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The Call to Order
Not every artist in the postwar era was rooting around in the costume closet for togas and laurel wreaths. World War I also produced the anarchic antiart of Dada not much there from Mount Olympus and the fang-baring portrait of Weimar Germany one finds in George Grosz. Picasso, who contained multitudes, went right on making Cubist-derived paintings in the same years he was turning out goddesses. But the classicizing impulse was everywhere. Before the war, the composer Igor Stravinsky set loose the convulsions of The Rite of Spring. After, he would write poised ballets like Apollo, dedicated to the most majestically self-possessed of the Greek gods. The pioneers of Modernist architecture, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, saw the radical simplifications of their designs, the erasures of fussy ornament, as a return to the bracing purities of Greek geometry. The whole era would be summed up in the title of a 1926 essay collection by Jean Cocteau, the canny French operator who, in films like The Blood of a Poet, played it both ways, recruiting classical images to serve Surrealist purposes. The title of the book? A Call to Order.
Was all this the escape mechanism of a world turning its back on the calamity it had just suffered? "Faced with agony," said the Purist Ozenfant, "the civilized pull the curtain." In the Guggenheim exhibition's catalog, Kenneth E. Silver, a professor of modern art at New York University and guest curator of the show, talks about a "postwar culture of self-conscious forgetting." Above all, Silver writes, it was the sublime classical body as expressed in modern sculpture strong, beautiful and unblemished, like the sinuous Ile-de-France by Aristide Maillol "that was the sign of forgetting in postwar Europe." During the war, men had been mangled and dismembered. Now sculpture could magically restore the body to wholeness and a kind of immortality. Flesh suffers; marble is forever.
As it turned out, Apollo wouldn't save Europe from its next calamity. Worse, he would end up a kind of accessory to the crime. Fascism and Nazism would find in classical antiquity an all too usable past, one full of muscular authority and a call to order of a more sinister kind. It was a simple matter for Mussolini to summon the ghosts of ancient Rome to validate his bluster and pretensions to empire, cluttering 1930s Italy with pneumatic statues of Il Duce. For the Germans it was a bit trickier. They were, after all, descendants of the Gothic tribes that had toppled Rome. That didn't stop Hitler from claiming that the ancient Greeks were Nordics. So when they weren't turning out treacly scenes of blond peasants gathered around the hearth, the artists favored by the Third Reich, like the sculptor Georg Kolbe, were chiseling the abs of classical musclemen. For the space over the fireplace in his Munich apartment, the Führer chose no less a slice of craptastic neoclassical cheesecake than Adolf Ziegler's The Four Elements: Fire, Water and Earth, Air.
The pinnacle of the effort to burnish Hitler's toxic statecraft with the luster of Periclean Athens came at the Berlin Olympics of 1936. The Olympic stadium was designed in imitation of Trajan's Forum in Rome. The backdrop for the opening ceremonies was the massive Pergamon Altar, the 2nd century B.C. monument at Berlin's Pergamon Museum. The relay of the Olympic flame, something unknown in ancient Greece, was a media ploy invented expressly for the '36 Games a literal passing of the torch from Athens to Berlin. And in the prologue to her documentary Olympia, the gifted yet grossly complicit Leni Riefenstahl contrived a way to show the Greek statue Discobolus the discus thrower coming to life as the real German decathlete Erwin Huber, who winds up and hurls his disc into the sky.
So this is where the return to order would lead in the end, an ideal of the ancient past resurrected in the flesh of modern Germans, who were launching it into the future. And once again the past would be prologue, this time opening the way to a second great chaos the one we call World War II.