The triumph of avant-gardes in the 1920s tends to dominate our discussions of the music, art, and literature of the period. But the broader current of modernism encompassed many movements, and one of the most distinct and influential was a turn to classicism.
In Classicism of the Twenties, Theodore Ziolkowski offers a compelling account of that movement. Giving equal attention to music, art, and literature, and focusing in particular on the works of Stravinsky, Picasso, and T. S. Eliot, he shows how the turn to classicism manifested itself. In reaction both to the excesses of neoromanticism and early modernism and to the horrors of World War I—and with respectful detachment—artists, writers, and composers adapted themes and forms from the past and tried to imbue their own works with the values of simplicity and order that epitomized earlier classicisms.
By identifying elements common to all three arts, and carefully situating classicism within the broader sweep of modernist movements, Ziolkowski presents a refreshingly original view of the cultural life of the 1920s.
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Classicism of the Twenties
Art, Music, and Literature
By Theodore Ziolkowski
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
"Classicism," a term originating in the early nineteenth century, is probably one of the last words that spring to mind when we think of the twenties, whether Roaring or Golden, that followed the destruction and deprivations of the Great War in Europe. Some may recall the visual and verbal clichés that fill Woody Allen's comedy Midnight in Paris (2011) as the Lost Generation of American writers gathered in Gertrude Stein's Paris salon. Others may visualize the expressionistic horrors of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or the Weimar Germany of The Blue Angel. The Jazz Age with its marathon dances, its flappers, and its Charleston also brought to Europe a surge of fascination with African art and the Harlem Renaissance as represented by Josephine Baker and other African American stars. When one emerged from the salons, dance halls, nightclubs, and thriving new movie theaters featuring the comic antics of Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp or the sublime propaganda of Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin and tore one's eyes away from the omnipresent art déco, the scene seemed to be dominated by the twelve-tone compositions of the Second Viennese School, by the fantasies of surrealism, by the inanities of dada, by late or so-called synthetic cubism. Meanwhile, in the background the political arena was dominated by the fierce and often brutal struggle between adversaries from Left and Right. Where, amidst this cultural turmoil, was there room for anything as sedate and conservative as classicism? Yet when we remind ourselves that the chief representatives of that movement in the twenties were none other than Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, and T. S. Eliot, surely we must pause to give it due consideration.
Classicism as Term
"Classicism" remains one of the more slippery terms of cultural criticism. Stemming from the Latin word classis, which basically means simply a grouping—divisions of the army, for instance, or fleets of the navy—it was appropriated in the sixth century BCE to designate the five classes into which Roman society, not least for purposes of taxation, was divided by Servius Tullius. By the second century CE, as we know from the encyclopedic Noctes Atticae of Aulus Gellius, the adjectival form classicus was restricted to designate citizens of the top economic class: classici dicebantur non omnes, qui in quinque classibus erant, sed primae tantum classis homines (6.13.1; "not all who were in the five classes were called 'classici' but only men of the first class")—those worth at least 125,000 Roman asses (a vaguely defined but considerable fortune) and distinguished by the taste and elegance associated with their wealth. (The four lower classes were regarded as infra classem.) Consistent with this meaning, the adjective was expanded to designate writers appropriate to that estate—classicus assiduusque aliquis scriptor, non proletarius ("some classic and prosperous writer, not a proletarian one"; Noctes Atticae, 19.8.15)—in contrast to the merely popular ones whose appeal was more to the lower classes and tastes.
From that general implication came the vernacular meaning of "classic," which today is used broadly and loosely both as an adjective and a noun to designate items regarded as the representative best of their category, often with the implication that their heyday is past. As the German composer Wolfgang Rihm rather drastically put it, "something of the present can never be classic. Classicism always is when it has been.... Classicism becomes." The Classic Car Club of America defines classic cars as those built between 1925 and 1948—expensive cars suitable for the uppermost socioeconomic class embracing what the Romans called classici. "Jazz classics" are commonly associated with musicians already deceased (Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis, among others). In this sense the term "classic" has been expanded to encompass works in fields ranging from physics, children's literature, crime fiction, and film to protest poetry, rock music, rap, or hip-hop. As a critical term the word has become virtually meaningless—or, at least, valueless.
A later and secondary derivation of the word since late antiquity, notably in the Romance languages, connected classicus with students who attend school classes—an association that was broadened to include the authoritative texts that the students studied as models of excellence, both stylistically and contextually. Hence "classic" was applied to the finest works of Greek and Roman antiquity. In universities today the Departments of Classics teach the architecture, art, history, and literature of ancient Greece and Rome, and "classicist" designates the students and professors who specialize in those fields. In an even more specific sense the term is often narrowed down to refer to what is regarded as the high point of classical antiquity: the culture of Periclean Athens. In this restricted sense, suggests one critic, Aeschylus would be regarded as archaic and not yet classic and Euripides as postclassic and Baroque.
The noun "classicism," a fairly recent coinage in most modern languages, refers to the principles underlying the works of classical antiquity, such as proportion and moderation. In this sense "classicism" has been appropriated by scholars to designate periods within various modern literatures and the visual arts that have sought to emulate the arts of antiquity and their principles and are held to represent high points of their respective cultures. These principles, as enunciated in particular by Aristotle and Horace, were differently evaluated. In Italy, "classicism" refers to various periods in the history of Italian literature, from the classicism of the ninth-century Carolingian revival and twelfth-century scholasticism by way of humanism and the Renaissance down to the early eighteenth-century Arcadia era. Their tradition of Latinity led French classicists of the later seventeenth century (Boileau, Corneille, Racine, and Molière, among others) to look mainly to ancient Rome for their models, while borrowing from Aristotle the formal criteria—notably the three unities of time, place, and action—suggested in his Poetics.
In Germany, although as late as 1730 Johann Christoph Gottsched still prefaced his Versuch einer critischen Dichtkunst (Essay toward a critical art of poetry) with a translation of Horace's poetics, the principal writers regarded today as "classical"—Goethe, Schiller, Wieland, and Herder—turned to ancient Greece, rather than Rome, for their models. In his early and influential essay Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst (1755; Thoughts on the imitation of Greek works in painting and sculpture), Johann Joachim Winckelmann coined the phrase that caught the imagination of his generation as characterizing the works of Greek antiquity: edle Einfalt und stille Größe ("noble simplicity and quiet grandeur"). With his chapters on dramatic art (Hamburgische Dramaturgie, 1767/68), Gotthold Ephraim Lessing rejected the French-classicist formal reading of Aristotle's Poetics and emphasized instead his conception of catharsis as a vehicle for emotional purification. In England the popularity of Greek architecture produced a wave of "neoclassical" buildings in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Indeed, as Salvatore Settis points out in his stimulating essay on "the classical," Western civilization, in contrast to other great but culturally static civilizations (Chinese, Indian, and others), is unique in its notion of the cyclical return of "classical" periods.
In yet another variant, historians of music, which has few ancient models to imitate, have appropriated the term "classical" to designate works of music that, in contrast to contemporary popular musical forms, are considered to be analogous in their excellence to the works of fifth-century Athens. As a German musicologist puts it:
In music history, unlike the history of art and architecture, the term usually applies either to a nineteenth-century recourse to genres from the late seventeenth or eighteenth century such as the suite, courtly dances such as the gavotte, technical models such as the motet style, or to a general quality of formal clarity and sublimity that characterizes the great masterworks of this period.
Accordingly, on "classical" radio stations one hears a great deal of Bach along with Gregorian chants, Renaissance gavottes, symphonies from Beethoven to Mahler, and opera from Monteverdi to Stravinsky. In fact, Aaron Copland, who was in Paris at the time, has pointed out that before the terms "classicism" or "neoclassicism" became common in the later 1920s to designate a movement in contemporary music, the phrase "back-to-Bach" was commonly used. More narrowly, the term is often restricted to apply to the late compositions of Haydn and Mozart (often in contrast to the more "romantic" Beethoven), who were roughly contemporaneous with Weimar Classicism in literature.
"Classicism" is sometimes used to designate two separate aesthetic phenomena of the early twentieth century. First, its writers and artists often took themes from Greek and Roman history and mythology as their subjects, as did Joyce when he borrowed the tale of Odysseus as the prefigurative pattern for his Ulysses (1922). Second, writers, artists, and musicians sought to achieve in their own works the form and the values of simplicity and order that epitomized ancient classicism, as when the purity of line evident in the works of Picasso's so-called classical period in the 1920s is said to correspond to the elegant forms of Greek sculpture.
In the chapters that follow we shall have occasion to examine the specific manifestations of this thematic and formal emulation of the past in various works by modern writers, artists, and musicians. This classicism of the early twentieth century has been labeled in various ways and with various restrictions. One designation used frequently is "neoclassicism," a term that, according both to the Oxford English Dictionary and to the Random House Dictionary, is quite recent in origin, occurring first as an adjective ("neoclassic") between 1875 and 1880 and as a noun around 1890 and often bearing negative associations. This was noted by T. S. Eliot, who argued that "all 'neos' indicate some fad or fashion of the moment, and it is not our concern to be fashionable." In reaction against the "pejorative taint" associated with "neoclassicism" it has been called, notably with regard to music, "modernist classicism," a formulation suggesting that all classicism of the period is "modernist," while "alternative modernism"—a term proposed by the editors of the same volume in order to avoid the belief that classicism is hostile to modernism—implies that it is simply another form of modernism. "Classicisme méditerranéen" is geographically restricted to France and Italy, while "klassische Moderne" as understood by the contributors to the volume of that title defines loosely a "paradigm" for the period from 1880 to 1930 in German literature. Similarly restrictive is the term "socialist classicism," which Abram Tertz (Andrei Sinyavsky) proposed to replace "socialist realism" because, he argued, the latter "starts from an ideal image to which it adapts the living reality." "Modern classicism," in turn, has been largely preempted by architecture, as any glance at Google will confirm, and in many cases it implies nothing but ornamental quotations taken out of context. Such terms as "restorative modernism" drift, in my opinion, too far away from the subject. And "pseudo-classicism," as used cynically by Yves Bonnefoy and based on a selective group of minor French painters, ignores the positive achievements of the movement.
In my opinion it is better to avoid the label "modernist" or "modernism" altogether in connection with "classicism" because "modernism" is such a loose and in many senses misleading term that embraces, according to one scholar of the movement, "a variety of aesthetic practices" ranging, according to another, from expressionism, dadaism, and cubism to imagism, futurism, and vorticism. Classicism is of course often included among the movements designated as modernism, but it differs quite radically, as we shall see, from most of the other contemporary "modernist" movements. Indeed, it is sometimes set explicitly in opposition to modernism, as by that notorious enemy of neoclassicism, Theodor W. Adorno, who called it, among other things, a "catastrophe" and a "deformation" that "leads aesthetically to hell."
It should be stressed at the outset that every "classicism" takes on characteristics of its own time: the buildings of Palladio and Karl Friedrich Schinkel are both regarded as "classical" or "neoclassical," yet despite their similarities no one would mistake the Villa Rotunda for the Altes Museum, any more than one would confuse a play by Goethe with one by Racine or the paintings of Ingres with those of Raphael. In other words, classicism, whether "neo" or not, is always a synthesis of past and present and never simply a restoration of antiquity.
So how should we specify the classicism of the twenties? Jeroen Vanheste proposed the term "interbellum classicism," a term that is appealing because it is purely temporal—one that in English, German, and other Western languages conventionally specifies the period between the two world wars—and assigns no preliminary values, modernist or other, to this twentieth-century movement. In that case, why not something like "twentieth-century classicism" or "classicism entre deux guerres"? The former designation is temporally too general, and the latter inevitably carries associations suggesting that the emphasis will focus on developments in France, as is the case, for instance, in Yves Bonnefoy's essay. "Interbellum," in contrast, is a neutral and easily comprehensible term taken from the Latin and, as such, linguistically compatible with the word "classicism," which comes from that same base. Yet accurate and precise though it may be, the term seems clumsy and even a bit pretentious. For that reason I prefer simply "classicism of the twenties."
Classicism as Reaction
In a large sense all classicism may be viewed simply as one manifestation of the eternal and universal struggle between order and chaos, discipline and license, authority and freedom—the struggle represented in the Bible, for instance, by Moses and the Tables of Law as opposed to Aaron and the ecstatic worshipers of the Golden Calf; in Manichaeism by the contest between Light and Darkness; in Greek culture by the opposition between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, as depicted by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy (1872); in revolutionary eras between conservatives and insurgents; and analogously in other philosophical, religious, and political systems. This association of classicism with conservatism has a long history and accounts in large measure, as we shall see, for the disdain of classicism expressed by many modernists of the twenties—or, for that matter, of any generation, including our own.
Classicism in its various manifestations almost always involves opposition to some other movement exhibiting what is regarded as excesses of creativity, spontaneity, and exoticism and the abandonment of all measure, restraint, and clarity. Thinkers, artists, and poets of the Renaissance, who had newly rediscovered classical antiquity, viewed medieval art and literature as barbaric and "gothic." The inevitable reaction to Renaissance classicism came in the Battle of the Books, or the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes of the seventeenth century, when many authors argued that the rigid classical standards of taste had been superseded by progress in civilization generally. French "classicists" of the late seventeenth century, in turn, revolted against the stylistic excesses of the Baroque, as exemplified by such writers as Rabelais, and looked to the ancient classics for their inspiration in prose fiction (e.g., Fénelon's Telemachus) and tragedy (e.g., Racine's Iphigénie and Phèdre).
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Table of ContentsList of Figures
Part 1 The Theory
1 Prewar Classicism
Classicism as Term
Classicism as Reaction
An Ironic Retrospective
2 Classicism of the Twenties
The Turning Point
The Turn to Antiquity
Part 2 The Practice
3 Three Exemplary Figures
The Composer: Igor Stravinsky
The Artist: Pablo Picasso
The Writer: T. S. Eliot
Part 3 Test Cases
4 The Writers
Hans Henny Jahnn
5 The Artists
Giorgio de Chirico
Gino Severini, Fernand Léger, and Others
6 The Composers
Part 4 Conclusions
7 Classicism of the Twenties?