Modernism Exhibit Depicts the Art in Ordinary Objects

April 19, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: Consider the chair. Maybe you’re sitting on one as you watch this. Is a chair a work of art, something that artists should turn their attention to?

There are many chairs now on display at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery, in an exhibition that celebrates a time when artists cared a great deal about designing objects that would make people’s lives, and society as a whole, better off.

“Modernism: Designing a New World” is a huge exhibition of more than 400 objects and films, spanning the years 1914 to 1939, from many artists and countries, suggesting the breadth of a movement that grew out of the carnage, the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it of World War I.

CHRISTOPHER WILK, Victoria and Albert Museum: There was a real sense that the whole world had to be rethought, starting from scratch, and that really accounts for you can only describe as the revolutionary character of so much of what’s in this exhibition. I call it the built environment.

JEFFREY BROWN: Christopher Wilk is curator of the exhibition, which originated at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

CHRISTOPHER WILK: Even though some of these artists, architects, designers were interested in the past, what they spoke about was about creating the new, and they actually used the term “the new” all the time.

They talked about the new photography, the new architecture, the new typography. They were obsessed with this idea of the new.

Transforming people's lives

JEFFREY BROWN: They were also obsessed with technology, the machines that would make this new world possible. Stronger, more pliable construction materials meant artists could shape traditional objects in creative ways. Mass production techniques meant those objects could be produced for everyone.

This is the first exhibition for Paul Greenhalgh as director of the Corcoran Gallery.

PAUL GREENHALGH, Corcoran Gallery of Art: The great hope was that the city, new technology would transform people's lives, would improve people's lives, make them healthier, make them better, and kind of put people in control of their lives, you know, the idea that people determine their own lives.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so the world began to look different. New car design: This model, called the 77A, was made in 1938 by the Czech Tatra Company.

New furniture design: Finland's Alvar Aalto played with curved lines in his 1930 Paimio chair and 1936 Savoy vase.

New graphic designs for posters and billboards, new clothing design. Check out this futurist suit by the Italian Giacomo Balla. New designs for healthy living, as we might call it today, including this sun lamp from 1928.

Exercise became an obsession after 50 million people died from influenza in the 1918 pandemic. Here, health in high heels.

Most of all, new building design, some of it fanciful, like this model of Russian Vladimir Tatlin's 1920 "Monument to the Third International." But most of it very practical, including designs for affordable housing.

CHRISTOPHER WILK: When architects of this period got together, they tended to talk about three things, maybe four: housing -- by which they meant public housing, social housing -- housing, housing, and then how to build it. And to an extent that people really wouldn't recognize today in the architectural world, the burning issue of the day was how to improve the plight of ordinary people by providing them with much better conditions.

Modernism in the home

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, architects of the era, such as Swiss-born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier, also applied their utopian visions to individual homes for the well-off. If much of this looks familiar today, the exhibition takes us back to the point when it represented a major change in art and life.

CHRISTOPHER WILK: This is a competition drawing by Mies van der Rohe made in 1921. And one of the things that's interesting about it is today people look at it and they say, "Oh, it's a steel and glass or concrete and glass skyscraper."

JEFFREY BROWN: Right, we see these...


JEFFREY BROWN: ... every day, everywhere, every city.

CHRISTOPHER WILK: But in 1921, this was a fantasy. This was an imaginary project that building technology couldn't have allowed to be built at the time. This is a building covered in glass. You're letting light in, and light is health-giving, and it's creating a sense of something higher. And you see the building soaring up to the heavens, soaring up to the sky.

JEFFREY BROWN: Up to the sky, and into people's homes, right into the kitchen.

CHRISTOPHER WILK: In some ways, this kitchen represents taking seriously woman's work in the home, because they did time and motion studies of how women worked in the kitchen, and they tried to ensure that each thing was located in just the right place to minimize unnecessary effort.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is the first built-in kitchen made in large quantity, easy to use, everything stored, but within reach.

CHRISTOPHER WILK: At least 10,000 of these were made for the housing projects in Frankfurt in the 1920s.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is a little unusual, to have a kitchen in a museum exhibition.

CHRISTOPHER WILK: Yes, but it represents all the ideals of modernism: the social reforming; the interest in abstraction and plain surfaces, in geometric shapes; the keen interest in health and providing healthy living conditions for people; and it talks about the future, about how people should live, except this was really made in large quantity. This wasn't some dream that was only accessible to a few people.

Modernism today

JEFFREY BROWN: If the machine represented the hope of the age, the working man represented the God among men. Greenhalgh made sure to include this painting by Fernand Leger in the exhibition.

PAUL GREENHALGH: His painting of "The Mechanic" from 1923 just struck me as being the 20th century's "Mona Lisa," you know? He's a confident boy. He looks as though he knows what he's doing, and he looks in control of his life. And for me, it makes it this big, optimistic symbol.

JEFFREY BROWN: And yet, all that optimism -- and by 1939, the year when this exhibition leaves off, the world was again going to war, and the utopian dreams of various "isms" had failed or been rejected.

Modernism continued on. The glass skyscraper, for example, became an international symbol, loved by some, hated by others. But things have clearly changed.

CHRISTOPHER WILK: In an era that we live in -- post-Hiroshima, Dolly the sheep, global warming -- we don't believe in technology as a panacea for everything, although we like personal technology, it seems to me today. But on the whole, nobody looks -- or many people don't look to technology to solve the world's problems.

JEFFREY BROWN: Modernism today, Wilk says, is better defined as a style, not an artistic movement. But he and Corcoran director Greenhalgh argue in this exhibition it's a style with a continuing impact.

PAUL GREENHALGH: We had a big debate -- big, exciting debate -- about whether modernism was the most influential style ever, if you just think of people's daily lives all over the planet, and I tend to think it is. The truth is, you go to Crate & Barrel or Target, there it is. And if you go into anybody's office, there it is, in people's homes, people's kitchens, there it is.

JEFFREY BROWN: In other words, modernism and its designs may have lost their original idealism and goals, but they remain ubiquitous in our lives.