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British modernism reclaimed

Modern Britain 1929-1939 at the Design Museum

The notion that the Modern movement was a sterile flower with no relevance to the present is firmly squashed in an inspiring display at London's Design Museum.

Architect Norman Foster and graphic designer Per Arnoldi have integrated a diverse and complex gathering of objects and information around a sinuous "timeline". Events begin with the Wall Street crash of 1929 and end with the outbreak of World War II. The harsh economic and political realities of the day slump and mass unemployment are defied by the creative vision of outstanding architects, painters, sculptors and designers.

It took the political upheaval of the early 1930s for Modernism to break through, having been deferred in Britain for a hundred years, in the view of art historian Alan Powers. Although, as Norman Foster says, Modernism "only really arrived in Britain with these émigrés", it was not confined to the pioneering architects who found aslyum here, having fled Nazi Germany.

Perhaps for the first time we can appreciate the full breadth of Modernism in Britain, through a high-quality assembly of artworks including paintings, sculpture, architectural photography, film, glass and furniture. The clean white lines of the new architecture, its futuristic vision are tempered by a feeling for the human body and sensitivity to materials and colours.

A wide range of media shows the work of talented architects such as Mendelsohn and Chermayeff, Lubetkin and Tecton, Lancelot Keay, Wells Coates and Maxwell Fry who sought to provide modern housing, better health and social facilities for ordinary people. Architects and designers were reaching out for a machine age with advanced technology and mass production. But individual craftsmanship and local peculiarities were also part of the vision as a whole.

Archetypal English artists such as Graham Sutherland, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Eric Gill, Paul Nash and Barbara Hepworth can be seen as part of a broad movement. Some took part in Unit One, a group of painters, sculptors and architects, formed in June 1933 to bring together a specifically English vision with the new ideas from Continental Europe.

This article first appeared in Socialist Future