"Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939"; Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Schwabsky, Barry, Artforum International
"Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939"
VICTORIA & ALBERT MUSEUM, LONDON
"Albers and Moholy-Nagy: From the Bauhaus to the New World"
TATE MODERN, LONDON
IMAGINE AN ART EXHIBITION called "Modernism" focusing on the years 1914 to 1939. Sounds unlikely, doesn't it? We think of artistic modernism as having had two great expansive phases: the first leading from Cezanne through Cubism to the birth of abstraction in the Netherlands and Russia but soon eclipsed--in the West by the postwar "return to order," in Russia by the political changes wrought by Lenin's death in 1924 (though the complete triumph of socialist realism would only come a decade later)--and the second, very different phase, commencing after World War II with the Abstract Expressionists and centered as much on the United States as on Europe. Not that this modernism did not undergo compelling developments in the '20s and '30s, far from it, but those difficult and embattled years would certainly not be the ones an overview of the movement would take as its focus.
All the more fascinating, then, for an observer schooled in art more than in design to be reminded that, in the latter field, the interwar period might be considered modernism's heyday. This suggests that, rather than being coordinated enterprises, the two fields might work in unresolved tension, the vitality of one coming at the expense of the other. Certainly that was one's first impression from the V & A's exhibition: Examples of design in graphics, furniture, housewares, architecture, and clothing were stunning in their quality, whether attached to famous names like Gerrit Rietveld and Marcel Breuer or as anonymous as a ball bearing. The role of painting and sculpture in the exhibition was limited by comparison, despite the inclusion of important works by the likes of Mondrian, Malevich, Kobro, and Arp. In general their specificity was lost by being coded simply as what Clement Greenberg once called "rationalized decor." Which they are, but that's hardly the whole story, despite Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's provocative declaration that "the internal and external characteristics of a dish, a chair, a table, a machine, painting, sculpture are not to be separated." On the other hand, photography emerged here with a strong relative autonomy, suggesting its significance at the time as a possible point of contact between the ethos of design and that of art. And film was given unusual and welcome prominence, with suggestive clips projected among all the chairs, tea sets, costumes, and posters--excerpts ranging from the symptomatic sci-fi of Yakov Protazanov's Aelita (1924; sets and costumes by Alexandra Exter) through the oneiric melodrama of Abel Gance's La Roue (The Wheel, 1923) to the playful avant-gardism of Fernand Leger's Ballet mecanique (1924), not to mention documents of performances like Oskar Schlemmer's Triadic Ballet, 1922.
For the show's curator, Christopher Wilk, the essence of the conflict between modernism in art and in design is one of "formalism" versus "engagement with social--and hence political--issues." But that is unconvincing. Better to have taken more seriously the antagonism, foregrounded in art, between the values of representation and construction--an antagonism (curiously finessed by photography, whose indexical images are neither represented, strictly speaking, nor constructed) with its own cognates at the level of political organization, and one as far-reaching in its implications as the specifically architectural tension between form and function.
The extent to which the utopian desires embodied by modernist design at its most radical can be identified with the political movements to which they were allied is not as clear as Wilk seems to believe. Doesn't Greenberg's insight still hold: that the revolutionary or, for that matter, counterrevolutionary need to mobilize the masses lent itself more readily to what he called kitsch than to the avant-garde, which he shrewdly grasped was "too 'innocent,'" and therefore "too difficult to inject [with] effective propaganda"? …