Exhibition Catalogs

The Classical: Concept and Ideology

Freedberg, David A.

The very tenacity of the idea of the classical is testimony to its lasting interest. But the term "classical" could hardly be more elusive; it seems to resist definition. We seem to know in general what it entails: order, harmony, balance, symmetry, and a certain conformity to rule. It is applied to objects and buildings which eschew ornament in favor of simplicity and formal clarity. It carries with it the idea of restraint rather than emotion, shying away from excess and exaggeration. The art we call classical gives the impression of stability. Its good proportions and firm contours are often likened to those of the best human bodies (an analogy, especially when speaking of ancient art, that is never far from the surface). In this sense, classical works withdraw from the real in order to approach the ideal. Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the great eighteenth-century theorist of the aesthetic beauty of ancient Greek art, spoke of the "noble simplicity and quiet grandeur" of classical Greek sculpture, a description that seems to be more intuitive than capable of codification. A century later, the German art historian Heinrich Wölfflin, in an influential formulation, described the classical in a set of five supposed oppositions: closed rather than open form; emphasis on outline rather than the blurring of contour (which Wölfflin called painterly); unity rather than multiplicity; a concentration on plane rather than recession; clarity rather than unclarity (or, as he put it, absolute rather than relative clarity).

But as anyone who has ever looked at a painting or sculpture knows, it is practically impossible to apply these terms without uncertainty and doubt, without descending into a spiral of self-questioning. What exactly do we mean by those abstract concepts "harmony," "order," "unity," or "clarity," to say nothing of "good proportion"? Even if we were to find a way of defining them, would not an art that possessed any of them absolutely (assuming that were possible) be rather sterile and dull? Do not even the most perfectly classical forms reveal some small infractions of symmetry and rule? The architects of the Parthenon deliberately introduced small variations into the design of the building precisely in order to avoid the impression of excessive regularity. In Edward Hopper's Early Sunday Morning, the variegated paint surfaces, the different positions and colors of the shades, the high building on the left—to say nothing of the barber's pole—all work to the same effect: that of avoiding the impression of cold order. Whether in the art of ancient Greece or that of our own century, as soon as soon as we detect any of the qualities that are supposed to constitute the classical, we began to notice their infringements and opposites. It often seems easier to say what the classical is not than what it is.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Published Here
September 28, 2022