Postmodernism Exhibitions at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London – October 2011

Postmodernism : ‘Style and Subversion 1970-90’ and ‘Signs of a Struggle – Photography in the wake of Postmodernism.

OCA Study Visit to the Exhibition at the V&A on 29th October 2011


I know it’s not considered academic due to lack of scholastic verification but Wikipedia seems a good place to start, because this is where I first looked after hearing the term Postmodernism.  Also, Wikipeia is, of course, a product of the era itself.

“……., modernism and postmodernism, are understood as cultural projects or as a set of perspectives. “Postmodernism” is used in critical theory to refer to a point of departure for works of literature, drama, architecture, cinema, journalism, and design, as well as in marketing and business and in the interpretation of law, culture, and religion in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Indeed, postmodernism, particularly as an academic movement, can be understood as a reaction to modernism in the Humanities. Whereas modernism was primarily concerned with principles such as identity, unity, authority, and certainty, postmodernism is often associated with difference, plurality, textuality, and skepticism.”

To me this seemed too all-encompassing to fit with my notions of theories and models which can be put to the test so that you can say “This is, or isn’t true”. My other problem is that, in becoming an adult within this period, I’ve probably absorbed its influences and accepted them without realising where they came from and why. I’ve also learned from history studies that periods of change evolve slowly rather than in the steps so clearly defined by historians.

If I continue with the latter view then out of a gradual period of change there came sufficient number of intellectuals to  agree and state that Modernism had now become Postmodernism. Except of course that all the other “ism’s” were still there.

I found the language used to describe Postmodernism to be impenetrable and so bought “Art Theory for Beginners”  (Osborne & Sturgis, 2006).  I’m not going to attempt to provide a summary of its description of Postmodernism (pp 158) because I think I’ll get lost in language again, eg

It does conclude that everything we started off associating with art has been thrown into question in the Postmodern world and that Art is a form of visual curiosity which means that , “it is always in some sense about how we view ourselves and others in the world” (p.186) What I discovered for myself by visiting the Exhibition was that  the concept has to be experienced rather than understood and described in a logical fashion –  at least for now.

The Study Visit

The visit was some time ago (it’s now 17th January 2012) and I really must now write down my reactions.  The major problem was that I haven’t been able to work out what I thought about it.  I’m hoping that putting my fingers to the keys now will bring me to some kind of conclusion.

As ever it was good to meet with other students (not only from Photography) and also to meet more of the tutors from the other disciplines. The morning was spent going round the main Exhibition and in the afternoon I went to the smaller, separate photography exhibition. The two events being punctuated by a pigeon – surreal, but fitting to the day.

Exhibition : Postmodernism ‘Style and Subversion 1970-90’

Here is the V&A’s own general article.

and another article about the creation of the Exhibition is here

The multi dimensional aspect was very much in keeping with the theme. Post-modernism is more generally associated with its roots in architecture but it seems to have been quickly taken up by other creative arts.

Architecture appeared early in the Exhibition. I was struck by the work of Venturi and Scott Brown.  There was a model of a house which Robert Venturi built for his mother in the early 60s.

To me, this house looked less modern and more retro in the sense that it reminded me somehow of early buildings in the American west when large facades were put onto the front of smaller shacks. The couple were very much taken by Las Vegas and filmed a research trip  there. Their view was that the architecture of The Strip has to be read at 35mph. Quite fast, you can only see the impact rather than the core (just like the old style buildings?)

Moving on  in design there were models of buildings which looked like teapots and teapots which looked like buildings.  Another teapot was in the shape of Double Cooling Towers  (Teapot No. 10 by Richard Notkin). Notkin  had studied Yixing Chinese teapots and, as a means of addressing topical political themes, integrated these forms into his creations. Part of his artist statement was

“It is not the objects created which are of prime importance, but the lives of people who may be touched in significant ways.”

As I walked around the Exhibition what was coming over to me was that sense  of almost childlikeness in terms of “I can do or make anything, with whatever materials, in any shape or form I choose” a freeing of restrictions of cultural and artistic conventions. Historicism recreated methods from the past, inventing new creative renditions and designers also salvaged distressed materials.

Working through the Exhibition layout, as the later years came I recognized many of the designs of pottery and furniture I looked at in the magazines then or upmarket shops. Of course, I couldn’t afford to buy them!  The clothes too of course, particularly as worn by pop stars of the 1980s such as Annie Lennox, Boy George etc. Vivienne Westwood springs to mind in designer terms.  These are clothes more likely to have been seen in magazine and major cities but not in the suburbs from what I remember. There was the music – some of which I enjoyed such as the rather robotic melodies of Kraftwerke’s “Shop Window Dummies”. – we are all just forms to be clothed.  Postmodernism had metamorphed into something else – almost an emptiness and recognition that that wonderful bright new post-war future which had once been envisaged had turned out not to be so bright after all. Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’ (1982) conveyed this sense of a post-apocalyptic world – drab colours, with robots performing human functions. Something that the old style refuse tips always used to remind me of before they become sanitized, segmented and orderly with everything labeled and in its right place.

I felt depressed and jangled as I walked out of the Exhibition and decided that a walk around the shop would do me good. I bought two books. “Introducing Post-modern-ism : A graphic guide”, is all black and white, apart from the cover,  and in cartoon style. If you think of sound-bites then this book is a visual version. The book which accompanies the Exhibition itself is much broader and academic  in approach.  “Postmodernism Style and Subversion 1970-1990”. The latter book brings together the thoughts of  a group of historians, theorists and critics who assess the impact of postmodernism on all areas of art and design. It’s good to see from the inside of the front cover that,  “The radical ideas associated with postmodernism……have always resisted straightforward evaluation” which probably explains why I have had such difficulty getting a grasp of it.  The book is beautifully presented and full of information and photographs although, oddly enough, photography as such doesn’t merit much mention as an art form.

After a brief lunch I decided to visit the much smaller Photography Exhibition.

Signs of a Struggle : Photography in the wake of postmodernism

There were three images which particularly struck me.

Sunflowers for Jonathan.

This met me as I walked in. A photograph of  still-life arrangement – a vase of sunflowers; a painting of it, and a handwritten, childlike get well card. It is bright, eye-catching and a visual play on words and pictures. David Hockney did the get-well painting  in 1995 for Jonathan Silver, his friend and collaborator (creator of the Salt Mills Gallery, Bradford). The photograph is printed on watercolour paper and obviously references Van Gogh.

Haywain with Cruise Missiles”, Peter Kennard

A reworking of Constable’s painting. This is a photomontage lithograph created by Kennard in 1980 in protest against the siting of American cruise missiles in Britain.

“Nostalgia for the Future” John Kippin, 1988

Part of a series .  This particular one is not on his website but it is reminiscent of a postcard, depicting picturesque scenery disrupted by a caravan and a rusty ship.

There was a self-portrait of Cindy Sherman a constructed tableau by Jeff Wall. I recognized one of Karen Knorr’s images (see an earlier post) “The work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.  Helen Chadwick’s “One Flesh” 1985 assembled from photocopies and an evocation of Mother & Child Renaissance imagery. However, the child is fairly obviously female and a golden placenta provides a ‘visceral depiction of the physical bond”.

I could recognize the similar paths being followed in terms of recreating from the past, making use of ‘found/recovered’ photographs; painting directly onto  objects which are then photographed (Calum Colvin, ‘Utitled 3”).

To me there was a sense of liveliness about most of the images which was missing for me in the larger Exhibition.


I still don’t feel as if I have got to grips with Postmodernism.  I think I started off wrongly somehow in thinking that it was a philosophical stance regarding Art. It might have been to begin with but now it just seems to be one more collection of stylistic devices alongside all the ones which went before. It borrows, renews, pastiches, turns the old styles on their heads. It’s just the way things are at the moment in the age we’re in. I think we need a new name for it now – Prevision or something like that.

20th January 2012


Adamson & Pavitt,  2011,  Postmodernism Style and Subversion 1970-1990. V&A Publishing, London

Appignanesi & Garratt , 2007, Introducing Postmodernism: A graphic guide, Totem Books, Cambridge

8 Comments on “Postmodernism Exhibitions at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London – October 2011”

  1. Vicki Loader says:

    Hi Catherine

    A good post! Like you, I have battled to get to grips with all that was at the exhibition. there was just so much to look at and take in. And I also have that big book to get through; and another one—one of those very short introduction ones!

    Unlike you, I have not got round to writing about it!!

    • Hi Vicki, I had to write it up now because it’s been hanging over for me for a couple of months and even thinking about it was getting in the way of working on other things. Will be interested to read your take on it at some point.

  2. Mary says:

    Great post Catherine, it was refreshing to read.

    I read the Wikipedia article at the time of the exhibition (to which I was unable to go) and was struck by this:

    “Walter Truett Anderson identifies Postmodernism as one of four typological world views. These four world views are the Postmodern-ironist, which sees truth as socially constructed; the scientific-rational, in which truth is found through methodical, disciplined inquiry; the social-traditional, in which truth is found in the heritage of American and Western civilization; and the neo-romantic, in which truth is found through attaining harmony with nature and/or spiritual exploration of the inner self.”

    These seem to me to be mutually exclusive, which would mean that postmodernism as a world view is incompatible with, say, the scientific-rational world view. One couldn’t be both and still be honest with oneself. Could that be a source of the difficulties with postmodernism that so many of us have?


    • I’m pleased you enjoyed it Mary. In all the books I looked through there seemed to be this struggle to actually capture the essence of Postmodernism. Maybe because it’s too chameleon-like. I’ve decided that the best thing for me now when looking at a photographer is to evaluate more closely how their images fit with their belief systems as declared in their ‘artist statement’. From there I would then have to look more into their life experiences and how these interacted with personality etc to bring them to that view.


  3. John Umney says:

    Excellent post Catherine; it made me go back to my notes to think again about the visit I made. Well, I still feel the same, which is that the curator had a view and maybe I should have a look at the guide to see what that says and whether there is any coincidence. Maybe if the credit boom in the ’80’s hadn’t happened we would have been looking at a different event? However I did feel that there was maybe too much in the main exhibition and that the photographic piece was much more satisfactory. Still a lot to think about.

    • Thanks John. From what I remember of your post I think we had similar reactions. I’d forgotten the role of the curator though and how this comes into the equation. Of course, the curator takes exhibits from elsewhere in the Museum and borrows/acquires more to fit the theme as perceived. I did think, though, that the Exhibition was an embodiment of that eclectic mix which Postmodernism appears to be.


  4. Barry says:

    HI Catherine,
    Thanks for writing this! I don’t have the chance to go to many exhibitions, or any OCA study days living over here, and feel like I’m missing out! Reading this, though, has made me feel like I was there! I’m busy making a list of places where I should visit on my next trip to the UK, and the V & A is of course one of them.
    Thanks again!

    • Hi Barry, Good to hear from you (and also to see you on Flickr). It must be difficult for you being where you are. Looks like there’s scope for you, maybe, to set up a gallery in time! Did you see the recent post by Dewald on the WeAreOCA blog? There was a lot of response from overseas students, writing the same things about the isolation etc. The Forums are a good start but I know they don’t replace ‘real’ people.
      Best of luck on the Course (and with Ass 2). You’ve got some great images from what I can see.


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