• Email
  • Print

Neo-Neoclassicism

Neo-classicism

by Hugh Honour
Penguin Books, 221 pp., $2.95

On Neoclassicism

by Mario Praz, translated by Angus Davidson
Northwestern, 400 pp., $12.95

For a hundred years, sir, the world was humbugged by the so-called classical artists.” So claimed an outraged Thackeray, when surveying the modern French school of painting in his Paris Sketch Book of 1840. “The intolerable, stupid classicalities,” he explained, “only weighted the pupils down, and cramped their hands, their eyes, and their imaginations; drove them away from natural beauty, which, thank God, is fresh and attainable by us all, today, and yesterday, and tomorrow; and sent them rambling after artificial grace, without the proper means of judging or attaining it.”

Thackeray’s condemnation of what we now call, with greater historical refinement, Neoclassicism or Romantic Classicism, was not short-lived. From the 1830s, when Thackeray saw the Neoclassic style in its waning phases, down to the 1960s, when hardly any art of the past evokes hostility or condescension, most artists, critics, spectators, and art historians have treated Neoclassicism as a largely lamentable episode that slowed the pulse of Western art with the static rhythms and glacial temperatures of Greco-Roman models unfeelingly imitated.

But in spite of the persistence of a common distaste for Neoclassicism (which, in its most extreme recent forms, can follow Thackeray’s empirical lead and suggest that David’s and Ingres’s portraits are the only part of their work worth saving), a counter-current of enthusiasm for the look and for the often complex content of Neoclassic art has been gradually swelling in the past few decades, especially among those art historians who have tried to remove it from an aesthetic vacuum of deadly purity and to re-locate it in the midst of that dense ferment of new ideas, new feelings, and new forms which characterizes the multiple revolutions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. If the inspiration of Greece and Rome was hardly a handicap to Diderot and Goethe, Alfieri and Shelley, Gluck and Berlioz, why should it have been so to such artist-contemporaries as David, Canova, Flaxman, and Schinkel? And even if its most fervent admirers must admit that the Neoclassic ideal produced vast quantities of second-rate art, isn’t the same true of any other modern style, whether Impressionism, Cubism, or Abstract Expressionism, whose highest qualities we judge by its major masters, not by its minor disciples?

The way to dispel lingering prejudices about Neoclassicism is all too obvious—to be affirmative rather than negative about it, which means to try to find out what these artists wanted to do and why; to approach David and Canova through their own goals, not those of Cézanne and Rodin; to disclose the rich allusions that Greco-Roman art, history, and mythology might have had for the period; to discern in what essential ways classical art was altered when it was translated into a Neoclassic vocabulary—in other words, to bestow upon Neoclassicism those favors of sympathy and knowledge that modern art history has generally granted unhesitatingly to any preceding style.

Hugh Honour’s paperback, Neoclassicism (the spelling of the word—Neo-classicism, Neoclassicism, NeoClassicism—varies almost as much among modern writers as its interpretation), is a triumph of this positive attitude; and thanks to its position in a new Pelican series, “Style and Civilization,” which already includes parallel volumes (Pre-Classical, Gothic, Early Renaissance, and Mannerism), it should finally establish a large and respectable niche for its subject in the mind of that perhaps mythical “general reader” to whom these books are directed. As editor, with John Fleming, of this brilliant series, Mr. Honour has had the chance to practice exactly what he must have preached to the distinguished group of younger art historians who are helping to construct this fresh and literate history of Western art.

The art in question is not to be restricted by the narrow lens of the specialist who gazes only at problems in iconography, connoisseurship, or stylistic evolution, but is to be expanded against a panoramic view of related cultural developments in the same period. This method is hardly new to art history, but tends to be practiced mainly by amateur writers of sweeping humanities surveys, who are uninhibited by that surfeit of knowledge which prevents most specialists from risking anything more than a parenthetical comment that, say, Caravaggio might have something to do with Monteverdi or Munch with Strindberg.

What distinguishes Mr. Honour’s book, and the others in the series, is that it is written by someone who is not a dilettante but a professional art historian, thoroughly attuned to the high degree of scholarly specialization demanded today, yet willing to apply refined art-historical data to problems of a broad, interpretative nature.

His success in fusing fact with idea is all the more admirable in view of the relative sparsity of serious art-historical writing about that disorderly period, 1760 to 1815, whose art reflects directly the instability of an age which witnessed the destruction, both gradual and abrupt, of so many earlier traditions of social and aesthetic order, as well as the establishment of new ones that ranged from the total political revolutions of France and the United States to the emergence of those intensely personal sensibilities that we call Romanticism. Faced with the often bewildering multiplicity of style, subject, and feeling in late eighteenth-century art, Mr. Honour has helped to clarify things by largely restricting himself to those works which bear the mark of the period’s passionate enthusiasm for the ideal form and content then evoked by Greco-Roman art, literature, and history. Moreover, he avoids the monographic or chronological structure of conventional art history and chooses, instead, to organize these unruly years by singling out telling issues that cut across literature, politics, society, education. What, he asks, is new about this period? And to answer the question he makes its art, both major and minor, reveal its roots in the deeper changes of late eighteenth-century experience.

The new attitude toward Homer, for instance, is a theme Mr. Honour uses not only to discuss Flaxman and Fuseli, who both illustrated Homeric scenes with unfamiliar simplicity and starkness, but also to provide a sharp historical contrast between the early and the late eighteenth-century Homeric translations by Pope and Cowper. Here, as in its parallel enthusiasm among artists and the public at large for Macpherson’s wilfully primitive Ossianic forgeries, the late eighteenth century venerated exactly that Homeric quality of the terrifyingly rugged which the early eighteenth century had succeeded in masking with Rococo intricacy and elegance. With similar skill, Mr. Honour, by discussing new attitudes toward death in the late eighteenth century, can tell us not only what unites Canova’s tombs, West’s Death of Wolfe, and David’s Marat, but how this late eighteenth-century preoccupation with the sublime mystery and ideal serenity of the after-life is reflected as well in Gray, Lessing, and Foscolo. Or again, the central event of the late eighteenth century, the French Revolution, is used by Mr. Honour as a leitmotiv in one section to point out, with examples from the work of David, Canova, Ledoux, Guérin, not only the possibility of rich contemporary political allusions in Neoclassic art, but also the dangers of that facile Marxist reflex which has led too many modern historians to assume a direct, one-to-one relationship between revolutionary political and “revolutionary” style and subject in art.

Throughout these excursions into cultural history, Mr. Honour commands his material masterfully. Insisting upon original sources, he finds precisely the apt quotation from Gluck, Burke, d’Alembert, Rousseau, Lavater, Alfieri, Wordsworth, Kant, Schiller that will add an unexpected dimension to painting, sculpture, architecture, and the decorative arts. The latter, in particular, gain from this method, rescued as they are from the hermetic world of the antique shop and situated instead in the main stream of Western history. The Sèvres porcelain cups designed for the dairy at Rambouillet can tell us, with their silhouetted cows and simple Greek forms, about that mode of mock Arcadianism which penetrated the European aristocracy from Versailles to Stourhead, just as the cradle designed by Prud’hon for the Roi de Rome can illuminate, with its confused surfeit of Roman and Hapsburg symbols, the crisis of monarchy and legitimate dynastic pedigrees at the turn of the century. It should be said, too, that Mr. Honour’s mobility in crossing the boundaries of the individual arts to demonstrate a community of late eighteenth-century experience is matched by the internationalism of his range. Especially for architecture, the examples map out a vast geographical domain that offers an aerial view of the Neoclassic empire, extending from Baltimore to Leningrad, from Naples to Karlskrona.

If these remarks suggest that, for Mr. Honour, art has lost its autonomy and has been demoted to the role of a mere servant of cultural history (where a daub may be as useful as a masterpiece), that would be misleading. He is keenly aware of the drastic formal innovations in Neoclassicism, as well as of the qualities that transform its highest achievements into great and timeless art. He compares, for example, David’s Horatii, Canova’s monument to Pope Clement XIV, and Ledoux’s Paris Barrières—all works of the mid-1780s—in order to demonstrate the simultaneous invention of new, anti-baroque compositional principles in painting, sculpture, and architecture (“a process of dissociation and juxtaposition of parts”) that mark a rupture between the old world and the modern one. And there are analyses of individual works that often define eloquently the uniqueness of genius, particularly in the case of Canova, whose Cupid and Psyche Mr. Honour sees not only as a masterpiece of mellifluous abstract harmony, but as a densely evocative image of both virginal purity and the mysterious raptures of a proto-Wagnerian love-death.

In keeping with the series’ intentions, to offer a survey for the general reader which in no way compromises the rigorous demands of modern scholarship, Mr. Honour’s book steers a balanced course between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the interpretative and the factual. Indeed, even the specialist (who might well profit from assuming more often the role of the general reader) will have to keep alert. Mr. Honour’s pinpointing of a Louis XIV revival in French art of the third quarter of the century is as original as his recognition, against prevailing prejudices, that Winckelmann was not merely an archaeologist but the “poet and visionary” of Neoclassicism and that his ecstatically subjective description of the Apollo Belvedere represents an innovation in art criticism which announces Pater’s most purple sensibilities. On the level of art-historical data, too, there is much that is fresh, not only in the excellent catalogue of illustrations (which provides for each of the 109 works reproduced a relevant, up-to-date bibliography as well as, at times, important additional comments), but also in such observations as the dependence of Girodet’s Endymion upon Canova’s Genius of Death from the monument to Pope Clement XIII, or simply in the inclusion of such fascinating Neoclassic esoterica as St. Ours’s Greek Earthquake or Schick’s Roman Charity.

In as thorny and uncharted a territory as the history of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century art, it is inevitable that the clarity of Mr. Honour’s book may make one uneasy, especially in the face of that monster category, Romanticism, which is so insatiable that modern art history has often permitted it to swallow Neoclassicism and to breed a curious hybrid, Romantic Classicism. In fact, the persistent question of the last decade has been: isn’t Neoclassicism one aspect of Romanticism, a part and not a whole? isn’t the revival of Greece and Rome, like the revival of the Gothic, only one facet of new Romantic attitudes to the historical past? Mr. Honour deftly avoids the issue by sweeping Romanticism under the late eighteenth-century carpet and by implying, through his choice of monuments, that Western art from 1760 to 1815 is cohesive enough to be given a period label, Neoclassicism.

But while it is a relief to find everything so clear, there is a nagging doubt that some historical deception is involved. Mr Honour ends his book with the art of the Napoleonic Empire, and suggests that this is the last and decadent phase of Neoclassicism, where high-minded goals and pure, virile forms become trivial, pretty, and diminutive, and that this feeble coda is to be followed by something new and vital called Romanticism. Yet this rupture appears to terminate Neoclassicism far too early and to start Romanticism much too late. The early nineteenth-century generation of Ingres, Thorvaldsen, and Schinkel seems to lie beyond the chronological boundaries of Mr. Honour’s Neoclassic timetable, just as the late eighteenth-century phenomena of stylistic eclecticism, Sturm und Drang passion, macabre and fantastic subjects, picturesque composition, the Neo-Gothic—all presumably Romantic manifestations—are also excluded.

Perhaps Mr. Honour will solve these perennial semantic puzzles when he completes his sequel, Romanticism. There he may be able to convince us that, in spite of the eighteenth century’s moonlit caverns and Gothic ruins and the nineteenth century’s serene marmoreal nudes and temples, something so decisive happened between them that we can call Part I, the late eighteenth century, Neoclassic, and Part II, the early nineteenth century, Romantic, rather than continue to view the entirety of those complex currents, 1760-1840, as Romanticism, one of whose main streams is steeped in nostalgia, both passive and active, shallow and profound, aesthetic and moral, for the irretrievable world of Greece and Rome. Meanwhile, Mr. Honour deserves enormous gratitude for making accessible to a large audience a great but unloved period of art history and for helping to establish, with the other authors in the Pelican series, a high and forward-looking standard of art-historical literacy.

Professor Mario Praz’s book, On Neoclassicism, is not a new book, but rather a fine English translation (by Angus Davidson) of an old one. Apart from the deletion of two remarkable essays, one an obscure Napoleonic epic by Stefano Egidio Petronj and the other on Carducci’s classicism, it follows closely, down to the unfortunate paucity of illustrations and unnecessarily aggrandized format, the second revised Italian edition (1959) of a work now three decades old, Il Gusto Neoclassico (1940). It was remarkable then as a virtually unique voice that, against an erudite ground-bass of footnotes, quivered with fervor for Neoclassic art, which Italian art historians held in perhaps even lower esteem than did their transalpine colleagues. Now in the 1960s, thanks to Professor Praz’s precocity in the history of the revival of Neoclassicism, his voice in the wilderness still seems timely and polemical within the recent context of changing attitudes toward his subject.

In some ways, his approach provides a precedent for Mr. Honour’s in that Professor Praz, an authority on comparative literature, saturates his study of Neoclassic art in an immensely rich solution of history, biography, and letters. But here the resemblance stops. Mr. Honour strives for, and achieves, a rounded, sober account of the first phase of Neoclassic art; Professor Praz has no such workmanlike intentions, preferring the volatile to the lapidary. What he offers instead is an anthology of fifteen intensely personal essays that mix varying proportions of dazzling scholarship, fin-de-siècle sensibility, autobiographical narrative, fictional speculations, and a nostalgia for historical things past even more knowledgeable and perhaps as poignant as that of the Neoclassic generation itself.

The pungent combination of erudition and belles-letters is pure Praz, and may embarrass or irritate those art historians who have a solemnly academic approach to their subject. Professor Praz’s writing and research seem motivated by passion, not duty, and since he had no intention of providing a balanced history of Neoclassic art, there is no point in complaining that his choice of topics is so individual that major figures like David are only dimly visible. One is better advised to forget orthodox historical writing and to savor Professor Praz’s re-creation of the Neoclassic world in its own séance-like terms. For, indeed, he writes like an historical spiritualist who can conjure up the ghosts of people, places, and monarchies through a unique fusion of precise facts and intoxicating prose. When he evokes Empire interiors through his own words or those of writers from Heine and Dickens to Proust and Dorothy L. Sayers, one can almost see Pauline Bonaparte and Mme. Récamier hovering about Percier cheval-glasses, Thomire silver service, and Jacob jewel coffers; and when he chooses to focus upon a Neoclassic decorative motif, such as the swan on furniture used by Napoleon and Josephine, he can spin a fragile iconographic web that, like a poeticized footnote of Panofsky, carries us to Swan Lake, Pavlova, and the fall of the Russian Empire. In short, throughout these essays, the Neoclassic past is treated not as a problem in academic reconstruction, but rather as a frail, elusive, white-and-gold dream of an epoch more beautiful than ours that can still be pursued and cherished in such relics as moldering Georgian houses, tripods inspired by Herculaneum and Pompeii, portraits of Winckelmann, Mme. de Staël, Foscolo.

Earthbound readers and scholars may often resist Professor Praz’s penchant for turning the objective stuff of historical prose into private poetry, but even they will not be able to ignore the insights that abound in these essays. There is, for one, the persistent and unifying theme of the Northerner transplanted to the Mediterranean world, from Milton and Poussin to Winckelmann and Thorvaldsen, all men who, for Professor Praz, brought to classical antiquity that yearning for a foreign culture which native Mediterraneans cannot experience in the same way.

There is also the recurrent motif of Neoclassicism’s highly charged and convoluted eroticism. Here Professor Praz, the author of The Romantic Agony, that Krafft-Ebing of nineteenth-century literature, can thaw the marmoreal frigidity of the Neoclassic ideal by discussing the homosexual voyeurism in Winckelmann’s contemplation of Greek statuary, or by recounting Flaubert’s irresistible urge, in the Villa Carlotta, to kiss Canova’s swooning Psyche under her icy arm, or in turn, by comparing this Pygmalion-like passion to the frustrated sensuality of Keats’s Ode to Psyche. Moreover, there are many memorable characterizations of the styles of different Neoclassic works, such as Flaxman’s outlines (where there is a “frantic negation of tactile values” and where “nothing remains but distilled water”) or Thorvaldsen’s marble bust of Byron (“Byron posed as a Romantic, but Thorvaldsen carved in the Biedermeier manner”) or Gilly’s architectural projects (“a stereometric universe of huge flat walls, rotundas, Doric columns, powerful arches, funeral pyramids”).

When he wishes to, Professor Praz can write more traditional kinds of art history, as in the two later essays that were added, in 1959, to the 1940 edition. In these masterly tours de force of historiography—“Canova and Beauty” and “Resurrection of the Empire Style”—he traces chronologically the varying critical responses to Canova and to the Empire style as the reflection of shifting taste and as a means of avowing his own love for Neoclassicism in the face of critical blindness and hostility. Why, he asks, should Neoclassic art be judged and found wanting by alien modern criteria of visible creative fire, presumably revealed in spontaneity and sketchiness? Why, he argues persuasively against Lionello Venturi’s antagonism to David and Canova, is it now acceptable, even desirable, for artists to immerse themselves in prehistoric or primitive art in the Musée de I’Homme in Paris, but not to study classical statuary in the Vatican?

Why, indeed? Like Mr. Honour, Professor Praz forces us to look at Neoclassicism positively, to talk about Thorvaldsen’s “contemplative serenity” (which enemies of Neoclassicism would translate as “inert vacuity”), to understand that for Neoclassic artists to be inspired by the Apollo Belvedere or the Parthenon is no more servile than for twentieth-century artists to be inspired by African sculpture or grain elevators, to realize that underneath those hard and intractable surfaces there may throb the most complex passions known to modern psychology. Thanks to books like these and thanks perhaps to our own period style of the 1960s (where, as in Stella and Judd, the molten has been replaced by the congealed, the impulsive touch of the hand by the pondered decision of the mind), it seems likely that by 1972, when the Council of Europe will hold in London a major exhibition of international Neoclassicism, both scholars and the general public will be ready to look at that art beloved by Diderot and Goethe, Keats and Hawthorne, with newly opened eyes.

  • Email
  • Print