Each week, we bring you the backstory of work featured in our collection, written by a member of our curatorial team. 


Pablo Picasso. Seated Woman in a Chemise (1923). © Succession Picasso/DACS 2016

Today we’re in conversation with Ben Street, an art historian based in London. Ben lectures, writes, and teaches art at the National Gallery, Christie’s Education, Sotheby’s Institute, Tate, and more. For Deep Cuts, he’s brought up ‘rappel a l'ordre’ (alternatively called ‘retour à l’ordre’), or the ‘return to order’, a European art movement that took place between the world wars. Let’s start easy: for the uninitiated, how is rappel a l’ordre stylistically defined?

What we’re talking about is a revival of classical style in European art between the wars, which you see in painting, sculpture, and printmaking. So the look is one of cleanliness, organisation, and a focus on the human body. It’s probably best defined by what it isn’t. It isn’t anything like the modernist styles you see in the teens of the twentieth century. It looks a lot like a step backwards. And it’s unexpected. 

It also seems to be a turning away of the more avant-garde art of the years preceding World War I, correct? A rebellion against a rebellion, of sorts. 

Exactly. It’s precisely what you would least expect to happen, if you follow the line of modern art from the 1850s onward. 

Who were the pillar artists involved in the movement? 

It focuses on France, Paris especially. So I’d say Picasso, Derain, Braque and Matisse. But there are also artists in other countries who get involved - Severini in Italy, especially. 

What do you think has caused rappel a l’ordre to be underrepresented in the canon? 

The idea of the history of modern art - or, let’s say, modern culture - as a rapidly accelerating ascent suggests that modernism is built upon a process of ‘deskilling’, or sloughing off the lessons of western art since the 15th century. Looking at modern culture in the context of modern history, though—especially, but not exclusively, because of the unprecedented horrors of the world wars—the idea of progress starts to look rotten and corrupted. 

Fascinating. So: because the whole movement doesn’t play into our retrospective, perhaps too-clean look at modernism, we’re eager to push it into the blinders? 

Yes! Absolutely. It doesn’t fit with the narrative, which is why it’s so interesting. But there is a certain reasoning behind why artists at that time would be interested in making whole, complete images of things, after all the fragmentation of the early 20th century. I mean, if you look at Picasso in 1911 and Picasso in 1921, it’s worlds apart. One is like a smashed mirror, the other like a slightly clunky Poussin. The idea of patching European culture back together after the shattering experience of WWI informed a lot of these artists.

And how did the movement influence future artists? Was it then something to again rebel against? 

Some things get kept after WW2, but there’s new (or revived) interest in abstraction, especially in America, and the classical tradition gets dumped again. It’s like it bobs up unexpectedly from the rubbish heap, then gets pushed back down again. What’s interesting though is that contemporary painters and sculptors seem to have a revived interest in that period, those sort of forgotten years. Which might tell you something about the sense of dislocation and fragmentation that people feel in our times. 

It’s all cyclical, isn’t it? Does that suggest some rendering of our current output will vanish from the future point of view? 

Well, I wouldn’t like to say… 

But would you? 

Ha! Possibly! I think certain very old forms that modernism might have seen to have killed off keep coming back: longform narrative fiction, for example, or the figure in painting and sculpture. 

What museums and galleries are currently capturing the movement? 

I’m not sure there’s any particular one, but there are certain artists who I think are returning to the figure in a way that might have seemed retrograde 40 or 50 years ago. People like Nicole Eisenman, for instance, who seems to be channeling German interwar painters like Otto Dix and Georg Grosz with a laconic contemporary sensibility. Or in the UK, Benjamin Senior, who restages 1920s figuration in curiously neat and complex compositions. 

Does the effect transmit past European borders? 

Yep, Eisenman is American, and I also see a touch of it in Ella Kruglanskya (based in NY) and Lisa Yuskavage. It’s not straight-up figuration in the Lucian Freud mould (there’s plenty of that about). It’s more like a circumspect, somewhat sardonic approach to representing the figure in space—often a social space. This is one of the great ways contemporary art can illuminate the past, and vice versa. Suddenly, paintings from the 20s that once lined the storerooms of the great modern museums are seeing the light of day. It’s great.

You’ve given us a lot to think about (and research). We’re nearly out of time—any closing thoughts? 

Well, I keep thinking of other artists that I see as being a part of this too—like the great American painter Kerry James Marshall, who I think is having a Met retrospective at some point soon. Contemporary art is endlessly multifaceted, but it’s interesting, and heartening, to see it mine unexpected territories. And to see that it can be a gateway for audiences who are perhaps less familiar with that period. Good on all counts. And there’s so much more to be unearthed.