Art reviews: Postmodernism, Style and Subversion, 1970-1990 | The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons

Defining postmodernism is tricky but the V&A has a good stab at showing not only what it is but also how it related to political and social change in the past century

Postmodernism, Style and Subversion, 1970-1990 - V&A, London

Rating: ****

The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons - National Portrait Gallery, London

Rating: ****

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THE curving grassy banks winding around crescent-shaped ponds at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art have become so much part of the landscape, you may forget who made them, or even that they are an artwork at all. In fact they were designed by Charles Jencks, a landscape architect and influential writer on architecture.

He was born in America but his mother was Scottish, and he settled in Scotland more than 40 years ago. Together with his late wife, he was also founder of the Maggie’s Centres at hospitals around the country, which bear her name. Frank Gehry’s Maggie’s Centre at Dundee is just one example of a series of buildings that together constitute a remarkable essay in postmodern architecture. Nor is that an accident.

In his writing Jencks has helped define postmodernism or, as it is almost undefinable, at least he has argued that, in architecture, modernism is dead and consequently whatever replaces it is postmodern. He even put a date on modernism’s demise. Pruitt–Igoe was a huge public housing scheme in the city of St Louis, Missouri. A classic piece of modernism, both in style and ideology, it had, however, stood for less than 20 years when, on 15 July 1972, it was demolished. On that day, said Jencks, modern architecture died. Pictures of its rectangular blocks collapsing in a cloud of dust are instantly recognisable, even if you don’t know where they once stood, nor why they’re famous.

In truth, Modernist architecture had been dying for some time. On the one hand its vision of utopia had turned into grim estates of high-rise housing. On the other hand, and quite incompatibly, it had been adopted as the signature style of corporate wealth. It was a pretty comprehensive failure and if anybody outside the architectural profession took any notice of its demise, “good riddance” was probably what they thought.

The style had endured for much of the 20th century and had been widely imposed on a public that had consistently refused to love it, indeed had pretty universally hated it. Nevertheless, as it was so entrenched, why did it end, what replaced it and what does that change signify? Postmodernism, Style and Subversion, 1970-1990, the latest in the V&A’s series of major exhibitions defining styles, movements and critical moments in the history of design, sets out to answer those questions, or at least to illuminate the context from which they spring. It is not an exhibition that is full of things of such beauty they will stick in your mind for ever, nevertheless I came away feeling that some loose ends had been tied; things that had happened in the last 40 years, inexplicable on their own, began to make more sense seen together.

More than in the other arts, modernism in architecture was driven by ideology, by a utopian vision of a brave new world whose origins lay far back in the revolutionary dreams of the Enlightenment and was expressed in a style that proposed to take architecture back to first principles.

That was why one of the first acts of the Conservative government that replaced Clement Attlee’s radical post-war administration was to demolish most of the Festival of Britain buildings. They found them offensive because in their overt modernism they were monuments to the dream of a socialist Utopia.

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Within 20 years, however, it was not merely conservatives who were rejecting the style that carried so much ideological baggage. Architects and designers also began to subvert the norms that had hitherto prevailed under modernism’s unifying style. In Italy, Ettore Sottsas was just one designer among many whose furniture inverted conventional expectations.

He was also leader of Memphis, a group of designers in Milan, who produced decorated furniture, brightly coloured toy-like lamps, clocks, toasters and much else that defied any notion of functionalism, while employing imagery as decoration without caring what moral or ideological baggage it might carry.

Duchamp seemed to pinpoint the paradox at the heart of modernism. Take art back to first principles and you are left with a simple act of will, a choice that is not constrained by any stylistic conventions at all. Thus he seemed to anticipate postmodernism. In America, it was out of the consequent free-for-all of imagery enjoyed for its own sake and without any stylistic compass that Jeff Koons, for instance, was able to take kitsch and even soft porn as the basis for his art.

In the UK, the Brit Artists were simply late joiners to all this, post-postmodern perhaps, and the artists of the 1990s were much indebted to the pioneers of postmodernism. Rachel Whiteread’s House, for instance, borrowed for sculpture a kind of joke and architectural paradox that had been stock in trade for Postmodern architects for years. Back in the early 1970s, for example, Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates had built a skeleton house in a development in Philadelphia. At much the same date in Houston, Texas, James Wines had built a store that seemed to be falling down.

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown were, however, also the architects of the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London, the building that replaced an anaemic modernist design by Ahrends Burton Koralek, famously condemned by Prince Charles as a “monstrous carbuncle”. Its replacement pleased Prince Charles – does that make his reactionary views postmodern? Certainly the neoclassical design of the Sainsbury Wing, as it was built, is a classic piece of postmodernism. Without a prevailing orthodoxy of style, any historical style can be used at a whim, pastiched, parodied or simply jumbled up with several others.

In this, postmodernism was very different from the Victorians’ almost equally catholic approach to style, however. They believed that to use a historic style you had to understand it and the metaphor it carried, Gothic for religion, Italian or Flemish renaissance for banks, for instance. For the postmodernists, however, history is just a toybox. You can pick up and play with whatever you like. Charles Jencks had something to say there, too: “After all, since it (modernism) is fairly dead, we might as well enjoy picking over the corpse.”

Nevertheless, for all its faults, perhaps the modernist style was a visible part of the ideological armature that sustained the whole post-war settlement. A prevailing style in any period is a kind of consensus, a collective agreement to see things in a certain way. If the style ceases to be valid, but is not replaced by another, the consensus has gone. Enlightenment ideals were still recognisable within modernism, even in its decadence. In the past few decades they have vanished and now we face the stark consequences. Moral and aesthetic constraints are contiguous. Thatcher spurned consensus for confrontation, moral constraint in the marketplace,for neoliberal deregulation. The postmodernists did not cause the changes that made it possible to dismantle so much, but clearly they understood the early signs. Their art and architecture may have been styleless and without clear principles, but that has become the shape of our times.

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To refresh you after so much solemnity, I can recommend the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons. It is a gathering of wonderful portraits of some very feisty ladies. There is a deeper point too, however. These pictures suggest that after the oldest profession, from which some may have thought acting was indistinguishable, when women first went on the stage in the late 17th century, acting as a profession was really the first way in which they could achieve independent success without the advantages of birth, fortune or marriage. As these glamorous portraits show, they also represent the birth of modern celebrity.

• Postmodernism runs until 15 January, The First Actresses until 8 January