Students Explore Both “Chaos and Classicism” at the Guggenheim Museum

Every fall, students enrolled in ARTH 211, the enhanced version of “Arts of the Western Tradition” visit course-related exhibitions and collections in New York. The trip is designed to enrich one of the course’s learning goals: to sharpen students’ analytic skills with first-hand study of works of art.

This year, eleven Wheaton students spent a study-day at “Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy and Germany, 1918-1936” at the Guggenheim Museum with Professor Ellen McBreen.

This innovative exhibition examined various responses to the chaos and horrific destruction of WWI, when many artists turned away from pre-war experimentation towards classicizing order. Through close examination of several key works, students saw how artists and designers responded to the devastation of war with a “return to order,” manifested in the Greco-Roman revivals of painters like Picasso, or in the functionalist utopianism of designs by architect Mies van der Rohe.

The exhibition also demonstrated how the language of an idealized, antique body was later appropriated by Fascists in both Italy and Germany, as propaganda for a disturbing “eugenic classicism.” As Kayla Sabo (Class of 2014) remarked, the exhibition effectively traced “how chaos led to classicism, and then how classicism led back to chaos.”

Madeline Bailis and Jodie Moon at the Met

On the following day, students spent the morning at the Metropolitan Museum studying the Greco-Roman models from which many 20th-century “return to order” artists took their inspiration. Students were also able to preview many of the modern European movements—Realism, Impressionism, Cubism—they will study later in the semester.

After returning to Wheaton, the ARTH 211 group had an opportunity to interview the curator who organized the “Chaos and Classicism” exhibition—Kenneth Silver, Professor of Modern Art at New York University—in preparation for exhibition reviews they are writing.

ARTH211 at the Guggenheim
Rebecca Tate and Emily Buston at the Met
Libby Fifer and Maggie Cummons at the Met

(top to bottom) Students in ARTH 211 (Fall 2010) get ready to explore “Chaos and Classicism” at the Guggenheim Museum; Rebecca Tate and Emily Buston studying Hellenistic sculpture in the Greco-Roman Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum; Libby Fifer and Maggie Cummons check out the Hellenistic jewelry in the Greco-Roman Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum. (right) Madeline Bailis and Jodie Moon in the Greco-Roman Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum.