Andrew Lambirth

Comfortless aesthetic

The classic Modernist interior familiar to us all is a white cube, minimally furnished and adorned, the clean geometric lines of the architecture given prominence at the expense of fittings and fixtures. As the visitor steps into the V&A’s homage to Modernism, it’s at once clear that the design of the show will not mirror that aesthetic. This is a busy, multicoloured display, crammed with pictures and artefacts, full of red or blue arrows linking labels to exhibits, and vamped up with variant wall patterns. It’s big on visual excitement, not restraint. There are over 300 exhibits and more than 50 film clips to be seen, and at times it’s difficult to make sense of the rich array.

Yet the exhibition certainly starts well, with a beautiful 1916 Malevich painting, ‘Dynamic Suprematism’, borrowed from the Tate. Instantly we are on a high. This is well backed up by the strange charcoal and pencil drawings by Georgii Krutikov of a flying city, and the delicious black cross and circle teacup and saucer by Nikolai Suetin. But here and there throughout the exhibition are bleak notices of apology marking gaps in the display: ‘The arrival of this object has been delayed by customs procedure in Russia.’ Sabotage or red-tape? Perhaps the missing exhibits will soon appear.

I liked Erich Mendelsohn’s plaster model for his Einstein Tower (a recent cast from the 1920 original), like a submarine with its conning tower. The three ink drawings for it are altogether more shark-like and minatory. In this first section are all manner of wonders, including the inescapable Rietveld chair (he said: ‘Every chair seems to be a stylisation of an attitude to life’), Balla’s jazzy Futurist suit (the Futurists are perhaps the only Modernists to have a sense of humour, and even they were pretty serious), and Mondrian’s painting ‘Tableau 1 with Red, Black, Blue and Yellow’ (1921) from The Hague.

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