15 November 2011

Postmodernism at the V&A

US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously admitted in 1964 that while he couldn’t define hard-core pornography, “I know it when I see it”. After visiting Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970–1990 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, you might come to a similar conclusion about postmodernism, at least as far as design and architecture are concerned.

This exhibition follows on from previous shows at the V&A: Art Deco: 1910-1939 in 2003 and Modernism: Designing a New World: 1914-1939 in 2006. If postmodernism is definable at all (and the V&A avoids doing so directly), it is probably as a reaction to the latter. The show follows the movement from its attacks on modernism and on subordination of style to functionality through to its commercial success and acceptance.

I found the objects (eg furniture, a surprisingly large number of teapots) and the architecture more convincing than the cinema (Blade Runner) and the music. I mentioned in an earlier post the “monstrous carbuncle” problem in adding a modern extension to an existing building, so it was relevant to be reminded that London’s most prominent postmodernist building is Venturi and Brown’s Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. Perhaps objectors should consider what they wish for.

Some people might argue with the dates the curators have used to bracket this show – one argument is that postmodernism was largely pre-internet and that the quest for modernity has now moved on. Certainly, one of the cult objects of the present moment is the iPad, but surely its design seems to represent a continuation of modernism. The exhibition catalogue includes a remarkable chart by Charles Jencks (pages 276, 267) on the various strands of pluralism from 1960 to 2010. He also argues that post-modernist (he keeps the hyphen) architecture continues to flourish, for example the John Lewis store in Leicester.

There is a generous amount of information about postmodernism on the V&A website, and the show runs until 15 January. If you go, perhaps like me you will find it exceeds your expectations. You might even come to view Stewart’s remark as postmodern itself.

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