László Moholy-Nagy, Nuclear I, CH, 1945, oil on canvas, 38 x 30".

László Moholy-Nagy, Nuclear I, CH, 1945, oil on canvas, 38 x 30".

“Modernism” and “Albers and Moholy-Nagy”

Tate Modern and Victoria & Albert Museum

IMAGINE AN ART EXHIBITION called “Modernism” focusing on the years 1914 to 1939. Sounds unlikely, doesn’t it? We think of artistic modernism as having had two great expansive phases: the first leading from Cézanne through Cubism to the birth of abstraction in the Netherlands and Russia but soon eclipsed—in the West by the postwar “return to order,” in Russia by the political changes wrought by Lenin’s death in 1924 (though the complete triumph of socialist realism would only come a decade later)—and the second, very different phase, commencing after World War II with the Abstract Expressionists and centered as much on the United States as on Europe. Not that this modernism did not undergo compelling developments in the ’20s and ’30s, far from it, but those difficult and embattled years would certainly not be the ones an overview of the movement would take as its focus.

All the more fascinating, then, for an observer schooled in art more than in design to be reminded that, in the latter field, the interwar period might be considered modernism’s heyday. This suggests that, rather than being coordinated enterprises, the two fields might work in unresolved tension, the vitality of one coming at the expense of the other. Certainly that was one’s first impression from the V&A’s exhibition: Examples of design in graphics, furniture, housewares, architecture, and clothing were stunning in their quality, whether attached to famous names like Gerrit Rietveld and Marcel Breuer or as anonymous as a ball bearing. The role of painting and sculpture in the exhibition was limited by comparison, despite the inclusion of important works by the likes of Mondrian, Malevich, Kobro, and Arp. In general their specificity was lost by being coded simply as what Clement Greenberg once called “rationalized decor.” Which they are, but that’s hardly the whole story, despite László Moholy-Nagy’s provocative declaration that “the internal and external characteristics of a dish, a chair, a table, a machine, painting, sculpture are not to be separated.” On the other hand, photography emerged here with a strong relative autonomy, suggesting its significance at the time as a possible point of contact between the ethos of design and that of art. And film was given unusual and welcome prominence, with suggestive clips projected among all the chairs, tea sets, costumes, and posters—excerpts ranging from the symptomatic sci-fi of Yakov Protazanov’s Aelita (1924; sets and costumes by Alexandra Exter) through the oneiric melodrama of Abel Gance’s La Roue (The Wheel, 1923) to the playful avant-gardism of Fernand Léger’s Ballet mécanique (1924), not to mention documents of performances like Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet, 1922.

For the show’s curator, Christopher Wilk, the essence of the conflict between modernism in art and in design is one of “formalism” versus “engagement with social—and hence political—issues.” But that is unconvincing. Better to have taken more seriously the antagonism, foregrounded in art, between the values of representation and construction—an antagonism (curiously finessed by photography, whose indexical images are neither represented, strictly speaking, nor constructed) with its own cognates at the level of political organization, and one as far-reaching in its implications as the specifically architectural tension between form and function.

The extent to which the utopian desires embodied by modernist design at its most radical can be identified with the political movements to which they were allied is not as clear as Wilk seems to believe. Doesn’t Greenberg’s insight still hold: that the revolutionary or, for that matter, counterrevolutionary need to mobilize the masses lent itself more readily to what he called kitsch than to the avant-garde, which he shrewdly grasped was “too ‘innocent,’” and therefore “too difficult to inject [with] effective propaganda”? All the modernist themes around which this exhibition has been constructed—not only utopia, but also the machine, hygiene, and so on—have social and political implications, but in retrospect, the nature of the works’ social and political rationality is extremely ambiguous. Certainly the escapist character that catalogue essayist Christina Lodder detects within the Expressionist architectural projects of Bruno Taut and his associates in the Glass Chain, typical of the utopian impulses within modernism, have more to do with the cultivation of personal fantasies than with any social utility, which of course is why they exist solely in the form of unrealizable drawings and models. But the rationalist constructive projects of modernism concealed a core of destructive fantasy, emblematized perhaps by Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin, which envisioned the obliteration of most of historic Paris. Although, as critic Tim Benton puts it in his essay for the catalogue, “the moral duty of the Modernist architect was to heal the pathology of the modern world,” his work could occur only as a symptom of that pathology. And the modernist fetishizing of the machine was, in the eyes of Francis Picabia (represented here only by covers for his magazine 391) and Marcel Duchamp (whose unstreamlined snow shovel looks completely out of place in this context), less about the proclaimed ideal of efficient production than it was about a channel for perverse sexuality—and none the worse for that.

One of the strongest and most original aspects of the exhibition at the V&A was its highlighting of what Wilk calls “the healthy body culture” of modernism, because it shows that, beyond the urge to unify the arts and technology under the aegis of architecture, design modernism aimed by this means to rectify the body that would inhabit its reformed urban environment. This is the meaning of Moholy-Nagy’s slogan: “Design for life.” In this body culture, the urge to freedom mixes uneasily with an impulse toward social control; anarchic self-expressionism intersects with revolutionary asceticism. Such dichotomies are represented on the one hand by Rudolf von Laban’s creative dance (seen here, for instance, in a 1930 photograph by Felix H. Man) and on the other by the mass gymnastics extolled by images like Aleksandr Rodchenko’s Dynamo sports club, 1935, or the anonymous 10th All-Sokol Slet at Strahov Stadium in Prague, 5 July 1938. Design was implicated in a “biopolitics,” as Michel Foucault put it, expressing an impossible desire “to take control of life, to manage it, to compensate for its aleatory nature, to explore and reduce biological accidents and possibilities,” by violence if necessary. Foucault’s contention that biopolitics is always a race discourse is confirmed by Adolf Loos’s condemnation of Beaux-Arts and Art Nouveau ornament as “degenerate,” an epithet that the Nazis would soon direct back at the modernists in turn. Modernist hygiene, its love of clean lines and aversion to dust-gathering ornament, has its underside in the fascination with sickness and decay typical of the Symbolists and Expressionists, modernist artists who (like the Dadaists and Surrealists after them) would presumably count as design antimodernists. In Freudian terms (of which Foucault would have disapproved), design modernism is a massive effort to forget the death drive. To say this is not to condemn it but, rather, to help characterize the specific aesthetic bliss offered by so many of its productions, despite or perhaps even because of the collapse of the ideals to which the movement was nominally attached.

Prewar modernism came in communist, social democratic, and fascist inflections, but its wager that a transformation of the object world could improve human life made it highly adaptable to the individualistic ethos of postwar consumer culture in America, where so many European artists, designers, and architects washed up in the ’30s, and a more comprehensive survey of modernist design would have carried the story forward through the ’60s. The Tate Modern’s exhibition on Josef Albers and Moholy-Nagy did follow two of the most remarkable figures of modernist Europe through their émigré years, and while it could not show what happened to design in the postwar world, in other ways it offered a helpful counterpoint to the V&A’s “Modernism” by effecting a revealing switch of perspectives: In Kensington, art was nested within the context of design, while on the South Bank, design took its place within the context of art. At the same time, there’s a certain pathos in seeing the ideal, utopian “new world” of the V&A’s subtitle become the merely pragmatic, everyday one of the Tate’s; it’s like seeing Oz turn into Kansas.

At the Bauhaus, Albers had run the glass workshop, Moholy-Nagy the metal workshop; both were polymaths, producing paintings, photographs, utilitarian objects, and so on. But as Tate curator Achim Borchardt-Hume says, Albers was “intensive” where Moholy-Nagy was “expansive.” Albers shows greater consistency of tact in his relation to materials and processes: His work is equally well realized both in forms that reflect craft and the mark of the artist’s hand and in ones whose embodiment is impersonal and technological, such as the extraordinary “paintings” in sandblasted glass he made in the late ’20s and the ’30s—works whose intricate geometric rhythms have a surprisingly protodigital look. By contrast, Moholy-Nagy’s work seems to thrive only through mechanical facture. Thus, he tended to rephotograph his photomontages to create a seamless surface. His paintings have considerable graphic strength but are often bloodless; his pictorial ideas gain force by being translated into industrial porcelain enamel in the 1922 “telephone pictures,” whose simple intersecting verticals and horizontals represent Moholy-Nagy’s pictorial thinking at its most condensed.

Despite Ian Christie’s assertion in the “Modernism” catalogue that Surrealism was “deeply anti-Modernist,” Moholy-Nagy’s sense of pictorial structure—especially in his paintings of the later ’30s and ’40s, with their “vertiginous visual fall” (as Borchardt-Hume aptly phrases it), their tendency away from flatness toward irrationally intersecting recessional plans juxtaposing disparate objects—was profoundly akin to that of the Surrealists. (Modernism and Surrealism intersect in science fiction, with which Moholy-Nagy had a real affinity.) Albers, on the other hand, always sought classical poise and balance in the composition of his works. Yet despite his lingering reputation as a dry technician, a sort of pedagogue in paint, the sobriety of his paintings, above all in the “Homage to the Square” series that occupied him from 1950 until his death in 1976, cloaks emotional content all the more poignant for being wordless. Full of internal disturbances, they can no more be reduced to exercises in the interaction of color than can the paintings of Mark Rothko, to which they are sometimes superior in the enigmatic intensity of their welling sequences, and certainly more various: Unlike Albers, Rothko could never have said, “Some of my things are sorrowful, some are jokes.”

Neither the discreet emotional sting of Albers’s best work nor Moholy-Nagy’s disequilibrium is alien to the practice of design, but they remain hard to account for in terms of the modernist design discourse laid out by the V&A exhibition, and to which the artists themselves contributed. Some further reframing is needed, which Wilk and his colleagues have not attempted: a reframing like the one by which Georges Bataille encompassed a “limited economy” based on production in a “general economy” based on expenditure; or by which Anton Ehrenzweig discovered “dedifferentiation” at the origin of abstract form; or by which Morse Peckham confronted Wallace Stevens’s already-ambivalent “rage for order” with “man’s rage for chaos”—anything that articulates the negative countercurrent within modernism, the fatalism within its optimism, and its love of stasis and repetition as much as of progress.

Barry Schwabsky is a frequent contributor to Artforum.