Andrew Lambirth

Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970–1990

Postmodernism is a term with a surprisingly long history. It was first used in the 1870s and was subsequently employed by dazed or disaffected commentators with some regularity throughout the first two thirds of the 20th century, until it became de rigueur in the ghastly decade of the 1970s. The architect Charles Jencks pronounced the death of Modernism at 3.32 p.m. on 15 March 1972, and Post-Modernism (hereinafter known as PoMo) was fairly, or unfairly, upon us. But what actually is it?

Essentially, it meant the end of all seriousness and the shunning of order, moderation and reason, the denial of a belief in the perfectibility of the human race and the merit in striving for something better. Encouraging the coexistence of all styles, PoMo offered a celebration of confusion, a glorification of pastiche and parody (very minor and parasitic art forms), and a wholesale and uncritical ‘anything-goes’ attitude that was dangerously asphyxiating to rational thought or more modest individual creativity. Supposedly subversive, it was actually chaotic and hopelessly juvenile.

Spectacle, brash humour, sensationalism, a bottomless pit of the tasteless, kitsch and tawdry — PoMo embraces all these with an abandon which is almost sexual in its intensity. There are some horrible things in this exhibition, and inevitably some rather good ones. Nearly everything by the brilliant Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass (1917–2007) is worth looking at, though some of his objects lose clarity and are too contrived. His cheerful ceramic totems would make rather good chimney pots, but his ziggurat teapots are plain silly. (Silliness is endemic to PoMo.) On the other hand, I loved his Murmansk centrepiece in electroplated nickel silver, and his variegated Casablanca sideboard.

Among the other objects to hold my attention were Richard Slee’s Picket Fence Vessel, the junk jewellery on a large and inventive scale by Bernhard Schobinger, Alison Britton’s deliciously squiffy Big White Jug, Adrian Saxe’s outrageously bobbly covered jar and three dinky little aluminium models of buildings by Philippe Starck.

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