Feature Archive

Modernism: Designing a New World, 1914-1939

     At the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., through July 29, 2007     
By K. Kimberly King
Seduced by the silver streamlined Czech-made 1937 Tatra sedan, then charmed by seven pairs of Gerrit Rietveld's 1923 Red Blue Chairs marching up the grand marble staircase of Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art, visitors to "Modernism" may not realize they are both observers of and participants in grand "re-inventions." New Director Paul Greenhalgh, pointing to Modernist artists' and architects' credos that the world could be transformed for the better via the arts, inaugurated the exhibit as "a way for the Corcoran to reinvent itself," including "how we look at the outside world. The 21st century museum is different from the 20th century museum in terms of agendas, publics, and roles."

Gallery-goers can thus trace a macro view of "spectacularly successful templates... created for many of the buildings, fixtures, and fittings that still typify the modern world," according to Essential Modernism (the U.S. exhibit catalogue), and also absorb a microcosm of challenges confronting museums worldwide.

The Corcoran, Washington's first (1869) and largest non-federal art museum, has heavily publicized as "groundbreaking" this show imported from London's Victoria and Albert Museum (whose '06 web feature remains available), here infused with several American additions. To re-assert itself as more than a Beaux Arts fašade one block from the White House, the Corcoran selected "Modernism," whose nearly 400 objects, 50 film clips and 15 architectural models cover so many philosophical currents and artistic renderings it nearly defies description. Among key figures featured: Piet Mondrian, Fernand Léger, Wassily Kandinsky, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and Alvar Aalto.

"Modernism," explains curator Christopher Wilk, in the V&A's beautifully illustrated, approachably scholarly catalogue, "was not conceived as a style, but... a loose collection of ideas... in many countries" which generated "an espousal of the new and, often, an equally vociferous rejection of history and tradition; a Utopian desire to create a better world; an almost messianic belief in the power and potential of the machine and industrial technology; a rejection of applied ornament and decoration; an embrace of abstraction and a belief in the unity of all the arts." Wilk emphasizes that other shows have presented the aesthetics of Modernism, but not its political ideas and social history. Enter the "-isms," beginning with the one on Director Greenhalgh's mind: "This show is about optimism. The world then was wracked by prejudice and destruction, but pioneer artists genuinely believed the way out was through the arts."

Their collective path was Utopianism, reflected in Oscar Wilde's pronouncement that "a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which humanity is always landing."

That destination is depicted by manifestations of, i.a., Cubism, Futurism, Purism, Constructivism and Suprematism, in this, the only U.S. exhibit venue. The striking cover of The Isms of Art 1914-1924, published in 1925 by El Lissitzky and Hans Arp, lists 16 different movements, from which flowed the most iconic Modernist objects installed in the Corcoran's rotunda:
  • An additional Rietveld "red blue" chair which the Dutchman had first confected in natural wood. After joining De Stijl and seeing Mondrian's work, Rietveld added primary colors;

  • Alvar Aalto's Savoy vase (1936), still in production;

  • Marcel Breuer's club chair (1925), often called the "Wassily" because Kandinsky praised its roll-out;

  • Vladimir Tatlin's Monument to the Third International (1920), designed as Bolshevik headquarters. Had Russia been able to produce sufficient iron and steel to build the rotating cylinders, the construction would have stood 100 stories tall, 300 feet higher than the Eiffel Tower;

  • Le Corbusier's model for the Ville Savoye (1928) in Parisian suburbs. The Swiss-born architect called "a house... a machine for living in."
Hidden among the Bauhaus curriculum, ball bearing necklaces, Charlie Chaplin clips and architectural blueprints are several photographic gems: Ralph Steiner's Skyscraper from Below (1924), Bridge (1931), and Wheel and Headlight (1929), and André Kertész's Dining Room at American University (Paris, 1929) and a New York series (1937-44). Arnold Newman's portrait of Mondrian (1942) framed in his easel, and Kertész's neighboring composition with Mondrian's glasses and pipe (1926), are masterpieces.

Two paintings added for the U.S. show stand out: Stuart Davis' Study for Swing Landscape (1937-38; at top right) and Léger's The Mechanic (1920; at right), whose image adorns the U.S. catalogue.

Numerous chairs are on exhibit because, notes the wall text, "the chair represented a popular challenge for Modernist designers" facing "new architecture and open plan interiors requir[ing] new furnishings." Architects took up that challenge, explains curator Wilk, because constructing chairs was far more feasible than putting up buildings; "it was a way to show off their work." Alvar Aalto's Paimio edition (1930), designed to make breathing easier for tubercular patients, glows in birch and plywood.

Other displays cohere less. Modernists were said to value nature, but a salon with that focus featuring gentle Satie strains and Georgia O'Keeffe's Yellow Calla (1926) does not mesh with the insistent, piston-like rhythms and machine mindset in earlier galleries. Le Corbusier's "objects that stimulate poetic reaction" - seashells and stones - would have been better left to his students.

As you count the chairs - 25 different styles, number those 16 -isms, and measure new typefaces - Futura (1928), and Times New Roman (1931) - conjecture, too, how this grand dame of Washington's richly endowed museum sphere will carve out a 21st century niche after two turbulent decades of personnel shake-ups, fund-raising difficulties, and controversial exhibit choices.

In 1989, controversy attached itself to the Corcoran when, bowing to conservative political pressures, it cancelled a show of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's work. Two years ago, the institution founded "for the purpose of encouraging American genius" abandoned much-ballyhooed plans for a 140,000-square foot wing designed by Frank Gehry when fund-raising stalled and staff departed.

Before installing British design scholar Greenhalgh (pronounced Green-halsh) as director in 2006, Corcoran staff and trustees took a hard look at the museum's identity and how its fully accredited College of Art + Design, founded in 1890, ranks with peers. Greenhalgh, once V&A research chief, was best remembered in Washington as lead organizer of the widely praised Art Nouveau exhibition which stopped at the National Gallery of Art in 2000.

The Corcoran is by no means alone in navigating 21st century shoals, as mapped out in a March 28 New York Times special devoted to museums. According to the American Association of Museums (AAM), an estimated 17,500 museums across the U.S. average 865 million visits/year, or 2.3 million visits per day. Art museums rank sixth on visitors' preferences, after zoos (# 1) and ahead of history museums (last at #11). One-third charge no admission.

Six years ago, an AAM study found that Americans regard museums (of all kinds) as "one of the most important resources for educating our children and as one of the most trustworthy sources of objective information. Museums were judged trustworthy by 87 per cent of the respondents," with books at 60 per cent and TV news at 50 per cent.

Not by accident did the AAM convene its annual conference in mid-May on the theme "Why Museums Matter." More than 6000 U.S. and international delegates assessed the so-called "new museum theory and practice" calling for museums to cease being sites of awe and reverence and become more approachable, inclusive and provocative of critical inquiry. Participants gathered in Chicago also debated issues such as "branding," fund-raising, increasing "traffic," and carving out cachet plus cyber presence.

The Corcoran tackles some of these challenges by "branding" the show with red and black, diagonals, and a special logo in Gotham font.

Its café's "Modernism menu" features the Feldhaus (poached salmon) and the Berliner (granola, yoghurt, and fruit). The exhibit exit is through a specially constructed gift shop carrying everything from miniature and life-sized chairs to red ice cube trays shaped to produce nine miniature Savoy vases. Through a locked glass case shines a silver and ebony tea service modeled after Marianne Brandt's 1924 version priced upwards of $40,000.

To land viewers - virtual and real - the Corcoran will have to compete with web features such as MoMA's Architecture and Design collection and SFMOMA's, "created to explore new art forms that exist only on the Web." The California landmark also runs an award-winning monthly podcast. Presentation of an MP3 player loaded with the current SFMOMA Artcast shaves $2 off admission.

Such reinventions are best guided by what compass?

In WHOSE MUSE?: Art Museums and the Public Trust, James Cuno, head of the Art Institute of Chicago, declares: "...What our visitors most want from us..." is "access to works of art in order to change them, to alter their experience of the world, to sharpen and heighten their sensibilities to it, to make it come alive anew for them, so they can walk away at a different angle to the world."

"Modernism" runs through July 29. Admission: adults $14, seniors/military $12, students $10, free for children under six.
Contact the Corcoran Gallery at: (202) 639-1700


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