What is Neo-Classicism
Neoclassicism (sometimes rendered as Neo-Classicism or Neo-classicism) is the name given to quite distinct movements in the visual arts, literature, theatre, music, and architecture. These movements were in effect at various times between the 18th and the 20th centuries. What could these "neoclassicisms" have in common?
What "neo"-classicism depends on most fundamentally is a consensus about a body of work that has achieved canonic status. These are the "classics." Ideally? and neoclassicism is essentially an art of an ideal? an artist, well-schooled and comfortably familiar with the canon, does not repeat it in lifeless reproductions, but synthesizes the tradition anew in each work. This sets a high standard, clearly; but though a neoclassical artist who fails to achieve it may create works that are inane, vacuous or even mediocre, gaffes of taste and failures of craftsmanship are not commonly neoclassical failings. Novelty, improvisation, self-expression, and blinding inspiration are not neoclassical virtues; neoclassicism exhibits perfect control of an idiom. It does not recreate art forms from the ground up with each new project, as modernism demanded. "Make it new" was the modernist credo of the poet Ezra Pound.
Speaking and thinking in English, "neoclassicism" in each art implies a particular canon of "classic" models. We recognize them, even if we struggle against their power: Virgil, Raphael, Nicholas Poussin, Haydn. Other cultures have other canons of classics, however, and a recurring strain of neoclassicism appears to be a natural expression of a culture at a certain moment in its career, a culture that is highly self-aware, that is also confident of its own high mainstream tradition, but at the same time feels the need to regain something that has slipped away: Apollonius of Rhodes is a neoclassic writer; Ming ceramics pay homage to Sung celadon porcelains; Italian 15th century humanists learn to write a "Roman" hand we call italic (a.k.a. Carolingian); Neo-Babylonian culture is a neoclassical revival, and in Persia the "classic" religion of Zoroaster, Zoroastrianism, is revived after centuries, to "re-Persianize" a culture that had fallen away from its own classic Achaemenean past.
In the visual arts the European movement called "neoclassicism" began after ca 1765, as a reaction against both the surviving Baroque and Rococo styles, and as a desire to return to the perceived "purity" of the arts of Rome, the more vague perception ("ideal") of Ancient Greek arts (where almost no western artist had actually been) and, to a lesser extent, 16th century Renaissance Classicism.
Each "neo"- classicism selects some models among the range of possible classics that are available to it, and ignores others. The neoclassical writers and talkers, patrons and collectors, artists and sculptors of 1765 - 1830 paid homage to an idea of the generation of Pheidias, but the sculpture examples they actually embraced were more likely to be Roman copies of Hellenistic sculptures. They ignored both Archaic Greek art and the works of Late Antiquity. The Rococo art of ancient Palmyra came as a revelation, through engravings in Wood's The Ruins of Palmyra. Even in all-but-unvisited Greece, a rough backwater of the Ottoman Empire, dangerous to explore, neoclassicists' appreciation of Greek architecture was mediated through drawings and engravings, which subtly smoothed and regularized, "corrected' and "restored" the monuments of Greece, not always consciously. As for painting, Greek painting was utterly lost: neoclassicist painters imaginatively revived it, partly through bas-relief friezes, mosaics, and pottery painting and partly through the examples of painting and decoration of the High Renaissance of Raphael's generation, frescos in Nero's Domus Aurea, Pompeii and Herculaneum and through renewed admiration of Nicholas Poussin. Much "neoclassical" painting is more classicisizing in subject matter than in anything else.
There is an anti-Rococo strain that can be detected in some European architecture of the earlier 18th century, most vividly represented in the Palladian architecture of Georgian Britain and Ireland, but also recognizable in a classicizing vein of architecture in Berlin. It is a robust architecture of self-restraint, academically selective now of "the best" Roman models.
Neoclassicism first gained influence in England and France, through a generation of French art students trained in Rome and influenced by the writings of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, and it was quickly adopted by progressive circles in Sweden. At first, classicizing decor was grafted onto familiar European forms, as in the interiors for Catherine II's lover Count Orlov, designed by an Italian architect with a team of Italian stuccadori: only the isolated oval medallions like cameos and the bas-relief overdoors hint of neoclassicism; the furnishings are fully Italian Rococo.
But a second neoclassic wave, more severe, more studied (through the medium of engravings) and more consciously archaeological, is associated with the height of the Napoleonic Empire. In France, the first phase of neoclassicism is expressed in the "Louis XVI style", the second phase in the styles we call "Directoire" or "Empire." Italy clung to Rococo until the Napoleonic regimes brought the new archeaological classicism, which was embraced as a political statement by young, progressive, urban Italians with republican leanings.
The high tide of neoclassicism in painting is exemplified in early paintings by Jacques-Louis David (illustration, right) and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres' entire career. David's Oath of the Horatii was painted in Rome and made a splash at the Paris Salon of 1784. Its central perspective is perpendicular to the picture plane, made more emphatic by the dim arcade behind, against which the heroic figures are disposed as in a frieze, with a hint of the artificial lighting and staging of opera, and the classical coloring of Nicholas Poussin.
Neoclassicism continued to be a major force in academic art through the 19th century and beyond? a constant antithesis to Romanticism or Gothic revivals? although from the late 19th century on it had often been considered anti-modern, or even reactionary, in influential critical circles. By the mid-19th century, several European cities - notably St Petersburg and Munich - were transformed into veritable museums of Neoclassical architecture.