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The Classical Revival, Revisited
Essay by Timothy Taubes
‚ÄúClassicism‚ÄĚ does not designate a style, but rather a way of looking at the world: order, symmetry, balance, and a certain logic to forms. Artworks that come under its influence will display a similarity in regard to these qualities regardless of their arbitrary surface appearances. When Classicism asserts its ennobling effect within any historical context these artworks will transcend history as they shape our own understanding of the times from which they sprang.
ÔŅľThe principles of Classicism come together during the Greco-Roman epoch, at a time when a profound transformation is taking place in human civilization. Humans are for the first time getting a sense of their own unique individuality. Classicism, in its ability to distill the universal from the particular, constructs a home where all of humankind in its full diversity can reside. 
Classical Greece occupies the Olympian penthouse of that structure. In the sculpture of Polycleitus stands every human stripped of its particular manifestation. In the architecture of the Acropolis eternity has been calculated on a cosmic order.
When Rome fell, Classicism was almost extinguished by a civilization led by individuals who preferred building palaces to honor themselves. The Renaissance conducted the search and rescue for the ideals of antiquity.
 For those of the Renaissance, the revelation was as much a discovery about themselves as it was about the past. No one was to benefit more from this turn of events than Michelangelo, of whom it can be said the past became present. With Michelangelo human ÔŅľindividuality becomes a new classical truth.
The Neo-Classicism of David and Ingres is one in which the forms of Classicism have been molded around the brutal times of their creation. The classical forms were coerced into glorifying blood baths. They are war weary, flaccid, and blood simple. This dismal view of the classical order led artists such as Courbet, Manet and Cezanne to free Art once and for all from the doctrinarians. Picasso would finally pave the way to an Art completely unencumbered by the past ‚ÄĒ Modernism.
When Classicism made its American debut in the early twentieth century, it did so as a phoenix rising from the ashes. The painters of the Classical Revival had to dredge Classicism from out of the abyss. Many dedicated themselves to salvaging what remained and insuring its survival. The contributions of Frederic Taubes would have an immediate and enduring effect.
When Taubes was first introduced to this American brand of Classicism, his work was a blend of European Surrealism and Expressionism. These ‚Äúisms‚ÄĚ were abandoned. They were replaced with the serenity and order of classical forms. Applied simply at first, these forms became increasingly more complex. Balance and a logical progression of the eye from point to counterpoint came to characterize Taubes‚Äô work. This evolution culminates with Rehearsal, his greatest achievement of the Classical Revival.
Painted in 1936, Rehearsal was first exhibited at The Art Institute of Chicago in November of that year, and was again shown at New York‚Äôs Midtown Galleries in March of 1937. Reviews followed in The New York Times and The Art Digest. The Art Institute of Chicago exhibited the painting again in 1939 in a show titled A Half Century of Painting. Rehearsal appeared as a full page color reproduction in Life Magazine, and also in Peyton Boswell‚Äôs book Modern American Painting. The image had become an icon of the genre. 
Rehearsal depicts two female musicians who rise up in a crescendo of limbs. One plays a violin, the other a flute. They are thrust forward and almost compete to occupy the center of vision. Their strong vertical presence is fastened in place by a co-axial scaffolding: a web of elements that stretch across each diagonal. On either side of the players the painting dissolves into the background. On the left an incidental backdrop frames the arms and instrument of the violinist. The up and down of the instrument, arms, and bow, create a rhythm of their own.The space to the right has been pushed further back to create greater depth and emphasis. Two shadowy figures backstage create a mini drama of their own and have been strategically placed to prevent the eye from wandering off the edge of the painting.
One has to look no further than Leonardo to discover the inventor of these devices. A comparison with Leonardo‚Äôs Madonna and St. Anne reveals striking compositional similarities. Vertically imposed figures in the foreground are held in sway by strong diagonal elements. Instead of shadowy figures in the background, a shadowy tree prevents the eye from departing into the distance. They show the balance, order, and symmetry of the classical ideal at its best. Everything rests in place as if preordained. The classical ideal is one where all blemishes have been removed from the world, and the universe listens to its own natural harmony.
In addition, through strict compliance with classical painting techniques, Rehearsal strengthens its allegiance to the classical ideal. Taubes was a true practitioner of the masters‚Äô techniques. The figures are painstakingly glazed over toned grounds creating luminous depths. Taubes‚Äô command of the painting medium allowed him to explore new tactile sensations, a practice initiated by Titian.
However, once all has been said about how well a painting adheres to a particular set of principles, the painting must still speak in a contemporary dialect. It cannot be a mimicry of the past. A painting must be a commentary on the age in which it was produced. Even if that commentary is observed in the breach, it can teach us a lesson.
Does Rehearsal fulfill this historical obligation? Do these idyllic figures, enraptured and self absorbed, teach us anything about a world clawing its way out of economic chaos and festering like a boil ready to explode? When the world is coming apart at the seams, Frederic Taubes has shown that some things remain seamless. By relying on time honored principles that project clarity and logic, Rehearsal declares faith that there are certain values that never become outmoded. By remaining faithful to values, we remain faithful to ourselves, and perpetuate our own ability to achieve a brighter tomorrow.
Frederic
Taubes
ÔŅľ
Classicism

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