by Roderick Conway Morris

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Big Rethinking: Classicism after the First World War

By Roderick Conway Morris
CHICHESTER 1 December 2016
RA, London
Still-life by Meredith Frampton, 1932



After the end of World War I, there was a radical rethinking in the visual arts, called a 'Rappel à l'ordre' (Return to Order) by the Cubist painter André Lhote, as avant-garde exponents of such movements as Cubism, Futurism and Abstraction began to re-examine classical forms as fruitful modes of expression for modern times.

The description gained wider acceptance in 1926, when the writer and artist Jean Cocteau used it as the title for a collection of essays on Classicism. The phenomenon has been the subject of a number of exhibitions over the last 25 years, including major ones in London, Rome and New York, which all focused on Continental Europe.

But a parallel situation also manifested itself in Britain, and that is now the subject of 'The Mythic Method: Classicism in British Art 1920-1950,' the first exhibition of its kind. It is at the Pallant House Gallery here and features about 100 works by 40 artists, curated by its artistic director, Simon Martin. It continues until Feb. 19.

The show takes its title from a concept described by T. S. Eliot in 'Ulysses, Order and Myth,' an essay published in 1923, the year after the publication of the complete version of James Joyce's Modernist novel.

Eliot characterized this 'mythical method' as 'a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history' — a challenge that was being faced generally by writers and artists during that period.

One of the first signs of this mythical method in the plastic arts can be found in the countless war memorials that were commissioned across Britain after the end of the war. It is compellingly represented at the opening of the exhibition by Frederick Cayley Robinson's (1862-1927) 'War Memorial to the Students of Heanor Grammar School' (around 1919-23), painted in tempera on board, listing the 57 former students from the school who died in the war.

The scene depicted on the memorial is of a serene classical temple, peopled with allegorical figures in Grecian attire and Christian saints and martyrs, flanked by soldiers, women and children in contemporary dress.

Classical architecture provided the models for many commemorative monuments. It was featured prominently in Edwin Lutyens's (1869-1944) national 'Cenotaph' in Whitehall in London (1920), which was denounced by The Catholic Herald newspaper as 'a pagan monument, insulting to Christianity.'

As early as 1919, an article in The Sunday Telegraph declared that 'we are in the full swing of a classical revolution,' and this is illustrated in the ensuing rooms of the show in a wide variety of forms, often in the works of highly accomplished and imaginative artists whose names are now little known.

Among these welcome rediscoveries is Meredith Frampton (1894-1984), whose meticulous, sharply focused 'Still Life' (1932), of a plinth supporting a cracked antique urn, Roman bust and modern tape measure seems the perfect visual correlative of Eliot's words on the mythical method.

Frampton's laborious perfectionism and problems with his eyesight have left us with few works, but also on display here, in a section devoted to female portraiture titled 'The Modern Venus,' is a beautiful, classically inspired portrait by Frampton of 'Marguerite Kelsey' (1928).

John Armstrong (1893-1973) reveals himself as one of the most versatile interpreters of Classicism. An intriguing series of tempera pictures from the late 1920s explores mythical themes, among them 'The Rape of Persephone,' 'Psyche on the Styx' and 'The Labyrinth.'

But he also drew on the classical tradition in the design of posters — 'Artists Prefer Shell' for the petroleum company Shell; and 'Pheidippides, 490 B.C.,' for a post office campaign for schools on communication, celebrates the inspiration for the marathon, the messenger who brought news of military victory over the Persians to Athens.

Armstrong was commissioned to design the costumes for Josef von Sternberg's and Alexander Korda's never-to-be-completed film 'I, Claudius.' He was in Rome working on them in 1937, and several of his sketches are shown here.

His 'Pro Patria' (1938), a surreal image of classical ruins and peeling propaganda posters, provides a prescient vision of the devastation that Mussolini would bring to the peninsula.

'The Olympian Party,' a London costume charity ball in 1935, provided the opportunity for Yevonde Middleton (1893-1975), an innovative color photographer known as Madame Yevonde, to capture later 24 of the society beauties who had attended the event in their guises as mythical goddesses, nymphs and muses. Seven of these remarkable images are displayed here along with two other surreal works by her featuring classical casts. A renewed interest in ancient statuary led to a revival in the classical nude in both sculpture and painting.

The former Cubist sculptor Frank Dobson, (1886-1963) inspired by the antique and the works of Aristide Maillol and Picasso, began to produce marble and bronze nudes, represented by three here, including 'Reclining Nude,' seen in the British pavilion at the 1932 Venice Biennale.

The artist Dod Procter (1892-1972) subtly blended ancient and modern elements in her painting 'Early Morning,' of a sleeping girl (the daughter of a Cornish fisherman), whose pose echoes the famous 'Sleeping Ariadne,' a Roman copy of a second-century B.C. Hellenistic marble in the Vatican Museums. It was voted picture of the year at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1927, went on tour and even visited New York. It hangs beside the double nude 'The Day's End,' by her husband, Ernest Procter (1886-1935), which may well have been conceived as a pendant work.

The exhibition ends with several pieces by Henry Moore (1898-1986), including a bronze 'Reclining Figure' of 1945. Moore had resisted producing classical art through the 1920s and 1930s, but during bombing raids on London in World War II, when Underground stations became places of refuge, he made a series of 'Shelter Drawings' and was struck by the similarities between the sleeping figures and draped classical sculptures.

This led him back to ancient mythology — as illustrated here by a number of graphic works, among them 'Odysseus in the Naiad's Cave' (1944) — and the discovery that, as he later wrote, 'drapery can reveal the form more effectively than if the figure were nude.'

First published: New York Times International Edition

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023