us, let alone assimilable into our culture. Anything we say about it becomes by nature a commentary.

And this distances us from one particular use of Classicism in parts of the continent, which sought to deny that element of framing. Overall, there are not a great deal of positive things to say about Fascism. But it was very handy in demonstrating Classicism as pastiche. If companies invoked the reassuring, ordered world of Classicism the better to sell their products, then so did the goose steppers.

Which they pretty much had to. Their ideology was more a fever dream of the Twentieth century than a coherent political position, an incoherent jumble of often contradictory concepts held together only by the formal fetishisation of unity. In his early days, Mussolini had flirted with the Futurists. But he soon decided “established 1922” was not much of a sales pitch to be using in the Twenties, so claimed to be based on an original idea by the Roman Empire. Then, particularly once in power, Fascism could indulge it’s taste for a kind of Ratners Blinging Classicism. It's marbled drapery was not just decoration but a necessity, to figleaf their unendowedness.

The Great Generation Gap

And this framing evident in Armstrong, though rarely absent, could manifest in different ways. Before we've even entered the first room, the show is quoting TS Eliot's 1923 essay on Joyce's 'Ulysses'. It's “parallel between antiquity and the uncertain present” turns then and now into a set of antonyms - the great and the small, the epic and the ordinary.


Perhaps even the eternal and the transient. In Ithell Colquhoun's 'The Judgement of Paris' (1930, above) Paris is not only depicted in duller colours than the radiant Goddesses, he's pushed so far in the foreground he's virtually in the audience with us. Despite his ostensible 'judging' role he looks meekly down as the mighty Goddesses gaze up. Mortal even in the myth, Paris is made one of us. The distinction isn't between then and now so much as them and us.

Similarly 'Arcadia' (1928/9) by Edward Burra (an old favourite of ours here at Lucid Frenzy) depicts a garden party of bright young things. The composition places their jumble of gesticulating figures below more composed (pun intended) classical statues. Some of the party sport classical-themed fancy dress, which just accentuates the difference.


At times, the juxtapositions can become so pronounced we're essentially looking at collage. In Meredith Frampton's 'Still Life' (1932, above) the bust head with the laurel crown is not, as we might expect, at the top of the frame but displaced by flowers. (With the garland-like crown comparing the two.) A painting focusing on a vase of flowers seems more of an Impressionist thing to do, so we might want to read the work as Modernism displacing Classicism.

Yet the composition is split in half, into classical and nature sides. And yet the unspooling measuring tape is allowed to unfurl itself across that split. Measuring tape itself is modern. But the act of measuring is often associated with Classical rules of proportion. (In Hans Feiburch's advertising gouache 'Architects Prefer Shell', 1933, a modern measuring rod is placed alongside some compasses.) Those “and yets”... ultimately, they're the point. That the relationship between the Classical and the modern world is not a set thing, but ever-shifting.


In others, it's hard to tell the joins and that's the point. Madame Yevonde's 'Crisis' (1939, above) sharply combines juxtaposition with verisimilitude. The gas masked bust relies not on our expectation that we see busts in art, but that we encounter them in the real world. Had this been a painting not a photo, it would have much less impact.


But conversely, other works can look to a synthesis. Dod Proctor's 'Early Morning' (1927, above) has not just modern furniture. Even without the title, the lighting would pin it to a time of day. (We know precisely where the sunlight falls from, even if it's not shown.) Yet the show is right to say it also has a “sculptural quality”. This is not just it's stillness. There's the pallid colours. Classicism is associated with whiteness, however wrongly.

And more importantly, as Charlotte Higgins commented in the Guardian, “the white sheets and nightgown that Procter has arranged around her model strongly recall the pale chilliness of antique sculpture.” Classical sculpture would try to capture the momentary folds of drapery but then inevitably freeze them in stone, a feeling evoked here. Similarly, Hans Feurbach's 'Narcissus' (1946, below) is a virtuous combination of the solidity of statuary and the fluidity of oil.




While William Roberts' 'Judgement of Paris' (1933) is less bothered with Classical forms than by universalising the myth. With the absence of architecture and the figures nude or near-nude, we have no handholds which might pinpoint it to an era. If anything, the multi-racial figures would suggest to us modern times. (Wrongly, but then it's the image of Classicism which counts here.) And, like Joyce, he trivialises. His naïve, flat-footed tubular anatomies, so at odds to the Classical rules of proportion, suggest some sort of myth diorama, staged with toy figures who have lost their clothes. (And the way Roberts' take on the myth can be so utterly unlike Colquhoun's shows in itself how many pasts there were to pick from.)


Generally the sculpture in this show, unlike the sculpture-derived painting, is a weak point. Jumping between media acts against the merely imitative, and pushes somewhere new. Until that is, we reach Henry Moore. He really attacked the problem from the other end, collapsing the difference between Classical and primitive forms and arriving at something which does suggest at the eternal. (See 'Reclining Figure', above.) 

In my earlier piece on Moore I remarked on the centrality of his Shelter drawings, and how rooted they seemed in Grecian Hades. Here he's quoted: “Until my Shelter drawings I never seemed to feel free... to mix the Mediterranean approach comfortably with my interest in the more elementary concept of archaic and primitive people.”

Dissembling Arcadia

But let's jump to another corner of the board. Here we might see Classicism not through Joyce but Shelley, as something inherently Ozymandian. Here Classicism does not imply order or continuity but rupture and upheaval. It was a warning against hubris, a reminder empires fall. For if even the Romans didn’t last, why should we? (It's perhaps analogous to the way in music the Nineties were so often said to be the Sixties upside down, presenting not the view from Woodstock looking forward but Altamont looking back.)


Classicism is strongly associated with the cult of the body, like a Charles Atlas ad in reverse where it's the 'before' figure we should aim to be like. So in Michael Ayrton's 'Orpheus', his ravaged form could not be more at odds with the idealised anatomies of old. The myth of Orpheus incorporates anthropomorphism, his lyre playing said to be so beguiling it could stir the trees and rocks to dance. Here the opposite has happened, the landscape he’s in as ravaged as he is. In fact there’s little differentiation between them. The same ghostly grey hues are used for both, a touch of off-red on his lips is the only hint of colour. While the straggly bare trees are echoed in the veins on his chest.

After being unable to rescue Eurydice from death, a distraught figure wandered the earth. And the story’s ending is here associated with the end of Classicism itself, as if he’s exiled past his time and it’s the barren modern world which batters him.

Furthermore, it's a truism that we rarely see intact examples of Classicism. The broken pieces of pot, the limbless statue, the incomplete frieze… what's Classical comes down to us in a battered box with pieces missing. Our knowledge of it is a combination of assemblage and guesswork. Art can be used to overcome that, to reassemble Arcadia, take us back to when temples were intact. Or, conversely...


John Armstrong's 'The Three Orders of Architecture' (1927, above) presents this fragmentary, collage view of Classicism. Two different column caps are conjoined, while we only see pieces of the main figure, the rest suggested in white outline. And of course we are used to seeing Classical statuary in just this incomplete state, in the more iconic cases to the point where to now see it intact would be jarring. It's a visual metaphor for our incomplete understanding of the past. But it should also be seen in combination with other Armstrong works.


His 'Pro Patria' (1938, above) is more a companion piece to his ruin works from the earlier 'British Artists and the Spanish Civil War' show. There's the same jagged shards of what once were houses, wallpaper still attached. But this time he incorporates Classical motifs, such as the fractured statue face, and quite modern elements – such as the two peeling posters which shout at each other from opposite walls.

“Pro Patria” (“for the fatherland”) was a phrase from Horace turned into a slogan by Mussolini. It could be read as a promise that, like the Rome Mussolini modelled himself on, fascism would fall. But there is also something more sweeping and simultaneously beguiling to it. Is this post-attack or post-apocalypse? The green peeling paintwork on the right looks almost like foliage, as though this is the new nature, our new normal.

(After the earlier exhibition unearthed Armstrong, he was noticed by numerous well-informed critics. (And by me.) We're now told he was part of a mini-movement, the Tempera Revival.)


Frank Runacres' 'Untitled (Ruin)' (1939, above) perhaps goes further in turning bomb wreckage into collage. Ironically, amongst the damage, one figure is shown holding up entabulature. The pure geometrical forms – a sphere, a wheel, a pyramid – serve to emphasise what a jumble everything has been reduced to. The classical sculptures are missing limbs, but of course we have no way of knowing whether that's from the blast or they have just come down to us that way. The sky is deep storm-grey, though the scene is painted as if brightly lit. The show refers to this as “the destruction of culture through war”.

Notably, both these works were not journalism but heralds of war. JG Ballard, who experienced World War Two as a child, perhaps made one of the most important statements about Modernism when he said “war is surreal”. If Ruancres' image is a mite too arranged to look like an actual scene, it's perfectly possible a museum or private collection could have been bombed. And being based in a credible event grants it credibility.

It is slightly strange the show focuses on Eliot's essay on Joyce and not his own 'The Waste Land' (1922), despite it being widely seen as a foundation stone of Modernist poetry. In it Eliot quotes from Classical sources such as Homer and Ovid, and the second-hand Classicism of for example Shakespeare's plays. And notably this was another war work, though this time a reaction to the First World War.

Making Myth Into Psychology

Whether people from Classical eras believed in their myths with earnest literalism is one thing. (With what evidence we have pointing against a neat answer.) But, even when they focused on the exploits of individual heroes, they were always social stories with a collective message. Yet we've since seen the parallel rise of psychology and art more concerned with mental landscapes. Joyce's 'Ulysses' bases itself on 'The Odyssey' to emphasise the contrast, as art went from a macro to a micro focus - from the mytho-historic or even cosmogenic to a peep inside a single mind. In fact the show's post-Freudian title would seem to stem from this.

Glyn Philpott summed up the paradox: “For me the more personal has been my desire to create some expression of my own emotional or spiritual experience, the more readily have I accepted the aid of a theme drawn from myth and legend.”


It's only been three times already, let's turn to John Armstrong again. He didn't consider himself a Surrealist, but take a look at 'The Labyrinth' (1927, above). Objects as symbols and figures as cyphers, situated inside a bizarre architectural space strewn with apertures. The way the three figures are in the same pallid off-white, giving the walls and ruddy ground the most vivid colours, suggests the maze is a frame holding the figure together rather than dividing them. Hollywood's quasi-classical epics were always boasting of a cast of thousands. But perhaps this has a cast of one. The three figures are merely elements of a single psyche.

If we’re going for psychological explanations for a Surrealist work, Freud would seem an obvious fit. Wikipedia summarises his tripartite mental model: “the id is the set of uncoordinated instinctual trends; the super-ego plays the critical and moralizing role; and the ego is the organized, realistic part that mediates between the desires of the id and the super-ego.” And here we have three figures - the bullish brute id placed dead centre (the Minotaur), the advancing ego seeking dominance (Theseus), and the directing super-ego (Ariadne). (The plan, let’s remember, had been Ariadne’s.)

Yet before we close the case let’s note a few more things. Ariadne’s thread, a detail from the myth most remember, is absent. And without it’s linking device the figures look isolated. Both Ariadne and Theseus seem to look out of the frame. Pushed to the edge of the composition, it’s unclear whether Theseus is striding boldly forwards or simply sloping off. Besides which, Freud associated the super-ego with… surprise, surprise… the authority of the Father.

Psychological explanations of myth often assume it’s role is inherently instructive and even curative, about the symbolic restoration of balance. In this way they occupy the insidiously slippery slope where Jungism degenerates into New Age mush. Yet myth is more often an explanation for why things don’t work than why they do, and the Theseus story – with it’s litany of betrayals and failures, and long line of avoidable deaths – is a classic example.

The Minotaur was the progeny of Minos’ wife and a bull, shamefully consigned to the labyrinth. Traditionally he was depicted as a symbiote, half man half bull. Armstrong makes him more of a fusion, animal body yet humanised (if horned) face. And the unsocialised child is often likened to an animal. Perhaps the male figure is just that, not Theseus but simply standing for ‘the male’. In which case he could as equally stand for Minos, the father keen to finally rid himself of his troublesome offspring. It’s the Oedipus myth the other way up.

While, even in the original myth, Theseus breaks his promise to Ariadne and abandons her. In times past the labyrinth was not just a puzzle to be solved but a sort of spiritual journey akin to pilgrimage; you could pass through it, while trapping those plaguing evil spirits within it. But the opposite happens here. ’The Labyrinth’ is a portrait of a fractured mental model, three pieces which must be made to fit together but which cannot.

Looking backwards to go forward... This was the way Modernism had pretty much always seen primitive or folk art. The way to not become blocked by an immediate obstacle was to take a step back in the hope of leapfrogging over it. Ultimately, it’s Armstrong’s incomplete Classical statue which is the signature image. Classicism may first have been sought out for it’s reassuring orderedness. But it remained as a repository of imagery, as pictures already scalpeled and hence collage-ready. It presented images which looked like they should have been unifying but simply weren’t.


Coming soon! More art exhibitions reviewed after they've closed...

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