A 1938 Tatra 77A Czech automobile greets visitors as they enter the Corcoran's
A 1938 Tatra 77A Czech automobile greets visitors as they enter the Corcoran's "Modernism" exhibit.
Linda Davidson/The Washington Post

The Rise And Call of Modernism

A security guard considers the cantilevered seating of
A security guard considers the cantilevered seating of "Sitting on Air." (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 18, 2007

"You really like that modern stuff? It's so cold and intellectual. Who can even understand what those kinds of artists say?" For an absurdly long time -- the better part of 100 years, now -- lovers of the modern have had to mount a rear-guard action against those kinds of questions. Even Ikea still has to seed its modern displays with spindles and chintz.

But a show that opened yesterday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art ought to convert even the die-hard detractors. "Modernism: Designing a New World, 1914-1939," on tour from the great Victoria and Albert Museum in London, includes more than 400 stunning images and objects that make the argument themselves: Except perhaps for the time around 1500 in Renaissance Italy, no moment in Western art has had the breadth and depth and simple world-changing greatness of modernism.

A skeptic doesn't have to take an expert's word on this. Just looking at the objects at the Corcoran should do the trick.

I dare anyone to walk into the Corcoran lobby and resist the luscious, aerodynamic sweep of the modernist car that fills it, dubbed the "77A" and made in Czechoslovakia by the Tatra company in 1938. It shows how modernism, born just before World War I as a radical movement in fine art, transformed the way the world around us has looked since. A sleek Acura coupe couldn't exist at all without precedents like the 77A.

Behind the car, marching up both sides of the Corcoran's grand staircase, are a dozen copies of Gerrit Rietveld's "Red Blue" chair, which was perfected around 1923 and is now one of the great icons of modern design.

The Dutchman's chairs register as superb sculpture: They define space using a bare few uprights and horizontals in black, then breach it with slender diagonals -- the slanting chair seat and its back -- in two primal, primary colors. But for all its sculptural impact, anyone who's lived with the "Red Blue" can vouch for its surprising comfort. (I know one amateur woodworker who has copied the chair in every size to seat grandkids of all ages, as well as full-size, in pressure-treated lumber, to guarantee the comfort of her garden furniture.) Like all the best of modern design, the "Red Blue" wants to inspire, but it also wants to work.

Most importantly, even eight decades after its birth, the "Red Blue" can still energize a space that's as imposing as the Corcoran's neoclassical atrium. A great modernist chair doesn't just fill the room it's in, as decoration, the way most earlier furniture does; even after all these years of familiarity, the "Red Blue" still has the impact to compete with architecture and change the way any room feels. If it came out tomorrow, the "Red Blue" would still win big play in the design press.

At the top of that chair-lined staircase, the Corcoran's lovely rotunda has been reserved for a very few of modernism's greatest creations, picked out with spotlights.

A distillation of upward, sideways and spiral thrusts: A room-size model of Vladimir Tatlin's 1920
A distillation of upward, sideways and spiral thrusts: A room-size model of Vladimir Tatlin's 1920 "Monument to the Third International."(Hirshhorn Museum And Sculpture Garden)
There is a room-size model of Vladimir Tatlin's 1920 "Monument to the Third International," which, had it been built, would have been 100 stories tall. Again we see art and design in perfect balance. The Russian's model works as an exciting piece of modernist sculpture: It has an amazing distillation of upward, sideways and spiral thrusts, like nothing ever done before. As an idea for a building, it profoundly rethinks the relationship between a supporting skeleton and the spaces such a skeleton can hold. The structures that support Frank Gehry's twisting skins are foreshadowed in it. Even Washington's conservative Cato Institute on Massachusetts Avenue is housed in a recent building that depends on Tatlin's exoskeletal ideas.

The great "Wassily" armchair, by German designer and architect Marcel Breuer -- who much later built the Whitney Museum in New York -- helped change the whole idea of what seating could be. Even Rietveld's "Red Blue" was still essentially four wooden legs with boards attached for seat and back and arms; Breuer's chair is built around a single, sinuous line made of chromed tubing. Breuer found that, rather than looking back to furniture tradition and making subtle tweaks on it, a whole new kind of chair could come from looking to the latest bicycle technologies.

In a show on modernism, a movement whose tentacles reached everywhere, even an object as modest as a vase can get big play. Alvar Aalto's 1936 "Savoy" vase, mold-blown in Finland of undulating glass, clearly deserves its spotlighted place in the Corcoran rotunda: It's been in production almost since its birth, and now lives on mantels all around the world. Rather than quoting directly from nature, as the leaves and fronds decorating so many earlier designs had done, Aalto's vase evokes the look and principles of nature, in the abstract. The gently rippled sides of his vessel recall natural processes and forms -- the surf, erosion and tide-washed sand as well as cellular growth and aquatic plants -- without citing any single one of nature's creations.

Touching All the Bases

The themes introduced in the Corcoran's atrium and rotunda play out across the rest of this massive show, which takes up very nearly the entire museum. (Even spending less than a minute with each object -- some pieces would repay days of study -- it still takes something like five hours to get a good look at everything; the Corcoran's fond wish that visitors will make return visits, even at $14 a go, may yet be granted.)

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