Classicism

Classicism

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Definition and general aesthetic principles of Classicism

Classicism is a style formed in the 17th cent. under the influence of other adjacent all-European movements in art: it starts of aesthetics of proceeding Renaissance and confronts with co-existing baroque tendencies, filled with perception of inner disorder that has revealed after crisis of humanistic ideals. Unlike Renaissance and baroque, it doesn’t have a certain birth-country, and emerges simultaneously in several places. Nevertheless, its high-point classicism reaches in France.

Continuing some of renaissance traditions (worshipping of antiquity, belief in intellect, ideal of harmony and proportions), classicism is a kind of its antithesis. Behinds its superficial harmony, there’s a hidden paradoxicality that make it similar to baroque, despite all their diversities. Generic and individual, social and personal, mind and feelings, civilization and nature that were a concordant integrity in Renaissance, polarize and become mutually exclusive in classicism. This is the aspect, where a new historical situation has reflected: political and private life are gradually coming apart, and social relationships are turning in detached and powerful sphere. The idea of Mind can’t be separated from the conception of absolutistic state.

Principles of rationalism, conformed to the philosophical idea of Descartes and cartesianism, are the aesthetical background of classicism. They define a view on an artistic pieces as on artificial product, made consciously with lucid logical organization. By putting forward an idea of “imitating nature”, classicists consider adherence of the antique poetics and artistic rules (formulated by Aristotle and Horace) essential for their activity, as in them they find a display of creative will, that turns rough reality into a consistently shaped beautify. Artistic transformation of nature, turning it into something perfected and ennobled is at the same time the act of its cognition. Classicist believe the mission of art is showing objective laws of the Universe, often concealed by chaos and disorder of reality. In each phenomenon, classicism aims to point out its most characteristic traits, so that’s why they regard antiquity as an absolute, hyper-historical aesthetic norm. We often meet attempts to single out types of characters that serve as representations of certain social or spiritual apparition.

Architecture

Architecture of classicism is defined by geometrized and pronouncedly static shapes and logicality of planning, permanent reference to the antique forms of architecture – but it was not only simple replicating of separate its elements and motifs, but an attempt to understand their tectonic rules. The framebase of architectural language of classicism, as it would be expected, is the order, closer to the antique one by its proportions and structure than it used to be in previous epochs. Walls are rendered as smooth surfaces that limit clear, symmetrically located space volumes; architectural décor is applied in such way that it never conceals the general structure, but serves as its delicate and moderate accompaniment. The classicistic interior is characterized by the clarity of spatial partition and mild coloring: perspective effects are widely used in monumental mural painting. Classicism fundamentally separates illusionistic space from the real one. In classicistic principle of synthesis of arts everything is submitted according to a strict hierarchy, in which architecture is predominant.

The sample of the purest classicistic style one can find in the east wing of Louvre palace, projected by Claude Perrault. French architects draw inspiration not simply from antiquity, but from the art of Ancient Rome that is most suitable for embodying imperial grandeur. Therefore, some forms of roman buildings are revived – triumphal arches in particular. It’s enough to mention Parisian Port Saint-Denis by Francoise Blondel. Towards the second half of the 17th cent., classicism gets more fused with baroque in planning and decoration. The Vaux-le-Vicomte palace by Louise La Vau is an eloquent evidence of this process.

Establishing in 1671 in Paris the Academy of architecture, where standards of building art are discussed, also favors strengthening of the classicistic doctrines. Urban building is genetically connected with the Renaissance epoch and developed the conception of “ideal city”. It’s not the only impact of the 16th cent. art, as Andrea Palladio’s building style and treatise become more and more popular in France, the Netherlands, Germany and England, where Palladianism became the dominant movement. On British Isles, an outstanding representative of these tendencies is Christopher Wren, who invents the national variant of classicism, in Netherland – Pieter Post.

Sculpture and painting

Tectonic accuracy of architecture found its representation in differentiation of spatial plans in sculpture and painting. Plasticity of classicism with prevailing closed monochromic volumes, usually designed for fixed vantage point, is notable for its smoothed modeling and stability of forms. In classicistic painting the primary role is featured for drawing and chiaroscuro, so the sculptural-like effect is created. The local coloring is built up on combining three main colors (for example – brow for the foreground, green – for the second plan and blue for the background). The aerial environment is abated and turns into a neutral infill between objects. The whole composition is organized in a theatrical manner, as if it takes place on a scene.

A strict hierarchy of genres is elaborated. It’s divided into two categories: high genre (or Grand genre) and low genre (or Petit genres). The first one includes exclusively historical painting. However, it suggests not only purely historical episodes, but also religious and mythological ones. A special didactic or philosophical message consists in their interpretation.

Petit genres are the following:

  • Portrait.
  • Genre painting.
  • Landscapes or cityscapes. A special sub-type of ideal landscape appears in the 17th cent. Imaginative scenes of nature by Gaspard Dughet reflect the dream of Golden Age.
  • Marine.
  • Animalistic painting.
  • Still life with game-birds or flowers.

The prominent artist and theoretician of French classicism was Nicolas Poussin. He is such an influential personality that a whole group of his followers – the Poussinists – emerges. They believe that drawing is the first and foremost element of painting, as it reflects the platonic idea of possibility of recreating non-material Ideas in concrete forms through using rational selection and perfecting the elements from nature, like in antiquity. For them color was a mere decorative attachment to form and drawing. Poussinists are headed by Charles Lebrun, Director of the Academy of sculpture and painting, ‑ an adherent of classical art. The ideological opponents were Rubensists, who consider color a corner-stone of painting. This is the bright illustration of the major conflict between classicism and baroque art.

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