Pulchritude & Productivism
‘What I love about the way I’m living now’, she says, ‘is that I can be addressing a load of people at the V&A on modernism (the museum rang her up and said ‘you look modernist- what do you think about modernism?’) and the next day I’m taking advantage of a 40 per cent sale at Halfords’
Erin O’Connor, ES, 19/05/06 (courtesy of the IT girl)
Though this quote deserves mockery and derision, it does evoke a question which I shall mostly avoid talking about in the third (and really very probably final) part of the Modernism piece on The Measures Taken. Viz- the undercurrent of the frankly sexually intriguing in much of the stuff on show.
Obviously the easy connection of modernism=puritanism & austerity is a bit off- the textiles and flapper dresses of such hardliners as Sonia Delaunay, Tatlin, Stepanova and Popova, are frequently very striking and glamorous things, as I wrote last June here. But running through that also is that odd figure of a woman, featured much in the films of Vertov and prominently in the exhibition, exercising vigorously on the roof of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye in the film L’Architecture d’aujord-hui- powerful of thigh, bobbed of hair, enthusiastic of expression. Or, most stunningly, the wonderful Hertha Thiele, strutting with a combination of vulnerability and non-pissing about Bolshevism through Kuhle Wampe and Madchen in Uniform. I have the same haircut, probably coincidentally.
This fascination is not especially ideologically pure, I grant you- it runs through much of the pop culture of the inter-war years. There’s a similar magnetism about the women in H.M Bateman cartoons. They seem like ridiculously English refractions of your Clara Bows or Gloria Swansons, with their boyish figures in tight, officious dress-suits, with outrageously huge and accusing eyes- or the consumer voraciousness of the eponymous girl who ‘buys everything in Woolworths’.
Early silent film starlets have this in spades, the evident filthiness of someone like Edna Purviance or Mabel Normand, unencumbered by any sexual blatancy. Another version of this combination of conservative/alluring in the pre-war period, is the phenomenon of the ‘bathing beauty’, principally in Keystone comedies- wearing clothes that nowadays would crate nary the bat of an eyelid, but still eliciting a promise of all manner of illicitness, presumably in somewhat Graham Greene-esque seaside towns.
In fact I own a book by the late Ronnie Barker in which he writes staggeringly unfunny links to his collection of postcards and ephemera on this very subject. Which reminds me- if there are any Two Ronnies fans reading this (unlikely, I know), I recently turned over to watch it and wondered what on earth an army of leather clad women were doing roaming round the English countryside. Most unsettling.