It starts out as a modernist’s dream: so why does the V&A’s stunning new show still manage to lose its way, asks Waldemar Januszczak
So the display that has just opened at the V&A isn’t any old show. Modernism: Designing a New World is an event with the potential to understand one of the defining urges of western civilisation. There is also an important wrong to be righted here. After a reign of virtually the entire 20th century, modernism fell badly out of favour in the 1970s and was bonked on the head by postmodernism. So thoroughly did it fall from grace that the whole history of the movement took on a negative aspect. Those of us who never saw it that way have waited and waited for a show to appear that would restore modernism to its rightful place at the head of our aesthetic table. Unfortunately, this isn’t it.
I’m not saying it’s a bad effort. Far from it. The opening is practically faultless, a perfectly judged encapsulation of modernism’s key urges. It’s what happens to the narrative afterwards that disappoints. The V&A deals only with the years 1914 to 1939. The first date could be argued for, but the second makes no sense. The outbreak of the second world war put an end to nothing in modernism’s huge history. In America, the need to build higher and straighter was just hotting up. Even in ye olde Britain, most of the key modernist construction was yet to happen. The brutalist South Bank, for instance, wasn’t even on the drawing board until 1950. I suppose the V&A has chosen its restrictive dates for practical reasons. The entire history of the movement would have overflowed the building.
The story begins in Russia with a set of aesthetic thrills that is as heady as anything in art. Say what you want about the Russian revolution — and nobody is going to deny that it all went terribly wrong — but its opening aesthetic salvos were criminally exciting. The first painting you see, by Kasimir Malevich, shows a cluster of coloured rectangles and circles being attracted to a giant white triangle. That’s it. But out of this sparse geometry, Malevich builds a whole new cosmos. The shapes float magically. The laws of space seem to be being followed. And you understand immediately why, at the other end of the Soviet story, it became so important to send Yuri Gagarin into orbit. The dream of a perfect society found a natural destination in outer space.
Next to the Malevich, there’s a teacup and saucer by Nikolai Suetin designed for the imperial porcelain works in St Petersburg in 1923. The only décor it boasts is a circle and a cross. But how lovely it is. Just a few years earlier, these same imperial porcelain works in St Petersburg were churning out ornate Romanov gewgaws smothered with fleshy nudes and overgrown with swags of golden acanthus. Modernism cut through all that like clippers going through a hippie’s hair. Back to the scalp we go. Back to the essence. Back to clarity, weightlessness and cleanness.
The V&A show argues that modernism was a global reaction to the nightmare of the first world war. Across our civilisation, from Russia at one end to Britain at the other, a generation that didn’t want to die for nothing in a pool of mud set about overthrowing its supposed betters. In Russia, they got rid of the Romanovs and their Fabergé eggs with a rare union of political and cultural violence. In madcap Italy, where the tendency to drive too fast is hard-wired into the national psyche, the futurists imagined a society in perpetual motion and raced their triangles against their circles. In Germany, a devastated civilisation rebuilt itself from scratch out of brand-new squared-off pieces.
These heady national variations are evoked superbly in an opening display designed by Eva Jiricna, a modernist architect of some fame, whose Czech roots give her a natural empathy with the progressive thinking of Russians, Germans and the like. With so much stuff to choose from, the show could easily have clogged itself up from the off. No movement has ever attempted to reinvent quite as many things as modernism: from the boiler suits worn by factory workers to the kettles used by housewives; from the engines that propelled aeroplanes to the chairs students sat in. Jiricna manages to pick a remarkably legible path through this hurricane with some efficient colour-coding and lots of helpful modernist arrows. Ruthless editing keeps the examples down, too. Thus, the entire futurist contribution of the Italians is summed up by a spectacular city of the future imagined by Antonio Sant’Elia and, next to it, a splendidly silly full-colour futurist suit to be worn by its inhabitants, designed by Giacomo Balla. The allure of the machine is proved with this same excellent compactness by a single Bentley engine, polished to a high chrome beauty, in front of which hangs a Léger painting packed with sexy mech-anical thrustings.
Across all the art forms, the past is accused of failure, and the future is given its head. Technology is worshipped because machines are so good at building new things. Geometry is favoured because it’s so easily shareable and carries so little national baggage. Glass is adored because it gives you transparency. The colour white is used because it feels so clean and virginal. That’s modernism. The global slate is being wiped clean.
The first exhibitors are so high on newness that some of them stray inevitably into lunacy. I didn’t know much about the German architect Bruno Taut before this event, but he emerges as a prominent and fascinating player. Taut’s redesign of the world begins in 1914 with a crystal building in the mountains, where walking upstairs is a journey “as if through sparkling water”. Taut put his glass buildings high up on mountains because “architecture and the vapour of cities remain irreconcilable antithesis”. He is a classic example of the dangerous modernist dreamer. It was also on a mountain that Adolf Hitler first dreamt of national socialism.
Brilliantly walking us through the early fantasies of the modernists, step by step, the show begins to falter when it enters its second phase and attempts to evoke everything that was actually built in the 1920s and 1930s in one go. Jiricna has gone for a super-huge gallery loft filled with towers, each of which represents and tackles a different masterwork: the Bauhaus in Dessau; Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. In this modernist hangar, a narrative that had seemed to be pushing cleverly forward starts going round and round the houses like the camera that explores the circular interior of the Melnikov building in Moscow.
The display isn’t really sure where to go next because the cut-off date of 1939 doesn’t really represent a conclusion. Yes, the war broke out, but it resulted in relocation rather than cessation. The narrative loses its way, too, because it is so wary of going where it should go. The truth is that modernism led to some terrible things. We all realise what happened to the dream of the new utopia in Russia. But an open-minded reading of the material presented here makes equally clear that fascism was a lethal offspring of the same urges.
A fascinating section dealing with the human body focuses on the modernist subdream of a superathletic citizenry running around Taut’s extra-hygienic world. It’s a tiny step from this modernist body fantasy to the imposition of racial purity by the Nazis. Hitler’s campaign against degenerate art, and the fleeing of so many modernists from Germany, obscured the truth of this similarity. But if you look at the impulses behind the building of the autobahns or the design of the VW Beetle, there really isn’t much difference between the modernist dream and the fascist one.