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Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, Germany, and Spain, 1918–1936

February 22, 2011 – May 15, 2011

Greek and Roman history and myth, which had long provided the West with a common narrative, abounded in the visual arts between the wars as it never would again. . . . The supposed purity, simplicity, and high-mindedness of Greek art and thought were especially influential.1

The classical craze swept across Europe and could be seen in draped garments emulating antiquity by high-fashion designers in Paris, or in the choreography of George Balanchine (1904—1983) as he worked on his ballet Apollo (1928). The Italians, in particular, heralded the return to craftsmanship, celebrated the architectural laws of the ancient Greeks, and connected the new art to ancient values of purity and solidity. This resurgence of classical mythology was also present in Spain. Artists such as Aurelio Arteta (1879—1940) used this mythical foundation in their works. Arteta, for example, created a series of frescoes between 1920 to 1923 for Banco de Bilbao, which used allegories based on perfect classicist male and female bodies performing various titanic tasks representing overcoming suffering and difficulties through hard work.

"The return to order that pervaded interwar painting and sculpture also appeared in objects for daily use . . . . Rather than mere copies, models from the glorious past were treated to novel modernizations, effectively updating classical imagery-along with the attendant values of antique harmony and proportion-for contemporary life."2 A pioneer of Italian modern design, Gio (Giovanni) Ponti (1891-1979) was vital in bringing the modern classical aesthetic to the decorative arts. "He interpreted Roman subjects in ‘a modern and quirky vein,' producing delightfully self-conscious send-ups of serious historicism . "3 In the urn An Archaeological Stroll (La passeggiata archaeologica, 1925), Ponti modified the Greek lekythos (lek-uh-thos), a vessel for oil or perfume that features a long shape and a thin neck. The underlying pattern on Ponti's flask resembles Roman brickwork, and its color is like marble masonry. Fashionable figures in period dress appear among various relics, including columns, sundials, vessels, and candelabra, that mix classical motifs with a playful modern attitude.

Notes
1 Kenneth E. Silver, "A More Durable Self," in Silver, Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918-1936, exh. cat. (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2010), p. 32.

2 Helen Hsu, "Gio (Giovanni) Ponti: An Archaeological Stroll (La passeggiata archaelogica), in Silver, Chaos and Classicism, ibid., p. 82.

3 Silver, "A More Durable Self," p. 34.

Show: An Archaeological Stroll (La passeggiata archaeologica), 1925

  • Have students look carefully at this lekythos and describe it in detail. Does it remind them of anything they have seen before? What might it be used for?
  • As a class, create a list of words associated with the term "classicism." How many of those words apply to this object? Which ones do not?
  • Although this lekythos was inspired by Greece, it was created in 1925. What qualities of this object seem modern?
  • Ponti titled this work An Archaeological Stroll. How does knowing the title help one better understand the object?
  • Compare Ponti's urn with one from ancient Greece. How are they similar? How are they different?
  • Before you begin this activity, view a selection of lekythoi at
    http://www.britishmuseum.org/
    explore/highlights/highlights_search_results.aspx?searchText=lekythoi
    and http://www.namuseum.gr/collections/vases/classiki-en.htm. Students should describe the characteristics of this type of ancient vessel in preparation for planning their own designs for a classically inspired urn.

    Begin with a sheet of A3 paper. Fold it in half the long way. Beginning at the top center, draw half of the silhouette for the lekythos, remembering that the fold will be the center axis of the vessel. Next cut the shape out with a pair of scissors. Unfold the paper, and the shape will be symmetrical. Try a number of possibilities by altering the proportions.

    Although Ponti's lekythos was inspired by Greek pottery, it is not a copy. It demonstrates a more modern approach to design and decoration. Using paint or colored pencils, create a surface design that is inspired by antiquity but also has references to contemporary society. When the class is done, discuss the various designs and personal approaches to mixing ideas from antiquity with those from today.

  • Ponti was one of Italy's most influential designers, and his oeuvre includes automobiles, furniture, interiors, and buildings. Working with a multitude of materials, he is a pivotal figure of 20th-century architecture and design, and young practitioners are increasingly rediscovering his work today. Research Ponti's other work at http://designmuseum.org/design/gio-ponti and describe his approach to design. Which object do your students like the most? Why?
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