Art review: ‘Modern Antiquity’ at the Getty Villa


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Modernity -- the sharp awareness of being Modern-with-a-capital-M -- used to be a very big deal. At the start of the 20th century it didn’t mean just shaking off the dusty past and all its hidebound baggage. It meant being alert to how far civilization had come from that past. It meant faith in cultural progress.

Skepticism about that progress is one reason modernity is no longer the big deal it used to be. After Auschwitz -- and more -- who can believe it? Change -- inevitable, inescapable, even relentless -- has replaced progress. Cultures become different over time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they become better.


A quirky show at the Getty Villa looks back to the tensions between modernity and the ancient past in the work of four leading European artists of the early 20th century. Handsome and engaging, ‘Modern Antiquity: Picasso, De Chirico, Léger and Picabia’ considers myriad ways in which ancient Greek and Roman art -- the epitome of Western tradition -- interested painters more commonly regarded as radical. Major paintings by all four are included, along with one remarkable sculpture: Pablo Picasso’s 1931 bronze head of his young mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter.

Picasso and Giorgio de Chirico had long-standing relationships with the art of classical antiquity. De Chirico was born and trained in Greece. Picasso, son of an academic artist, had been drawing from antique models since childhood, as shown in a large and highly refined pencil rendering of a famous Greek marble torso, made when the young prodigy was just 11 or 12.

Fernand Léger didn’t get to it until around 1921, when he was nearly 40. Then he began to fuse classical forms with sleek industrial machinery, commercial advertising techniques and Jazz Age scenery.

Francis Picabia approached the ancient world the same way he did the modern one (and everything in between) -- which is to say, with ironic skepticism. That’s why Picabia is the one whose paintings speak most forcefully to the present.

From 1927 to the early 1930s Picabia made large, loopy paintings that he called ‘transparencies’ -- thinly painted but densely layered images drawn from Baroque sculptures, Greek and Roman mythology, Renaissance art, frescoes found at Pompeii and more. These paintings, often executed on wood panels and emphasizing linear contour drawing, are like double, triple, even quadruple exposures in a camera’s film. Each is the visual equivalent of an archaeological image-dig in which -- as a quote by the artist at the show’s entry has it -- ‘There is no antiquity.’

What there is instead is only the present, a tangled bramble that has grown wild through accumulating centuries. Art’s power partly arrives from the fact that, even if it’s a couple of thousand years old, it still speaks whenever someone living looks at it.


The show intersperses 37 modern works with 13 illuminating antiquities, all but one from the Getty’s own collection. (The loan, a 6th century BC Greek sculpture of a sleeping Ariadne, resonates with a pair of great De Chirico canvases and a Picasso painting of a river goddess.) A small selection of modest graphics is also juxtaposed with two little vases and an ancient bronze hand-mirror. Christopher Green, professor emeritus at London’s Courtauld Institute, and the Getty’s associate antiquities curator, Jens M. Daehner, have divided the absorbing show into three parts.

The first considers modern uses of ancient myths; it includes the sculpture of Ariadne, daughter of Crete’s king, who married the god Dionysus. Another, which has the youthful Picasso drawing, examines the ways these four studied classical art. The third shows their frequent merger of ancient art, which mostly survives today in fragments, with ordinary still-life objects -- as in a wonderfully insouciant De Chirico that juxtaposes a plaster cast of the head of thunder-god Zeus with a pair of prickly pineapples and a pile of ripe bananas.

Why did classical Greece and Rome generate interest among modern European artists? This is sometimes regarded as a difficult development -- a backward, reactionary turn in the wake of the unspeakable brutality of World War I, which modern machinery made possible.

Worse, it has been cast as an appalling bridge erected toward the Holocaust. Without the hubristic admiration for antiquity, some say, there wouldn’t be the Neo-Classical trappings that Hitler and Mussolini erected as the grandiose stage for brutal Nazi and fascist ideology. The distance between authority, represented by the elevation of classical antiquity as a modern model, and authoritarianism can be short.

In fact, ‘Modern Antiquity’ seems to be a modest rescue operation, meant to deliver the 1920s and 1930s art of Picasso, De Chirico, Léger and Picabia from the custody of these claims of reactionary aesthetics. It’s at least partially successful. For one thing, the show traces some of their classical interests to the very start of the 20th century, not to the end of the devastating Great War and the later rise of National Socialism. Classical satire, as in Picasso’s bulbous bodily proportions or Picabia’s decorative excess, ridicules rather than lauds. And those swaying palms under an archway in De Chirico’s sun-blasted plaza, ‘The Soothsayer’s Recompense’ from 1913, makes a ghostly -- and prescient -- double image of an ancient warrior’s helmet on the eve of looming European catastrophe.

But the selection of work can be erratic. De Chirico in the ‘teens is great, but his paintings after the mid-1920s aren’t much more than awful commercial decor. Meanwhile, Picabia’s layered ‘Transparency’ paintings remain fresh as a daisy, 80 years on.

Still, two things touched on by the show are worth emphasizing.

One is the rise of modern museum culture. More than ever before, antique art was readily available. Artists saw it in the Louvre, the British Museum, the evolving archaeological dig at Pompeii and elsewhere. Here, the past is discretely organized to fit the needs of the present.


The other is the rise of modern reproduction. When the artists were not getting ideas in museums, they took them from postcards, calendar illustrations, book plates and other photographic copies. Picabia makes us hyper-aware of this reproduction pile-up as an authentically modern experience. His layered imagery is by turns funny, monstrous, fantastic and even sad.

These two trends -- the museum and the reproduction -- sometimes intersect. As edifying models for the future, plaster casts of ancient Greek and Roman art were once ubiquitous in museums and art schools. They turn up depicted in the paintings of Picasso, De Chirico and Léger. For reference, it might have been instructive to have one or two plaster copies in the Getty exhibition, beside the real thing, together with a few inspiring examples of mass-media reproductions.

Where the show doesn’t quite work is in the suggestion that plaster casts, reproductions and museum art amount to an inauthentic relationship to classical antiquity. These counterfeit qualities -- which the artists presumably understood -- are supposedly what’s worth exploring.

But I wonder: Is it really an inauthentic relationship to the past that such painted images represent? Or did these painters undertake a thoroughly authentic encounter with the modern chimera of reproduction and art framed by institutional history?

I’d go with the latter, as witness Picabia. Whatever the case, the timely issues raised in ‘Modern Antiquity’ are challenging. And they breathe bracing life into the Getty Villa: When you leave the modern show, the ancient Greek and Roman collections suddenly look a bit different.



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-- Christopher Knight