Objects in Exile: Modern Art and Design across Borders, 1930–1960

Image of Objects in Exile: Modern Art and Design across Borders, 1930–1960
Release Date: 
January 23, 2024
Princeton University Press
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“a rather gripping story of a series of objects and their makers and how exile and emigration created a ripple effect  . . . that is . . . linked to the foundation of modernism.”

Objects in Exile: Modern Art and Design across Borders, 1930–1960 is one of the most interesting and essential texts on modernism to be written in the last decade. In eight surprisingly gripping chapters, it explores the movement through the lens of exile and immigration, launched from the premise that modernism “could only coalesce after a period of international mobility.”

As modernism was indeed born out of the free flow of ideas across borders and cultures, author Robin Schuldenfrei sets the stage for a seemingly obvious but not so often discussed situation that was essential to the birth of the genre. Without upheaval, art may have remained as siloed as it was in the 19th century.

By examining specific case studies of notable figures within 20th century modernism, namely László Moholy-Nagy, Josef Alberts, and Herbert Bayer (among others), the author demonstrates how the mere act of immigration—the physical movement of one person and their stuff—can become a catalyst that changes an artist’s entire practice.

Some of Albers’s and Moholy-Nagy’s works were damaged in transit, forcing them to reproduce or replicate the originals in new ways. Such circumstances invited experimentation and novel developments within their output. For example, necessity truly became the mother of invention when, in chapter six, Albers, wanting to salvage some of the concepts he honed in his glass paintings (to which he had dedicated over a decade of his life), reinterprets them through paint on masonite and sandblasted aluminum. Some of these examples would evolve into his famous Homage to the Square series produced during the later half of his career, touchstones in many surveys of art history. And would they have ever been made had he not been forced to move to the United States and experience the loss of his earlier work?

Schuldenfrei also explores how World War II impacted modernism and how the immediacy of war forced artists and designers to respond with unprecedented urgency. If one does not know if they will die tomorrow or be forced from their home yet again, how does that change how they make art? This clarity of communication that such uncertainty bred within much of modern design was subsequently embraced by various governments, resulting in propaganda campaigns that were as graphically progressive as they were impactful.

One point of contention, though, is the author’s emphasis on the positive reception the avant-garde found in the United States. While absolutely true that the U.S. provided many emigre artists and designs with opportunities as faculty members of elite educational institutions or as designers for major corporations, the reception toward their ideas and products was initially tepid and only really considered among a small fraction of the population. Particularly in the early wartime years, modernism as seen in the work of Herbert Bayer or even the non-emigre designer Lester Beall was quickly eclipsed for more popular and easily digestible saccharine imagery in the style of Norman Rockwell. It would not be until the late 1950s when modernism became more mainstream in America, filling extraordinary art collections and being used to reinvigorate corporate identities to compete with those of Europe.

Books like this often are written at a very intellectually high level that can feel as if the author is only speaking to other PhDs in the field, stuffing every sentence with jargon and academic references; however, Schuldenfrei has made a fairly niche art historical subject incredibly approachable with brilliant but accessible text—an effort that actually underscores the thesis that the rapid exchange of ideas changed the trajectory of the world’s relationship with art.

Her focus on a variety of media is also highly appreciated, covering genres from architecture to painting to three-dimensional design. The text is not a play-by-play of where these artists traveled, but more a biography of particular objects that these modernists created and how they evolved as they moved, be it as physical material or merely ideas and memories of what was created before departure.

Overall, the book does a tremendous job of placing the act of immigration or exile as key to the development of modernism in art. While certainly modernism existed in Europe at institutions like the Bauhaus, it was not until those artists were forced to move elsewhere that those ideas proliferated and saturated international culture, turning what would have been a niche and potentially passing movement into something that permeated nearly every aspect of contemporary life in the postwar period.

The author also takes great pains to emphasize how the upheaval required to push so many key modernists out of their countries of origin is far from a perfect storm that allows the idea of modernism to be tied up in a lovely little bow—modernism is a wily beast, sweepingly broad in its present definition and impossible to summarize.

What Schuldenfrei creates, however, is a rather gripping story of a series of objects and their makers and how exile and emigration created a ripple effect of seismic proportions that is indelibly linked to the foundation of modernism. It is a phenomenally well researched and important text on the subject and should be required reading for anyone interested in modern art and design.