Modernism at the Corcoran

During my parent’s visit to DC several weeks ago they had a chance to check out the Modernism exibit at the Corcoran Gallery, and were so impressed they reccommended I go as well.  I had been finding my weekends so busy I had had to put it off, but the exhibit’s last day is July 29 so I finally made sure my Sunday afternoon was open for some culture.

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I had an idea of what the Modernist movement entailed before I stepped into the Corcoran, but they did a magnificent job laying out its evolution as well as individual nations and artists contributions.  Since Modernism is such a broad movement though, here is a summary to capture the general motivation:

Modernism is a trend of thought that affirms the power of human beings to create, improve, and reshape their environment, with the aid of scientific knowledge, technology and practical experimentation, and is thus in its essence both progressive and optimistic. The term covers many political, cultural and artistic movements rooted in the changes in Western society at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. Broadly, modernism describes a series of reforming cultural movements in art and architecture, music, literature and the applied arts which emerged in the three decades before 1914. But Modernism encouraged the re-examination of every aspect of existence, from commerce to philosophy, with the goal of finding that which was “holding back” progress, and replacing it with new, progressive and therefore better, ways of reaching the same end. In essence, the modernist movement argued that the new realities of the industrial and mechanized age were permanent and imminent, and that people should adapt their world view to accept that the new equaled the good, the true and the beautiful. Modern (quantum and relativistic) physics, modern (analytical and continental) philosophy and modern number theory in mathematics are, however, also said to date from this period. Embracing change and the present, modernism encompasses the works of thinkers who rebelled against nineteenth century academic and historicist traditions, believing the “traditional” forms of art, architecture, literature, religious faith, social organization and daily life were becoming outdated; they directly confronted the new economic, social and political aspects of an emerging fully industrialized world. Some people divide the 20th Century into movements designated Modernism and Postmodernism, whereas others see them as two aspects of the same movement. (Wikipedia)

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Bauhaus credo

For those that perhaps deem themselves unfamiliar with Modernism, popular examples include the VW Bug, the World War II propaganda posters, A Brave New World, Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, and much of the furniture we use today (especially IKEA).

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                                         Monument To The Third International

For me, as I walked through the exhibit, it was astounding how much of the designs were ahead of their time, and truly spurred the advancements following World War II.  The heyday of Modernism was from the beginning of World War I to World War II, and many of the contributors attempted to create amid what was a dire period of endless chaos hope for a more organized and “functional” future. 

Three Chairs (Almost 71)

 The chair below is an example of the lasting quality of the designs introduced by Modernism.  Growing up (until my parents replaced them) these were the chairs we had in our living room, and they were wonderfully simple, comfortable, and served their purpose well.

Here is another example: the Tatra T87 Saloon, a Czech produced car that traveled up to 100 mph.  This car was created in 1937, but clearly has challenged the conventiona; boundaries of speed and styling for its time.

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For more on the exhibit, see this feature by Slate. 

The Corcoran has another permanent gallery on display, although a lot smaller in size than the Mordernism exhibit.  Most interesting to me was a replica of Hiriam Power’s The Greek Slave, which has been called America’s most famous and dinest controbution to sculpture. 

Here is an image:

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As the first prominent nude statue of a woman in the U.S. it attracted controversy, but Power was careful to stress the pure nature of the figure.  Furthermore, created in the midst of the debate over slavery, many saw it as a symbolic parrallel to the plight of the African-Americans, further cementing its influence on public discourse.  Read more about the statue here.

 The next exhibit arriving at the Corcoran Museum will be the photographer Ansel Adams.

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