Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Other Modern: An Introduction

A crozier for an English abbess and a chalice, both executed in ivory by Fernand Py and featured in Liturgical Arts Quarterly.

When I was studying at Notre Dame, I occasionally came across the term "The Other Modern" (sometimes in Italian, L’altra modernità) to refer to the survival and development of traditional architectural styles in twentieth-century Europe, often in surprising and unexpected places. Rome's outskirts are ornamented by a variety of intriguing streamlined neo-Baroque churches of various vintages; the Herreran plain style enjoyed a revival of sorts in Spain after the close of the Civil War; and even the Soviets (!) conducted a lengthy flirtation with classicism at one point.

Yet, this term might also be usefully applied to the great flowering of self-consciously new styles, often genetically linked in some ways to the Arts and Crafts Movement, that appeared at the turn of the last century; theirs is in many ways a brilliant example of innovative approaches to design that nonetheless fell within the bounds of tradition, and sought to expand them in new directions rather than simply forsaking them. Both Shawn and I have recently becoming more and more interested in this subject, independently, and it occurred to us it would be a great idea for the NLM to explore this matter in greater detail.

Often we tend to lump them together simply as Art Nouveau and Art Deco, though their individual taxonomies are a bit more complex--consider the Barcelona modernismo of Gaudi and Jujol, the various national romanticisms, or the intriguing and often unclassifiable experiments in modernized traditional liturgical design that occurred in interwar France. While occasionally some of this work dates itself, by its sometimes over-eager attempts to be too daring and not beautiful enough, what is most striking is how wonderfully balanced innovation and tradition appear in such designs. In some cases, this may be a matter of context. For instance, full-fledged machine-age Art Deco may have looked like a raucous jazz-age cousin to the Bauhaus back then, but in retrospect it might rightly be called the last of the organic traditional styles.

In many cases, these works not only suggest styles to explore as stylistic strategies to consider. The abstraction of the Sezession in Vienna, Mackintosh in Glasgow, or Art Deco in America, especially when they were linked, often quite successfully, to more historicizing tendencies such as Byzantine revival or neo-Gothicism, suggest crucial approaches for successful stylistic simplification in an age of high building costs and scarce craftsmen. Shawn and I hope to explore these various modern styles and approaches to traditional design over the next few months, both in architecture and in the allied liturgical arts.

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