Monday, June 30, 2008
Novus Ordo Seclorum: NeoClassicism
Above is a drawing from about 1780-90 for a proposed monument to Isaac Newton by the architect Etienne Louis Boullee. The monument was never built, and is unbuildable. It was far beyond the engineering capacities of the age. It would have been huge. That fringe on the terraces is not balustrades, but full grown cypress trees, of the kind common in European cemeteries. "O Newton," wrote Boullee, "as by the extent of your wisdom and the sublimity of your genius you determined the shape of the earth; I have conceived the idea of enveloping you in your own discovery."
It is a frightening concept, chillingly prophetic of the vastly out of scale projects of 20th century totalitarianism, and was indeed an inspiration for Albert Speer's designs for rebuilding Berlin as the capital of a global Nazi empire. It is vast in scale and abstract in form. For all its insistent rationalism, the end effect is ultimately romantic; a huge frightening man made mountain.
Newton (long dead by the time Boullee made this drawing) was a great hero of the Enlightenment. He demonstrated that the same physical laws that rule the earth apply to the heavens, that the world runs according to orderly, comprehensible, and exploitable natural processes, not by miracle. The men and women of the Enlightenment hailed Newton as a great light who vanquished the darkness of superstition. They ignored the fact that Newton was deeply religious and obsessed with apocalyptic Biblical concordances.
Boullee's design also shows a new literal mindedness that appears in the wake of the Scientific Revolution. Since ancient times, domes were always architectural metaphors for the heavens. Boullee's dome is about as unmetaphorical and literal as a planetarium ceiling.
NeoClassicism was arguably the first fully modern art movement. It had much in common with later modern movements. It began as a protest against the art of the present, accusing it of decadence and of failing to meet the potential of the age. It wanted a new beginning, to renew art through contact with its most ancient and primitive origins (in this case, Greek and Roman art; this was the age that saw the beginnings of systematic archaeology at new discoveries like Pompeii). NeoClassicism, like a lot of later modern movements, was closely associated with revolutionary politics. The largest NeoClassical project ever was the new capital city of that new nation of the United States founded in revolution; Washington DC. As we shall see, NeoClassicism played a large role in the French Revolution. NeoClassicism was associated with technological innovation, in England anyway. Wedgwood's creamwares and jasperwares, among the first items to be mass produced, were largely designed along classical lines. Josiah Wedgwood hired the sculptor John Flaxman to design the cameo scenes on early jasperware.
NeoClassicism, like later modern art movements, was a creation of the newly powerful commercial classes, the bourgeoisie. The word "bourgeoisie" became a term of abuse by artists and intellectuals beginning in the early 19th century. But the fact remains that almost all the artists of modernity were bourgeoisie themselves creating art for bourgeois audiences. There were only a few exceptions (among them Andy Warhol, the son of a poor factory worker in Pittsburgh). Beginning with NeoClassicism, art would be shaped by the very class that built the modern world, and would reflect both its virtues and its vices.
Posted by Counterlight at Monday, June 30, 2008