The Avant-Garde Looks Backward

You have to reach the present day in order to witness the beginning of a cycle of essential classicism. The new cycle has already begun. The era of romanticism has already practically run out of meaning for us.1

After the horrific destruction of World War I (1914—18), many artists moved away from abstraction toward figuration, clean lines, and modeled form. In France, "the founders of Purism, artists Amédée Ozenfant (1886—1966) and Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (better known by his pseudonym, Le Corbusier) (1887—1965), titled their manifesto ‘Après le cubisme' (‘After Cubism,' [1918]) and dismissed their Cubist predecessors' work as outdated decoration." Ozenfant and Jeanneret believed that art should be "precise" and "attuned to the science and industry that permeated modern life."2 They took "the first steps toward the postwar culture of self-conscious forgetting rather than recollection, in which sublimation rather than frank confrontation with the unpleasant facts determined the most significant new art forms."3 Purism, the new postwar style that they founded, sought to invoke order and clarity and incorporated artistic references to antiquity. More generally, the words "balance, calm, harmony, purity, clarity and the ideal,"4 as well as "measured" and "order" were all part of the rhetoric of classicism.

Aesthetic tendencies that favored essential and timeless forms also arose in Spain.5 Like movements in France and Italy that condemned the immediate past, the classical restoration promoted formalist art, seeking a sense of order that was thought to have been lost.

Pablo Gargallo (1881—1934) was a key artist in this return to classicism in Spain though he experimented with space in highly avant-garde works. Water Carriers (Aguadoras), 1925 depicts two half nude women carrying water on their hips and heads. Solid, idealized, and harmonious, the figures represent two different moments and states of female body. Despite the effort of their labor, the women seem calm and at ease.6

1 Eugeni d'Ors, Glosari 1906-1907 (Barcelona: Quaderns Crema, 1996), p. 172.

2 Suzanne Muchnic, "With the Purist Intentions: After Cubism, two artists sought a pared-down aesthetic. LACMA revists the overlooked period," Los Angeles Times, April 22, 2001, (accessed December 13, 2010).

3 Kenneth E. Silver, "A More Durable Self," in Silver, Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918-1936, exh. cat. (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2010), p. 19.

4 Amédée Ozenfant and Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, Après le cubisme (Paris: Editions des commentaires, 1918), pp. 11-12, quoted in Silver, "A More Durable Self," p. 20.

5 Juan José Lahuerta, "Decir anti es decir pro," in Arte moderno y revistas españolas, 1898—1936, ed. Eugenio Carmona and Juan José Lahuerta, exh. cat. (Madrid: Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes Reina Sofía; Bilbao: Museo de Bellas Artes, 1997), p. 23.

6 "Pablo Gargallo, Aguadores," Ayuntamiento de Zaragoza, Museo Pablo Gargallo, accessed December 13,2010)


Show: Water Carriers (Aguadoras), 1925

  • Ask your students to observe the work. What shapes, materials, colors, and textures can they detect?
  • There are two figures in this sculpture. In what ways do they look alike? How are they different? Ask your students to describe the two figures and the relationship between them.
  • Think about how the two women are standing. Ask students how they would describe their posture. They can try holding two or three large packages to imitate they way the figures are standing and describe how they feel.
  • Gargallo used different materials for his sculptures, such as clay, plaster, marble, alabaster, copper sheeting, iron, and lead. This sculpture is made of bronze. Discuss with students why he might have chosen this material. What do they think it adds to a sculpture? What would they have chosen to make a sculpture like this? Why? How do they think the sculpture would change with another material?
  • Gargallo maintained two styles at the same time: a classical approach that was related to the Catalan styles, modernism and noucentisme (1900s), and another style in which he experimented with abstraction. Ask your students which of the two styles this sculpture belongs to and why.