The Canadian Art Database

Michael Greenwood

Montreal: Deco 1925 - 1935 (1975)

artscanada #202/203, Winter 1975-76
[ 2,484 words ]

Ten years ago Mario Amaya, with characteristic foresight in such matters, predicted the imminent rebirth of interest in the art styles of the 20s and 30s which, in the past decade,  has grown from a light‑hearted, somewhat trendy nostalgia for the Age of Jazz, cocktails, bare backs, flat chests and the Charleston, to the present serious and scholarly reappraisal of a period that produced what appears to have been the last unquestionably universal style affecting the 'fine' and especially the 'applied' arts. Now Amaya, Director of the New York Cultural Center, has put together a fastidiously chosen, well balanced survey of the many-sided style with the exhibition Deco 1925-1935, sponsored by Rothmans of Pall Mall Canada Limited, the company with a distinguished record of promoting and circulating major international art shows in Canada.1) 

As a descriptive term Art Deco is of recent origin and still gives rise to misunderstandings of a kind that exhibitions such as this, and others in recent years, have done much to correct. It was adopted in 1968 by the author of the first general study of the subject, Bevis Hillier, from the title of the historic 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris and applied faute de mieux to the entire period from around 1910 to the outbreak of the Second World War. 2)  However, another recognized authority on the period, Martin Battersby, owner of an outstanding collection of Deco, author of several books on the topic and a distinguished painter-decorator himself, prefers to confine the description solely to the years from 1910 to the Paris exhibition of 1925, which he regards as the culminating point of the style. 3)  Battersby's term for the succeeding 15 years is, simply, 'modernist'. Nevertheless, while admitting that major stylistic changes occurred during the period, Hillier maintains that Deco is an evolving style whose underlying characteristic, that is, the incorporation in a recognizably modern idiom of decorative features derived from both historical and contemporary sources, remains constant throughout.

Whatever those sources may be —dix‑huitième, Fontainebleau, chinoiserie, 'Arabian Nights', Russian Ballet, Egyptian, Mayan, Aztec, African, Amerindian, Persian, Cubo-Futurist, Purist or functionalist —it would appear to be the aim of Art Deco, whether in its earlier phase of chic elegance and superlative luxury, though particularly in the later more 'democratic' period of simulated opulence, to epitomize the racy glamour of the modern age while evoking the mystery and romance of far‑away times and places. It is a style that both pampers and stimulates the senses and, though sometimes lapsing into slick vulgarity or suave, hotel gemütlichkeit, indulges a widespread craving for colour and gaiety in an age darkened by economic and political crises.

The task of choosing a collection of Deco representative of the many aspects of the style demands a fine balance between its historical and modernist sources. Amaya approaches the problem in two ways: first, by restricting the time-span of his survey to the decade 1925-1935, a bracket that neatly encloses the best of both worlds; secondly, by dividing the material into a number of stylistically coherent sections so as to preserve a sense of their specific cultural origins within the wider unity of the exhibition's theme. Thus, many of the French items, which comprise over half of the total number on show, are grouped together to form a harmonious environment, while the second largest group, the pieces of American origin, likewise make up a distinct section with an appropriate mise en scène. The remaining objects from Austria, England, Germany, Hungary, Scandinavia and Spain are skilfully distributed among the others in an arrangement that permits the visitor a legible, uncluttered view of the exhibition and reflects great credit upon the designer, William Mickley, who worked closely with Amaya throughout the project.

While the restricted scope of the show unfortunately precludes any treatment either of Deco's origins or of its revival since the mid-60s in serious, parodied or High Camp forms, Amaya's catalogue introduction presents a concise and informative outline of the subject that will greatly assist the average viewer to see it in historical perspective. The author's scholarly discussion and the fine quality of the objects shown convincingly demolish any stereotyped notion of Deco as no more than a flashy mélange of styles concocted by fashionable architects and interior decorators.

From the tinge of its origins in reaction to the debasement of late Art Nouveau, Deco was subject to the two influences that shaped its entire development, the modernist and the historical. The latter found favour particularly in France where a more traditional approach was officially sponsored. The modern functional tendency emerged in Austria and Germany mainly in continuation of a 'truth to function and materials' movement originating in the work of nineteenth-century architect‑engineers. Originally, both tendencies owed their impetus to the determined effort in industrialized countries to revive standards of excellence in design and workman-ship which had declined sharply in the previous century. But while the Austrians and Germans strenuously avoided historicism as a root cause of the decline, and believed in a practical approach to design principles in keeping with both modern social realities and the methods and materials of industrial production, the French fostered the revival of their finest traditions of luxury craftsmanship dependent, obviously, on a limited and affluent clientele.

It may be said for the French, however, that the issue at stake was probably less a conflict of tradition and modernity in principle than to ensure the very survival of their recognized supremacy in the applied arts. In 1925 the rich and newly‑rich were not yet deemed ready to swallow the pill of modernism raw, so to speak. It still had to be made palatable with a good seasoning of historic décor, costly materials and superb workmanship. So sensitive, indeed, were the Paris exhibition's organizers to the winds of social and artistic change that they attempted to shield the public from the very existence of Le Corbusier's and Pierre Jeanneret's Pavilion de l'Esprit Nouveau by erecting a high barricade around it!

By the same year, 1925, the radical modernist wing had consolidated its aesthetic and social philosophies into a humanistic and somewhat utopian movement to reform the entire visual environment with the help of industrial techniques and modern materials. But in an increasingly reactionary political climate much of that initial idealism was doomed to frustration. Moreover, the creations of their finest designers, far from becoming available to Everyman through the benefit of mass production, were almost as rare and expensive as hand‑crafted objects. It soon became apparent that the average consumer, like his wealthier counterpart, also preferred modernity in sweetened doses.

In large measure, therefore, Art Deco was a product of complex social and political forces; and if, as many historians maintain, art is the mirror of society then, whatever its limitations, Deco will remain a fascinating document of an uneasy period of Western culture struggling to adapt itself to the unprecedented changes of the twentieth century. It developed, essentially, as a compromise designed to reconcile modern trends to the innate conservatism of the general public of all classes; and, in its later stages at least, might be considered the folk art of modern commercial culture, graded and priced to the tastes and pockets of both sophisticate and suburbanite.

Many of the most illustrious names associated with the period are represented in the exhibition. From France the cream of the Parisian ébénistes and decorators of the 20s is included: Maurice Dufrène, 1876-1955; Paul Follot, 1877-1941; Jean-Michel Frank, d. 1944; Louis Süe, 1875-1963; André Mare, 1885-1932; and the legendary Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, 1879-1933 often considered the equal of the finest eighteenth‑century French cabinet‑makers, are each represented by typically immaculate examples of their art. Leading French glass‑makers such as René Lalique, 1860-1945; Maurice Marinot, 1882-1960; and Gabriel Argy-Rousseau, 1885-1953; are seen to possess rare qualities of imagination and originality, in addition to their renowned craftsmanship. Technically, each introduced remarkable innovations. The universal popularity of Lalique's moulded opalescent ware and its large‑scale production (perhaps the first 'multiple' editions on record) in no way diminish the creative ingenuity of his designs and the refinement of their proportions. Marinot, a former painter turned craftsman, devoted years of experimentation to develop a method of firing glass that deliberately recaptures the gorgeous effects produced accidentally in rejected pieces by the presence of air bubbles, unwanted craquelure or streaks of pigment trapped in the material. The natural appearance of Marinot's glass with its molten, flowing quality provides a fascinating contrast to Lalique's highly sophisticated formality. The ancient technique of pâte‑de‑verre was rediscovered by a sculptor, Henri Cros, and popularized by the glass‑maker, Argy‑Rousseau. Powdered glass of different colours mixed into a paste is fired in a mould to produce a fused body with the semi‑translucence of alabaster. ArgyRousseau realized the almost unlimited variations of colour made possible by this method in a wide range of objects as well as vases.

The popularity of the vase as an objet d'art in glass, ceramic and metal, enamelled or inlaid, was maintained after the decline of Art Nouveau by many of the same artists now working in the new style. Jean Dunand, 1877-1942, a master of hand-hammered vases of noble form and classical proportions acquired the art of lacquer and eggshell inlay from a celebrated Japanese craftsman. He combined these techniques with the use of damascened patterns of gold, silver and other metals on the basic copper, achieving intricately decorated surfaces that are refined though never fussy. The three small Dunand pieces in the show belong to the period of his 'modernist' decorative motifs and are typical of his invariably fine taste and impeccable workmanship. One of them, a watch case in Cubist inspired style, is a notable example of the Japanese technique which he adopted.

Among other outstanding French designer-craftsmen represented are Edgar Brandt, 1880-1960, the world‑famous metal worker who was mainly responsible for the revival of France's great tradition of ferronnerie; Jean Puiforcat, 1897-1945, the silversmith whose wares also were greatly sought after; and the sculptor, Henri Laurens, 1885-1954, who, following his Cubist and Art Nègre periods, adopted a stylized Neo-Classical manner employing massive simplified forms based on cylindrical and conical volumes. His stylized treatment of wavy hair became familiar in a thousand plagiarized forms, including the well‑known trade symbol 'Permanently Yours - Eugene.' Another important early Cubist sculptor, Alexander Archipenko, 1887‑1964, also developed in his later career a form of exotic modernism, refined and somewhat Mannerist in character, that exemplifies another fascinating aspect of Deco, namely its occasional flavour of the sixteenth century. Indeed, there is a quite familiar stylistic feature of Art Deco in France that appears to stem from a mixture of Fontainebleau Mannerism and Modigliani / Baule-derived formal simplifications. Painters who work in this characteristic idiom, such as Jean Dupas, b. 1882; Robert Pougheon, b. 1886; and Gustave Miklos, b. 1888; are included in the show. The brilliant Tamara de Lempicka, b. 1902, also strongly Deco-Mannerist in style, treats form in a way reminiscent of the Sienese painter, Domenico Beccafumi, c 1486-1551, with sharply exaggerated gradations of tone and impersonal surfaces resembling painted metal.

The American contributions include many rewarding discoveries, among which the superb quality of furniture made, c 1928, to the designs of Eliel Saarinen, 1873-1950, by the Company of Master Craftsmen, Flushing, N.Y., comes as a revelation to one who presumed that American craftsmanship of such a high order had expired by 1860. Saarinen himself, represented in the exhibition by design drawings as well as executed works, is revealed as a true master of the style, combining subtle references to historical sources with an elegant modernity of line that recalls the finesse of Directoire designers in their adaptation of Greek and Etruscan originals. His work for the Cranbrook Academy of Arts, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, must remain, with Donald Deskey's at the New York Radio City Music Hall, 1932, one of the most distinguished surviving ensembles from the Deco epoch. By comparison, Frank Lloyd Wright's furniture (c. 1935 from 1920 designs) for the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, a heavy-handed mixture of De Stijl and Japonaiserie, appears awkward and unduly complicated.

Another American designer of great interest is the inventor of the so‑called 'skyscraper style' in furniture and decoration, Paul T. Frankl, 1878-1962. Frankl believed that the new tall buildings that were rapidly creating on Manhattan Island the most exotic and spectacular skyline in the world were America's most authentic contribution to the spirit of modernity, and accordingly based his designs on their shapes. Functionally, too, his furniture answered the needs of the small apartment dweller in those vast towers. The settees that incorporate convenient shelves for books and oddments at either end, and his multipurpose cabinets that combine closed compartments for china, gramophone records and liquor with open nooks and plenty of useful ledges must be among the first of their kind (c. 1925). Practicality, however, is only part of his intention. His designs embody the same spirit of America that the Precisionist painters of that period were seeking to convey in their pictures of factories and railroads.

A similar American romanticism appears to pervade the work of John Storrs, 1885-1956, a sculptor lately resurrected from undeserved neglect. It should be remembered that the 20s in America was a period of chauvinism and isolationism in the arts as much as in politics. Because of its association with incorrigible Europe, the modern movement was under a cloud of suspicion. American artists were attempting (prematurely in the event) to create a home‑grown modernism independent of foreign influences, while at the same time retaining some of the stylistic innovations brought home by their returning expatriate Cubist, Futurist and Expressionist pioneers. Again, what could be a more typical symbol of modern America than the skyscraper, endowed, moreover, with a shape readily amenable to 'abstract' treatment in a manner akin to but avoiding the intellectual demands of Cubism? The times, Art Deco and John Storrs were clearly meant for one another, and the result is a fascinating instance of what happens when an artist of integrity and taste but little originality gets caught up in the mechanism of history.

That statement might, indeed, almost stand as an obituary to Art Deco. However, it would be unfair and quite irrelevant to disparage a whole era of style simply because it does not include the greatest triumphs of individual creative genius that periodically renew the world's vision of reality. For most ordinary beings the world they know consists chiefly of the temperate zones and plains, not the high, lonely peaks. As an historic style of 25 years' duration, Deco entered into the daily lives of millions, affecting the design of virtually everything they used, wore and lived with, as well as their offices, stores and places of entertainment. And, as this important exhibition proves, it left those lives the richer and more exciting for its advent.

artscanada #202/203, Winter 1975-76

Text: © Michael Greenwood. All rights reserved.

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