Azara Blog: Michelangelo and Modernism exhibitions in London

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Date published: 2006/04/16

As usual, lots of nice exhibitions are on in London. At the British Museum there is an exhibition of Michelangelo drawings (on until 25 June), seemingly all from the collections of the Ashmolean Museum (in Oxford), the Teyler Museum (in Haarlem) and the British Museum itself. This seems to be a "blockbuster" exhibition and entries are timed to ten minutes and show up even one minute early (or presumably one minute late) and you will get short shrift. Definitely book this one ahead of time. Even if you arrive early (e.g. if you leave plenty of time to make sure you don't arrive late, given the state of the British transport system), there is obviously so much to see in the rest of the museum you could not possibly get bored.

Michelangelo was not as great a painter as Raphael or as eccentric a genius as Leonardo, but he was really a Renaissance man par excellent, mastering drawing, painting, sculpture architecture, and it is claimed in this exhibition, poetry (although that has obviously dated much more than his other artistic output). The drawings are more subtle than his paintings, so well worth seeing, although some of the drawings included in the exhibition are little more than a few scribbles (but presumably a Michelangelo scribble is worth even more than a Picasso scribble).

Meanwhile over at the Victoria and Albert Museum there is their latest exhibition featuring 20th century design, this one entitled "Modernism: 1914-1939" (on until 23 July). Now there were some great iconic modernist houses, and some of those have photos, or are part of videos, included in the exhibition (e.g. the Villa Savoye of Le Corbusier). These are definitely the highlight of the exhibition, although since this was not an architecture exhibition there are few architectural plans shown.

Unfortunately modernist design for house interiors was generally pretty woeful, and this exhibition provides a perfect sample of that. Considering they supposedly were concerned with function, they made an awful lot of impractical things (e.g. chairs you would not want to sit in).

The 1920s also seems to have been a heyday for conceptual art (with several examples included in the exhibition) of the form still considered wonderful by certain sections of the chattering classes. It was just as pretentious and shallow then as it is now.

It is interesting that the health craze (complete with lots of exercise) started long before Hitler appropriated it as part of his Aryan masterplan. The Czechs had a movement called Sokol, founded in 1862, and these were complete with mass exercise displays that could have been straight out of the Nazi playbook, although apparently the movement was anti-fascist (and was banned by Hitler after he invaded Czechoslovakia). Of course the communists in the Soviet Union had similar ideas.

Not too surprisingly, a lot of this health craze, when it was not blatantly political, seems to have been about displaying pretty young women, preferably half-naked or naked (there was even an early exercise video of such included in the exhibition, with naked young women prancing about supposedly for the benefit of their health).

Although the exhibition showed how poor much of modernist design and ideology was, it's still worth going to, and the hefty catalogue is worth purchasing.

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