Designers looking for inspiration will surely appreciate this 'Czech Cubism' exhibit

September 20, 1992|By Thomas Hine | Thomas Hine,Knight-Ridder News Service

'Czech Cubism'

Where: Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery of the University of the Arts, 333 S. Broad St., Philadelphia.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday. Through Dec. 4.

Admission: Free.

% Call: (215) 875-1116.

PHILADELPHIA -- Contemporary society has an insatiable appetite for imagery. Designers working in a culture of appropriation must always be on the lookout for a fresh shape, line or pattern.

That's one reason why I suspect "Czech Cubism," which will be on view at the University of the Arts in downtown Philadelphia through Dec. 4, will prove to be a very influential exhibition, especially after its showing in New York next spring.

It is a collection of brilliant and for the most part unfamiliar explorations of mass and dynamism in furniture, architecture and decorative arts. Designers on the lookout for ideas they can recycle will find plenty here.

If that does happen though, it would be a bitter irony, because the work on view is the opposite of deconstruction and collage. It embodies an attempt to synthesize science, spirituality and that unsettling and exhilarating mixture of experiences known as modernity into a new mode of expression. When the leaders of the movement, notably the architects Pavel Janak, Josef Gocar and Joseph Chochol, spoke of creating a new style, they didn't mean a fashion but rather a way of understanding the world.

"We are enthusiastic about total form, felt and presented with excitement," Chochol wrote in 1913, "form that is all-encompassing, and has a total and instant effect." This sounds visionary, and it is. But this exhibition is able to show how Chochol and his cohorts realized that vision, not simply in drawings, but in such accouterments of bourgeois life as dressing tables, chests of drawers, chandeliers and sofas.

Despite its title -- which makes it sound like a particularly esoteric show of paintings -- this exhibition, which was organized by the Museum of Decorative Arts and the National Technical Museum in Prague and the Vitra Design Museum in Wiel am Rhein, Germany, is probably the most important and most accessible design exhibition to be seen here in many years.

The cubist label was self-applied, in part because those who were with the movement were anxious to identify themselves with Paris, the capital of the avant-garde, rather than with the closer, sometimes oppressive influences of Vienna or Berlin. In fact, much of the work on display here appears to have greater affinities with German expressionist explorations than it does with thepaintings of Picasso and Braque.

Part of the exhibition's excitement grows from the larger process of recovering Central Europe, and the centrality of its ideas to Western culture, after decades of perceiving it as part of a dull, monolithic Eastern bloc. The works on display here, produced between 1910 and 1925, present a little-known aspect of what had seemed a more familiar story of the emergence of modern design. And unlike architects and designers who were exploring similar ideas elsewhere, those working in Prague were fairly successful in seeing their work realized.

It may also have an attraction right now because turn-of-the-century cynicism and despair seem to have broken out a few years early; it is instructive to see how a previous generation dealt with the problem.

Because of space limitations, the Philadelphia version of the exhibition has reduced the number of architectural drawings on display, which means that furniture dominates. (The full exhibition is superbly documented in a catalog published by Princeton Architectural Press.)

Experimental and interesting

While it probably would have been preferable to be able to see the entire exhibition, this abridgement seems reasonable, given the nature of the work. Most of the furniture was designed by the architects. Because it was done earlier than their buildings, it represents their ideas at a moment when they were experimental and interesting. Moreover, these architects were particularly uninterested in the shaping of interior space and preoccupied with formal gestures that are also evident in their furniture.

The link between buildings and furniture is particularly strong in cabinetry, and especially bookcases. It's not entirely clear whether the designers saw bookcases as small buildings, or buildings as large bookcases, but they conceived both in much the same way. The shelves of a bookcase had to be able to hold books, just as the floors of a building had to hold offices or living quarters. The key was to clothe this inner regularity in a dynamic form.

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