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June 22, 2006

Christopher Peachment asks, has any other movement in the arts been as disasterous as modernism? Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939 at the V&A

Posted by Christopher Peachment

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

The Modernism exhibition at the V&A confines itself largely to matters of design, rather than art, and it has a representative assortment of chairs, houses, kettles and so on that came out of that movement.

In no particular order, you will find a Rietveld chair, the one made of plywood sticks and boards, and often painted in bright primary colours, though the original was plain wood. Other chairs include the tubular chrome two-legged cantilever ones, originally made by either Mart Stam or Marcel Breuer, depending on whom you believe. A Bentley rotary aero-engine. A 1937 Tatra T 87 rear-engined six-seater streamlined saloon. Architectural drawings and models for the Schroder house, which was built in a field on the outskirts of Utrecht. And also for Lubetkin's High Point, now a listed building in Hampstead. The usual selection of round wirelesses, and "rational" worker's clothing. Some films of people in singlets and shorts doing callisthenics and free-form dancing of the Isadora kind. And some films of them naked doing the same.

I can't remember ever seeing so many things, all collected in the same place at the same time, which were quite so horrible. And not just aesthetically either, though that too.

I once sat in a modern replica of the Rietveld chair. It took five minutes before numbness below the waist set in. Everyone has sat in a Marcel Breuer tubular chair; offices are littered with them. And everyone has experienced that queasy feeling when the seat settles back, and starts to bounce up and down like a springboard. There is a strong suspicion that the cantilever will eventually give way, and everyone I have seen on one of these chairs inches their bottom forward to the edge of the seat.

No doubt it was a daring idea, aesthetically speaking, to mount the Bentley aero-engine on a plinth and display it. And it doesn't look too bad. There were good technical reasons why it was necessary to bolt the engine block and the propeller together and have the whole thing rotate in the airframe. But it was useless as an aircraft power plant, since the gyroscopic effect meant that a fighter turned very fast in one direction and hardly at all in the other. It was also vicious on landing and killed more allied pilots than enemy action. Something they don't tell you in the brochure.

So too with the Tatra, a car which was designed with the driver's seat in the centre of the vehicle, with passengers on either side. This typifies Modernist thinking, in that whatever has been tried and tested must be wrong. One wonders how many drivers that killed.

The car also cornered like a waterbed. The figures for driver deaths on that score are a matter of record somewhere in Nazi archives. The car was popular among Wermacht officers, but they were forbidden to drive them after a sudden thinning of their ranks. But then any schoolboy could have warned them of that since the huge V-8 engine was mounted behind the rear axle, leading to massive oversteer on corners. It's a problem that Porsche have spent millions over the years trying to disguise.

Aside from High Point, Lubetkin also designed the penguin pool in London Zoo, and not even the penguins like that. One could go on at length about modernist houses, about their lack of ornament, their lack of human content, their lack of storage space. Let the roof suffice.

I have lived in three houses which had flat roofs and every one of them leaked badly. I mentioned this to a modernist architect recently and she airily dismissed this as an irrelevance in the face of the aesthetic attractions.

"In other words, you are designing a house which fails in the most basic thing that anyone requires of a house, and that is protection from the elements," is what I wish I had thought of saying. Who in their right minds ever thought that a flat roof would work for any building north of the Mediterranean?

And who, apart from those wretches forced into tower blocks in the 60s by their council, has ever lived from choice in a Modernist house who wasn't an architect, designer or "style guru". There must be a few of them, since they are always making TV programmes about them.

The films of naked people getting healthy with their mass exercises inevitably bring to mind those of Leni Riefenstahl, with their infantile desire for perfection and the ugly cult of the muscled torso which the Nazis went in for.

I could go on scoring points against these objects, but the exhibition led me on to thinking, about modernism in other spheres. Has there ever been such a disastrous movement in the arts?

Historians will argue about exactly when it began, but in literature Ezra Pound's "Make it new" would be as good a point as any. Leaving aside exactly what he meant, what militates against anyone ever taking anything Pound said seriously is his badness as a poet.

Apologists, and academics who have built their career on his back, will start quoting the odd good line such as "petals on a wet, black bough". But that leaves out the reams and reams of the stuff that is terrible. And Pound's inclusion of Chinese doesn't help the average reader either - especially when he was soon rumbled by Chinamen pointing out it was nonsense. The dwindling of the audience for this kind of poetry began with Pound, and continues on down to the pathetic numbers today.

I recently came across an academic trying to defend the poetry of J. H. Prynne in print by saying it was "broadly coherent". I was briefly taken in. Taken in, that is, until I read some of Prynne's stuff and realised that "broadly coherent" actually means "incoherent in some places". Nothing incoherent can be poetry. That is the province of nonsense verse for children.

Certainly T. S. Eliot, usually included as a Modernist, ushered in a new era of poetry, but only, as his critical essays make clear, by returning to the classical values of tradition, rather than the egoism of the romanticism. He knew perfectly well that you could never make it new.

Audiences for live concert music also began to decline at the point when composers started to make it new. In a brief stint as an opera critic, it soon became clear to me that houses were half empty for any opera which was written after Wagner. In fact they were starting to empty during Wagner, usually after the interval.

Schoenberg strikes me as the clearest example of a modernist artist wilfully taking apart his talent brick by brick and presenting his audience with a heap of rubble. Much as Joyce did with his final novel, and Beckett with his late minimal plays such as Breath. The price for trying to break with tradition is appalling, and not just to the artists.

In the visual arts, only Matisse seemed aware that one of the principle requirements of art was to give pleasure. And he provided that to such an extent, and other painters so little, that it is arguable he was not a modernist at all.

The one thing which I can find in common with all Modernist artists who began sometime around the First World War, and who persist in some form or other down to this day, is that they cut themselves off from their audience.

And they do so wilfully. So they can hardly complain when people, faced with contempt, return it in kind.

Film is the only modern art form developed during the 20th century, which never underwent a Modernist phase. It couldn't afford to, since the raison d'etre of film is to make money. No movie producer ever said, "Let's make a work of art which will lose money". But that didn't stop them from making plenty of works of art.

Incidentally, there is a line in the Modernism brochure, which goes "Literally hundreds of architects and designers produced chairs". It's up on the walls too.

Christopher Peachment is the author of Caravaggio: A Novel (Picador, 2002) and The Green and The Gold (Picador, 2003). He has been Film Editor at Time Out and Arts and Books Editor at The Times.

To read alternative perspectives on the V&A's modernism show see Christie Davies curses Modernist design, the enemy of freedom, and Post-Modernist thinking, the enemy of reason: Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939 at the Victoria and Albert Museum and 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.


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Calling Ezra Pound's Chinese experiments "nonsense" and condemning him ignores much of the purpose of his enterprise. See Zhaoming Qian's "Ezra Pound and China" (University of Michigan Press, 2003), written by a "Chinaman" as you call them, which defends Pound.

Posted by: Christopher Culver at July 14, 2006 03:16 AM
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