It can be easy to think that ancient art is something that exists in a vacuum; its splendour and detail detached from anything that came after. However, this is not true. Classical Art‘s influence on Modern art is vast; from literal usage of the imagery and motifs, to theoretical subtleties that are mainly subconscious. Many in Europe would see it as a foundation of art today and this belief has been prevalent since the early modern period.
Backdrop – The Renaissance and Neoclassicism
Around the 15th Century we have the arrival the ‘Renaissance’. Meaning rebirth in French, this period has traditionally been seen as a time when European intellectuals reengaged with their classical past. We see the rise of artists such as Michelangelo, Leonardo Di Vinci and Raphael who all take heavy literal influences from the Greeks and Romans. Think of Michelangelo’s David. If you didn’t know its history, you couldn’t really be criticised for assuming it was actually an ancient piece.
This interest in the classical world, and its art and architectural styles, returns again the 18th and 19th Centuries with Neoclassicism. In North America and Europe many countries were trying to solidify their national and imperial identities. They wanted to emulate the ‘success stories’ of the Roman and Greek empires. Therefore, using classical motifs communicated strength, prosperity and stability. Knowing this it is clear to see the impact of this today, for example on the U.S’ Capitol Building.
It is perhaps no surprise then, that Classical art became a key subject to study in this period. Many wealthy European nobles embarked on Grand Tours in order to complete their education, and any burgeoning artist studied the works of these ancient greats. The idea of classical art as a ‘foundation’ continues in many ways to this day. Understanding this makes it clearer that ancient art and modern art are nearly always intertwined.
Ancient Art’s influence on the early 20th Century
As the 20th Century arrived, there was a great shift in the ways that art was created. Styles such as cubism, futurism and fauvism were being born. These artists were shunning realistic depictions of the world around them, favouring instead the abstract and emotional. However, nearly all the artists in this period would have had some education in the classical – whether formal or not.
Artists like Carlo Carrà created futurist work that was very embedded in Neo-Classical traditions. For example, he wrote at length about the inspiration he found in one Etruscan statue. In a similar vein, from 1928 Gino Severini is known for his inclusion of the ancient landscape of Rome in his images. Additionally, Giorgio De Chirico’a 1915 work The Song of Love integrates classical motifs into what was an early surrealist work. It features a large rubber glove and green ball as well as a large image of an Ancient Greek statue’s head. The glove and the classical head reflecting the old and new. These three men were part of a much wider pool of artists who were reimagining their present with nods to the ancient past.
Classical references also found a home in the socialist realism and Nazi art of Germany and Eastern Europe. As explored above, classical motifs have often been us to communicate stability and strength. So, it is no surprise that in propaganda works, the extreme left and right nations of 20th Century Europe utilised these references. For example, a 1919 poster made in Petrograd Boldly Comrades March in Step, shows a central female figure dressed in a flowing white garment that purposefully refers to classical dress.
When studying the influence that classical art had on art in this period, it would be misjudged to not mention Picasso. From very early on in his artistic journey we see him going to the Lourve for inspiration, and later making trips to Pompeii. As an art student in 1894 one of the exercises he often completed was drawing from the reference of antique casts.
Classical motifs come up frequently in his later and more famous work. Most notably he had a ‘Neoclassicism’ period in the early 1920s. During this time, he created works such as Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race). Shown below, the white dress, oversized muscular bodies and athletic stance all hark back to classical works.
He was also inspired by myths, such as the myth of the Minotaur. A motif often used in Surrealist art, Picasso used this ancient myth to represent his own faults. For him it meant personal turmoil and more specifically violence, guilt and despair. We see it in ink drawings such as Minotaur Ravishing a Female Centaur. A bull is even visible in his most famous painting: Guernica. Indeed, as time goes on these classical references do not become less important. In 1943 he presented one of his only works of large scale statues, Man with Sheep, that evokes the ancient calf bearer statue – Moschophoros.
Case Study: The Venus De Milo
It wasn’t just general themes but also specific pieces of art that influenced these artistic masters. We thought it would be no better than to lay out this pattern for you with one of the most famous pieces of ancient art: The Venus de Milo.
- Attributed to Alexandros of Antioch, the statue was made between 130 and 100 BC. The statue has been in Lourve since it was found in 1821 and is famous for having no arms.
- Paul Cézanne drew a pencil study of the statue in 1881.
- René Magritte, painted a small scale version in light pink flesh tones and dark blue entitled The Copper Handcuffs in 1931. It was one of four times the artist painted the Venus De Milo.
- Probably most famously, Salvador Dali created the Venus De Milo with Drawers in 1936. Again, it was part of a surrealist movement to explore the point of these ancient masterpieces whilst also thinking about themes of sex and love.
- American pop artist Jim Dine, continues this tradition of using the Venus de Milo’s form to explore more modern themes. A famous example is his East End Venus (1989) that can be seen in Bishopsgate, in the City of London. He says they the inspiration for these large bronze statues was a small gift shop statue of the Venus de Milo. The first thing he did when he held this gift shop replica? Break off its head.
- Not all artists have had such reverence for the piece or have felt the desire to make art from it. Renoir, for example, often sculpted images of Venus but disliked this most famous example calling it, ‘a big gendarme.’
- Right up to the modern day, the statue has cultural importance in the day to day art we consume. For example, a joke about how the staute lost its arms can be seen in the Disney film Hercules; or additionally, a quick online search will find you mass produced ‘modern’ prints of the piece on sites such as Wayfair.
Classical influences aren’t always literal reproductions of ancient statues or the inclusion of draped white fabric dress in an ode to the past. Sometimes the influence is much subtler, and even subconscious. A list of these theoretical influences would be extremely long, so for now let us think about two examples below.
Art throughout history and throughout the world has often depicted nude men and women, for various reasons. However, the specific tropes of the classical male nude have had a significant impact on much art of today. The ‘cult of the body’ and the celebration of the athletic male form are themes that persist in much modern art. Its impact can be seen early on, in the Renaissance’s Michaelangelo’s David. More recently David Hockney’s male nudes and what they meant to 20th Century gay male culture, are references to this classical past.
Roman art specifically really opens up a conversation in art about the importance and value of emulation. The Romans highly prized Greek Art. Much of the art they then created themselves had strong Greek references, with some of it being direct copies. However even with this knowledge, Roman art is still celebrated today. It prompts questions to the modern artist about the value of emulation in our modern artistic practice. If asked, many would say copying is the ultimate cultural transgression an artist can make. However, by reflecting on how we view Roman art, the artist can think about emulation in a more positive way.
Classical Art and Artists Today
As we move into the 21st Century, many artists still take direct references from classical art and make it their own. Take Louise Bourgeois and her work surrounding this Oedipus myth in 2003 that centers around pink fabric sculpture. She’s using an ancient tale to think about events in her life around male fragility and disjointed family. Even more recently the British artist Damien Hirst showed ‘Treasures of the Wreck of the Unbelievable’ in Venice 2017. Designed to be reminiscent of a shipwreck; it included many references to classical works and ancient art from across the world.
This article has laid out just some of the many influences that ancient art has had on our artistic practices until this day. Why not read more about art history here? Or let us know in the comments below what you’d like to know more about!
Further Reading on Classical Art’s influence on Modern Art
Sotheby’s, The Classical Art Now – Ancient Art in the Modern Imagination – This is coverage of a 2018 exhibition at King’s College London.