By Alan Bisbort
11:40 AM EST, November 14, 2012
When did we become "modern"?
Two tantalizing exhibitions at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library raise this important though probably unanswerable question. They are Architecture in Dialogue: The Peter Eisenman Collection at Yale and Descriptions of Literature: The Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers. Though these titles don't exactly scream "Step right up, ladies and gents!" the exhibitions themselves are well worth any postmodernist's time.
"Architecture in Dialogue" is the larger and more interesting of the two, spread out over two floors in the Beinecke Library, a building that is itself a testament to modernist ideals. Over the past few years, the architect, writer and Yale professor Peter Eisenman has found a home at the Beinecke for the thousands of rare books, manifestos, ephemera and magazines that he has collected on modernism and the avant-garde since the early 1960s. "Architecture in Dialogue" comprises a healthy, and representative, slice of these materials, which chart the unstoppable force that was modernism, particularly between the two world wars.
"Dialogue" is the catchword, as in, "Architecture in dialogue: with fine arts, graphic design; with history, philosophy, political ideology and social agendas." The curators provide just enough context for the artifacts on view — given the mostly foreign-language contents, the exhibition could have used a bit more — that one sees World War I as the deal breaker for the old world order. Indeed, after the monstrously stupid carnage of the trenches, the surviving artists, architects, poets, playwrights, musicians and other starry-eyed idealists led the vanguard in reshaping a "new" Europe, regardless of competing ideologies and political leanings, differing languages and cultures.
In short, a revolution was occurring on all fronts of artistic expression between the wars in Europe (and to some extent here in the U.S. too). This spirit — embodied in seminal publications on view here, L'Esprit Nouveau, De Stijl, Merz, SA, Pasmo and Casabella — is summed up by the curators like this: "The tension emerging from this clash of opposing drives — efficiency and ebullience, sense and nonsense, order and anarchy — fueled so much of the creative dialogue between architecture and the arts."
Most of the great artists between the wars in Europe were swept up into the vortex of change, and remnants of their work can be found in Eisenman's collection: from Russian revolutionaries Mayakovsky, El Lissitzky, Rodchenko and Tatlin to Bauhaus icons Herbert Bayer, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier and Moholy-Nagy, Dutch modernists Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian, Dadaists Hans Arp and Kurt Schwitters and proto-Surrealists Klee and Kandinsky; from the anti-fascists John Heartfield, Hannah Hoch and George Grosz to the proto-fascist Futurists Marinetti and Giuseppe Terragni. All of these disparate spirits found common ground under the banner of "modernism."
Of course, by the outbreak of World War II, many of these same artists would find themselves on opposite sides of the hostilities -- particularly in Italy, where Mussolini made statements in praise of modernist architecture and Futurism. Eisenman's collection includes a large spread in Casabella magazine from 1935, in which Il Duce holds forth. Futurists saw Mussolini as "Head of the New Italy". Literally. His head and face — with its defiantly jutting jaw — appeared everywhere, and he had plans to build a Palace of Fascism next to the Coliseum in Rome, using Futurist principles.
Perhaps the one figure who moved most easily among the warring camps was Le Corbusier, whose work dominates Architecture in Dialogue. Le Corbusier had his own bouts of Il Duce-worthy megalomania, too. For example, he drew up plans and made models for a complete modernist redesign of the Algiers waterfront. Judging from the evidence on display here, it's fortunate he never got the chance to put them into practice. And when his plans were rejected, Le Corbusier did not take it well, abruptly leaving the country and writing a manifesto that insisted he was "right, right, right."
It is hard to know what to call some of these artifacts. Though they look like books, magazines, manifestos and catalogs, they are more akin to pre-Internet blogs and Facebook pages. Suffice it to say that Europe had not seen their like before and, thus, the modernist movement could not be snugly pigeon-holed. Also, to the delight of visitors to the Beinecke, one does not need to be able to read the text of these Italian, Russian, French, Dutch, Czech and Polish publications to appreciate the eye candy on view. Though some of this material is nearly a century old, it seems weirdly contemporary and "modern."
And a Little Gertrude
Gertrude Stein is often cited as the embodiment of literary modernism. Though a little Gertrude may go a long way for some people, this small and intimate sister exhibition, Descriptions of Literature, offers just the right amount to keep one's eyes from glazing over. Two exhibit cases are filled with letters, original manuscripts (replete with penciled edits), photographs, first editions, and even a plate that Stein had made in France for her friend "Carlo" (Carl Van Vechten), which is inscribed with her famous "A Rose is a Rose is a Rose." It's exciting to see all these original firsthand documents and artifacts, including a waistcoat made for Stein by her lover and collaborator, Alice B. Toklas.
Both exhibitions are on view until Dec. 14, at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, 121 Wall St., New Haven, (203) 432-2977, firstname.lastname@example.org
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