The catalogue to Pallant House Gallery’s latest exhibition features a favourite anecdote. It is 1924 and a competition is being held to find the woman with the most pleasing vital statistics. As a paradigm, the judges choose the Venus de Milo. Thousands of women queue up to find out whether their measurements — not only bust, waist and hips, but thighs, calves, neck, wrists even —approximate closely enough to those of the ancient sculpture to earn them the prize of £5. No one thinks to mention that the Venus is missing both arms.
Classical myth was all the rage after the first world war. When the world felt like chaos, it was only logical to go back to the beginning. The Greek poets, after all, pictured Chaos not as the end of time but as the original divinity, before whom there was nothing. Chaos offered the opportunity for a fresh start.
The curator of this wide-ranging exhibition proposes that British artists sought a ‘return to order’ in the interwar period by rekindling ancient motifs. Just as James Joyce and W.B. Yeats used classical references as ‘a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history’, as T.S. Eliot put it, so Henry Moore, Vanessa Bell, Edith Rimmington and others are envisaged as employing a ‘Mythic Method’ to make sense of the world.
Their work is certainly full of Greek and Roman imagery. Lyres and labyrinths, columns and inscriptions, urns and kraters in neat, orderly lines, drained of wine. Voluptuous, semi-nude women recline on lawns and chaises-longues so velvety you cannot see the brushstrokes. An Ionic temple crowded with classical allegories and Christian saints lends dignity to a scene of British soldiers preparing for battle and their families for loss in Frederick Cayley Robinson’s ‘War Memorial to the Students of Heanor School in Derby’ (c.