Hockney, Queen, Vacuum Cleaner Go on Show at London V&A

Alexander McQueen Gown
A creation by British designer Alexander McQueen. The gown is a highlight of the exhibition "British Design: 1948-2012" at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Photographer: Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images

The big new show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, “British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age,” probably features quite a few exhibits that are also on view at your local charity shop.

Although that’s not necessarily a criticism, it’s hard to claim that it all adds up to a coherent whole.

The ingredients are much the same as in the V&A’s usual style-era blockbusters. Among them are cutlery, furnishing, fabrics, crockery (in this case 1950s and 1960s plates), uncomfortable-looking chairs and a scattering of paintings and sculptures that look out of place in this context.

It’s de rigueur for the V&A to include at least one vehicle in these jamborees, preferably -- if the period in question allows -- a car. In this case, there are two: a Mini and a Jaguar E-Type. In addition, there are various artistic bibs and bobs, including an early David Hockney picture and a Henry Moore stone carving. All of these are nice to see, but it’s not clear that there’s anything linking them together.

The best of these stylistic surveys at the V&A -- “Baroque” in 2009, for example -- have a clear target in view: a genuine period look that encompassed all the arts. This time, there isn’t one. Instead, the exhibition moves from one bit of optimistic image-spinning to another: the postwar Festival of Britain, Swinging London, Cool Britannia. Predictably, the 1960s are the most enjoyable part, with a series of rock stars’ costumes, miniskirts, album covers and a continuous screening of a clip from Antonioni’s film “Blow-Up.”

Modernist Nostalgia

At least the first section devoted to the late ‘40s and ‘50s suggests a common idiom: good-mannered Modernism with a tendency to relapse into romantic nostalgia. The austerity-era results --in new towns such as Harlow -- often have a depressing mood, which is characteristically British.

The opposite could be said of the flamboyant eccentricity of the Beatles epoch and punk from the 1970s. Briefly, a distinctive British design personality emerges: sometimes squalid yet distinctively, defiantly odd. After that, there isn’t much more: an Alexander McQueen dress, which could fit that definition, and Damien Hirst’s decor for the Pharmacy Restaurant (1997).

The exhibition peters out in a section devoted to industrial design, with a Dyson vacuum cleaner, the E-Type, a few computer games, a model of Richard Rogers’s Lloyds Building (1978-86) and Foster & Partners’ Gherkin (also known as 30 St. Mary’s Axe). It all has a worthy feel, signaled by that subtitle: “Innovation in the Modern Age,” with its overtones of a mission statement.

Groundhog Day

Amid the emphasis on modernity and innovation, there’s a sense of Groundhog Day about all this. Queen Elizabeth II is there almost at the start, and six decades later, she still is. In the 1950s, there was excited talk about new towns built in the countryside (naturally they didn’t turn out as nice as they look in the architect’s drawings).

The U.K. government recently announced a project to build another town, this time along the new, innovatory high-speed rail link. As it happens, the show contains a little about glamorously fast trains of yesteryear, the Inter-City 125s introduced in 1976. Plus ca change. Perhaps the true British fate is always to strive to be modern, yet never really to manage it.

“British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age,” sponsored by Ernst & Young, runs through Aug. 12 at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Information: http://www.vam.ac.uk.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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