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EXHIBITIONS Decade that calls for a sharper critique

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JEREMY MELVIN Modern Britain 1929-1939 At the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1 until 6 June

Why do the 1930s have such a hold over us? That decade saw Modernism develop from the first stirrings to near hegemony; during it a very loosely affiliated group of contemporaries transferred from an impotent avant- garde to positions of power - so setting the tone of cultural production for the next 30 years. Think Henry Moore, Kenneth Clark, Cyril Connolly, Benjamin Britten and Maxwell Fry. As the exhibition's running commentary reminds us, the decade also saw the births of Richard Rogers and Norman Foster.

So there is plenty to interest historians. Yet I can't get out of my mind a nagging suspicion that the 30s are a great 'con'. That in the rarefied salons of Chelsea, Fitzrovia and Bloomsbury a few bright and creative people had a few ideas, which received wisdom has elevated to an undeserved pedestal. They were certainly, aware of suffering due to economic depression, but that was essentially controlled through its aestheticisation: photographs of Jarrow marchers or the despicable Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier. Can we really take him seriously? Even if we can, one might argue that the 1920s produced vastly superior literature: The Wasteland, Ulysses - yes, even Vers une Architecture. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, The Waves, and The Flat Book do not compete.

Here lies an interesting point which the exhibition implicitly raises. Massive advances during the 1930s in what we would now call 'communication' made an aestheticisation of everyday life possible for the first time. Radio became universal, television started, film began to acquire colour, and advertising moved into a new league. It was the decade of Mass Observation, whose founder, Charles Madge, was both poet and sociologist. What this suggests is the possibility of an overlap between artistic and social realism; it is this possibility which lies at the heart of the 'creativity' of the 1930s, which the Design Museum fondly imagines to be related to the 'current . . . creative revolution which is reaching and enhancing our lives'. As so often with periods which are presented to later generations as 'creative', the creativity is at root an exploitation of technique.

In film and graphics these advances are obvious. The exhibition shows a series of short films, among them the classic Nightmail, a social documentary elevated by Auden's versifying and Britten's music. A skillful combination of artifice and fact, it presciently implies an elevation of public service above everything else: the sort of embryonic social programming which surfaced in architectural projects like the Pioneer Health Centre in Peckham, and became explicit in the Welfare State.

Architecture has an especially problematic status. It may be pioneering and related to ideas about social reform (although the Peckham Health Centre seems to have been a grown-up version of the boy scouts: wholesome social events, food, and camps), but it may also serve traditional purposes, such as country houses. Further, visual affinities with painting or sculpture are not a reliable measure of progressiveness. Maybe, in this concatenation of social and artistic circumstances, architecture really is the ur-artistic medium.

One of the central aims of the exhibition is to imply a connectivity - even a zeitgeist - between different media. In the installation by Foster and graphic artist Per Arnoldi, the natural route follows a sinuous outer wall in chronological sequence. A continuous time-line reminds visitors of the dates for important events, such as the rise of Hitler or the release of Top Hat, while small, tightly captioned illustrations introduce featured examples. All wind around a series of objects that are small enough to display, such as Gordon Russell and Isokon furniture. The exhibition design challenges the predominant ethos of the 30s: it makes an attempt to create synthesis through form rather than trying to use new techniques to investigate and present actuality.

It is all very worthy, clear and easy to comprehend. Yet there is also something cloyingly unsatisfying. Few of the exhibits will be unfamiliar to anyone with any knowledge of the period and the intepretations neither tease nor test. It is as if we are now removed sufficiently from the period to commence its reconstruction: an aestheticisation of an aestheticisation. Very Post-Modern, especially as it is being called into service to bolster the flagging idea of creative Britain.

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