What is "Modernism" anyway? Where did it come from, and why does it seem to surround us?
We think we know Modernism when we see it, starting with sleek, streamlined, "no-frills" forms. Maybe Modernism thrills us as an indication that the future is, in fact, now. Or perhaps we try to avoid it whenever possible, preferring traditional architecture to glass and steel skyscrapers and representational art to the abstract. Maybe we wish to cling to that which is deemed more human, emotional, and accessible.
But perhaps we don't really know much about the style that supposedly defines us.
Modernism – considered to be a movement comprising contemporaneous, Utopian ideas – was meant to change the world. But it's actually not all that new.
Born out of the chaos and destruction of the trenches of World War I, Modernism was meant to be more than an aesthetic principle. It was conceived by European designers, artists, and architects as the impetus for a new way of life, a style and approach to living that would, in theory, benefit all.
"The old forms are in ruins, the benumbed world is shaken up, the human spirit is invalidated and in flux toward a new form," said Walter Gropius, (1883-1969), a German Modernist architect, of the impetus of the movement.
Often characterized by clean, simple forms that are starkly geometric, machine-made, and brightly colored, Modernist design was created to replace the old, fussy, and dusty. It was about creating a better world where more people would be surrounded by beautiful, contemporaneous architecture, objects, and design in a striving toward Utopia.
Now a major exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., through July 27, addresses the mysteries of Modernism and strives to reveal its method and meaning. "Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939" is the largest, most comprehensive exhibit on the subject ever to be shown in the United States. Originating at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the show endeavors to represent the whole of Modernism – in architecture, fashion, furniture, film, theater, and painting.
Comprising more than 390 works representing 17 countries, this multifaceted show examines the origins of the movement in Europe through its expansion across the Western world and into America by the time of World War II.
On view are Modernist creations that include paintings by Braque, Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Leger; more than 15 architectural models of houses and buildings that represent the Modernist ideal; streamlined furniture by Mies van der Rohe and others; a rare Modernist car (the Czech Tatra T77), and much more.
The exhibition also explores Modernist themes concerned with the centrality of the machine (which made mass-production possible); the culture of a more streamlined human body achieved through sport and exercise; and the role of nature and natural forms counterbalancing the highly intellectualized urbanism of much Modernist design.
The invention of the Cubist style of painting by Picasso and Braque in the early 1900s pinpoints the origin of Modernism in the minds of many scholars, though some credit Édouard Manet with the first Modernist painting.
Out of Cubism and an infatuation with newness came other Modernist "isms" or submovements in art that are examined in this exhibit, including Futurism, Purism, Constructivism, and the Bauhaus movement.
In the 1920s, the Italian Futurist Giacomo Balla produced an attention-seeking example of Modernism par excellence in the multicolored wool "Futurist Suit," pictured above, which anticipates the wild, pop styles of the 1960s.
Other Modernist designs were brilliantly practical.
In 1923, the architect Le Corbusier declared in "Vers Une Architecture" that a house should be a "machine for living in." His light-filled open design for a quintessentially modern creation called "Villa Savoye, 1920" is included in the exhibit. Despite its aesthetic fascination, many would consider it a nice place to visit, but not where they would necessarily want to live.
"Peinture/Nature Morte, 1924" by the American painter Patrick Henry Bruce, also included in the exhibit and shown at left – is a classic example of the Modernist tendency toward abstraction, the reduction of complex forms of real objects to their geometrical essence.
Film – a quintessentially Modernist art form dependent as it is on machines for its production – plays a prominent role in this exhibition.
A clip of Charlie Chaplin's famous 1936 movie, "Modern Times," is on display. It captures some of the more controversial aspects of fast-moving, machine-oriented modern life and work. With greater efficiency and speed, the factory workplace became more impersonal – an aspect of modern life beyond the ideals of Modernism.
Nevertheless, Modernism is here to stay. "The built environment that we live in today was largely shaped by Modernism," says Christopher Wilk, curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in his introductory essay in the show's catalog.
That is, until our culture catches on to the next new thing – whatever might be more modern, post-Modern, even, say some, post-post-Modern – than Modernism itself.