Exhibition: Modern Beauty On View

The challenge: to represent—through text, image, and sound—sensory perceptions. How to convey narratively and visually such experiences as being a passenger on a train rushing through the countryside, feeling the bumpiness of the ride, hearing the workings of train, and watching the scenery pass by in a blur? The exhibition Modern Beauty?: The Aesthetics of Perceptual Simultaneity, drawn from The Wolfsonian’s collection and on view at the Frost Museum through April 6, showcases a selection of work produced in the early 1900s by a small group of European poets, artists, and architects who were reconceiving the act of perception and the connection between seeing and thinking through the notion of perceptual simultaneity, or the simultaneous sensory experience of sights, sounds, and narratives, which they conveyed in complex and layered creative work.

The exhibition includes a robust selection of graphic design, paintings, drawings, ceramics, books, illustrated poems, textiles, and even music. These works were intimately tied to the invention of modernity—exploring these multilayered sensory experiences, according to the curators, “contributed significantly to the development of a modern sensibility, creating a jarring new beauty that fit with the violent circumstances of the early twentieth century, in particular industrialization, civil unrest, and war.”

Modern Beauty was guest-curated by FIU professors Gray Read, associate professor in the Department of Architecture, and Renée Silverman, assistant professor of Spanish in the Department of Modern Languages. The exhibition complements a course they are co-teaching this spring, Ways of Seeing: Modern Perception in Literature and Architecture. The twenty-six students in the course each study one piece in depth. “The exhibition gives the students a direct, personal experience that is not available through reproductions,” notes Read. “Looking closely, they can see the hand of the artist at work.”

In her own work, Silverman has spent the past few years exploring the theme of perceptual simultaneity, including through a research fellowship at The Wolfsonian during 2009. “I am particularly interested in perceptual simultaneity as it reflects the human experience of the urban modernity that developed between the end of the nineteenth century and the Second World War,” she explains. Her work on perceptual simultaneity in Spanish poetry has resulted in a forthcoming book, Mapping the Landscape, Remapping the Text: Spanish Poetry from Antonio Machado’s Campos de Castilla to the First Avant-Garde (1909–1925) (University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

The exhibition considers multiple ways of conveying perceptual simultaneity by dividing the material into several themed sections. One section considers simultaneous poetry and other typographic arrangements that engage two kinds of perception; works by Italian Futurist artists, including paintings and drawings, communicate the beauty these artists found in war; and the section “Geometry of Motion” explores the twin concepts of perceptual simultaneity and the visual portrayal of motion. Similarly, works gathered in “Industrial Motion” convey ways in which industrialization relieved workers of heavy physical labor, yet drove them to become more machine-like. The exhibition also showcases a mechanized puppet theater developed by Bauhaus designer Ilse Fehling through drawings, blueprints, and maquettes. Ceramics and textiles produced by England’s Omega Workshops convey how objects of everyday life incorporated abstract designs representative of depth and motion.

Among the highlights of the exhibition is a sound piece that presents an excerpt from a simultaneous poem by Henri-Martin Barzun, “Panharmonie Orphique.” Read found the score while researching her book Modern Architecture in Theater: The Experiments of Art et Action (Palgrave Press, 2014). The piece was interpreted and performed in multiple voices by FIU students in the School of Music. One of the most significant objects showcased is a long poem/avant-garde artwork by Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay-Terk, La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France (The Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jean of France). The piece, Silverman comments, “is a particularly interesting and compelling piece due to its combination of beauty and ugliness. Delaunay-Terk’s gorgeous and colorful art work (using a stencil technique called pochoir) often contrasts with Cendrars’s unsettling depiction of war and famine in early twentieth-century Russia.”

Modern Beauty is the ninth exhibition to be presented by The Wolfsonian at the Frost Art museum. The exhibition is supported with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. 

Captions (click to enlarge):


Book (detail), La prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France [Prose of the Transsiberian Railroad and the Little Jeanne of France], 1913
Blaise Cendrars (Swiss, 1887–1961), author
Sonia Delaunay-Terk (French, born Russian Empire, 1885–1979), illustrator
Éditions des Hommes Nouveaux, Paris, publisher
The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, 87.799.2.1


Drawing, Italian war planes flying above city, 1918
Aldo Raimondi (Italian, 1902–1998)
Parma, Italy
Graphite and watercolor on paper
The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, 87.5.5
Photo: Lynton Gardiner

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Exhibition: Modern Beauty On View