Archaism in art

December 31 2007

Toynbee isn’t always comparing like with like here.

The vogue of Archaism in Art is something so familiar to modern Western Man that he is apt to take it for granted without ever becoming conscious of it. For the most conspicuous of the arts is Architecture; in almost every great city of the Western World in A.D. 1938 at least nine-tenths of the buildings then standing were less than a hundred years old; and our modern Western architecture had already been falling under the dominion of Archaism at the time – by then a hundred years back – when this orgy of building had begun. Thus the worker who travels twice a day between his suburban dormitory and his urban factory or office has registered automatically, on his visual memory, the print of innumerable Neo-Gothic railway-stations and churches, while, if he is a worker in New York, his eye will have become equally well accustomed to the millions of square feet of Neo-Colonial [footnote: The Americans use the term “Colonial” for the eighteenth-century style of architecture which the English call “Georgian”.] brickwork that cast a cloak of archaistic decency over the steel-and-concrete skeletons of the sky-scrapers. If our breadwinner is not in too much of a hurry to glance at the marble bas-relief that crowns the entrance to that Colonial-brick-skinned mammoth office-building, he may find to-day that the lines of the carving have been cunningly reduced to the clumsy stiffness of the pre-Romanesque Dark Ages; and, if he actually has the leisure to step into the Neo-Gothic ironwork of this municipal art gallery, he may stumble here into a roomful of “Pre-Raphaelite” pictures.

Englishmen of Toynbee’s generation and education probably thought, c 1935, of the sculptures of Jacob Epstein, with their “lines […] cunningly reduced to the clumsy stiffness of the pre-Romanesque Dark Ages”, before they thought of buildings in the clean, anti-archaising International Style when Modernism was mentioned.

This triumph of Archaism over the visual arts is, indeed, one of the dominant features in our modern Western urban landscapes; but it is not, of course, a phenomenon that is peculiar to our Western Society. If a Londoner travels to Constantinople instead of travelling to New York, and watches the pageant of the sun setting over the ridge of Stamboul, he will see, silhouetted against the sky-line, dome after dome of the mosques which – under an Ottoman regime that has provided the main body of Orthodox Christendom with its universal state – have been constructed, with a profoundly archaistic servility, upon the pattern of the Big and the Little Haghía Sophía: the two Byzantine churches whose audacious defiance of the fundamental canons of the classical Hellenic order of architecture had once upon a time proclaimed in stone the emergence of an infant Orthodox Christian Civilization out of the wreckage of a Hellenic World which had already ceased to live. [Footnote: […] it has been argued [earlier] that the Byzantine breach with a Hellenic past in the domain of Architecture was deliberate.]

If we turn to the decline and fall of this Hellenic Society to which our own, as well as the Orthodox Christian, is affiliated, and watch what the cultivated Emperor Hadrian was doing with his wealth and leisure in the pale clear sunshine of a Hellenic “Indian Summer”, we shall see him spending a considerable part of both in furnishing his suburban villa [in Tivoli] with expertly manufactured copies of the masterpieces of Hellenic sculpture of the archaic period (that is to say, the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.). The taste of a generation of connoisseurs who were too highly refined to appreciate the obvious and were too exquisitely sensitive not to shiver at the mildest touch of a frost in which they could recognize the herald of an approaching winter, found the masterliness of the Hellenic sculptor’s art in its fifth-century maturity too self-confident – and at the same time perhaps too painfully close to the verge of the débâcle – to be valued quite at its proper worth. On the other hand the archaic style appealed to the sophisticated intellects of Hadrian’s generation as something precious and recherché, while it captivated their unconscious selves by instilling a suggestion of the dewy freshness of dawn into the still and stale air of a monotonous evening. In combination, these two distinct motives for preferring the archaic to the classical style made an irresistible appeal to the Hellenic virtuosi of Hadrian’s day. And similar considerations will explain why it was that, in the latter stages of the long-drawn-out dotage of the Egyptiac Society, the artistic style of “the Old Kingdom” – the style which had distinguished the growth-stage of Egyptiac history in a remote antiquity before the beginning of the “Time of Troubles” – was taken as a pattern by the Saïte Pharaohs of the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty after an interval of some two thousand years.

Apropos the newness of buildings in most cities, he adds in a footnote:

The European traveller becomes aware of this as soon he visits the United States or any other overseas country that is Western in its culture. At first he is surprised to find that cities which are not more than one hundred or two hundred years old can look – when viewed from bus-roof or train-window – so little different from the cities of his own European home, which can count their age in thousands of years instead of hundreds. It is only on second thoughts that it occurs to him that, in all but one or two of the European cities that are to-day in the full swim of modern Western life, nine-tenths of the buildings are no older than ten-tenths of those in Buffalo or Pittsburgh. This is true not only of Manchester and Berlin, but even of London and Cologne and Paris and Milan.

And apropos historicism in architecture in another:

In this connexion it may be well to draw attention once again to the distinction, pointed out [earlier], between Archaism within the limits of the experience of a single society and that contact in the Time-dimension between two different civilizations which displays itself in what is commonly called a renaissance. In the modern Western World, for example, the Neo-Gothic Archaism of the architecture of the past hundred years has been a reaction against the fashion, which had been prevalent for some three or four centuries before that, of discarding almost every vestige of a native Western style in order to ape the alien architecture of the Hellenes.

Weren’t there many Hellenistic works, or copies of them, in Hadrian’s villa? As usual, Gibbon’s period of happiness “from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus” is shown as the Indian summer of Græco-Roman civilisation, not its apogee.


Federal Hall National Memorial, Wall Street, c 1926; Trinity Church in the background

A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939

3 Responses to “Archaism in art”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    The image is from a photo-gallery of New York by architectural style, from Spanish revival to historicist skyscrapers:

  2. […] for neo-primitiveness, I wrote in an earlier post: “Englishmen of Toynbee’s generation and education probably thought, c 1935, of the […]

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