Dead dreams of utopia

Why has a London museum exhibition on Modernism caused so much disquiet?

Anna Travis

Topics Culture

How apt that a movement defined by its fervour to rethink fundamentally the way society is run should be relegated to a museum exhibition in 2006. It seems that enthusiasm for the liberating potential of machinery or technology, or plans for new forms of social organisation, have been frozen in time, suspended behind glass cabinets to be gazed at in wonder and incredulity at the naïve optimism of it all.

The Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition, Modernism: Designing a New World, is to its credit an ambitious attempt to summarise the tumultuous cultural history of 1914-1939, charting how revolutionary ideas became mass movements in art, mass production and architecture. This movement was driven to build a better society in the wake of the First World War; a rejection of the past, and a focus on new technology,
was perceived as a way to achieve this.

So why is the V&A mummifying such works in a museum in 2006? And why are reviewers breaking into a sweat at the sight of paintings such as Man at the Control Panel (Kurt Schmidt, 1924), and describing it as ‘the most terrifying exhibition I have seen’? (1). Because they are both disturbed and repelled by the art’s intense passion for technology and Modernism’s defiant tone of political optimism.

In 1917, the founder of Cubist principles, Guillaume Apollinaire, cries that ‘This new alliance…of the New Spirit that is making itself felt today…will certainly appeal to our best minds. We may expect it to bring about profound changes in our arts and manners through universal joyfulness, for it is only natural, after all, that they keep pace with scientific and industrial progress.’ (2) Or take the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci’s call to arms within the arts: ‘What remains to be done? Not depriving humanity of the material products that it needs…to develop…but to destroy spiritual hierarchies, prejudices, idols and ossified traditions. It means not to be afraid of innovations and audacities, not to be afraid of monsters.’ (3)

The optimism of the ‘New Dwellings’ of the ‘Deutscher Werkbund’ stemmed from utopian plans for community nurseries and sociable layouts, which valued shared public spaces as much as spacious and elegant private realms. Yet in the current pessimistic climate these feel like remote relics of a bygone era, when architectural dreams and ‘drawings went from the sketchbook to the real world’ (4). Whatever the limits of municipal Socialism, it seems a gloomy indictment of today’s city councils and political parties.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone could do with a ‘blue sky thinking’ trip to this exhibition, as he is currently baffled by the public’s muted reaction to recent consultations on his idea for a 1000-home ‘eco-estate’. The recent Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) report, which attempted to gauge Londoners’ reactions to the mean-spirited environmentalist utopia, concluded that ‘people are likely to shun the area, fearing it will be full of boring houses with no sense of community’ (5). The plans on display at the V&A are an interesting humanist counterpoint to Greenpeace-initiated designs that are in thrall to nature.

In the ‘healthy bodies’ room, the Olympic posters highlighted the healthy body culture of the mid-1930s and, as the exhibitors explained, ‘Health was seen as a metaphor for a bright new future…. The connection between health and the body can be seen throughout the mass media and the visual arts’. Today, a culture with no sense of a modernist ‘bright new future’, is seduced by an apocalypse of ill health. Such a culture produces post-modern works like Jenny Saville’s oversized naked monsters, Marc Quinn’s disabled sculptures or Cindy Sherman’s identity as performance portraits, reflecting back our self-loathing narcissism.

The ‘nature room’ is full of furniture and housing plans that marked, according to the curators, the moment in the 1930s where ‘the sense of a grand, collective Modernist enterprise began to wane…. Eschewing objectivity, geometry and machine imagery, they shifted their attention to Nature. Here they found organic, curvilinear forms and a more satisfying outlet for their emotional and psychological needs’ (6). Sound familiar? This could have been lifted straight from a Sunday Supplement piece on the future of design. The rather revolting cowhide chairs were an uncomfortable reminder that we too have returned to nature for ‘new guiding principles’.

Early previews of the exhibition sought to retell the simplistic narrative of Modernism: that it’s one small step from lionising efficiency and the machine age, to goose-stepping in symmetrical form in propaganda footage. Critics on Newsnight Review felt that the movement’s connections to totalitarianism were underplayed (7). Other commentators dug the fatalistic trench even deeper: ‘Go at once. Take a young person to see the Modernism show at the V&A and feel fear. It is the most terrifying exhibition I have seen, because it is politics disguised as art. It opens with a word that says it all – utopia – and ends with an unspoken lie, that this nihilist ideology became merely a style and is no longer a threat. If only.’ (8) Quite where the nihilism resides in reducing the labour of housewives with the first fitted kitchen, or the communal idealism of Corbusier’s Ville Contemporaine, is unclear.

It seems that for such critics, to have the temerity to want to change society or master nature, is inherently sinister, arrogant and perilous. They propose that utopianism is nihilism, in an embryonic form ‘They turned a fad into a political programme, asserting “we” as sovereign over “them.”’, says one. ‘The modernists were the neocons of 20th-century art. They took a sound methodology…and made it a dogma that brooked no opposition, even from reality.’ (9)

Even the V&A’s title, ‘Designing a New World’, actually reflects how uncomfortable the cultural establishment is when tackling the idealism embedded within the movement, choosing instead to frame the works in a sterile design light that artificially separates the intellectual or progressive impulses that drove the works.

We shouldn’t let the panicky perceptions of the works thwart the progressive desires or inspirations that Modernism offers. If there had been a manifesto room, the curators would have done well to look again to Gramsci’s praise of Futurism for a more uplifting gallery wall soundbite: ‘they had confidence in themselves, in the impetuosity of their youthful energies.’ (3) Re-engaging with such optimism might counteract current cowardice. These beliefs and hopes need to be dusted off as aesthetic and political curiosities, and we need to reconsider some of Modernism’s bold aims to reshape not just objects but society itself.

Modernism: Designing a New World continues at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 23 July.

(1) For a real exhibition of modernism, skip the V&A and go to Manchester, Simon Jenkins, Guardian, 7 April 2006

(2) Programme for Parade, Guillaume Apollinaire, 18 May 1917. Modernism – An Anthology of Sources and Documents. Edit. Kolocotroni, Goldman, Taxidou. Edinburgh University Press 1998

(3) Marinetti the Revolutionary, Antonio Gramsci 1916. Modernism – An Anthology of Sources and Documents. Edit. Kolocotroni, Goldman, Taxidou. Edinburgh University Press 1998

(4) Exhibition Programme, V&A modernism: 1914-1939

(5) Livingstone plans 1,000-home eco-estate, Matt Weaver, Guardian, 13 April 2006

(6) Exhibition Programme, V&A modernism: 1914-1939

(7) Newsnight Review, BBC2, Friday 7 April 2006

(8) For a real exhibition of modernism, skip the V&A and go to Manchester, Simon Jenkins, Guardian, 7 April 2006

(9) For a real exhibition of modernism, skip the V&A and go to Manchester, Simon Jenkins, Guardian, 7 April 2006

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Topics Culture


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