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April 10, 2006

Modernism - seeing it at the V&A is better than sitting on it, working in it or living in it, argues Lilian Pizzichini: Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939 at the V&A

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
6th April 23rd July 2006
Daily 10am - 5.45pm (Wednesdays until 10pm)

Small, poky rooms are not the obvious showcase for Modernist artefacts. The V&A's exhibition space is surprisingly stingy for such a major movement. I was expecting a space that Le Corbusier might have designed. Straight lines, airy sky lights, stark, geometric spaces. Instead, the galleries were small, with awkward corners and painted in red and black. But it works. The maze of small caverns, crammed with artefacts, designs, paintings, and screens showing films on a loop, conveys the freneticism, the anxiety of early 20th-century urban life.

Intellectual considerations are given their space, too. High up on the walls, quotations are flagged, signalling the ideas behind the movement. Kasimir Malevich supplies some cerebral coolness, with an oil on canvas entitled Dynamic Suprematism (1916). An empty, pale blue triangle floats against white space. Other forms and shapes are layered against it random, unidentifiable, clustering together or drifting apart in this infinite half-light.

Malevich said:

Colour and texture in paintings are ends in themselves.
If this sounds like the usual abstract musings of a contemporary artist, what is useful in the V&A's show is the reminder that these artists had a social vision. Malevich developed the ideas behind the genre he called Dynamic Suprematism, in which forms appear to be in flux, because he wanted to:
free art from the dead weight of the real world, the State and Church.
After the Revolution of 1917, he founded a collective called Supporters of New Art in order to promote abstraction as an art form for a new society. Somewhat charmingly (these dizzy artists!) he announced its end in 1919.

The painting itself is lovely. Cool, as I said, and a pause before we reach the part of the exhibition entitled "Social Utopia".

Walter Gropius is quoted, from 1919:

The old forms are in ruins, the benumbed world is shaken up, the old human spirit is invalidated and in flux towards a new form.
"Flux" and "form" are recurring words. It occurs to me that the artists behind this movement were anxious about the future, about the rapid changes in technology, political systems, and belief systems. Manners and customs were in a state of flux, too. Just as we scan our daily horoscopes (well, I do, anyway) in an attempt to exert control over an unknowable future (I'm freelance, give me a break), artists were looking for a holding pattern; some means of controlling the flux.

Glass was big, too. One of the more appealing aspects of this cerebral, mechanistic exhibition is the designs drawn in charcoal and graphite on tracing paper. They have an organic, homespun feel. Mies van der Rohe's plan of Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper Project, Berlin is a glass utopia imposed on office space. Glass had mystical connotations. It was transparent, reaching for the sky and fresh air. Mies's glass skyscraper was so ahead of its time, it's strange to think that we have just such a thing on practically every street in central London. And they're not so utopian. I went to Pimlico School on Lupin Street. Glass and concrete made it icy in winter, baking in summer. It's to be closed down and demolished.

But drawings of glass skyscrapers are nice.

Things get really busy when the Futurists enter the show. I love the Futurists the madness of them, and the badness, too: their obsession with the energy, violence and dynamism of the modern world, their bold attempt to place man in the centre of forces gathering speed. Giacomo Balla's Futurist Suit (1920) in orange and yellow felt is displayed behind a glass case. The curator should have dressed a shop dummy in it, in order better to convey its dynamic lines and forceful colours contouring the muscles it clothes.

The static nature of exhibitions there are chairs aplenty here undermines the activist intent of the artists. But the crush of the exhibits at least generates heat. Together with the films we get some way to feeling the freneticism of Futurist fanaticism and the drive towards creating a new order. Charles Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) is a ballet set in a factory. His movements are so graceful and his surroundings so antipathetic to grace. Abel Gance's The Wheel (1922) summons the terror of train travel steel tracks, a fiery furnace, a delicate face framed against a window that will not stop moving. A clip from Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1925-6) shows workers tramping like prisoners around a confined space rather like the visitors to this show.

The overwhelming impression of all this activity on show was of teenagers rebelling against parental authority. In a way, that is exactly what was going on. The aftermath of the First World War found artists keen to heal wounds by renouncing what went before. The old certainties had to be rethought. Malevich, again, expresses it well:

The new life of iron and the machine, the roar of automobiles, the glitter of electric lights, the whirring of propellers, have awoken the soul.
The machine was master. Under Malevich's direction, we look at a Bentley Rotary BR1 aircraft engine in steel, aluminium and cast iron, from around 1917. It is beautiful to modernists because it is expressive of its industrial manufacture. It is unselfconscious in its beauty, devoid of ornament, impressively intricate in its design. This is why they liked factories. There are lots of admiring photographs of factories here. Although if they'd watched Chaplin's film they would have realised that humans are not machines, and not necessarily so delighted to be working in factories.

There is something a little short-sighted in all this excitable yearning for a new mechanistic order. The chairs are great and such a smooth, coherent, cantilevered design. How clever look! only two legs to support a human's weight. I hate to sound grouchy but have you ever collapsed into a chrome chair to read a novel with a box of choccies balanced on the non-existent arm-rest? Give me upholstered chintz and fluffy cushions any day. A nice, plump foot stool would be nice, too. And how can you lounge sociably over dinner when the back-rest is propelling you, well, backwards? However, in all seriousness, I liked the first modernist chair.

In 1919 Gerrit Rietveld designed a chair that stripped the traditional armchair back to its essential elements. His Blue and Red Chair represents one of the first explorations by the De Stijl art movement in three dimensions. Everyday objects had to be reconstructed to change people's lives. Art had a moral purpose, and design was keen to get in on the act. I admire that impulse towards radicalism. Artists should always be challenging our vision, what has gone before, what is coming, and racing ahead of the times.

The V&A has done a great thing in reminding us of the inconsistencies and valour of a movement that has shaped our existence. Just don't make me sit on it, work in it, or live in it.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.

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