Driving from Norfolk to Dorset last weekend, we decided to make a detour to visit the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. Happily our detour coincided with the opening of the their new and fascinating exhibition, “The Mythic Method, Classicism in British Art 1920-1950”.
The core thesis of the exhibition is that presenting the story of late C19 and C20 art as a relentless march towards modernism is simplistic, and ignores a return to classicism in the aftermath of World War I. Despite the dominance of classicism between the wars, it has been largely written out of art history, or treated as a post-war aberration in the march of progress. World War I was, of course, a deeply traumatic event across the entire European continent. In 1918, the artist Amedee Ozenfant and the architect Le Corbusier published their Purist Manifesto in which they declared “now that the war is over, all is being organised, classified and purified”, and went on to state an intent to re-establish “the connection with the époque of the Greeks”. Similarly in 1919, the Italian metaphysical artist George de Chiroco declared “Pictor classicus sum (I am a classical painter)”. And as the current exhibition of his portraits at the NPG also shows, Picasso stepped back from Cubism at the end of the war and returned to a much more classically-inspired tradition. What Simon Martin, the curator of this current exhibition, refers to as this ‘return to order’ in the aftermath of war affected art in Britain as much as the rest of Europe. He quotes the art critic Frank Rutter writing in 1921 that “with the war the greatest opportunity of cubism passed away. Since 1918 there has been a general return to realism, but the experiments of the extremists are not valueless. They have widened the horizon of painting and opened the road to a new realism”.
This exhibition illustrates that new realism and rehabilitates a number of artists like Meredith Frampton and John Armstrong, who took that road but have subsequently been marginalised or forgotten by subsequent adherents of modernism. The exhibition casts its net broadly and includes not just painting but sculpture, book illustration by artists such as Rex Whistler, and commercial posters, such as those designed for Shell. It is an exhibition well worth a detour or a special trip.