Handsome BMA exhibit shows what modern was and what it became


Now that we are generally considered to have been for some time in the postmodern period in the arts, we ought to be able to look back and make some determinations about the modern period.

When did it begin? What did it consist of? And how long did it last?

"Design 1935-1965: What Modern Was" at the Baltimore Museum of Art is a big, handsome, intriguingly organized, well-installed and fascinating show that attempts to answer these questions for items we use in our everyday lives. When we're speaking of an earlier period we call those things decorative arts, but in speaking of the modern period they're called design.

The term includes everything from the glassware and silver we put on our tables to the tables we put them on (and other furniture), to the appliances we use in the kitchen, to the cars we drive, the jewelry and clothes we wear, the fabrics we sit on, and even the posters we use to publicize all that stuff.

"Design 1935-1965" doesn't include all that. It doesn't include clothes or cars or, unfortunately, appliances. But it does include some 250 items, from a piece of jewelry designed after Salvador Dali's famous painting "The Persistence of Memory" to an armchair made of dark gray urethane foam that looks like a glob BTC of lava halted in mid-flow to classics by such gods of the modern movement as Alvar Aalto, Eero Saarinen, Marcel Breuer and Charles and Ray Eames.

Circulated by the Decorative Arts Museum of Montreal, which may have the most extensive collection of modern design in the world, this traveling show and its catalog are divided into eight categories that propose to trace the rise, the stylistic diversity and the decline of modern design. Along the way it makes some points that may cause surprise and disagreement; but its clarity in putting its views across and its assemblage of beautiful and important works are never in question.

Some may consider the art nouveau of the late 19th century and the art deco of the early 20th as belonging to the modern period, but "What Modern Was" chooses to regard them as retaining too much of handcrafting and surface decoration to qualify as truly modern.

The birth of the modern era

Instead it identifies the opening of the Bauhaus, the great German design school founded in 1919, as the true birth of the modern era, for it espoused principles that broke significantly with the past. As the show enunciates them, these included simplicity of design, utilitarian values, use of new technology and new materials, lack of surface ornament, mass production rather than handcrafting -- all these elements being in accord with the ideals of a democratic society. Good design was no longer to be the option of only the wealthy and privileged; it was to be for the people.

The show begins with a selection of classics -- works that more or less fit that theoretical basis, such as Charles Eames' and Eero Saarinen's modular furniture, Jens Risom's birch side chair with plastic webbing, Breuer's plywood lounge chair, Russell Wright's mix-and-match multicolored dinnerware.

But midway into the first gallery these works come to a halt, and we pass to the first of a series of developments that together create the most striking impression left by the show: that purist ,, ideas of modernism really didn't work as well as their progenitors surely hoped. Works of strict modernism were too theoretical to have broad appeal, as is apparent from the fact that all the rest of the show is taken up with variations that broke in some way or ways with the modernist ideals.


Take streamlining, for instance. Originally introduced in transportation (trains, automobiles), it featured curves that reduced wind resistance and horizontal lines that suggested speed. So far, so good; but streamlining became glamorous in the 1930s, so it was used on everything from skyscrapers to clocks to chairs. This appalled modern purists, for streamlining on a chair, designed to get you nowhere fast, is both non-utilitarian and ornamental.

Biomorphic modernism, coming out of dada, surrealism and specifically the work of artist Jean Arp among others, was a way of having ornament without ornament. The organic curves of a piece such as Henning Koppel's wine pitcher themselves constitute a decorative element.

True modernists believed that design should be new, and not take its inspiration from what had gone before. But many designers based their works on historical precedents: Hans Wegner's side chair on Chinese design, Jens Quistgaard's ice bucket on the structure of Viking ships, Archimede Seguso's footed bowl on Venetian Renaissance design.

If modern design developed in the inter-war years, it really came into its own with post-World War II prosperity, and flourished especially in Italy, the United States and Scandinavia. Those of us old enough to remember the 1950s will never forget "Danish modern," the term used generically to describe the Scandinavian design which, together with its imitators, became ubiquitous in

that decade.

Postwar modernism

Postwar modernism was but another variant on pure modernism, more suave and elegant, with more emphasis (in many cases) on beauty. Some of the works in this, the show's largest single section, such as Nils Landberg's goblets and vase or James Prestini's bowl, indeed carry elegance to the point where utility is all but disregarded.

While the modernists frowned on ornament, there is a section devoted to modern pattern and ornament, and here some of the works are by famous artists: Matisse, Picasso, Dufy, Calder, Miro, Dali, Leger. But these works seem to fit only part of the premise of this show: while they were done within its time frame, stylistically they stray significantly from the design principles with which the show began.

'What Modern Wasn't'

And one can say that in spades about the next segment, on expressionist modern. Many of these works, inspired by mid-century ab- stract expressionism, such as Wendell Castle's scribe's stool or Sheila Hicks' massive fiber sculpture, are crafted rather than mass-produced, complex rather than simple of form, designed primarily as art rather than utilitarian objects, and surely not cost-effective. They could almost be called "What Modern Wasn't." So that when we pass into the last of the show's sections, 1960s works by such designers as Ettore Sotsass and Joe Colombo, grouped under the banner "Beyond Modernism," it seems that we really left essential modernism behind some time ago.

What the show leaves is the feeling that it's impossible either to define modern in any meaningful terms that will encompass the work done in a certain time period, or even to place a time limitation on it.

It isn't at all clear why Hicks' or Castle's works remain within modernism while Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni's sleek floor lamp or Roberto Matta's seating system are beyond it. If modernism can be as encompassing as this show makes it out to be, maybe in time postmodernism will come to be accepted as not really post- at all but simply another variant on modernism. That should be made clearer by the Montreal Museum's future show, now in the planning stages, on design since 1965.

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