Sunday, April 29, 2007

Modernism, a reaction to the violence of WW I

Abceda (Alphabet), by Vitezslav Nezval, Karel Teige. Czechoslovakia, 1926

The visit to Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939 at the Corcoran in Washington, DC, this Saturday refreshed me in a way I hadn’t expected. I have a great affinity for modernism, its clarity and mastery of the unadorned. I was reminded, however, of the ethic that drove modernism during its run of over two decades on the world stage. Modernism is a movement described as being bookended by two world wars. After spending over two hours viewing the exhibit, one comes to the end and turns a corner that reveals a large sepia-toned, daguerreotype print, shot from in a trench, of soldiers, in their ankle-length coats, helmets strapped under their chins, bayonet’s affixed, leaping into and over the trench, running full force into war’s death and destruction. I was transfixed. I heard myself saying aloud, “The end.”

Modernism was driven by the belief in the power of art and design to create new models for living. That was what I was reminded of and, on Saturday, felted renewed by. Modernism had a Utopian agenda. It had ambiguous and sometimes subversive qualities. The exhibit text that accompanies the various mini-exhibits featuring the movements within the movement were spare and very helpful. They served to reinforce an understanding of the exceptional passion the movement had to fully integrate art, design and life.

Purism, the Modernist movement centered in France around the work of architect Le Corbusier, was premised on the integration of form and function. The movement focused on simple geometry, industrial materials, such as concrete, steel and glass, and open planning. Its seminal ethos anchored Modernism. (I can't say “Le Corbusier” without feeling a sense of awe.) Looking at the architecture and design of the time, it is hard to appreciate how radical Modernism was. Moving from a Victorian aesthetic to Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye is an incomprehensible leap.

One of the wonderful parts of the exhibition was the integration of film footage, often on large screens, from the period. There, before my eyes, was Le Corbusier walking into the Villa Savoye! Or was it him? Only the back of a dapper man in the drive way, and then legs going up a stair, and then a quick side view before he disappears around a corner---his physical movement is so full of life. There is also the experimental abstract films which must have been so exciting to see at the time---the colors, the wacky movement. Then there is amazing footage of early modernist dance and theater productions. Even a Leni Riefenstahl film clip is included in the National Modernist section. It is very brief, but is a pan of the largest stadium field I have ever seen. The camera is far back from the field, but the pan still takes nearly a minute to cover all the assembled athletes performing synchronized “modern” fitness movements. The number of people, appearing as mere dots on the field, must exceed several thousand. It is an unbelievable clip. Whatever you may think about Leni, she was no slacker.

The exhibit is large and thorough. The presence of Mondrian’s spare abstractions, based on ideas of spiritual harmony, Rietveld and Oud’s exploration of pure color and architecture as a force for social and spiritual understanding and the extraordinary Bauhaus school in German with multidisciplinary design and art programs are wonderfully represented. I kept hearing the eternal “Yes!” in my heart. It is so helpful to feel the presence of those whose work represented the value of art and design as a foundation for the quality of life. Can we get that back, please?

I want to also mention Charlotte Perriand. There are numerous examples of her work throughout the exhibition. She is most noted for her furniture design. What I appreciated about Perriand is how imaginatively her ideas transitioned from the mechanical / industrial origins of the modernist movement all the way through to those ideas arising just before WW II. Near the beginning of the exhibition is a magnificent ball-bearing necklace. A crafts piece she created. It is practical, functional and shining with beauty. Near the end of the exhibition, in a large room in which one cannot fail to feel comfortable, is a Perriand necklace made of modestly-sized alabaster or oyster shells, representing Modernism's movement into organic forms. The dynamism of her work vouches for the power of openness and courage. These seem to be especially important qualities of spirit at this time of increasing fearfulness.

What is "Modern" is the concern for humans in space and community---the faith that art and design serve humanity. In this sense, it feels the world has become ancient.

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