BY Simon Rees in Reviews | 01 NOV 08
Featured in
Issue 119

Cold War Modern

Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK

BY Simon Rees in Reviews | 01 NOV 08

Superstudio (Adolfo Natalini), Continuous Monument, New York, 1969

In the popular imagination the Cold War is a face-off between the USA and the USSR. ‘Cold War Modern: Design 1945–1970’, developed by curators David Crowley and Jane Pavitt, has wrested popular history back to Europe during the high time of ‘competitive Modernism’, when cultural production was instrumental to national representation – and the competition was multilateral. Global re-imagination is articulated in the first room of the exhibition: the gleaming chrome model of Sputnik I that was displayed in the Soviet pavilion during ‘Expo ’58’ in Brussels, the original of which was launched into outer space in October 1957. The satellite hangs over a copy of Dymaxion Map (1946–54), Buckminster Fuller’s proportionally correct, two-dimensional rendering of Earth based on an icosahedron, and the coupling suggests that here began visionary projections of the world into the future. (Not only is the astronaut’s-eye view of the planet predicted by Fuller, but so too is the genesis of Google Earth.)

The exhibition is rich with formative clichés, and the placement of objects creates enjambments that undercut and, occasionally humorously, reinforce them. The next image to appear, and the first full-page reproduction in the accompanying catalogue, is a Czech propaganda poster, Hail to the Red Army, Protectors of the New World (Karel Šourek design and Tibor Honty photography, 1945), which belongs to the ‘chicks-and-tanks’ school of communist design: a Red Army heroine rides like a figurehead atop a T-34 tank with her male comrades prosaically arranged beside her. The poster reminds us that, from the perspective of 1945, the communists were a liberating force in Europe. The curators use the poster’s ‘New World’ emblazon to greet the audience, and to an extent many of the objects gathered here – from the capsule that carried Yuri Gagarin into space to motor vehicles, films, furniture, photographic equipment, spy gadgets, fashion and art works – are new to Western audiences. Their modernity unfurls through three large exhibition halls in a chronological and thematic two-step, exploring postwar reconstruction (1946–58), the competition to be modern and the delivery of a superior modernity (1959–66) and the age of critical agency, whether associated with the dissonance of protest or the positivity of techno-Modernism (1967–70).

This last era covers the signal year of 1968 and the harbingers of postmodernity. Considering this term was first used in relation to architecture, it is satisfying to see plans, documentation and objects by Archigram, Coop Himmelbau, Arata Isozaki, Frei Otto, Superstudio, the Slovaks Alex Mlynarcik/Ludovít Kupkovic/Viera Mecková and Haus-Rucker-Co. Impressively, Haus-Rucker-Co’s Oasis No. 7 – a Perspex-bubble living system that was made for the façade of the Fridericianum, Kassel, for documenta V (1972) – has been installed in the exhibition, utilising the V&A’s ceiling height to great effect. The museum’s Victorian architecture imposes on the show, and the spaces have been made dim to hide the brick facing and flourishes, at odds with shiny modernity. Structurally, however, this incongruity reflects the situation encumbering many of the Eastern European objects that have never had a proper, contemporaneous ‘home’. Their longevity is largely accidental, as many are prototypes made especially for display at world expositions, all-Soviet expositions and international festivals, and were never mass-produced. It is one of the achievements of ‘Cold War Modern’ that so many rare objects have been brought together to evoke a palpable, if spectral, communist economics of desire and techno-modern state realization. The well-kept posters and plan drawings, especially the SAKB2 studio’s gouache and ink from 1961 of one of the Moscow Cheryomushki housing developments, belie the current decrepitude of those buildings as they stand: the future looks bright in the pictures. Equally bright is the conceptual balance of the selection of art works as signifiers of criticality and protest (including work by Jirí Kolár, Josef Koudelka and Krzysztof Wodiczko, and Mikhail Kalatozov’s film I Am Cuba, 1964).

The tendency in Western art histories, and exhibitions, is to cede the critical high ground to the communist avant-garde and non-conformists – ignoring that many of the same artists also made official art for the regime. In ‘Cold War Modern’, however, paintings by Richard Hamilton, Gerhard Richter and Robert Rauschenberg, a collage of post-bomb Hiroshima by Arata Isozaki and a screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise (1967) are used to remind us that there was a heart of darkness nestled in the Western vision of tomorrow.