Prof Richard Verdi gives Terry Grimley a guided tour through the classical tradition in the Barber Institute's collection
Classicism is a term that is bandied around a lot in art circles, but perhaps not that often defined.
But an exhibition now on view at the Barber Institute sets out to trace the classical tradition from its origins in the ancient world into the 20th century.
This is the latest in the series of themed displays from the permanent collection which have alternated with loan exhibitions under its present director Richard Verdi. It is also the last, as Prof Verdi will be retiring next September.
"This is my last display, and I suppose, with a notion of having the last word, I have tackled the Everest of art issues," he says.
"The Classical ideal of beauty originated in Greece and Rome and continued through the Renaissance and right on to the 20th century. It's the pursuit of ideal beauty, in nature and humanity, as a constant goal of artists. Art is not always about imitating nature but also about improving on it.
"It's not a style, it's a frame of mind. So you talk about neo-classicism with David in the 18th century and Picasso in the 1920s. Most other artistic movements – Mannerism, Romanticism, Expressionism – are reactions against what is seen as the norm, which is Classicism."
The exhibition begins with a Roman copy of a lost statue of Venus by the Greek sculptor Praxiteles, the original dating from the fourth century BC, and ends with a near-abstract still life by Fernand Leger from 1938.
In between come some major artists who personify the classical tradition, like the 17th century French pairing of Claude, whose idealised visions of the Italian countryside helped the English discover their own landscape (he is juxtaposed here with the first great British landscape painter, Richard Wilson, to make this very point), and Poussin.
Less expected in this company is the Portrait of Bartolomeo Savona by Andre Derain, painted in 1906 when Derain was part of a group perceived to be so far from the classical ideal that they were actually dubbed "fauves" (wild beasts).
However, Prof Verdi argues that, in reality, Derain's instincts for classical values shine through in the painting – particularly when compared to a photograph of Savona.
"Derain was considered a beast but look at the coolness, control and clarity in this painting. You would never mistake it for a German picture."
This can't be said of another work by Derain in the exhibition. His drawing The Fall of Phaeton, done the year before the Savona portrait, takes a classic subject but turns it into an expressionist explosion. This is one of two new acquisitions in the display.
"It's looking forward to Kandinsky in its fury and abstraction," says Prof Verdi.
The other new arrival is a portrait of the artist's wife by the British modernist Percy Wyndham Lewis, dating from 1940.
"This was a surprise acquisition. I never thought of buying Wyndham Lewis. It brings English modernism into the collection in a way that relates it to the Continent. It carries all sorts of reminders of Picasso and Matisse."
However, the acquisition Prof Verdi identifies as the most important during his 16 years at the Barber can be found in the final bay of the display.
This is the still life by the 17th century Italian artist-priest Everisto Baschenis – the only one to be found in a British public collection.
"I bought this because we could never have Cezanne, never have Cubism, never have any later manifestations of this same quest for a perfect formal order. The wonderful thing about it is that there's nothing you could change."
Classicism: Art above Life is at the Barber Institute of Arts, Edgbaston Park Road until January 21(Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun noon-5pm; admission free).