The Artistic Aftermath of the First World War

Following the chaos of World War I, a move emerged towards figuration, clean lines, and modeled form, and away from the two-dimensional abstracted spaces, fragmented compositions, and splintered bodies of the avant-gardes—particularly Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism, that dominated the opening years of the 20th century. After the horrors of the First World War, a desire reasserted itself to represent the body whole and intact. Classicism, “return to order,” synthesis, organization, and enduring values, rather than the pre-War emphasis on innovation-at-all-costs, would dominate the discourse of contemporary art. The exhibition in the Guggenheim museum in New York traces this interwar classical aesthetic as it worked its way from a poetic, mythic idea in the Parisian avant-garde; to a political, historical idea of a revived Roman Empire, under Mussolini; to a neo-Platonic High Modernism at the Bauhaus in Germany and beyond, and then, chillingly, a pseudo-biological classicism in Nazi culture. Interwoven through these closely related but distinct classical paradigms will be the key movements that proclaimed visual and thematic “clarity”: Purism, Novecento, and Neue Sachlichkeit. This vast transformation of contemporary aesthetics in France, Italy, and Germany will encompass painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, film, fashion, and the decorative arts.