A Straight T and Very Narrow Utopia; an Exhibition at the V&A Reveals That Modernism - Whimsical, Shoddy, Charmless - Was as Deficient in Practice as in Theory

Article excerpt

Byline: BRIAN SEWELL

MODERNISM is a portmanteau term and, like the portmanteau of the baggage world, it expands to accommodate whatever is stuffed into it until - as now - it bulges so much that it splits its seams. No institution

is better qualified to unpack it than the V&A Museum, that stern guardian of the territory between art and craft, the beautifully useless and the functionally useful, to discard what is simply Thirties kitsch and tainted by Art Deco, and puritanically reassert that Modernism in its day occupied the moral high ground of design and art.

Modernism, so the rhetoric goes, was the visible expression of ideal societies that were to be compliant and obedient, egalitarian and conformist, the Brave New World of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the architecture of which, eschewing decoration and embellishment, must be clean and functional, constructed with methods and materials contemporary and adventurous - and as for art, that must, of course, be meaningless and abstract.

"Utopia" was the movement's shibboleth, not whispered, but shouted from rooftops that were, inevitably, flat.

What was its day? Did it begin with the architecture of the Viennese Secession early in the 20th century, slowly developing and then degrading the idiom, dragging on until we built the Royal Festival Hall half that century later? The authorities of the V&A, in mounting what they propose is an encyclopaedic exhibition, give it only a quarter of a century, the years 1914 to 1939, but so brief a concentration, in eliminating both its first tentative spring shoots and its dying autumn leaves, distorts its history.

Enthusiasm for it in Britain was slow to grow among the general public, but its priesthood of theorists were powerful and obdurate, their acolytes here unquestioning, and as a consequence its dying years were very long drawn out.

One thing is certain - that the gross destruction of much that was Modernist during the Second World War did not put an end to it and that Modernism was the most widespread influence on post-war reconstruction throughout Europe; three lesser manifestations of Modernist design are still within the experience of most of us - the Crittall window, the Zimmer frame and the Routemaster bus.

European Modernism was nourished by the Russian Revolution. This, combined with the effects of the First World War, radically disturbed, even destroyed the class structures and economies of the West, and to the existing orders of art, architecture and taste, they were equally disruptive - bourgeois Salons and Academies were never again secure, Cubism was wiped out, Impressionism and its offshoots were mired in decadent repetition; after the war, and nurtured by it, only German Expressionism survived, though Futurism, exhausted in Italy, was to spawn a spiritual heir in Russia. There the independent responses to political change were Constructivism and its offshoot Suprematism, the latter a form of abstract art that, based on elementary geometrical shapes, expressed nothing and had no useful or usable purpose; the former, on the other hand, clearly expressed a socio-political ideal and was often useful in its application. As the communist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky put it, perhaps echoing the Futurists: "We do not need a dead mausoleum of art where dead works are worshipped, but a living factory of the human spirit - in the streets, the tramways and the factories, in workshops and the homes of workers." It is in this that we sense the release of art into the useful thing, the car, the chair, the teapot and, above all, the house, factory and public building.

In Germany, Peter Behrens (born 1868), pioneer architect in new materials and glass before the First World War, and with a substantial number of Modernist industrial buildings to his credit destroyed in the Second (he died in 1940 and thus fits both the V&A's date bracket and mine but is ignored in the exhibition), expressed perfectly most of the aims of Modernism. …