Art Deco: 1910 - 1939by Charlotte Benton, Tim Benton, Ghislaine Wood
This lavishly illustrated book brings together nearly 40 essays from leading experts in the field to discuss the phenomenon that was Art Deco. See more details below
This lavishly illustrated book brings together nearly 40 essays from leading experts in the field to discuss the phenomenon that was Art Deco.
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Art Deco: 1910 - 1939
By Charlotte Benton, Tim Benton and Ghislaine Wood
Bulfinch PressCopyright © 2003 The Board of Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum
All right reserved.
Chapter One-The Style and the Age Charlotte Benton and Tim Benton
Art Deco is the name given to the 'modern', but not Modernist, twentieth-century style that came to worldwide prominence in the inter-war years and left its mark on nearly every visual medium, from fine art, architecture and interior design, to fashion and textiles, film and photography.
The period was one of dramatic technological change, social upheaval and political and economic crises, of bewildering contrasts and apocalyptic visions. From the 'Roaring Twenties' to the Depression, the inexorable spread of capitalism was mirrored by that of Fascist and Communist totalitarian regimes, while remorseless globalization was accompanied by isolationist nationalism. At the same time, the spread of mass-produced consumer goods, accompanied by the perfection of promotional methods to generate demand, prioritized visual appeal in the seduction of the would-be consumer. From the nouveau riche 'flapper' decorating her Parisian apartment to the struggling farmer in the American Midwest leafing through mail order catalogues for new equipment, hope lay in novelty. Never was fantasy so functionally necessary for survival, whether to industry or the individual.
Part of the fascination of the style lies precisely in its confrontation of new values with old, and in the hint of fragility and tragedy that often lurks behind its glitter - themes evocatively portrayed in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, The Great Gatsby (1925). And, as revolutions in transportation and communication opened up the world, not only to the wealthy traveller but also to the reader of popular magazines or the cinema-goer in Bombay or Budapest, Manhattan or Morecambe, Shanghai or Singapore, the forms of this dream coalesced in Art Deco.
John and Ruth Vassos trenchantly identified both the dream's fundamental frivolity and the ruthless commercial interests that fed it:
Feed the eye, stimulate the imagination, tickle the appetite of the mob with pictures of pretty girls. With pictures of legs ... Weeklies, monthlies, dailies; newspapers, news reels; from the pulpit, from the press, from the editorial pages, from the radio; don't leave a surface untouched ... impress the client - million dollar budgets, human interest, sales pressure, psychology of the consumer, consumer demand. An edifice reaching to the skies, and built on BUNK.
At the same time, their own publications and designs - like those of other Deco designers - contributed to the fragile 'edifice' whose foundations were laid by the powerful confluence of commerce and desire (plate 1.2). It was symptomatic of this context that Art Deco taste was communicated as much by transitory effects - in the 'wave of brilliant colour' of the new shop window displays, or in fashion and advertising as by more durable means. The phenomenon was well expressed by the American critic Edwin Avery Park writing in 1927, 'The new spirit in design is creeping in about the edges. It fastens first upon objects of a transitory and frivolous nature.'
Given that contemporaries themselves associated 'the new spirit in design' with the fleeting, the frivolous and the nakedly commercial, it is perhaps not surprising that some later commentators have doubted whether Art Deco was a style at all: 'The critical re-evaluation of which Art Deco today is the object cannot deny that it consists more of a taste than a style, and this is also responsible for the slippery way it resists theoretical categorization.' On the other hand, Art Deco's first chronicler, Bevis Hillier, confidently asserted, 'With justice ... we can describe it as the last of the total styles.' Yet despite - and perhaps even; because of - this lack of consensus a vast literature has grown up around the far from transitory legacy of this 'new spirit'. Furthermore, the term 'Art Deco' not only has currency among specialists and enthusiasts but, unusually for a style label, it has resonance for a large lay public. Many people correctly associate the label with the inter-war years and can name examples of Deco designers such as Ren? Lalique or Clarice Cliff.
Not only does the style label exist and have meaning(s), but also it has been attached, cumulatively, to a large and heterogeneous body of artefacts whose sole common denominator seems to lie in their contradictory characteristics. They include works inspired by' but not copied from, historic western high styles or vernacular traditions, and those inspired by 'exotic'' non-western traditions; works inspired by cultures of the far distant past and those inspired by contemporary avant-garde art (plate 1.3); works that are meticulously handcrafted, made of rare and luxurious materials, intended for an elite, and mass-produced designs, made in new, low-cost materials, aimed at the popular market (plates 1.4 and 1.5); works that embrace naturalistic, geometric or abstract surface decoration, and those that have no surface decoration but whose forms are themselves decorative (plates 1.6 and 1.7). And so on. Not for nothing did Martin Greif observe, 'I suspect that the term "Art Deco" should really be "Art Decos" (accent on the plural) and that the term embraces at least ten to fifteen mutually exclusive "styles", each of which (if we take the trouble to observe them carefully) can be separated from the others.' And little wonder that some have drawn the conclusion that Art Deco has neither stylistic nor methodological coherence. As Greif put it: 'We have allowed the term to embrace virtually everything that was produced between the two world wars, from the finest French furniture of Pierre Legrain to the tubes of Tangee lipstick purchased at the local five and dime ... surely there's a world of difference.'
For others, however, Art Deco's very eclecticism has been part of its compelling charm and attraction: 'Art deco was not ... really a "style" in the traditional sense, but a curiously wonderful mixture of several contemporary styles with traditional and popular undercurrents. It is art deco's unusual position - somewhere between the high styles of the avantgarde and a fully-fledged conservative attitude - that makes it fascinating.' And some have seen the 'curiously wonderful mixture' embraced by the term Art Deco' as an invigorating challenge:
... the term has caught on. It has a certain 'snap' and an energy that is compelling. A ... critical issue is not to define [it] so closely that we close the door on our own interest, but to recognise that we are really interested in studying all forms from the interwar years high art and popular ... If we can use the term Art Deco not to designate a specific style, but rather that it is inclusive and connotes the tremendous fertility of ideas, culture and design beginning in the early twentieth century and reaching a peak in the 1920s and 1930s, we will better serve our own purpose.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein offers a useful analogy for unravelling Art Deco in his concept of a 'family of resemblances' to explain the word 'games'. Wittgenstein understood the meaning of words as 'a complicated network of similarities, overlapping and criss-crossing'. He pointed out that the word 'game' covers a range of usages that include contradictions (some games have rules, some don't, some involve winning and losing, some don't) and that the very range of these meanings makes the word richer and more useful. Similarly, we might argue that the words 'Art Deco' are richer and more interesting for embracing apparently irreconcilable works, such as an exquisite, handcrafted cabinet by Jacques-Emile Ruhimann and an industrially moulded Bakelite radio (see plate 10.3). Visitors to the first major international manifestation of Art Deco, the Exposition intemationale des arts d�coratifs et industnels modernes held in Paris in 1925 (hereafter referred to as the Paris 1925 Exhibition), would have understood precisely what Wittgenstein was getting at. To present-day eyes, the polarities and dissonances that have troubled many later commentators were readily visible in the exhibition displays (see plates 6.15, 12.5, 15.14 and 16.9). Yet contemporaries were struck by their similarities and sense of unity: All the works of art collected here show a family resemblance which cannot fail to be noticed by even the least prepared [visitors].'
Using such perceptions as clues, we can try to identify some of the features that link the apparently antithetical works ascribed to Art Deco. They often refer to historic styles, whether western or nonwestern, but are not literally dependent on them, though they are often respectful of them. They are often influenced by avant-garde art and design yet, unlike these, they make no claim to being disinterested and are, in fact, thoroughly contingent and engaged with the commercial world. But whether inspired by traditional or by avant-garde sources, they have a tendency to simplified form and an absence of three-dimensional, applied ornament. They are 'decorative' even when they do not employ ornament; and they frequently stress 'surface' zvalues or effects. They are often novel or innovative - but not radical or revolutionary. They frequently employ new technologies, even when their forms and methods also reference tradition. They often refer, overtly or symbolically, to 'modern' themes, such as youth, liberated sexuality and aspects of contemporary mechanical culture, through a recurrent visual repertoire of frozen fountains, sunbursts and zigzags, and references to electrification, mechanization and transportation. Although it is clear that a strict formalist template is inadequate to interpret the phenomenon, Art Deco artefacts can be seen to employ common elements in their visual language, as well as common themes.
Like most styles, Art Deco was named long after its demise. Although the architect Le Corbusier employed the headline '1925 Expo: Arts D�co' for a series of articles on the decorative arts published in 1925 in his journal L'Esprit nouveau, his use of the diminutive for 'decorative arts' was intended to mock their practice, not to identify a style. The first use of the phrase 'Art D�co' as a style label occurred in France in 1966, in an exhibition titled Les ann?es '25': Art D�co/Bauhaus/Stiql/Espnt Nouveau and its accompanying catalogue. Here the term was used to distinguish French decorative arts of the 1910s and 1920s from those contemporary strands of Modernist design represented by the Bauhaus' De Stijl and the group around L'Esprit nouveau. Reviews of the exhibition gave the phrase some currency outside France, but it was not until two years later that the words Art Deco' were explicitly used to identify a style' when Bevis Hillier published his book Art Deco of the 20s and 30s. Hillier gave cogent reasons for selecting the label and defined Art Deco as:
an assertively modern style, developing in the 1920s and reaching its high point in the 1930s ... a classical style in that, like neo-classicism but unlike Rococo or Art Nouveau, it ran to symmetry rather than asymmetry, and to the rectilinear rather than the curvilinear; it responded to the demands of the machine and of new materials ... [and] the requirements of mass production.
Three years later, he refined this definition, identifying two main strands:
the feminine, somewhat conservative style of 1925, chic, elegant, depending on exquisite craftsmanship and harking back to the eighteenth century; and the masculine reaction of the thirties, with its machineage symbolism and use of new materials like chrome and plastics in place of the old beaux-arts materials such as ebony and ivory ...
Between them, the 1966 exhibition and Hillier's texts established the key - if contradictory - characteristics, as well as the chronological parameters (c.1910-39), of Art Deco.
Early authors followed Hillier in identifying the style with a trend in the French decorative arts that was expressed most clearly at the Paris 1925 Exhibition. Some of these, including Martin Battersby, insisted that the term Art Deco properly applied only to the historicizing variant of this trend - or 'modernized traditional', as we have called it elsewhere in this book - which was largely eclipsed after 1925 by the spread of the non-historicist variant - or 'decorative Modernism'' as we have sometimes called it here. But, whereas the identification of Art Deco with French luxury production of the l910s and 1920s has been sustained by several French writers, most later authors, especially Americans, acknowledge the significance of this work to the evolution of the style, but follow Hillier in attaching the term to a much wider range of productions. Typically, they include both luxury and popular goods, from the whole inter-war period, and from countries other than France. These critics see the style as following a trajectory from 'rich Parisian beginnings - pure, highstyle Art D�co - to ... jazy, Streamline Moderne American offshoots'.
Architecture is often central to this more inclusive view of Art Deco, which was given a boost by the conservation movement that emerged in America in the 1970s and focused on the rehabilitation of popular buildings of the 1920s and 1930s. Cinemas, theatres, skyscrapers and many public works buildings of this era, which had been all but ignored in the three decades following the Second World War, were now seen to embody core American values. The numerous Art Deco societies that sprang up in major American cities at this time became powerhouses for the promotion of the style in the United States. And, as popular publications and exhibitions raised public awareness of Art Deco, the label came to be applied to an increasingly vast cultural terrain' both in America and elsewhere. It was used to designate anything with a 'period' feel that looked 'modern', to appeal to a nostalgia for the frivolity and stylishness of the era, and to be associated with the lifestyle values of fashionable figures of the period, such as Josephine Baker, Cecil Beaton and No�l Coward.
Before going further, we must ask how and why 'Art Deco' as a style label came to be invented in the mid- to late 1960s. Hillier was writing soon after an interest in the decorative arts of the inter-war period had begun to gain currency among private collectors, dealers, museum curators, graphic designers and television and film directors. By this time, the Art Nouveau revival had consumed itself and was, anyway, vieux jeu to the increasingly style conscious youth of the day.
Excerpted from Art Deco: 1910 - 1939 by Charlotte Benton, Tim Benton and Ghislaine Wood Copyright ©2003 by The Board of Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Charlotte Benton is a design and architecture historian. Her works include A Different World? Emigre Architects in Britain 1926-58. Tim Benton is Professor of Art History at the Open University and has curated a number of exhibitions and his work has been most recently included in Le Corbusier in Paris.Ghislaine Wood is co-curator of the Art Deco 1910-1939 exhibition. She was also co-curator of the wildly successful V&A Art Nouveau exhibition that toured internationally, and a contributor to the catalogue.
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