Modernism and the Classical Ideal: Ashmole’s 1932 debate with Wilenski

*cover: Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends, 1868, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

In 1932 Bernard Ashmole delivered nine talks under the theme ‘Art in Ancient Life’. One of these talks became unexpectedly interesting, as the English archaeologist debated the prominent modernist and rather provocative Reginald Howard Wilenski. Wilenski was not just a random artist. His book ‘The Meaning of Modern Sculpture’ in 1932 had earned him the spotlight, as an all out attack against classical antiquity and its art.

R.H. Wilenski, by John Pemberton, Wikipedia.

Wilensky believed that the Greek ideal was not the final and only possible perfection in sculpture. He rather argued that this view was imposed in a conspiracy-like manner by an elite organisation eager to perpetuate the Greek ideal as part of its own survival. This attitude was slowing down the development of modern sculpture and limiting the imagination of modern sculptors. In Wilenski’s words:

I know that most books on Greek sculpture and the Greek sculptors are nothing but emotive propaganda; and that we do not recognise this propaganda because we have all absorbed it in childhood and youth as part of our ordinary education.’

Almost a third of Wilenski’s book is devoted to an attack against Greek art. Such a rejection is not unexpected for the period. Marinetti’s inhumane futurism in 1909 had announced that a roaring car is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace. Henri Gaudier-Brzeska in 1914 had answered the question of whether Greek art was worthy of consideration with the refrain, “those damn Greeks”. Wilenski was another 21st century modernist attacking the classical ideal.

The debate proved harder than expected for Ashmole, as Wilenski came well prepared and appeared more knowledgeable on ancient art than initially expected. Ashmole had to accept some of his adversary’s criticism and concede considerable ground. A short passage follows:

Bernard Ashmole, by Walter Stoneman, bromide print, 1955, National Portrait Gallery, London.

W: … When Pausanias went round Greece in the second century A.D. he saw thousands of statues in the sanctuaries of the Greek temples and other places, and wrote a sort of Baedeker of Greece; but even then thousands of other statues in the round had already been destroyed or stolen by the Romans. Do any of those thousands of statues now exist in a complete state as they were then?

A: Oh yes- a certain number.

W: How many of these are original works by the celebrated Greek sculptors whose praises the historians of Greek sculpture are always dining in our ears? How many are original statues by, say, Calamis or Myron, or Phidias, or Polyclitus, or Scopas, or Praxiteles or Lysippus? I put it to you, as barristers say, that we have not got a single one complete or semi-complete.

A: I personally, believe that the Hermes of Olympia is an original by Praxiteles, but I must admit that many people question it.

W: One doubtful incomplete statue by Praxiteles is all you can produce!

This is indicative of the debate. Wilenski was determined to prove that Greek art was imposed on modern artists suppressing their creativity. Ironically, his main argument against the Greek ideal, was that Greek Art was not ‘universal’ or ‘permanent’ enough. With this argument he was in reality replacing the old classicism with a new one.

Red Stone Dancer c.1913 Henri Gaudier-Brzeska 1891-1915 Presented by C. Frank Stoop through the Contemporary Art Society 1930, Tate.

Another problem with Wilenski’s argument was that in order to prove the self-sufficiency and superiority of modern sculpture, he had to dismantle the classic one. It was necessary to first reject the Greeks in order to propose a modern alternative. To what extend then can modern art be independent if it needs classical art to reassure its existence and define itself?

Wilenski did not succeed in answering this question, which would become a point for many modernists to return and suggest their solutions. It seemed that to “Make it New” as Ezra Pound was urging and become free from “those damn Greeks” was not as easy…

The Laocoon group, 1st century CE, Rome, Vatican Museums, Pio-Clementine Museum.

Wilenski, R.H. 1932. The Meaning of Modern Sculpture.

Prettejohn, E. 2012. The Modernity of Ancient Sculpture: Greek Sculpture and Modern Art from Winckelmann to Picasso.

‘Is there any Greek Sculpture?’ Listener 8 (23 November 1932).

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