WASHINGTON — In describing his creation as “simple, classic, clean, often black and white and often following the contours of the body,” Paul Greenhalgh isn’t talking about a fashion collection, but one of the most ambitious exhibitions of Modernism ever to be staged in the U.S.
The co-curator with Philip Brookman, the museum’s director of curatorial affairs, of “Modernism: Designing a New World: 1914-1939,” which opens Saturday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Greenhalgh is passionate about a loose collection of utopian ideas that have come to be defined as Modernism.
A world-renowned scholar and the former head of research at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum who has been at the helm of the Corcoran for 11 months, Greenhalgh has taken on a physically demanding exhibit that incorporates 390 works and 50 film clips, fills 26 rooms at the museum and took a month to install.
The exhibition, originally organized by the V&A, showcases the works of architects, artists, and fashion and industrial designers traumatized by the atrocities of World War I and searching for optimism.
“They tried to develop a way in making art that was truly international and it was transparently obvious to them that technology was potentially what was going to save us all if used properly,” said Greenhalgh. “Clearly, technology had not been used properly in the first World War. It had been used to kill as many people as it could.”
The Modernists broke from the past and developed a futuristic style that rejected ornamentation and embraced abstract and geometrical forms and bold colors. Many of those designs still influence everyday life: from chairs to kitchens, teapots to cars.
The exhibition showcases a wide range of design, from the first built-in modern kitchen to be manufactured for the masses and rare streamlined Modernist cars to works by Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee to architectural prototypes by Le Corbusier, Gerrit Rietveld, Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
There is also a nod to fashion design.
“The period invented the little black dress,” Greenhalgh says. “Modernist dress…isn’t based upon flirtatiousness or sexuality. It tends to be based upon elegance and abstract form, i.e., Modernist fashion is not decorative.”
This story first appeared in the March 13, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
He said many of the one-piece designs looked a lot like “romper suits” today, though more fashionable styles also emerged, such as women’s pantsuits.
The Modernist fashion style also served darker political movements.
“If you think of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, those outfits were completely taken from the Modernist ideas of the 1920s,” Greenhalgh says.
It has been nearly 100 years since the movement, but the philosophy and underlying tenets of Modernism still ring true today.
“They were passionate about trying to create a single style for all people because they thought that would stop people from fighting,” he said.
Although he does not directly draw comparisons between the timing of the show and the Modernist’s quest for utopia and the war in Iraq that has many scrambling to find hope, Greenhalgh said the next Modernism probably won’t be about a single, “grand style.”
“It will probably be about how all individual styles relate to each other and how we celebrate our differences in a nice way, rather than celebrating our differences by killing each other,” he added.