Massive’Modernism’ Reflects Corcoran’s Own Soul Searching
You cannot accuse Paul Greenhalgh, the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s new director and president, of not being ambitious or afraid to take a risk.
Although Greenhalgh has been at the Corcoran since April of 2006, “Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939” is the first exhibition at the Corcoran for which he can truly take credit and responsibility.
It’s fair to say that “Modernism” marks the beginning of the Greenhalgh era at the Corcoran. And just as the “New World” theme is strong and big in this new exhibition, the term also very much describes what’s happening at the newly revitalized Corcoran.
“Modernism” is also big—in size, ideas, volume and vista—and has been designed with dazzle, aplomb and imagination. As far as ambition goes, “Modernism” seeks nothing less than to explain an overarching artistic and design movement that paved the way to the future in architecture, film, living design, art and any number of other “isms” in the devastating but also culturally and politically revolutionary aftermath of World War I.
Visitors of course can decide for themselves whether the exhibition succeeds in its multifaceted goals, but one thing is for sure: If you don’t come away with something you didn’t know before about art and design, and even the history of the era (1914-39), you’re either a know-it-all expert anyway or you lack a fundamental curiosity about what it is to be a human being in modern times.
Besides its sheer size—390 works in the form of drawings, paintings, films, sculpture, models, photographs and some things that don’t fit any category—the exhibition will excite curiosity, open up previously unexplored vistas, maybe even ignite a few arguments.
The downside to all this is that the exhibition is a bit much to digest. Each gallery may have its own charm and attraction, but as a whole the display doesn’t gel together well. You come away both exhilarated and exhausted, knowing full well that you’ve missed a lot even after tripping through in a fast-paced two hours.
If one of the aims here is to dispel the notion (held by some critics) that the Corcoran had previously dabbled too much in popular and populist fare that didn’t meet the critical standards of challenging art, well, you can pretty much guarantee that “Modernism” is a challenge. It’s a challenge to a viewer’s capacity for due diligence, patience, endurance and acceptance of the objects at hand as great things of beauty and as idealistic avatars of change for the better.
A certain utopian spirit drives the exhibition and much of the works in it, which are shaped by theoretical ideas of optimism at every corner. “Modernism” is practically a travelogue of “isms”—from the not-entirely-defined term “modernism” to all the isms that seared their way through Europe’s cultural and design communities between two world wars. “A great epoch has begun,” wrote Le Corbusier, the elegant designer of elegant buildings. “There exists a new spirit.”
Utopia was certainly in the air, and the exhibition suggests that modernism was a “loose collection of utopian ideas,” with the artists using new technology and materials (plastics and celluloid, for instance) as well as new thinking to create a new art form and to transform the world.
And it was the artists who felt they could change this world and make it better, as only artists can. In fact, the whole modernist gang is loosely tied together in this display: Fernand Léger, Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Alexander Rodchenko, Wassily Kandinsky, Charles Sheeler, the aforementioned Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius and Alvar Aalto, among many others.
The signature work for the exhibition is “Tableau No. III 1922-25 with Red, Black, Yellow, Blue and Grey,” a characteristic oil by the great modern Dutch artist Piet Mondrian. Another charismatic piece in the show is one of the rarest modernist cars: the magnificently streamlined, dorsal-finned Czech Tatra T77, which will make you instantly forget about all those beer-doused commercials for NASCAR. It’s a splashy example of modernism at work and play, and a work of art in itself.
In addition, you’ll run into architectural models and designs for the “Frankfurt Kitchen,” the first modern kitchen to be manufactured in large quantities, as well as urban building designs, some of which are massively grand but also presage the kind of housing that would dominate totalitarian states.
Notably absent is a strong presence of dada artists, who came from a movement that balked at and scoffed the high-minded determinism of modernists. The only representative from the group is Oskar Schlemmer with his life-size “Triadic Ballet,” another must-see section of the exhibition.
A joy to stumble upon is a clip from Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film “Modern Times,” with Charlie struggling against the assembly line, a Henry Ford invention deeply admired by modernists in Europe. The film is practically a populist and artistic critique not of modernism itself, but rather of its results.
“Modernism” is actually an expanded version of an earlier exhibition originating at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, replete with new additions from the Corcoran. It assumes a large, questing, intellectually curious audience—much like the movement did. And although exhaustive, it also has elements of both a carnival of modern art and a safari into a new world.
Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939 through July 29 Corcoran Gallery of Art 500 17th St., NW For more information, please call (202) 639-1700 or visit www.corcoran.org.
About the Author
Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.