by Charlotte Ashby. Bloomsbury, February 2017. 256 p. ill. ISBN 9781474224307 (pbk), $29.95.
Reviewed July 2017
Guided by Actor Network Theory, author Charlotte Ashby notes that she chose to discuss Nordic modernism through case studies because of the complexity of materials, techniques, ideas, images, and designers that come together to make an object.
Ashby’s introduction includes an overview of the contents, synopsis of the defining trends of each time period, and description of the masterworks analyzed. These works range from architecture and painting to glass and each is described in detail within the context of history. The themes of nationalism, regionalism, and ways to improve everyday life are stressed. She is able to show how the artist’s training and lifestyle impacted reception of their work.
There is no question that Ashby is familiar with her subject and able to provide insight into why and how the chosen work is indicative of the specific phase of modernism. Describing the Lund Cathedral restoration, the author provides background information concerning the approach to restoration taken in Sweden and other countries. She describes the motivation, the improved economic outlook, and the public’s growing interest in art. Even when discussing a very familiar icon like the Villa Mairea, Ashby is able to suggest new interpretations. Ashby writes: “The dynamism noted in the plan of the Villa Mairea, the geometric elements of the external and interior space…recall Maholy-Nagy’s photographic overlays” (p. 58).
Despite the scholarship, Ashby’s book is not without problems. There are typographical errors. The author has chosen to use examples from each time period to explain modernism’s progression, making it difficult to understand its spread in individual countries. Some examples are almost too familiar, while others are little known. The layout and lack of transition between examples makes for difficulty in understanding how they relate to the theme of the chapter. The black and white images are not that sharp and insertion of color plates in the middle of the book further negatively impacts what is otherwise an informative work.
In concluding her work, Ashby states: “What was Modernism in Scandinavia then? It was as varied as the five different countries and the many different artists and designers covered in this book” (p.211). She further notes that despite changes in form, Nordic modernism was driven by continuity of ideology and persistence of concepts. Her text supports that interpretation. An extensive bibliography follows.