Modernizacje 1918-1939. Czas przyszły dokonany – review

This review was commissioned by the European Architectural History Network in 2010.

Like a number of other exhibitions on modernist art and architecture, Modernizacje 1918-1939. Czas przyszły dokonany (Modernizations 1918-1939: Future Perfect) at the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź opened with images of a society in revolutionary turmoil. In this case it was not Soviet Russia but Hungary which marked the year zero. The gallery’s walls were filled with Mihály Biró and Béla Uitz’s posters of billowing red flags and worker-heroes announcing Béla Kun’s Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919. Revolutionary Hungary was the exception rather than the rule in an exhibition which set out to demonstrate that Modernism gained a fast hold in the societies of the “New Europe” which formed after the First World War. After all, the Hungarian Soviet failed after 133 days, sending many figures in the artistic avant-garde—who had been among Kun’s most ardent supporters—into exile. The modernization promised by Kun—represented in Łódź by a particularly spectacular painting by Uitz depicting a cadre of muscular workers building a red city—was over before it had a chance to have any effect.

In other parts of the “New Europe” after 1918, “modernization” had very real and, in some cases, long-lasting results. The capitals of the new Baltic republics, Tallinn and Kaunas (a “temporary” capital while Vilnius was occupied), were home to sophisticated private villas and public buildings. Buildings like Anton Soans and Edgar Kuusik’s Art Hall (1933-4) in the Estonian capital typically combined functionalist unfussiness with strong lines of symmetry and classical proportions. In Czechoslovakia, the elegant shoes produced by in Tomas Bat’a’s factories and sold in an international chain of stores like Vladimir Karfík’s elegant glazed “box” in the Brno were evidence of the kind of complete world of utility and functional beauty being championed as l’esprit nouveau. Moreover, as one exhibition panel reproducing Bat’a publicity reveals, the patrician shoe manufacturer was keen to demonstrate how communist politics (“the evil of the past”) had been eliminated from its factory towns. Here Le Corbusier’s question “Architecture or Revolution?” was answered in unequivocal terms. At both the heart of Europe in Bohemia and on its Baltic shores, a bourgeois “revolution” was underway in settings which have hitherto been overlooked by most attempts to reassemble European modernism.

Curator Andrzej Szczerski set out to demonstrate the attraction of modernist architecture and design in the new and revived states of Central/Eastern Europe formed at the round tables and in the couloirs of the peace conferences at the end of the First World War. In their strong desire to demonstrate their right to statehood, the leaders of these new and restored nations—whether on the left or on the right—often welcomed the images of progress and technology offered by the Modern Movement. Modernism was proposed as a harbinger of deeper patterns of political, economic and even social modernization. A crude national Darwinianism lay behind some of the most vivid examples on display in Modernizations 1918-1939. The ambition of Poland’s Sea and Colonial League for imperial possessions in Africa was mapped in posters featuring compelling photomontages and graceful Art Deco liner imagery. In this, the League hoped to match Italian actions in East Africa. The bridgehead for this imperial “adventure” was to be Gdynia, the new port city built to guarantee access to the sea. This national project drew on the vision and creativity of many of Poland’s modernist architects, photographers and artists—as the Łódź exhibition demonstrated with great effect.

In the Sea and Colonial League, modernism and imperialism were aligned: command of the former providing “evidence” of Poland’s “right” to the latter. This order of arrogance is evident in other key works in the Łódź show. Sixteen extraordinary panels from Jiří Kroha’s “Sociological Element of Living” cycle of didactic montages (1933-34) were on display. Designed to prepare householders for the task of living in new social housing schemes, Kroha pronounced on the “correct” ways to dress, to enjoy leisure time and even to procreate. Formally, the work, fashioned from material cut from the popular press and hand-stencilled lettering, has the visual élan of the surrealists and yet intellectually it represents the disturbing certainty of the modernist vanguard. It is perhaps unsurprising to know that Kroha thrived in the intimidating political setting of Stalinist Czechoslovakia.

A pioneering show and the product of considerable research, Modernizations 1918-1939 brought to Łódź the work of mostly little-known figures whose careers were stimulated by the settlements at Versailles, Trianon and Tartu after the fighting stopped. One cannot help but note that their achievements were then obscured by the Cold War politics which divided Europe after another world war.

Publication related to the exhibition:

Andrzej Szczerski, Modernizacje. Sztuka i architektura w nowych państwach Europy Środkowo-Wschodniej 1918-1939, Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki w Łodzi, 2010, 406 pp., 165 b&w and color illustrations, 68 Polish złoty, ISBN 978-83-87937-76-8.

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