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The Modernism exhibition at the V&A, which Maureenand I went to see on Saturday, was as fascinating and frustrating as every exhibition seems to be these days.

Fascinating because there were some wonderful things there. The ‘modern’ kitchen is particularly interesting (and you just have to watch the short film about it). And because book and magazine design has always interested me, I found the various examples intriguing.

Fascinating also because, although the words were never used, it was an incredibly science fictional exhibition. The first thing you see, just inside the door, is a Russian design for flying housing from the early 1920s which is indistinguishable from later designs for space stations. And the most-used word throughout the exhibition is ‘utopia’.

But this brings us to one of the reasons it was a frustrating exhibition. Time and again various exhibits brought to mind texts from the period. The emphasis on machinery recalled Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’; the architectural discovery of glass echoes Zamyatin’s We; the near-worship of Ford and Fordism that crops up repeatedly in the German and Russian modernisms of the 1930s inescapably recalls Huxley’s Brave New World. Reference to these would have added texture and context to the exhibits in the way that extracts from films such as Aelita, Modern Times and Metropolis did throughout the exhibition. But although the Huxley, the Zamyatin, Wells’s A Modern Utopia and others were on sale in the exhibition shop, no books appeared in the exhibition itself.

The problem, as with Dan Cruickshank’s recent series on Modernism, is that Modernism is therefore presented as an exclusively art and design related movement. Literary modernism is excluded from the picture. Now I don’t know how the literary modernism of James and Woolf and Joyce and their fellows relates to the contemporary movements in art and architecture, but I suspect there must be some connection and I would love to see how it works.

Another frustration was that the exhibition constructed no narrative of modernism, not even chronological. The focus was almost exclusively on Russian and German Modernisms, little that was happening in Italy, France, Britain or the USA at the time gets a look in. But we get little sense of whether various Modernisms had a national or geographical character. Were Russian Modernists inspired by the Bauhaus, or were congruent developments entirely coincidental? And after wandering through a room containing a number of exhibits from the 1920s, it is frustrating to move into the next section and discover that by the 1920s the political character of Modernism was changing. Did these changes affect the things we’ve just seen, and if so, how?

Above all, the captions kept hinting at a political narrative. Right at the start of the exhibition we are told that Modernism up to the 1920s was essentially a movement of the left, but as it moved into the 1930s it became associated with consumerism and also found it easy to make accommodation with right-wing dictatorships. This is a fascinating story, and the socialist associations of early modernism are well served. You can also see – though it is not made explicit – the rise of a consumerist, mass-market approach to modern design. But though we are told more than once about the accommodation with fascism, nowhere is this actually shown. I left feeling that they had attempted to construct an intriguing political meta-narrative, but hadn’t actually got around to telling the story.

First published at LiveJournal, 10 July 2006.

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