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Interwar Classicism

Interwar Classicism Collage

Started: 1919

Ended: 1939

"When the Greek chisel ceased to resound, night settled on the Mediterranean. It was a long night, illuminated only by the half-moon (the reflected light) of the Renaissance. Now we feel the breeze again on the Mediterranean. And we dare to think it is the dawn of a new era."

Painter Fausto Melotti

Summary of Interwar Classicism

After World War I, the Great Depression and social and demographic changes taking place internationally encouraged a revival in classical artistic techniques and subject matter in Europe. Many artists, some of whom had previously worked in avant-garde styles, sought to step away from fragmentation and expressionism toward idealized bodies and calm, balanced composition. In architecture, this classical movement manifested in a turn away from decoration and toward symmetry and the grandiose. There were, across the 1920s and 1930s, a range of different rationales and approaches to Classicism in art (reaching as far back as the Greeks and Romans), ranging from xenophobia to critiques of heterosexual love. Interwar Classicism, also often known as the rappel a l'ordre (return to order), is often closely linked with the political rise of fascism in the 1930s, such that the movement was largely rejected after World War II.

Key Ideas

Interwar Classicism is a movement that challenges the idea of modern art history as driven by progress. Instead of looking forward (and building upon the innovations of Dada, Fauvism, Cubism et al), artists turned toward the past, believing that novelty and innovation was unnecessary and inappropriate. While some artists combined elements of both classicism and modernity, the movement as a whole can be characterized as regressive and nostalgic.
It is difficult to separate the aesthetic turn toward tradition from the politics of the interwar era. Many artists found classicism to offer security in the wake of trauma, while others imbued certain styles with moral qualities. While this occurred across the political spectrum, it was particularly pronounced on the conservative end of the spectrum, where the strength, hierarchy of values and veneration of "civilization" key to classical art and architecture resonated with the authoritarian celebration of ancient European empires.
"Interwar Classicism" can be seen as an umbrella term that encompasses a range of different approaches. Some artists turned toward sculpting or painting idealized bodies in the style of ancient or Neoclassical art while others were influenced by the enthusiasm for simplicity whilst maintaining a machine-age aesthetic. Some artists venerated the order associated with Apollo while others embraced the Dionysian pursuit of pleasure.
Interwar Classicism Image


Following World War I, with an estimated twenty million deaths and widespread destruction, European society sought new ways of coming to terms with modern life. Artists and writers, prior to the war, had largely celebrated modernity through experimentation with new forms of expression intended to match the potential of new technologies. World War I, a conflict through which modernity became closely linked with destruction, led to widespread uncertainty as to the appropriate response to the tragedy and to other changes associated with industrialization and globalization. Artists responded to this ambivalence in a range of ways, among which was a nostalgia for the past that manifested itself in the revival of classical aesthetics and ideas.

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