When portions of "Ulysses" first appeared in a literary magazine from 1918 to 1920, its Irish author, James Joyce, wanted the world to know that he had created a new kind of novel, resembling nothing that came before. When Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" premiered in Paris in 1913, the Russian composer's music was so dissonant, new and shocking that the audience rioted.
Other artists such as the painter Pablo Picasso, architect Le Corbusier, designer Marcel Breuer and filmmaker Fritz Lang wanted to do the same: break completely with the past and re-create their form of art, taking it to new and different heights. "I can't think of another moment in history," says Paul Greenhalgh, director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, "when so many artists said, 'That's it. Let's start over.' "
These artists, the most influential of the 20th century, are known as Modernists, and a comprehensive exhibition of their work, showing more than 400 pieces and film clips, has opened at the Corcoran. Called "Modernism: Designing a New World: 1914-1939," the show is an augmented version of an exhibition first mounted at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. It closes July 29 and will go nowhere else in the United States.
Modernism can be a confusing term. It sounds as if it is referring to any style that is new and fashionable. But in fact, art historians use the word "Modernism" to cover the movements and styles created by these iconoclastic artists from the beginning of World War I to the beginning of World War II.
Aside from the desire to re-create their forms of art, most Modernists, who had witnessed the carnage of war, were imbued with the utopian idea that their work could make the world a better place. They disliked decoration and instead molded beauty out of geometric and curvilinear forms. They wanted to rid homes of clutter and fill them instead with space and light. Many admired 20th century machines because they were efficient yet aesthetically pleasing without any fancy decoration. The architect Le Corbusier insisted that, in its own way, an automobile was as beautiful as the Greek Parthenon.
Essence without walls
Le CORBUSIER is regarded as one of the gurus of Modernism. Greenhalgh describes him as "arguably the single most influential architect of the 20th century," and the exhibition explores his work in some detail. He was born in Switzerland in 1887 as Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris but adopted the pseudonym Le Corbusier after he moved to Paris and started the magazine L'Esprit Nouveau (The New Spirit). He drowned in 1965 while swimming in the Mediterranean.
It is difficult to show the work of an architect inside a museum, but the Corcoran exhibition does so by displaying an early Cubist-like painting by Le Corbusier (hanging near a Cubist painting by Picasso), a good-size model of his famous Villa Savoye, numerous samples of his drawings and plans, copies of his books and magazines, and film clips and photos of his works. The revolutionary design of the Villa Savoye, a private home in a suburb of Paris built in 1928, is shown clearly by the model, photos and film clips. Le Corbusier perched the white concrete house on thin concrete pillars. Since these pillars — not walls — supported the floors above, he did not need heavy walls. This allowed him to run windows across the walls from corner to corner so that light would flood the interior. On the top floor, he cut the house back to curving modules and laid down an outdoor garden around them.
Overstuffed and thick wooden furniture seemed out of place in well-lighted, airy Modernist rooms, and designers used new materials to make thinner pieces. Breuer, the Hungarian-born designer who headed the furniture workshop at the Bauhaus, the renowned Modernist art school in Germany, insisted that chairs should be transparent enough to create the illusion of people sitting on air. The exhibition is chock full of Modernist chairs, including Breuer's well-known club chair, made in 1925 of a canvas seat placed on thin tubes of steel.
The Modernist architects were too utopian to limit themselves to airy villas for the rich. The awful destruction of World War I led to a need for mass housing for workers. Socialist governments financed huge housing estates such as the Karl Marx Hof in Vienna. Since space was limited, designers tried hard to eliminate clutter by creating beds that folded, desks that doubled as dining tables and a variety of other furniture that took up little room.
The exhibition displays a complete and compact kitchen designed by Viennese architect Grete Lihotsky in the mid-1920s for housing estates in Frankfurt, Germany. The kitchen was designed for maximum efficiency. A table for food preparation and an adjacent sink, for example, were placed under window light and at a height low enough for the housewife to sit while working. Ten thousand of these Lihotsky kitchens were built in Frankfurt.
Many Modernist artists were infatuated by the efficiency and beauty of 20th century machines. The Corcoran opens the show with a spectacular 1938 Czech-built Tatra 77a auto in the museum lobby. Just the way a car was a machine for driving and a plane was a machine for flying, Le Corbusier said "a house was a machine for living in." The French painter Fernand Léger lavished striking colors on abstract assortments of pistons and bolts and ball bearings. In "The Mechanic," a 1920 painting in the exhibition, he idealized a rakish worker with arms like powerful pistons.
Machinery is dealt with in a far different way in two wonderful film clips in the show: the scenes from Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times" depicting the delirious tramp caught in the giant gears of a factory, and the scenes from Lang's "Metropolis" showing the rebellion of the robotized workers against their plight and machinery.
Coming in on coattails
The Corcoran is an unexpected site for an exhibition as large and complex as this one. The show takes up most of the museum's space. Housed in a small 19th century building near the White House, the nongovernment Corcoran, though it has a fine collection of 19th century European and American paintings, is usually dwarfed in size and prestige by other museums in Washington, such as the National Gallery of Art.
The Modernism show is at the Corcoran because of Greenhalgh, who took over as director a year ago April 1. Staff morale was low then. Unable to raise enough funds, the Corcoran had recently canceled plans for a new addition by architect Frank Gehry.
The 51-year-old Greenhalgh, who had just spent five years as president of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, says he was looking for a way "to kick-start us at the Corcoran." It was natural for him to turn to the Victoria & Albert, which had embarked on a program to present five major shows describing the movements and styles of art and design in the 20th century. Greenhalgh, the former head of research at the V&A, was the curator of the first, "Art Nouveau: 1890-1914," a spectacular exhibition that attracted crowds at Washington's National Gallery in late 2000 and early 2001. An Art Deco show followed, making well-attended stops in 2004 at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Modernism was the third show, and Greenhalgh, still close to colleagues at the V&A, persuaded them to let the Corcoran exhibit it in the United States. Greenhalgh intends to strengthen the link with the V&A. Cold War Modernism and Post-Modernism shows will follow in the London museum, and the Corcoran will be heavily involved in Post-Modernism. In fact, that show, according to current plans, will open at the Corcoran before it goes on to the V&A.