Correction to This Article
A caption in the April 9 Arts section incorrectly said a chrome cantilever chair was designed by Alvar Aalto. It was designed in 1929-30 by Hans Luckhardt.

Old-Time Modernism

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 9, 2006

LONDON -- The iPod is the latest symbol of everything that's up to date. But its best-selling, sleek design is built around ideas that have been with us for decades and decades.

A bakelite radio from the 1930s could exploit the same principles of crisp forms, smooth surfaces and clean concentric circles as Apple's music player.

Same goes for all the chrome-and-leather furniture and cubic shelving that sells to our most fashion-forward loft dwellers: It was all first dreamed up in the 1920s or before.

Almost every recent building that gets any kind of praise -- from Frank Gehry's famous Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao to the shiny new Katzen Arts Center in Washington -- is also deeply retrospective. The same is true for much of the current art they house.

You see that we haven't come very far as soon as you get a good look back at where we've come from -- such as the view provided by "Modernism: Designing a New World, 1914-1939," a massive survey exhibition that opened here Thursday at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It claims to be the first show to explore the modern movement in all its forms -- from radio design to innovative furniture and clothes to architecture and fine art.

People are always talking about today's surge in design: They cite the way Gehry's splashy building turned a Spanish backwater into a profitable tourist destination, and how Apple's success depends on its investment in the innovative look and feel of its products. This design "boom," and the way it's changing homes and offices, has even made it to the cover of Time magazine. But what they're really talking about -- what's really being brought within our reach when a successful furniture chain dubs itself Design Within Reach -- isn't design in general. It is specifically modern styling. What's being hailed is the final victory of modernism as the model for the way good objects should be made.

That must be why the V&A show seems so absolutely timely, and winning.

It displays the long-ago birth and halting development of the bent-chrome cantilever chair, now so popular that it gets knocked off on the Web for a few dozen bucks. Or how about the first glass-walled, knife-edged skyscrapers? Incredibly, the original concept for the form was explored in a huge drawing that Mies van der Rohe made in 1921 -- and that could absolutely pass as the latest flashy K Street office-block proposal. Almost every fresh idea from the early days of modernism still has the power to impress.

(Modernism expert Paul Greenhalgh, a former staffer at the V&A and new director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, hopes to take advantage of that fact. He says he's in the last stages of negotiations to bring the London exhibition to the Corcoran sometime next year. The show is a sequel, of sorts, to the major art nouveau show that Greenhalgh curated for the V&A, and which toured to the National Gallery of Art in 2000. Living up to that lavish National Gallery example will be a major challenge for Greenhalgh's new, much smaller museum -- but he says it's a challenge that he welcomes, and that will do the long-troubled institution good.)

The greatness of modernism was once up in the air. It faced some temporary opposition in the postmodern '70s and '80s, when it was the domineering father-figure that needed a good slaying. But after a full century, modern design and art now look set to have the kind of ongoing, long-term influence that only a very few other artistic movements have ever had. Modernism stands almost alone alongside Greek and Roman sculpture and architecture, and Renaissance painting, as the kind of force that compels every later artist to come to grips with it. Our own tussle with modernism feels as though it's barely begun, even though it has obsessed many of our leading culturati for decades already.

Like many of the greatest movements and figures in art, what may be most impressive about modernism is how fertile and wide-ranging it turns out to be. Like the buildings of ancient Greece and Rome, or the pictures of Michelangelo and Titian, modernism doesn't so much provide powerfully final answers and definitive take-home messages as offer an almost unending set of novel questions and probing propositions. The London exhibition doesn't just confirm how glorious good modern objects look ; it shows us that their slick, attractive surfaces have always triggered original and even subversive ideas.

Over the years, the forms and principles of modernism have stayed surprisingly the same. Modernism tends toward sleek shapes, avoids decoration and explores industrial materials and techniques, all of which gives it the kind of coherent syntax and vocabulary that columns and capitals and arches give to classical buildings. But, like classicism, modernism's few, potent visual ideas could always be read and used in wildly different ways, by vastly different kinds of people.

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