AT THE Museum of Modern Art in New York City, live from the late-late show comes the "Art of the Twenties." Leather, chrome, mirror, skyscrapers, rounded edges, boopsie doopsie, oh you kid, and all that jazz.
The show explores paintings, prints, photographs, films, architecture and decorative arts. Though we've all seen the individual pieces before, putting them all together in one show makes a much bigger impact. And you see the relation of, say, painting to furniture. Ultimately, because the arts of the period are so strongly architectural, you come away with a sense that the '20s was all designed by architects. The show is in celebration of the Modern's 50th year. Perhaps it is the late-show movies -- as well as MOMA's own film program in New York and the AFI here that have set off the great Twenties Revival. Remember "Grand Hotel," "Design for Living" or the "Third Man?" -- when Norma Shearer and Ginger Rogers languished in chiffon gowns with fur cuffs.
William Lieberman directed the splendid show at MOMA with installation assistance from J. Stewart Johnson. The show will be open through Jan. 22, 1980.Appropriately, '20s films are being shown in MOMA's theater, where films were first presented as an art form. Included are Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," a film that greatly influenced architecture.
The Modern, which brought us the International Style in design and architecture, has drawn from its own collection a whole corridor of photographs of houses by Le Corbusier as well as some of the Barcelona Pavilion. (The National Gallery of Art here currently has a splendid exhibit on Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Pavilion, probably the ultimate design of '20s architecture.) The model of Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye, Poissy-sur Seine, still looks more up to date than anything being built now. The two tiers of roof-top terraces, plus a covered terrace below, seems far grander than the 1970's less-imaginative design.
And then there are our old friends from the design collection, the 1917 (they cheated a bit there) red-and-blue painted wood chair by Gerrit T. Rietveld, typical of the De Stijl style, which flourished in the Netherlands. I've never sat in one, I am happy to say, but it must be the most uncomfortable looking chair ever designed.
Of course, there're the Barcelona chair and Le Corbusier's lounge. The tea pot by Theodore Bogler, 1923, is not often seen, yet it's very handsome. The photograph of the Graf Zeppelin must be included with the great graphic designs. The lithograph by Jan Matulka, 1924, shows the truth of the quip that the architecture of the '20s was copied from the humidors and cigarette cases of the Wiener Werkstatte.
The "Art of the Twenties" represents a wonderful bit of hindsight. In the catalogue, Lieberman writes: "'Art of the Twenties' might have been the initial presentation of the Museum when it opened. Indeed for an inaugural exhibition, the Museum's founding director [Albert Barr Jr.] had proposed an international survey which would have encompassed all the contemporary arts. Fifty years later, it is possible to present such an exhibition. What is extraordinary, however, is that its contents can be chosen exclusively from the collections of the Museum."
Lieberman goes on to characterize the '20s as being a period of "change, contrast and continuity." And he makes the true, if funny, point that "the decade itself transcends its own 10 years. Its economic, political, social and intellectual aspects began to assert themselves before the end of World War I; and they extended to 1933, when in Germany a political victory, tragically, was achieved."
"The City" section of the show presents in prints and photographs both in realistic fire escapes of West 86th Street in New York, by Edward Steichen, and Jan Matulka's stylistic "New York, 1924" lithograph. Every print in this section is worth a careful look for the incredible beauty of its stream lines.
"The Machine" section shows Paul Klee's watercolor "Twittering Machine" with a crank that makes the four birds sing. The robot is glorified by Aleksandra Exter, Hannah Hoch and others. "The False Mirror" sets loose Rene Magritte and his madnesses, here by "The Menaced Assassin."
"The World Transformed" takes up impressionism, expressionism and Fauvism, including Matisse, Bonnard, Dufy and Klee. The Circle and the Square goes into the hard edge of De Stijl in the Netherlands and Constructivism in Russia with works by Moholy-Nagy and Baumeister.
"A Modern Style" takes up the typography, architecture and furnishings. In the catalogue, Lieberman correctly makes the point that the term un Style Moderne covers design from Art Deco to Bauhaus. I hope his championing of this correct and appropriate phrase will lead to its being used from now on to describe the period. He notes that much of the art derives from architecture, as you can see in Leger's painting, "The Baluster." Some of the paintings are actually of architecture. The sculptor Brancusi said, "High polish is a necessity . . ." reflecting the chrome-plated steel and tubular furniture and the smooth "crafted, cast and carved sculpture."
The '20s was a brief intense period between the wars when all life was like a movie with the masks of drama and tragedy back to back -- the stockmarket crash, the rise of Hitler, the end of empires, on with the dance, off with the corset stays, down with restraints, on with creativity, up with the century.
The Museum of Modern Art has that time caught forever in oils, metals, wood and paper.
SCM Corporation and the National Endowment for the Arts made grants for the exhibition and the catalogue. Unfortunately, the otherwise excellent catalogue does not include the furniture, objects and typography, nor all the photographs.