Mod, Mod World; Influential Style Bared at Corcoran

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 17, 2007 | Go to article overview

Mod, Mod World; Influential Style Bared at Corcoran

Byline: Joanna Shaw-Eagle, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Just a couple of decades ago, the modern movement was written off as hopelessly dogmatic, depleted, done, but it never really died, and all its bareness and spareness have come back into fashion. The revival has led to enshrining the 20th-century icons that spawned the style, from preserving the Bauhaus to restoring Fallingwater.

So it's unsurprising to find the museum world reassessing modernism's roots and capitalizing on its renewed appeal. Opening today at the Corcoran Gallery of Art is the much-hyped "Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939," an ambitious survey of the movement displaying 390 works from 17 countries.

Organized by London's Victoria and Albert Museum, "Modernism" is as spectacular as promised. This sprawling, scholarly exhibit and its extensive catalog do nothing less than demonstrate how modernism changed the world - for better and for worse.

The revolutionaries represented in the show undoubtedly are spinning in their graves over the presentation of their austere geometries within the Corcoran's worn beaux-arts galleries. However, the neoclassical setting, "modernized" with brightly colored paint, actually helps, through contrast, to set off the unadorned rigors of the artifacts that jam-pack the museum. Even a strict traditionalist will get a kick out of watching Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times" flickering behind the Ionic columns of Ernest Flagg's ornate 1897 building.

Curator Christopher Wilk, the keeper of furniture, textiles and fashion at the V&A, has broadened the usual view of this international movement by assembling fine art, architecture, clothing, jewelry, graphic design, furniture, film, tableware - you name it - to reveal common themes in unexpected places.

All the familiar classics are here: Alvar Aalto's squiggly glass vases, Marcel Breuer's tubular steel chairs, Le Corbusier's white villas. So are tea sets, posters, photographs and buildings by lesser-known talents from Eastern Europe and Russia, whose creations sometimes outshine those by more famous colleagues. Gleaming just inside the museum's front doors, for example, is the silver Tatra, a 1937 Czech auto more streamlined than a Rolls-Royce.

The exhibit makes it clear that modernism wasn't a single style but rather a utopian vision aimed at the wholesale transformation of societies plagued by war, corruption and disease. It begins with the series of movements - French cubism, Italian futurism, German expressionism, Russian construc- tivism - that sprang up around World War I. Their goals may have been unrealistic, but their startling images had a profound effect on the artistic world. Mies van der Rohe's visionary glass skyscraper, Kazimir Malevich's abstract paintings and Giacomo Balla's brightly patterned wool suit still resonate today.

Yet, perhaps unwittingly, the show's emphasis on aesthetics underscores the elitism implicit in the modernist sensibility. For all their professed concern for the proletariat, modernists were more interested in the visual impact of their creations than in the comfort or convenience they afforded.

Pity the poor workers who lived in the stark housing on display here - much of it as inviting as prison cellblocks - or sat in the unyielding chairs designed to improve posture. Even the modernists' household furniture was dogmatic.

Instead of basing designs on the human body, as in most of history, the modernists celebrated machines as an appropriate source of imagery for the age and a vehicle for mass-producing functional designs. American principles of efficiency, developed by Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford, were influential on Europeans seeking to minimize space and cost.

"A house is a machine for living in," Le Corbusier famously said, forgoing coziness for ramps and strip windows. A full installation of a German kitchen (Yes, "Modernism" includes everything and the kitchen sink) designed by Grete Lihotzky and mass-produced for more than 10,000 Frankfurt homes, illustrates the results of this domestic streamlining. …

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