Culture Writer Lizzie Smolenskaia reviews Robin Schuldenfrei’s Objects in Exile finding it to be an accessible and enjoyable insight into the history of art

Written by Lizzie Smolenskaia
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Images by Lizzie Smolenskaia

Objects in Exile: Modern Art and Design across Borders, 1930-1960 by Robin Schuldenfrei  is a fascinating account on the Modernist period in the history of art, the focal point of the analysis being on the significance of migration and its impact on Modernist ideas. Schuldenfrei details an absorbing account of how the Modernist legacy was developed and maintained, evidenced by stunning prints of various artworks and insightful records of exchanges between artists and critics across borders.  She makes clear how art often resembles the political climate of the time – the link between Modernism and Capitalism was particularly interesting to read about.

The term ‘Modernism’ covers a range of ideas spanning the years of the early 20th century that rejected the notion of realism. This book focused on the branch of Modernism stemming from the Weimar Republic (modern-day Germany) , mainly influenced by Dadaism, and its changes spurred by transnational political and social influences. Influential German artists migrated to the US and Britain, some willingly, but others turning exiled from their country due to burgeoning Nazi rule. 

The book is divided into three segments: Transposition, Contingent Conditions, and Remediation. But what exactly do these abstract ideas mean? In short, they cover how crucial exile was to the development of Modernism and the impact of travelling ideas on design, as well as the specifics of materiality used in objects. The very centre of this branch of Modernism was the school Bauhaus: an institution which combined craft and the fine arts, founded by architect Walter Gropius in 1919. This art school had a profound influence (especially from architecture) on the Modernist movement. 

Schuldenfrei explores various art forms

Schuldenfrei explores various art forms: architecture, art, photography, graphics, and exhibition design. Most notable of all was Modernist architecture and interior design; the cover of the book depicts Breuer’s Opposite, a blueprint model of a plywood nesting chair. This I did not think much of, until Schuldenfrei delved into the architectural theory of simple living, saving space, and the adaptable use of plywood specific to this movement. 

The artists that stood out to me the most were László Moholy-Nagy and his spouse Lucia Moholy. Moholy-Nagy was fascinated by urban spaces, and his work steadily became more abstract and three-dimensional, experimenting by incorporating mechanical parts as objects in his work. This was representative of his obsession with materiality in an urban landscape. ‘Moholy-Nagy presented abstractions without, paradoxically, losing sight of the industrial materiality of the modern city’ (p. 53). Moholy-Nagy gained significant fame from his contribution to the Modernist style; however, his wife’s work was overlooked and left uncredited, despite her great impact on the cause. Lucia Moholy was crucial to mythologising the legacy of the Modernists. She documented Modernist creations, namely the architecture of the Bauhaus, captured in striking black and white photographs. ‘Beyond their function as documentation of Bauhaus products, they helped to set the artistic and visual standards for modern products in their time and subsequently, as well as for the ongoing legacy of the Bauhaus itself’ (p. 104).

The book is a captivating study, accessible to everyone

Schuldenfrei’s encapsulating argument pushes forward the idea of how exile itself formed objects, rather than objects and ideas being transferred into exile. The writing style is very proficient and the book is a captivating study, accessible to anyone regardless of their knowledge on the history of art. Having read this book, I learned the significance of leaving behind a trail and how sociopolitical events can influence the minds of artists. 

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