2000s >> 2006 >> no-1222-june-2006

Exhibition Review: ‘Modernism 1914-1939 – Designing a New World’

Modern Times

‘Modernism 1914-1939: Designing a New World’, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, until 23rd July, £9 adults.

This is an engaging, varied and well structured exhibition put together by the V & A, focusing on ‘modernist’ approaches to architecture, art and the application of science between the wars. The exhibits, ranging from paintings and posters, through to recreated designs and excerpts from film shows like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (right) and Chaplin’s Modern Times, are suitably and accurately described throughout, generally being set in an appropriate theoretical context.

Although modernism was a varied and dynamic movement, its central themes were an important part of early twentieth century life. In particular, the search for human improvement (if not perfectibility) through the application of the scientific method, rationalist approaches to problem solving and the consideration for human progress that permeated art and architecture, were important milestones in the history of capitalism. With modernism, they probably reached their fullest expression so far.

Some sections examine the link between modernism and concepts of social and political utopia, particularly those emanating from the workers’ movement, and others invite consideration of how authoritarian regimes in Russia, Germany and Italy either enthusiastically used – or reticently accommodated themselves to – modernist precepts.

The work of modernist artists such as Mondrian and architects such as Le Corbusier are stunning and prominently featured, along with subsequent applications of their work. Indeed, it is evident (and telling) just how often the design innovations and imaginative approaches of such individuals were limited or distorted by a social and economic system with its own imperatives and strictures, from giant ‘social housing’ projects to the commercialisation of art.

Not everything that came out of modernism was commendable by any means – the ‘Taylorism’ of the modernist factory production line being a particularly mixed blessing. But it is interesting to imagine how a socialist society – which could have been far more closely aligned to the general modernist approach – might have utilised and applied modernist ideas and techniques for the benefit of humanity. In fact, it is difficult for a socialist to take a tour of the exhibition without thinking this at almost every turn.

By the early twentieth century, the capitalist system had developed a worldwide division of labour and sufficient productive capacity for a socialist society built on abundance to be viable as a possible alternative to it. In this sense, capitalism had become politically obsolete. But at a social and technological level, modernism in this period represented both the struggle to transcend and improve capitalism at the same time, to ensure that forward-thinking, scientific and structured methods were applied for the improvement of society. In the absence of socialist revolution, this took the form (even if by default) of trying to renew or perfect commodity society for the perceived needs of humanity.

In many respects, this represented the apogee of conscious, coherent planning and scientific application within capitalism. Thereafter, it influenced post-war reconstruction before being buried by the eclecticism, anti-rationalism and general scepticism towards grand projects for human advancement typified by the anti-scientific backlash of ‘postmodernism’.

Today, postmodernism represents the incoherence and chaos of a capitalist society that has spurned systematic attempts at social improvement, being a product of the commodification and isolation of everyday life, with the attendant breakdown of social relationships and coherence this has involved.

For all its faults, modernism represented a hope for a brighter future through the search for collective human improvement by scientific, rationalist methods and planning. In rejecting this, postmodernism has since confirmed capitalism’s inability to progress in a sustained and coherent manner, and is symbolic of its general descent into impotent micro-politics, disorder and the intellectual void.


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