The postmodern look: Postmodernism - Style and Subversion comes to the the V&A

By Jenni Davidson | 05 October 2011
A photo of a neon sign that says Postmodernism.
© V&A Images
Exhibition: Postmodernism - Style and Subversion, 1970-1990, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, until January 15 2012

"Whoever decides to abandon the modern movement can choose between Versailles and Las Vegas." With that statement, Italian critic Bruno Zevi summed up the essence of postmodernism.

Rejecting the modernists' utopian visions of a better world through ideology and progress, postmodernism combined high and low culture - often in a fun, humorous way, taking inspiration from elements of the art and architecture of various historical periods as well as pop culture and everyday objects.

It marked a move away from the modernist functionalism and rejection of the past and heralded a return to referencing historic styles and decoration. Aesthetics was back in fashion.

A photograph of Grace Jones wearng a a yellow and black geometric maternity dress with a red and white exclamation mark hat and holding a pink fan against a blue background.
Jean-Paul Goude, Grace Jones maternity dress (1979)© Jean-Paul Goude
From a mainly architectural movement in the 1970s, postmodernism went on to influence almost all culture in the 1980s: art, design, graphics, fashion, music, dance and theatre. Postmodernism was the spirit of the 80s.

The huge variety of inspiration and output makes the postmodern movement difficult to define, and this scale of this is shown in the new exhibition at the V&A. There is a somewhat overwhelming array of objects and images to assail the senses.

The architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown were some of the earliest postmodernists, and the exhibition contains a significant archive film shot by them on a formative study trip to Las Vegas in 1966, as well as photos, design drawings and a model for a casino sign.

Other significant early postmodern movers were the Italians Alessandro Medini and Ettore Sottsass. Sottsass, one of the most influential Italian designers of the late 1960s, founded the design company Memphis, which was well known for its postmodern design. Medini and Sotsass also worked for the pivotal studio of avant-garde design, Studia Alchimia.

A photograph of a woman with spiky hair and purple eye make up wearing a black dress with geometric steps up the righthand side.
Cinzia Ruggeri, Homage to Lévi-Strauss dress (Autumn Winter collection 1983-4)© V&A Images
Medini and Sottsass are represented by numerous pieces, including a film of Mendini's unusual early performance piece, Destruction of Monumentino da Casa, where he built what appears to be a normal dining room chair, but up a flight of steps like a throne, to a deserted quarry near Genoa and set fire it.

Their art movement, which they called Radical Design, was inspired by everything from temples to worktops. Teapots designed for Memphis by Sottsass have a nod to art deco in their form, but with almost cartoonish ears and decorations. His Casablanca sideboard is in the shape of a primitive figure, but constructed of plastic laminate.

Mendini's Proust chair is a pastiche of a piece of 18th century baroque furniture, grown to a ridiculous size and covered in a copy of a Signac pointillist painting. Next to it sits a cabinet with Munch's Scream painted on the side.

Another key Memphis object is Martine Bedin's Super Lamp. Resembling an oversized child's toy, this primary coloured hemisphere with its spine of lightbulbs is a lamp on wheels that can be pulled around the house.

Fashion is also well-represented from the likes of Cinzia Ruggeri's Homage to Lévi-Strauss dress. When combined with 1980s hair and make up, the green dress with a geometric step pattern turns the wearer into a postmodern object.

Jean-Paul Goude and Antonio Lopez's maternity dress for Grace Jones is probably one of the most inventive ways of covering a bump, and the sharply-angled dress is topped off with a bizarre exclamation mark hat.

A image of the front cover of Wet magazine with multicoloured geometric designs and a face in the middle with a black stripe covering the eyes.
Wet: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing no. 20, the Religion issue (September/November 1979). Edited by Leonard Koren. Design by April Greiman in collaboration with Jayme Odgers© V&A Images
Architecture is difficult to display in the confines of a gallery, but there are images of significant postmodern buildings, such as James Stirling's Staatsgallerie in Stuttgart and Judith Grinberg's AT&T Building.

Part of Charles Jencks Garagia Rotunda has been reconstructed for the exhibition, as have Hans Hollein's giant classical columns, used as a façade for the 1980 Venice Architecture Biennale.

The galleries move chronologically through the period and, in the later rooms, the crossing over of influence between different media becomes apparent. Ridley Scott's Blade Runner is shown next to Vivian Westwood's Punkature, which used images from the film.

New Order's Bizarre Love Triangle video, which features people in business suits flying, sums up the feel of the 1980s yuppie culture. Among the plethora of paraphernalia, there are also some kinky costumes for the Michael Clark dance company, graphics from key magazines of the time The Face and i-D, as well as album covers from the likes of Kraftwerk.

Whereas modernism was a little po-faced and worthy, this exhibition is joyous in showing the fun and experimental anything-goes attitude that came with postmodernism.

Of course, it is impossible to entirely cover two decades of culture in a few rooms, but I'd defy anyone who was born before 1980 not to find something that awakens a glimmer of nostalgia for the whole wacky extremism and exuberant, radical experimentalism of the period in this retrospective.

  • Open 10am-5.30pm (10pm Fridays). Admission £8-£11, book online.

More pictures from the exhibition:

Two photographs of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown with Las Vegas in the background.
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Vegas (1966)© Venturi, Scott Brown and Associate
A photo of a blue semicircular lamp on wheels with mluticoloured lightbulb holders running along the edge.
Martine Bedin, Super Lamp© V&A Images
A photograph of a red and black shelf with two black teapots on it and three red boxes of Bold 3 washing powder.
Haim Steinbach, Supremely Black (1985)© V&A Images
A photograph of one of the galleries in the Postmodernism exhibition in the V&A showing multiple TV screens and cases of costumes.
One of the galleries© V&A Images
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