A Bold Break With Its Past

Le Corbusier's purist design for the Villa Savoye, built in the late 1920s in Poissy, a suburb of Paris, became the basis for much of his later architecture.
Le Corbusier's purist design for the Villa Savoye, built in the late 1920s in Poissy, a suburb of Paris, became the basis for much of his later architecture. (Copyright Fondation Le Corbusier)
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 11, 2007

Modernism matters to us all, from the moment we wake up to when we fall asleep.

So what if you live in a restored Victorian and decorate only with antiques? The smooth plastic of your morning toothbrush, the slick monitor you're glued to all day at work, the Metro that carries you home to bed -- every one of them depends on ideas of how a "modern" life should look and should be lived.

This spring, modernism matters most of all to the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Its 1897 building is all classical columns and marble. Its collection is most famous for gold-framed oil paintings by American Old Masters. But under Paul Greenhalgh, its new director, the Corcoran is staking everything on modernism. Or rather, on "Modernism," a massive touring exhibition -- already declared a "blockbuster" in Corcoran publicity -- that opens March 17. The show will explore how those "modern" ideas about design and art, which today touch everyone, everywhere, were first conceived almost a hundred years ago by a handful of European radicals.

Modernism, the movement, says Greenhalgh, was about relaunching the world, with new forms that were supposed to move society in new directions. "Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939" is about "relaunching ourselves as an institution," says Greenhalgh. "There's an agenda for us here -- it's the perfect exhibition for us at this moment in time."

The walls of the exhibition will proudly read: "A great epoch has begun. There exists a new spirit." It's a famous tagline from the great Swiss architect Le Corbusier, one of modernism's crucial figures. "It is not an exaggeration," says Greenhalgh, "to say we feel that way about the Corcoran."

Greenhalgh's institution has been having a rough ride. In 2005, the year before he was hired, it scrapped plans to spend something like $200 million -- money it didn't have and had failed to raise -- on a splashy Frank Gehry addition.

Even before that, the museum seemed to have problems with focus and quality control: It borrowed shows on all kinds of subjects, from Jackie Kennedy's wardrobe to paintings from the covers of account books in medieval Siena. Its full-career survey of modern painter Larry Rivers -- an old friend of the director at the time -- was an exhibition idea already rejected by more prestigious institutions. Henry Allen, The Washington Post's photography critic, found a "disappointing deadness" in an exhibition of images of women by commercial photographer Annie Leibovitz. And the Corcoran's show of new work by Johnson & Johnson heir J. Seward Johnson Jr., consisting of life-size bronzes of the figures in famous impressionist paintings, was hardly award-winning fare. (At the time, I said it was the worst museum show I'd ever seen. It has yet to be topped.)

The Corcoran was not exactly seen as a center of excellence in the museum world. On the contrary, says Greenhalgh, by the time he arrived it had become known "for trying to do something and failing." His ambitious modernism show, making its only American stop at the Corcoran, must prove the opposite: "Delivering what we say we will deliver -- this project is all about that."

There will be a lot to deliver on.

"Modernism," on tour from London's great Victoria and Albert Museum -- where Greenhalgh was once a senior curator -- is the largest survey of the topic ever done. It looks at how we got to the modern forms we all live with today. At the Corcoran, the show will include well over 400 modernist objects, documents and film clips. It will feature sleek chairs and radios and lamps; paintings, sculptures and fine-art photographs; maquettes and images of famous modern buildings. There will be the world's first built-in modern kitchen, as well as a Buck Rogers-worthy car from 1937 and a sinister chrome-plated, man-size X-ray machine that looks worthy of Buck's worst enemy.

The show will take up nearly the entire museum, filling more than 22,000 square feet of exhibition space. It will have even more objects in it than the sprawling London version.

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