article on Modernism
- From today's Guardian:
The world was in disarray, shattered by the first world war and heading into a second. Out of this chaos came the modernists - a group of utopian designers with thrilling new visions of what the future could hold. But was anyone ready for this brave new world? As a new blockbuster exhibition of modernist art, architecture and design opens at the V&A, we present a G2 special celebrating the Modern movement. To begin, Robert Hughes introduces its key players - and discovers how many of their dreams still survive
Monday March 20, 2006
Modernism is a weasel of a word, whose meanings slip and slide. They always have. Not that one should use "modernism" and "always" in the same sentence. Nobody talked or thought about modernism in the middle ages - the idea of a battle between "new" and "established" cultural forms was not an issue then. Now it has gone completely the other way. Nobody, or nobody with brains, assigns a missionary role to culture. The work of art is just one more consumer product among others.
Modernism is something old that we look back on, not without nostalgia. Its ashtrays and dinner sets, the chrome-tube-and-leather-strap Marcel Breuer chairs, get revived and recirculated without comment. The idea of modernism connotes some kind of ideal and even quasi-official mindset. Seen in one light, it even suggests too much solidity: think of how the innumerable descendants and clones of Mies van der Rohe created, in their high, bland cliffs of steel and glass, the face of American corporate capitalism.
That certainly wasn't the modernité Charles Baudelaire was thinking of in 1863 when, in The Painter of Modern Life, he described "modernity" as an exaltation of "the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable". Nor was it what Jonathan Swift complained of in a letter to Alexander Pope - the work of English scribblers "who send us over their trash in Prose and Verse, with abominable curtailings and quaint modernisms". That was in 1737, and was the first and probably the last time that "modernism" and "quaintness" were linked in the same sentence. The essence of modernism, to the early 20th century, when its lessons really began to catch on, would be that it was anti-quaint: clear, clean, stripped as a piston, dealing only in essentials. But by "quaint" Swift meant something more like "bizarre" - he wasn't thinking of picturesqueness.
Once, movements and works that no longer seem to match up with modernism as we understand it used to call themselves modernist. In Barcelona, the modernists were architects like Josep Puig I Cadafalch, Lluís Domènech I Montaner and even Antoni Gaudi, all of whose work fairly groaned beneath the weight of its historical references, exuberant natural detail and symbolic narratives - the very opposite of what people at the Bauhaus were thinking about. Would you call a concert-house ceiling encrusted with giant polychrome pottery roses, each the size of a cabbage, "modernist"? But that was what Domenech, the star of Catalan modernism, did in his masterpiece, the Palace of Catalan Music, a building almost unimaginably remote from the products and ideas of northern modernist architects and theorists like Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, who wanted to strip all ornament from buildings and, like Euclid, "look on Beauty bare".
Adolf Loos, in Vienna, actually wrote a polemical text entitled Ornament and Crime, in which he set forth the truly demented thesis that the impulse to decorate any shape or surface was in itself degenerate, characteristic of the bestial primitive: ornament was excrement. In the imagination of such people - mercilessly satirised by Evelyn Waugh in the character of the mad modernist architect Professor Silenus (read, "Gropius") in Decline and Fall - the only worthwhile culture in the 1920s was machine culture, made of the shapes that machines could make, with no caressing handwork, every form repeatable at will. "No noodles," van de Rohe, one of the heroes of the style, used to say. In 1900 Paris, l'art moderne was not machine culture at all. It was organic, luscious and hysterically decorative - what we now call art nouveau, whose twining whiplash curves (or noodles) were the polar opposite of machine metaphors.
But gradually the meaning of "modernism" settled down to its present form, based on utopian fancies, standardisation, industrial materials like chrome and plate glass, abstraction and a vehement ambition to make a new world, not just a new art. Design - the rethinking from zero on up of everything from teapots to whole cities - was imagined as potentially all-powerful. And this is the impulse to which the forthcoming show at the V&A in London, Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-39, is dedicated.
It's no accident that the exhibition's delimiting years should be the starting dates of two catastrophic world wars, 1914 and 1939. These dates mark the span of a hectic utopian hope among Europeans, who felt - as Apollinaire wrote in his great paean to cultural renewal: "In the end, you are tired of this old world." The hope of renewal took form in the rubble of post-first world war Germany and attained something like hysteria in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution. In broad terms, it said: things can't get worse than this. You can't take the elements of pre-1914 visual culture and put them, like Humpty Dumpty, together again, just as they were before. The corpse will not rise and speak. We therefore, as intellectuals and artists, can make one of three choices.
Either we throw out the vestiges of culture, all of them, dream romantic dreams of blank slates, reject everything that makes claim to humane and rational discourse, all that our parents called "adult", and call ourselves dadaists. The name "dada" parodied a child's first utterance; it was meant to symbolise the act of beginning again from nothing, having rejected the past in all its weighty totality - a cultural impossibility, but at least a challenge for disoriented self-made radicals in 1917.
Or we put our bets on transferring fantasies about the future back into the present, make enormously inflated claims about a technological millennium that hasn't arrived and isn't likely to appear just yet, and call ourselves futurists, a rhetorical stratagem that works best among the whimsical and operatic Italians.
Or else, we say that Europe, dire as its condition is, can actually be improved. So we must invent a new environment of buildings, cities, images and tools, whose end will be to create new societies of men and women. This engineering will get a name: modernism. It will be buoyed up by an immense and irrational hope shared, as cultural movements tend to be, by a small number of like-minded people who only have the haziest notion of, and generally rather despise, what the majorities around them want.
In Russia particularly, this hope attained an absurdity worthy of the inventors' isle of Laputa, as imagined by Swift. One inventor, Georgii Krutikov, put out an idea for a "flying city", kept in the air by electrical currents - this at a time when there was hardly enough surplus wattage in all of Moscow to run an egg timer. Another, Anton Lavinskii, came up in 1923 with the notion of a "city on springs" - a not-so-remote ancestor of some of the walking-city fantasies thrown off by the Archigram designers in England in the 1960s. And Vladimir Tatlin, the Russian constructivist, dreamed up what he hoped would be an everyman's bicycle of the air, the wooden Letatlin, on which (he hoped) members of the proletariat, having slipped the surly bonds of earth, would go gliding about from People's Dormitory to People's Cultural Centre. Of course, it did not and could not fly.
Tatlin's most grandly useless conception, however, which has always been the darling of "radical" art historians, was his design for a Monument to the Third International, 1920. It was to be a gigantic open-frame ziggurat of steel, spiralling up from the middle of Petrograd and dwarfing everything on the city's skyline. It would be built on a diagonal, representing that of the earth's axis. It would contain four enormous glass halls, each containing a different ceremonial structure for the Party, all turning at different speeds. The lowest one, a cylinder, would rotate once a year. The next, a pyramid, would turn once a month; and so on to the topmost hall, another cylinder, going round once a day. But although it would have some generally designated uses, these were never thought through - they were just part of the cloudy rhetoric that served to hide the disastrous shortages the revolution produced. The whole affair would be 400 metres high but it never materialised, because it would have used up far more structural steel than the whole of Russia had. It was the unbuilt and unbuildable tower of a Babylonian socialism. Perhaps some faint ghost of it lingers in those enormous and pointless space needles later constructed in the capitalist west, in places such as Seattle and Sydney, capped with revolving restaurants serving pretentious food.
This hope of world improvement expressed itself, everywhere, in the most idealist and highfalutin language. The people who used it have become fixtures in the firmament of 20th-century art, although they did not achieve what they thought their work could do. "Art is a universal and real expression of creative energy," wrote the constructivist artists El Lissitzky (Russian), Hans Richter (German) and Theo van Doesburg (Dutch), in the early 1920s. It would "be used to organise the progress of mankind, it is the tool of universal progress". If you didn't believe in progress, you couldn't call yourself a modernist. However, being a "modernist" was not necessarily the same as being a "functionalist". The most extreme illustration of their difference was afforded by the work of the Russian Kazimir Malevich, who called himself a "suprematist" - the postwar years were a bumper season for increasingly silly-isms - and made designs for various notionally habitable structures: big ones that he called "architectons" and little ones he named "planits", with an i. Malevich, who had no scientific background, was much given to waffling and burbling about how, in the marvellous Future, people of all nations would foregather on these extraterrestrial objects, creating termitaries of peace, love and cooperation as they were carried through space.
The prime building material of progress, of the longingly desired postwar utopia, was glass. Glass had several symbolic qualities to recommend it. First, its fragility. People remembered the gaping window frames, the shattered and empty openings, left in the wake of the great war. A society with intact glass buildings, manifestly, was a society at peace. Then, not only was glass fragile: with the correct framing, it could be very strong (though not in bending) and amazing feats of structural daring could be executed in it. Nobody who had seen Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace, that prodigious triumph of British engineering, could possibly doubt that. Glass was the very opposite to heavy stone and opaque brick. Light streamed through it, the light of heaven itself. This offered social redemption. Glass forms, crystalline and suggestive of weightlessness, seemed to be the stuff of transcendence. Glass carried implications of myth, of other, soon-to-be-built Crystal Palaces. "Glück ohne Glas, wie dumm ist das," began one architect's paean to the wonderful substance : "Joy without glass, what stupidity!"
The sharpest expression of this utopian rapture was demolished long ago: an all-glass pavilion, resembling a faceted Islamic dome, that had been commissioned from the architect Bruno Taut by the German glass industry, for the 1914 Werkbund industrial exhibition in Cologne. Its likeness survives today only in drawings, photos and a model or two. The building was pervaded by colour shining from a reflecting pool of violet water and, although it is not clear just what the colour sequences were, by a kaleidoscope in the dome. This pavilion was tiny, almost toy-like, but it bears a distant similarity to one of the great buildings of the early 21st century - Norman Foster's "gherkin" in London, the Swiss Re building.
Modernism left its handprints everywhere: especially in communications, in typography, and in the design of household objects from Gropius' and Mies' chairs to the lamps of Marianne Brandt, which have never dated (though they were designed 80 years ago) and remain wholly covetable. And yet, one of the strange facts about modernism is that, given its recentness and the enormous spread of its ideas, so little of it remains. This makes it extremely difficult, maybe impossible, to think one's way back into the cultural fanaticism that gripped some European modernists in the 1920s and 30s, breeding contradictory reductionist movements like viruses in a lab and leading the designer/ architect/painter Theo van Doesburg to declare: "Art should not deal with the 'useful' or the 'nice', but with the 'spiritual' and the 'sublime'. The purest art forms do not cause the decorative change of some detail from life, but the inner metamorphosis of life, the revaluation of all values." This was way too much to expect of a few blocks of workers' flats.
The hopeful rhetoric of modernism was always way, way out in front of its actual products. Modernists were always hoping that big business, big planning, big government would latch on to their designs and make them generally available to people (preferably workers) who would recognise their benefits and gratefully use them. Alas, it didn't happen that way. There was not enough demand for "radical" designs of common household things, let alone buildings or whole suburbs, to attract anything like a mass market, which is why the occasional isolated Bauhaus workshop object, a jug attributable to Johannes Itten or a prototype Gropius chair, creates excitement among collectors today. Such things never entered the vernacular. Still less did the ugly, standardised clothes some modernist designers, Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko among them, proposed for the new millennium. (Universal worker clothing, unisex, democratic and cheap, would come from the American mills of Levi Strauss, not from European or Russian avant-gardists.)
What ordinary people wanted was culture they could relax into - the middle-class comfort of the upholstered armchair, not the bracing, challenging austerities of chrome tubes and leather thongs. What modernism, whose singing school was the Bauhaus presided over by Gropius and others, proposed to them was something rather different: the virtuous but not very alluring prospect of what German ideologues called Wohnung für das Existenzminimum, "minimum-existence housing", with its bedrooms the size of closets, and closets hardly bigger than shoeboxes. This had its reformative, even its holy aspect. When Gropius in 1919 wrote a program for the first state Bauhaus, which was set up in Weimar, he invoked the images of a cathedral, a crystal edifice, a new community of faith expressing itself in craft. At the root, there was always something penitential about modernism, with its stern abjuration of the world's sensuous pleasures in the interest of higher ones. You were never left in any doubt that the monk's cell was a better place to be than the capitalist's study, let alone his wife's boudoir.
If few modernist objects remain, even less of its architecture survives. The V&A's show does what it can with drawings and photographs, but these can never suffice. The fact is, not much of it was actually built and, of what there was, so much was torn down. I didn't altogether realise this until, 25 years ago, I and a team from the BBC were engaged in making a television series, The Shock of the New. We needed to film some great, canonical building in Europe that would exemplify all that passion over form and function, the abolition of ornament, the stripping away of "superfluous" detail, the overriding myths and utopian metaphors of the machine age. And one of the first things we found was that such buildings mainly existed on paper, hardly at all in the real world. Once the designers' ideas of what society "needed" came up against the things real people seemed to want, there was a collision that often amounted to a fiasco.
The memorable example, for me, was the one building in which Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris (1887-1965), the Swiss watchmaker's son who went by the name of Le Corbusier, was able to pour out his notions of social amelioration through housing: the Unité d'Habitation in Marseilles, which began receiving its first tenants in 1952. Raised on its thick, raw concrete stilts, massive and domineering, the Unité became an instant classic of Modern architecture. Just about everyone in the profession adored it, or said they did; the only people who couldn't stand the great grimy beast were the luckless ones who lived in it. We found when we arrived there in 1979 that it was in pitiable condition. Corbu's béton brut couldn't be cleaned, the metal-framed windows were hopelessly corroded, the electricity kept shorting out, the brise-soleils or concrete sunscreens were permanently foul with pigeon shit, the "shopping street" halfway up inside was locked and shuttered because ordinary French people prefer to do their marketing on real streets (an obvious aspect of social behaviour that eluded the intellectual grasp of the formgiver, who believed that folk ought to behave in accordance with the dotty authoritarian notions of idealist philosophes like Saint-Simon and Fourier). Saddest of all was the roof, which Corbu had imagined as a sort of concrete Acropolis dedicated to the cult of the sun and of physical culture, like a Greek palaestra, complete with pools and jogging track. It was a chaos of dried slime and broken cinder-blocks. And when the concierge, who hated the place, granted us admission to his flat in the Unité, we found that he and his wife had valiantly fought back against the functionalist plainness Corbu had prescribed for the residents: it was chock-a-block with fringes, bobbles and tassels, Louis this and that, and even a department-store rococo chandelier which, due to the lowness of the ceiling, almost touched the dining-table. Here, the working class had ceased to be the abstraction Corbu fancied. It had taken its revenge on the modernist emperor. I sometimes wonder if the decor of that concierge's flat is still the same today.
· Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-39 is at the V&A, London SW7, from April 6. Details: 0870 906 3883.
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J.H. Crawford Carfree Cities