Jun 8, 2007

Modernism: Designing a New World, 1914-1939

London's Victoria & Albert museum's ambitious survey exhibition of 2006, Modernism: Designing a New World, 1914-1939, is currently showing at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC. I'm not sure how different the Washington exhibition is from the London exhibition, but from a brief examination of both websites, it looks like the structure is essentially the same but individual works may be different. Modernism is a comprehensive exhibition, generous in both its scope and the vast quantity of work on display - it covers art, architecture, design, film, theater and photography. Thankfully, the curator limited Modernism to a specific timeframe, the interwar years, and to a specific place, Europe (though the United States received token representation here and there). So, with so much food for thought, where to begin a discussion on such a vast topic? Curator Christopher Wilk began with this definition of Modernism:

"The designed world in which we live was largely created by Modernism, which is best identified as a loose collection of ideas that developed simultaneously in different countries rather than as a single movement. The unadorned, geometric forms, abstracted shapes, and bold colors of Modernist art and design are unmistakable, seen in everything from teacups to skyscrapers, from paintings to living room fixtures and furniture. But behind the look and forms of Modernism lay a set of radical ideas and conditions. This exhibition explores how the movement developed, what principles defined it, and some of the themes that characterized it, including Utopia, the machine and mass production, nature and the healthy body, and national identities."

Nothing wildly controversial here, but the focus on ideas and conditions rather than aesthetics seemed a good initial premise. Rather than structure the exhibition chronologically, the curators structured it according to the loose themes of the final sentence: Utopia, the machine, nature and the healthy body, and national identities. These served to bring together different disciplines across art, design and architecture, creating connections and juxtapositions that were often provocative. The inclusion of a period film such as Hans Richter's "The New Dwelling" (1930), for example, helped contextualize modernist architecture as it was portrayed and promoted at the time (though how it was received is another matter altogether). A great deal of effort was made by the curators to situate Modernism in its social and historical context, rather than present a collection of decontextualized, aesthetic objects.

The first section, Utopia, contained a mixed bag of Cubist, De Stijl and Russian Constructivist work. Cubism was encountered first by visitors as the (unproblematic) root of all Modernism - I suppose you have to start somewhere - but in the exhibition's narrative, painting clearly came first, with architecture, design, theater and film following behind. The other problematic part of this section of the exhibition was the inclusion of minor works by major artists (or even by minor ones) - I got the distinct impression that the Russian Constructivist room, for example, contained not so much the best representative examples, but whatever the Corcoran could get hold of - the entire section, comprising mostly drawings and watercolors, was taken from two New York private collections. It included some interesting work, but perhaps not the best pieces to illustrate their theme - the idea of Russian Constructivism as a revolutionary design movement utilising these abstract forms for practical ends was almost entirely lost with so many framed works on paper. However, various Russian Constructivist pieces were scattered later in the exhibition so you got the idea eventually.

The impact of American ideas of efficiency via Fordism and Taylorism permeated the section on the Machine. A full-scale reproduction of Grete Lihotzky's Frankfurt Kitchen (1927, see above image) was a good example. Domestic life was to become rationally organized in this narrow model of efficient organization. An accompanying period film showed the ineffeciency of a traditional kitchen, measured scientifically (the traditional woman moved 90 meters to prepare a meal, the modern woman need only move 8 meters). But with all this maximization of productivity, did the modern dinner taste any better? And if the housewife only moved 8 meters instead of 90, did that mean the man had a new modern excuse for getting out of the washing up? These are not entirely frivolous questions - as the curators pointed out, the 19th century gender divide within the home remained firmly in place with Modernist design and architecture. Presumably cooking didn't change much either but with Modernist design, it was rationally systematized in this mass-produced model of domestic efficiency.

A theme not included in the exhibition but one that seemed to me to sneak in at various points was Fashion and Consumer Culture. Modernism, associated with reason, "timelessness" and universality, is often seen in opposition to fashion, associated in turn with the irrational, the temporal and the feminine. While Modernism is usually portrayed as somehow above both fashion and consumer culture, some examples in the exhibition brought this repression clearly to the surface. Vilmos Huszar's graphic designs for Miss Blanche Virginia Cigarette advertisements (1926), for example, and Bart van der Leck's gauches for a Delft Salad Oil advertisement (1919) served as a reminder that even the very intellectual and radical De Stijl designers were not above devoting their abstract designs to serve as popular advertisements (Edward McKnight Kauffer's advertisements for Shell appeared later in the exhibition too). Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich's "Velvet and Silk Cafe" in the Women's Fashion Exhibition (1927) was another reminder that Modernism could slip easily into the commodity culture of Weimar Berlin - Modernism was in this case associated with fashion and extreme luxury, a theme that Mies' Barcelona Pavilion (1929) continued with its opulent marble surfaces and silk drapes. However, at the end of the Barcelona Exposition, a local entrepreneur proposed that Mies' Pavilion be converted into a cafe (perhaps the modernist icon would get a chance to be functional after all!) - Mies refused, as he apparently already had what he most wanted, the photographs (see George Dodds, Building Desire: On the Barcelona Pavilion, Routledge, 2005).

The connections between Modernism and photography, or more specifically, its dissemination via photography might have also been a worthwhile topic - after all, the increasingly cheap and widespread visual reproductive technologies were no doubt a key in stimulating desire for all things modern. Modernist design functioned as a cultural sign as much as any other design style in the marketplace of consumer culture. As a cultural sign, Modernism's abstraction, clean surfaces and absence of ornament stood for high technology and progress, even if examples such as the hand-made Bauhaus textiles and tubular steel chairs were not actually mass-produced by high-tech machines but produced singularly in decidedly old-fashioned ways.

The close connection between Modernism, consumerism and the photographic image could be illustrated by the above Mercedes Benz advertisement of a fashionable young woman riding the latest in modern machinery posed in front of Le Corbusier's Wiessenhof estate building from 1927 (the latest in modern machines for living, ironically designed as a model working-class housing estate). So much modernist architecture and design was clearly photogenic, and the dedication to novelty meant it could be easily coopted into interwar consumer culture. Later in the exhibition these issues were addressed somewhat in a section entitled Mass-Market Modernism. Here, examples such as Russel Wright's American Modern dinnerware (1939) and Wilhelm Wagenfeld's stacking glassware designs (1938) appeared as examples of "Modernist principles being applied to consumerist design". This is particularly interesting, because earlier figures such as Mies and Le Corbusier were spared the "downgrade" to consumerist design (presumably they stuck to their "principles"?).

Perhaps the most innovative theme of the exhibition was Nature and the Healthy Body. With the post-World War One flu epidemic and TB still a major disease in Europe, recent scientific research pointed to hygiene as essential to contemporary living. Modernism could step in here with clean surfaces and simple forms, stripped of bacteria-collecting ornaments, and offer a new "purer" mode of living. And certainly the sheen of a highly polished tubular steel chair within a white box all looks very hygenic (though I wonder if such materials and forms are scientifically any more hygenic than any others - but perhaps the image is, as Mies understood, the most important thing after all). Alvar Aalto's design for the Paimio Sanitorium and its furniture served as excellent examples (though interestingly, they're not white). And just the title of Jan Duiker and Bernard Bijvoet's Open Air School for Healthy Children, Amsterdam (1930) encapsulates the curator's idea here. This theme extended to the idea of the healthly body and participation in sports as essential to modern life with a series of posters promoting health and sports by Russian Constructivists Gustav Klucis and Alexander Rodchenko. The idea of the modern body, toned for maximum efficiency like a machine, linked this theme back to the earlier one on the Machine. Richard Neutra's Lovell Health House in LA (1929) for naturopath Richard Lovell and his wife, could have pushed the healthy body theme even further, with Neutra increasingly engaged in the idea of architecture and interior design dedicated to "mental health" (see the excellent recent book by Sylvia Lavin, Form Follows Libido: Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004).

Gustav Klucis, Postcard Design for the Moscow Spartakiada, 1928

The relationship between nature and Modernism was another thought-provoking one. Certainly with some of the more overtly technological designs, Modernist designers played a role in the sanitization of the dirty business of industrial capitalism. All that technological progress came at a price - hence the reification of nature during a period of widespread destruction of the natural environment. The tension between the Machine and Nature in Modernist design of the interwar period is something that has continued into the 21st century. In The System of Objects, Jean Baudrillard argues that the advent of the systematized modernist designer world marks the end of nature: "it implies practical computation and conceptualization on the basis of total abstraction, the notion of a world no longer given but instead produced - mastered, manipulated, inventoried, controlled: a world, in short, that has to be constructed." (Baudrillard, Jean, The System of Objects, London: Verso, 1996, p.28-29) Indeed, in its passing, nature becomes either modernist landscape design (sadly none of that in the exhibition) or alternatively, a transcendent Nature, raw, primitive, irrational but ultimately highly photogenic too. Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater served as an example in the exhibition, but, having been there recently, I'm saving it for a future post (stay tuned).

An unconvincing section of the exhibition, particularly given its Washington context, was the American contribution, which seemed to be almost an afterthought, with an odd range of examples closing with a section on the 1939 New York's World Fair (Mass-Market Modernism takes over?). But what was novel in the exhibition's geographical scope was the expansion of Modernism beyond the usual boundaries of Western Europe and the USA, with sizeable contributions from the Czech Museum in Brno and the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague. These threw up some lesser-known modernist designers such as graphic designer Ladislav Sutnar and textile designer Antonin Kybal whose work looked fresh alongside the usual crowd of French and Germans. However, extending the Modernist axis to Prague was as far as the inclusion went, with the rest of the world notably absent. While you can't include everything, it is surely nigh time to look further afield than Europe and the US for interwar Modernism - during this time frame, designers and architects produced Modernist work in South American, Asian and African contexts (and couldn't Canada get a look in occasionally?).

Antonin Kybal, Furnishing Fabric, 1937

The last part of the exhibition, National Modernisms (plural), seemed like a promising start for questioning the universality of Modernism (singular). But it comprised brief case studies of varying official state reactions to Modernism in the USSR, Germany, Italy, Sweden and the USA. While I appreciate the contextualization of Modernism here, the discourse on Modernism, even in the "globalized" 21st century, still appears to be hamstrung by Eurocentrism. Taisho Japan, for example, may have served as an equally important and interesting context for Modernism. The very Modernist concepts of universality and progress seem to be still lingering - the narrative of Modernism begins in Western Europe, spreads to the US (mostly via European emigres), and then (in much diluted form) to the rest of the world. In many ways, the Modernists relied on "the primitives" or "traditional cultures" of the rest of the world, not only for appropriating forms (let's start with Cubism again?) but also in order to better assert their modernity. The unfortunate implication of this narrative is that culture is portrayed as a type of competition closely aligned to an evolutionary theory of technology. The first question I thought of when considering the exhibition's title was "designing a new world for who?" The interwar period was, not coincidently, also the highpoint of European colonialism. By considering Modernisms in their wider geographic as well as historic contexts, we might begin to develop more complex global models of 20th century culture.

Further Links:
V&A, London,
Modernism: Designing a New World, 1914-1939 exhibition site.
Corcoran Gallery, Washington, DC,
Modernism: Designing a New World, 1914-1939 exhibition site.

1 comment:

daniel john said...

I guess sometimes truth is stranger than fiction!Very nice write up. Easy to understand and straight to the point.
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