Italy had its Futurist art movement, Austria its “Vienna Secession” movement, Russia and Eastern Europe its Constructivism, and Germany, of course, had the Bauhaus. But, artistically, what did France have in the late-19th and early-20th century? Cabinets and decorative arts? Jewelry and metals? A nation that had for so long prided itself on its art had, for the most part, fallen woefully behind the progressivism of the rest of Europe.
French artists working in a more modern, industrial vein like the French painter and furniture designer Francis Jourdain, the Irish-born French architect and furniture designer Eileen Gray, and the Swiss-born French architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier, wanted to bring France into the 20th century. But, when they came together to show their industrial, modern work at the 1925 Paris International Exhibition of Decorative and Industrial Arts, they were hardly embraced. France was still stuck in the age of Decorative Arts and Art Deco. So on May 15, 1929, the French architect and designer Robert Mallet-Stevens brought together those three artists as well as Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Fernand Leger, Pierre Chareau, Rene Herbst, and a slew of others, in order to found the Union of Modern Artists.
Known as the U.A.M. (Union des Artistes Modernes), the group prized utilitarianism of art, geometric shapes, and simplicity of design. They used basic, widely available materials like Plexiglas, seeing themselves as a movement of the people and a rejection of gaudy conservatism, especially rejecting the decorative ornamentalism that had for so long defined French design via the Art Deco movement, which was then led by the Societe des Artistes-Decorateurs.
Like any major art movement, the U.A.M. was not just about the art itself but about the politics it represented: here was a movement crafted with the masses in mind rather than the elites.
On until August 27 at the Pompidou Center in Paris, “U.A.M.: A Modern Adventure” attempts to show the long, slow rise of the movement, its dissolution, and the influence it has continued to have ever since. Curated by Frederic Migayrou — deputy director at the National Museum of Modern Art and the head curator of its prospective industrial design department — as well as Olivier Cinqualbre — head of the National Museum of Modern Art’s architecture department — the show is structured to focus primarily on the cultural context and evolution of the U.A.M.
The first room, for instance, takes us back to the late-19th century during which a set of French furniture designers, interior designers, and architects were beginning to try to offer more functional services that could be accomplished in ways cheaper than the typical, showy designs of their time. Maintaining a discourse with Symbolist and Impressionist art, in 1896, Jourdain began exhibiting his furniture and architectural work next to paintings by Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard — an interest in simplicity of form and clarity of color reflected in each. The exhibition then moves to further focus on color and design, the mass-production of furniture, and geometric design before slowing down again in the 1920s. The breakthrough for the U.A.M. — and the most original part of the current exhibition — is the movement’s furniture, much of it metal, which would lead to Mid-Century Modern inventions like the Eames chair. A placard in the exhibition says that critics at the time denounced all of it as “degeneracy,” “machinism,” “appalling nudism,” even “Bolshevism.”
Which brings us to the political side of things. The link between a work of art’s functionality and the perception of its populist, even Communist implications, is subtly handled in the exhibition. With Pierre Chareau, for instance, a French, Communist architect and designer who makes a cameo appearance here, his famous Maison de Verre in Paris — a house with an enormous glass facade — was the ultimate political statement. Nearly everything in the house is open and transparent, every window, stair, and gear crafted to make the labor of its use simpler. In this exhibition, Chareau is shown as growing with the movement, becoming well-established in 1925, and having his work and legacy largely saved by the rise of the leftist Front Populaire in France, which attempted to strike down the rising fascist movements in Europe that existed between the two World Wars. In 1937, just before the Second World War, with the Front Populaire in power, the U.A.M. was allowed, for the first time, to exhibit at the International Exhibition in Paris.
Exhibiting here would be the group’s apogee. They were finally able to publicize their message of a hierarchy-free art in which furniture, painting, design, and architecture were not only equally valuable artistic forms but could also be open to a wider range of people as well.
But the movement’s peak was brief. When the Second World War came only two years later, the Front Populaire fell from power, many of the members set off on their own, and the group disbanded. The movement would return in a different form, with manifestos and artworks being released and created until 1958, but the Second World War proved to be U.A.M.’s coup de grace. The U.A.M. was a movement that changed politics — until politics changed it.
"The U.A.M.: A Modern Adventure" is on view at the Centre Pompidou in Paris through August 27. More information: www.centrepompidou.fr
Founder Louise Blouin