Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye, Poissy, France, 1928
Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye, Poissy, France, 1928

Modernism: Designing a New World looks less like an art exhibit and more like an opportunity to shop. Each section of the sprawling show resembles a sleek showcase for high-priced consumer goods. The purists, constructivists, futurists, Bauhaus types, and de Stijl adherents presented come across less like the utopian dreamers that they were and more like simple peddlers of the trappings of an accelerated culture. Many of the artifacts on view make modernism’s trademark hard, reductive forms look quaint: Kasimir Malevich’s suprematist tea service, made with oddly shaped interlocking cups; Gerrit Rietveld’s uncomfortable-looking chairs made of flat planes and right angles; Alexander Rodchenko’s one-of-a-kind drab costume designed to look like a worker’s uniform. Modernists might have been spiritual seekers, political revolutionaries, or tinkering goofballs, but as far as visitors to this show will be able to tell, they really only cleared the way for Ikea.

This is not to say that the show isn’t a cause for celebration. On the contrary, a gathering of modern objects this extensive and inclusive—390 objects and 50 film clips in all—is pretty unprecedented. There is undeniably a surfeit of visual pleasures to be experienced.

But aside from surveying the field and breaking down the main components along national lines, the show doesn’t have much of a thesis. Curator Christopher Wilk—the Keeper of Furniture, Textiles, and Fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London—claims he set out to emphasize the radical ideological thrust underpinning so much modern visual culture. But thanks to the exhibit’s blurring of important aesthetic distinctions and its failure to examine the real legacy of modernism in depth—both in the political sphere and in the contemporary art world—viewers probably won’t come away with more than a superficial understanding of the subject.

Overall the show acts as an aesthetic equalizer: It doesn’t differentiate much between consumer goods, works of fine art, and propaganda for the right or the left. Aesthetic affinities matter most, which can make even the most acerbic gestures look merely pretty. Francis Picabia’s covers for 391 magazine—stiff, diagrammatic drawings of engines, propellers, and flashlights that he often used to represent people or paired with rude captions—are included about midway through the show in a room featuring shiny airplane motors, sleek toy race cars, and Charlotte Perriand’s 1928 necklace made of ball bearings. This implies that Picabia’s drawings were just symptomatic of a love affair with machine parts, when in truth they were repudiations of traditional ideas about artistic mastery.

Across the room from the Picabia covers is Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made In Advance of the Broken Arm (1915), a work in which he chose a common snow shovel as an object worthy of aesthetic contemplation. If the piece were moved near the front of the exhibition—say, to the room of small, rather tame-looking cubist paintings by Braque, Picasso, and Delaunay—the viewer might begin to see why Duchamp was considered a harbinger of the end of art. But thanks to the glut of fetishized gears, motors, and mass produced household goods nearby, a viewer might reasonably guess that instead of conducting a philosophical investigation of art-making and authorship, Duchamp merely found this snow shovel handsome.

In the second of the 20 or so rooms that make up the show, Wilk does make modernism’s inherent radicalism more explicit. By the door is an incredibly small photograph, maybe 2-by-3 inches, of a geometric pattern scratched into the earth. Both the view and the subject are products of the time. Aerial photographs were a novel way to envision the world; they fascinated Russian artist Malevich and helped inform the look of his austere paintings of squares. As for the subject: It’s a shot of Reims from the air circa 1917. The lines that the anonymous photographer found so fascinating were trenches. The evidence of violent conflict mirrors emerging avant-garde aesthetics.

Modernism was all about rejecting old customs, orders, and values in favor of a new, stripped down utilitarian world—what artists and designers believed would be a utopia. All too often in the first half of the 20th century, the pursuit of this perfected world required the demonization and persecution of fellow citizens. Hence the inclusion of four books, displayed in a low glass case: Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), William Morris’ News From Nowhere (1890), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949). All four describe the possibilities for a new human existence—collectivized harmony in the first two, conformity, purges, and terror in the others. More, for example, describes an imaginary island society in which there is no private property, houses are always unlocked, and women have better (if not exactly equal) rights; Huxley, by contrast, describes an anti-intellectual World State driven by promiscuity, mandatory recreational drug use, and the worshipping of Henry Ford.

The More and Morris books have been left open; the viewer can read a few representative passages. Significantly, the two dystopian novels lie closed. Though an explanation is provided here of artists’ and writers’ fears regarding what Huxley called a “negative utopia,” this show tends to accentuate the positive, mostly radiating exactly the sort of sunny American optimism about modern life that drove Huxley to write his dark book.

Yet modernism has a clear legacy of failure—to live up to its ideology, to capture a broader audience, or to get much of anything done. Engineering was often a problem for these modern designers and architects. Le Corbusier’s masterpiece, the Villa Savoye, in Poissy, France, is presented here both in a scale model and in films. In the films, the upper floor is shown framing the sky and surrounding landscape in countless inventive ways, with dramatic arcs, angles, and stairways. The house is a boxy, slightly sterile structure, supported by spindly columns, but it successfully brings light and air to its inhabitants through open floor plans, ribbon windows, and ramps.

Construction began in the late ’20s, and it became clear that the design allowed another less desirable element to circulate, too: water. Corbusier might have thought his flat roof was an elegant choice, but it led the owners to deem it uninhabitable. Madame Savoye declared: “It’s raining in the hall, it’s raining on the ramp…[W]hat’s more, it’s still raining in my bathroom.” Corbusier called the house “a machine for living in,” but in this case, the machine broke down.

Nearly every room of the exhibition features an ultramodern chair or two—or, say, a whole wall of them. Perriand’s Swivel Armchair (1928), for example, is a simple tubular steel frame, consisting of four legs, a circular seat, and a semicircular rail—all appointed with rich red leather. Though the design was inspired by high speed production and the machine age, this upholstering could only be done using Old World techniques and materials. The chair of the future could only be painstakingly made, by hand, as a luxury item.

The huge model of V.I. Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International speaks even further to modernism’s limitations. The 1983 reconstruction of the 1920 original occupies the darkened front room of the exhibition. Three glowing forms—a large cylinder, a pyramid, and a smaller, narrower cylinder—are stacked atop one another, rotating at different speeds, thanks to a visible chain-drive mechanism. The forms are contained by a leaning framework of bare girders, looking like concentric rings of track for an aging roller coaster and casting dramatic shadows of crosses bisected by arcs.

The entire structure was designed to be 1,300 feet tall; each glowing, spinning chamber was meant, somehow, to hold offices. The lowest part would rotate once a year; the pyramid would turn once a month; the top piece, every 24 hours. But Tatlin’s monument never even made it past the planning stages. He didn’t bother to figure out the engineering to make the arrangement work. His model was an entirely symbolic piece of agitprop.

For better or for worse, modernist artists were often politically manipulated. Avant-gardists in Soviet Russia were, for a time, instruments of repression, actively participating through their propaganda in the persecution of conservative intellectuals. Until Stalin’s rise, artists like Tatlin were given the keys to the kingdom—rule over museums and academies—but they occupied tenuous ethical territory. As German-born art theorist Boris Groys has pointed out, it’s one thing to make radical claims for your art, stating a desire to flatten the world as you know it in order to shock the audience. It’s another thing to be aligned with instruments of power that are actually prepared to do that flattening—to be complicit in the execution of one’s fellow citizens.