- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2007

Just a couple of decades ago, the modern movement was written off as hopelessly dogmatic, depleted, done, but it never really died, and all its bareness and spareness have come back into fashion. The revival has led to enshrining the 20th-century icons that spawned the style, from preserving the Bauhaus to restoring Fallingwater.

So it’s unsurprising to find the museum world reassessing modernism’s roots and capitalizing on its renewed appeal. Opening today at the Corcoran Gallery of Art is the much-hyped “Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939,” an ambitious survey of the movement displaying 390 works from 17 countries.

Organized by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, “Modernism” is as spectacular as promised. This sprawling, scholarly exhibit and its extensive catalog do nothing less than demonstrate how modernism changed the world — for better and for worse.

The revolutionaries represented in the show undoubtedly are spinning in their graves over the presentation of their austere geometries within the Corcoran’s worn beaux-arts galleries. However, the neoclassical setting, “modernized” with brightly colored paint, actually helps, through contrast, to set off the unadorned rigors of the artifacts that jam-pack the museum. Even a strict traditionalist will get a kick out of watching Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” flickering behind the Ionic columns of Ernest Flagg’s ornate 1897 building.

Curator Christopher Wilk, the keeper of furniture, textiles and fashion at the V&A;, has broadened the usual view of this international movement by assembling fine art, architecture, clothing, jewelry, graphic design, furniture, film, tableware — you name it — to reveal common themes in unexpected places.

All the familiar classics are here: Alvar Aalto’s squiggly glass vases, Marcel Breuer’s tubular steel chairs, Le Corbusier’s white villas. So are tea sets, posters, photographs and buildings by lesser-known talents from Eastern Europe and Russia, whose creations sometimes outshine those by more famous colleagues. Gleaming just inside the museum’s front doors, for example, is the silver Tatra, a 1937 Czech auto more streamlined than a Rolls-Royce.

The exhibit makes it clear that modernism wasn’t a single style but rather a utopian vision aimed at the wholesale transformation of societies plagued by war, corruption and disease. It begins with the series of movements — French cubism, Italian futurism, German expressionism, Russian construc- tivism — that sprang up around World War I. Their goals may have been unrealistic, but their startling images had a profound effect on the artistic world. Mies van der Rohe’s visionary glass skyscraper, Kazimir Malevich’s abstract paintings and Giacomo Balla’s brightly patterned wool suit still resonate today.

Yet, perhaps unwittingly, the show’s emphasis on aesthetics underscores the elitism implicit in the modernist sensibility. For all their professed concern for the proletariat, modernists were more interested in the visual impact of their creations than in the comfort or convenience they afforded.

Pity the poor workers who lived in the stark housing on display here — much of it as inviting as prison cellblocks — or sat in the unyielding chairs designed to improve posture. Even the modernists’ household furniture was dogmatic.

Instead of basing designs on the human body, as in most of history, the modernists celebrated machines as an appropriate source of imagery for the age and a vehicle for mass-producing functional designs. American principles of efficiency, developed by Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford, were influential on Europeans seeking to minimize space and cost.

“A house is a machine for living in,” Le Corbusier famously said, forgoing coziness for ramps and strip windows. A full installation of a German kitchen (Yes, “Modernism” includes everything and the kitchen sink) designed by Grete Lihotzky and mass-produced for more than 10,000 Frankfurt homes, illustrates the results of this domestic streamlining. Today, though, its pea green cabinets and small appliances look positively antique.

Other female designers, ignored in early histories of the movement, also are given their due. Charlotte Perriand, whose furniture designs were co-opted by Le Corbusier, is well represented, as are textile artist Anni Albers and metalworker and lighting designer Marianne Brandt, both of whom taught at the Bauhaus.

The Corcoran has added a much-needed American perspective to the Eurocentric show, but important trans-Atlantic exchange is still omitted. Missing, for example, is any mention of drawings by Frank Lloyd Wright that were published in Germany in 1910 and 1911 and had a profound effect on European architects. In the gallery devoted to the Dutch modern movement, for example, the unacknowledged influence of Mr. Wright’s early, planar designs is clearly apparent in a housing complex drawn by Jan Wils and in Gerrit Rietveld’s unpainted wooden chair.

Although paintings and sculptures by Piet Mondrian, Fernand Leger, Hans Arp and other masters are included, what stand out are the more socially consequential objects related to architecture and design.

Part of the pleasure of the show is being able to view original renderings of constructions well known from history books: Erich Mendelsohn’s sketches of the Einstein Tower, Bruno Taut’s watercolor of his crystal cathedral and Antonio Sant’- Elia’s ink drawings of futuristic skyscrapers all appear more delicate in person than in reproductions.

Among the 15 architectural models are daring designs that were never built, including Vladimir Tatlin’s spiraling, mechanistic monument to the Bolsheviks, which is well placed in the rotunda at the top of the Corcoran’s grand staircase.

Scores of photographs and more than 50 film clips are shown, including theatrical productions that allowed modernism to become more playful. A snippet of German designer Oskar Schlemmer’s fantastical ballet — accompanied by a display of its costumes — is not to be missed.

Unexpected themes round out the modernist picture and keep it fresh. A section on fitness, dance and health reflects modernism’s response to its era’s high death toll from war, tuberculosis and influenza. Clean lines, open spaces and plenty of windows were seen as hygienic alternatives to the cluttered, dark rooms of the Victorian age. Alvar Aalto’s Paimio Sanatorium designs make the point, as do an X-ray contraption, exercise gear and photographs of muscular gymnasts.

The show briefly skims over the darker side of modernism. Posters, drawings and films in one gallery show how totalitarian regimes adopted the style to promote their causes before embracing classicism. Some designers were only too ready to comply, belying the notion that modernism was strictly progressive and idealistic. Mies van der Rohe, hoping to impress Hitler, sketched a German pavilion at the 1934 Brussels Expo with swastika flags; Leni Riefenstahl filmed Nazi rallies and the 1936 Olympics; architect Giuseppe Terragni designed a hall for Mussolini’s Fascist Party.

In Depression-era America, modernism trickled down to the marketplace, largely stripped of political and social implications. It became a sales tool for such American corporations as General Motors, whose Futurama exhibit was a popular attraction at the 1939 World’s Fair. By this time, the Europeans who had started the movement — Mies, Walter Gropius, Breuer and others — had moved to the United States. They continued to spread the modern gospel, eventually provoking a younger generation to rebel against their teachings and embrace the distant past.

WHAT: “Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939”

WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW

WHEN: Sunday, Monday and Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Tuesday. Through July 29

ADMISSION: $14 adults, $12 senior and military, $10 students

PHONE: 202/639-1700

WEB SITE: www.corcoran.org

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