The Victoria and Albert, Britain's national museum of design and decorative arts, regularly stages an annual spectacular in the form of an exhibition based on a period and style. Since 2000, a series has developed, including Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Arts and Crafts, Modernism and, still to come in 2008, Cold War design.
These exhibitions have performed valuable roles. They have brought loan objects to London from abroad; they have allowed objects in the V&A and other British collections to gain more prominence; and they have provided dramatic staging to orchestrate these objects into hermeneutic themes.
The intellectual background is presented in a series of large catalogues, among which Modernism: Designing a New World takes its place. A catalogue used to be something a visitor carried round a show. In the past few years, however, it has grown massively in size and weight and it is now the book you buy when you leave, not when you come in. This is a global trend, but it has a particular context at the V&A, where research was separated from the old business of curatorship and a new academic department with postgraduate students was founded in the 1980s, interacting with the Royal College of Art. Design history was building its intellectual foundations and asserting its independence from art history and connoisseurship.
Modernist and Postmodernist issues about society, production, feminism and critical theory were well to the fore, and museum visitors were encouraged to see the "problems" in objects, not simply to admire or classify them.
Taxonomic classification of style was, paradoxically, the very thing to be avoided, although the people who determine the exhibition programme at the V&A are not the research department, and they are convinced that visitors will respond only to stylistic labels relating to periods in the old-fashioned way. So far, visitor numbers seem to have proved them right, but the exhibition organisers have not risked doing anything different to discover whether the public has a more flexible response. The result to date is that a lot of intellectual energy is constrained within structures of the kind it is committed to breaking down, and the V&A's most public showcase gives a misleading impression of what goes on behind the scenes.
No designer of the 1920s was aware of being "Art Deco" because the term was not common currency until the 1960s. Modernism, although a word with a non-specific meaning, required less of a stretch to be made between the overall concept and the known experiences of the people involved. For the first time, the manifestos for this design movement were prospective rather than retrospective; for this reason, it has always been popular as a teaching topic because the words and the images can be tallied to each other. One of the great achievements of the Modernism show, which can be appreciated from the pages of this book as well as from the exhibition itself, was the way it broke out of the normal constraints of decorative art into sections on performance and the healthy body. Performance is a small step in truth - the V&A has a theatre museum that has been neglected for a couple of decades; but rumour has it that it will shortly be merged back into the main body of the institution. If the result is to make the history of theatrical design and presentation a more integrated aspect of design study, then something will be gained because it is absurd that such disciplinary divisions should ever have been imposed.
The section of the exhibition on "Healthy body culture" stepped into an area to which everyone can relate as history and as part of their own life.
It would normally be treated as part of social history, and we cannot expect a permanent gallery at the V&A on this subject (although it does belong across the road in the Science Museum, another collection whose separation from the V&A seems increasingly illogical as our map of knowledge changes). The most revealing aspects of this section of the show were the film clips of eurhythmic dancers and people doing personal exercises in Modernist settings. Posters, photographs and rather sinister pieces of equipment made up the rest of the display, together with a knitted bathing dress by Sonia Delaunay. This delightful item highlighted the schismatic dilemma of the new design history in museum land. Being the work of a well-known artist/designer, it was allowed in through the gate of connoisseurship, although the didactic purpose it represented was unrelated to this entry-ticket, and a Jantzen costume of the 1920s, the typical rather than the exceptional, would have taken us more convincingly into the world of shared experience we were asked to view.
Modernism was a movement committed to breaking down barriers between different areas of knowledge and experience, and the organisation of the exhibition in sections, each represented in the book by an essay from a specialist, repositions the various component parts in a fresh and convincing way. The box of parts was better stocked from the countries of Eastern Europe than we have come to expect, and this will remain one of the major achievements of the exhibition.
In his introduction, Christopher Wilk, the mastermind of the exhibition, deals with the word "Modernism" and the various phases of its meaning and reception. Christina Lodder emphasises the important Russian contribution in "Searching for Utopia"; while Christopher Green's section on "The machine" is, revealingly, more about fine art than about design, although it includes the rational clothing that several artists independently proposed as part of the new functional world. Tim Benton contributes two essays, both of which are focused on architecture but extend well beyond buildings themselves. Le Corbusier is the central figure in each of them, and while his role in the first, "Building Utopia", is relatively well known, his role in "Modernism and nature", a discussion of the major shifts after 1930, is much less familiar.
Romanticism and aestheticism were never far below the surface of Modernism, and in rediscovering nature, primitivism and regionalism, the culture of architecture corrected many of its imbalances. So important was this process that in many respects nothing new has happened since about 1935, and the implications of a dualistic Modernism, existing not as a set of rules but as a field of potential, is still being explored creatively today. The great architectural triad - JLe Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe - the three pre-1914 pupils of Peter Behrens, continue to act as exemplars, although in each case in different forms from the way they were perceived in the 1960s.
Tag Gronberg writes "Performing Modernism" with an emphasis on avant-garde theatre and ballet in Russia and at the Bauhaus. What a wonderful exhibition is here in embryo, covering the importance of circus and music hall in Modernist film, ballet, theatre and puppetry from Sickert to Sesame Street, and which of our sundered national institutions would ever be able to mount it? The lack of an obvious answer, and the great difficulty of obtaining museum loans (V&A prime obstacle - nobody's fault, but that's the way it comes across) indicates a problem that dare not speak its name.
One might think that Modernism was now an accomplished fact, a little over-familiar even, but some columnists in the national press used the exhibition as an opportunity to blast stale 1980s invective against the concept and the show. Perhaps more material on the complex subject of Modernism's reception would have helped to defuse the crudity of arguments for and against. It can be found scattered through the catalogue entries, and subtly teased open by David Crowley in the penultimate chapter, "National Modernisms", which deals with the mixed fate of Modernism and its protagonists under Fascism and Nazism. In the last chapter, Ian Christie, who also writes on "Film as a Modernist art", discusses "Mass-market Modernism", introducing radios, cars (there was a spectacular Czech Tatra car on show) and, most telling of all, cameras. We may be 90 per cent digital today, but the Minox camera, designed in 1936 in Latvia by Walter Zapp and made there from 1937, is the only object in the whole show with nothing "retro" about its looks or operation.
Even conservatives usually find themselves carried along by such irresistible convenience and practicality, but the problem of extrapolating from the camera in your pocket to the complexity of societies and their artefacts is not so easily solved. This book reveals the extreme conditions that produced such extreme responses. Modernism can hardly be the final word on the subject, but it will be of lasting educational value and the starting point for many further investigations.
Alan Powers is reader in architecture and Cultural History, Greenwich University.
Modernism: Designing a New World
Editor - Christopher Wilk
Publisher - V&A Publications
Pages - 496
Price - £45.00 and £24.99
ISBN - 1 85177 474 2 and 477 7