Pablo Picasso

The son of an academic artist, Pablo Picasso was trained during adolescence in the drawing of plaster casts of ancient sculptures. After he moved from Spain to France in 1904, he was as responsive to the classical art he encountered at the Louvre Museum as he was to the studios and cafes of Paris.

In 1906 Picasso turned to sixth-century B.C. Greek kouroi (statues of young men) to help him reinvent the human figure. Between World War I and the mid-1930s, a rich mixture of ancient art—including Greek vase paintings, Pompeian frescoes, and Roman sculptures—opened up new directions in his work as a figurative artist. Picasso never merely repeated sources, and he rarely allowed his art to suggest an affinity with a single style.

In 1931 he illustrated Ovid's Metamorphoses, but otherwise classical myth became a cast list of gods, heroes, monsters, and victims for him to draw on and transform in the visual telling of his own stories.

Summing up his position, Picasso stated: "All I have ever made was made for the present and with the hope that it will always remain in the present." (Interview by Marius de Zayas, The Arts, May 1923.)

Giorgio De Chirico

Born in Volos, the Greek port from which the legendary Argonauts set sail, the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico repeatedly represented his life as a mythic journey.

After an art school education in Athens and Munich that deepened his knowledge of classical antiquity, he moved to Paris in 1911 and was immediately embraced by the avant-garde. But de Chirico could never separate his experience of the modern cities in which he lived from the world of antiquity in his imagination. In several paintings of 1912–13, he placed a famous ancient sculpture of Ariadne sleeping in modern townscapes with steam locomotives passing by.

To the Surrealists in the 1920s, looking back on his earlier work, de Chirico was a painter of dreams—or what he called enigmas, beyond the reach of rational analysis. Yet his espousal of old-master techniques led the Surrealists to reject his later work, and his credentials as a radical were further undermined by his attempts to win favor with Mussolini's Fascist administration in Italy. De Chirico remained committed, however, to an art that associated antiquity not with order and authority but with the disorienting and the strange.

Fernand Léger

Raised in rural Normandy, Fernand Léger was dazzled by the spectacle of early 20th-century Paris. From 1910 he was an avant-gardist who painted the noise and movement of city life. Between 1920 and 1927, his work captured both the energy and the order of an urban society rebuilding itself after World War I.

A contributor to L'Esprit Nouveau (The New Spirit)—a modernist periodical edited by the painter Amédée Ozenfant and the architect Le Corbusier—Léger accepted that the canonical forms of classical antiquity were models for a new kind of order and beauty; but he believed, like them, that a still higher degree of perfection could be achieved with the advances of modern technology.

It was Léger's figurative painting of the 1920s that most openly responded to ancient images in novel ways. Replacing the sensuality of the nude body with the superficial sheen of metallic skin, he turned goddess figures into mechanized creatures.

In 1933 Léger visited Greece with the International Congress of Modern Architects. As they discussed the future of urban planning, Léger deepened his belief in the modernity of classical art, finding in "the Greek of antiquity...a taste for realization and determinism that is a modern preoccupation." (Fernand Léger in Christian Zervos, L'art en Grèce, 1934.)

Francis Picabia

As both a painter and a poet, Francis Picabia was a prominent figure in the Dada and Surrealist movements. His relationship to antiquity was long one of ironic skepticism and playful invective—in the early 1920s he mocked the classicizing work of his contemporaries as "painting for antiquarians." (La vie moderne, February 1923.) Around 1925, distancing himself from the Parisian avant-garde, Picabia moved to the French Riviera and turned to figurative art.

In a prolific period between 1927 and the early 1930s, Picabia produced a series of works known as transparencies, in which human, animal, and plant forms are layered in superimposed outlines. These elements are taken from various sources, including Roman sculptures, Pompeian frescoes, and Renaissance and Baroque paintings.
The dealer Léonce Rosenberg, among the first to embrace this new style, commissioned several transparency panels for his Paris apartment, compelling the artist to exploit more ancient imagery. (Rosenberg also invited Giorgio de Chirico and Fernand Léger to decorate his place.)

While Picabia's eclectic references do not amount to a classical revival, it was only in this short period that he engaged with antiquity in a serious if ambiguous fashion.


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