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Modern Antiquities
at Getty Villa, Malibu, California
Preview by Jeannie R. Lee

"Modern Antiquities" demonstrates how four of the best early avant garde artists responded to and were acutely aware of the art of Greece and Rome.

Continuing through January 16, 2012

“Modern Antiquities” cannily enters the Pacific Standard Time (PST) conversation as an unofficial “prequel” exhibition, juxtaposing the works of four major twentieth-century artists (mainly on international loan) alongside ancient art (primarily from the Getty’s permanent collection). Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), Fernand Léger (1881-1955), and Francis Picabia (1879-1953) are connected as peers, friends, mentors, and also by the fact that Léonce Rosenberg served as a dealer to each of them. But most substantively, they were linked by the fact that each made important, even radical, contributions to the art movements of their time. Reflecting disparate, but intertwined threads through Surrealism, Dada, Cubism, and Futurism, in each of their works symbols and echoes from the antique past emerge. All the art here dates from 1906 to 1936, just prior to the PST time frame of 1945-1980, and in a European context.

While hindsight is often touted as 20/20, it is also susceptible to change. In recent decades the influence of Marcel Duchamp on postmodernism has grown to such proportions that his peers seem antiquated by comparison. But a focused look at this selection of works from Picasso, de Chirico, Léger, and Picabia who, as the exhibition title suggests, transformed and reinvented the art of antiquity, reveals how deeply these artists were working through not only their own classical instruction, but how they were using these images for leverage into the next idea – somewhat similar to the way American artists recently often find themselves working through the Minimalism of the 1960’s and 70’s.  
De Chirco’s engagement with antique imagery is obvious, especially in the well-known oil paintings of deserted Italian piazzas from 1912-13. At the time of these paintings, de Chirico had already moved to Paris and had made the acquaintance of Picasso (and Apollinaire). There he was involved in a metaphysical expression of his life and ideas. A recurring motif is a statue of the reclining figure of Ariadne. A 2nd century marble sculpture of “Sleeping Ariadne” is strategically situated near de Chirico’s works so as to allow us to contemplate de Chirico’s choices.

Much attention has been given to the strange and unsettled quality of his abandoned squares, the juxtaposition of anachronistic objects, such as the puffing locomotive and the clock, and to the classical architecture. Less attention is given to the choice of Ariadne. In Greek mythology it was she who provided Theseus with a ball of red thread to find his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. This must have been a compelling draw for de Chirico, who insisted on the metaphysical content of his paintings. She is the symbol of the link between subconscious meaning and the world of the senses. Claiming the Hellenic figure for his own iconography goes to the heart of de Chirico’s role in portraying surreal dreamscapes.
Indeed, the impetus behind this exhibition seems to be to prove that drawing from antiquity does not imply conservative regression. Rather, as in the Léger’s “Nude on a Red Background” (1927), the smooth, robust and stylized marble statues of the 1st century provide merely a substrate, from which highly mechanized robotic beauties are born. In contrast to the previously idealized human form, both Léger and Picabia relished the machine.

Presaging contemporary appropriation, these four artists had a foot in more than one world, and worked through the many new treatises of their time, Picasso in particular seemingly everywhere. Not only is the aesthetic impact of classical beauty and history on the modern avant garde made clear in this exhibition, but also the way that the modern interpretation of antique imagery has shaped our contemporary experience of the same. As in all art history, the old is subsumed and digested to make way for the new. So often, modern art is regarded in only in the context of subsequent art, therefore this opportunity to experience modern art in relation to the classical past is a welcome reversal.

Published courtesy of ArtSceneCal ©2011

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