Art Deco (literary from French “decorative art” – the name of Parisian exhibition Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in 1925) – was an influential style in fine and applied arts during the first half of the 20th cent. It emerged in France in 1920s and spread internationally in 1930s – 1940s. It became apparent in architecture, fashion, painting and lost its actuality after World War II.
Art Deco an eclectic style that synthesized Art Nouveau and neoclassicism, oriental motifs (excavations of Tutankhamun’s tomb were all people were talking about) and elements of primitive ethnic African art. It’s one of rare styles that was first introduced in interiors and then – in general architecture and had no clear chronological boundaries. Its inventors got inspiration from various sources: Paul Iribe and Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann breathed new life into the style of Louis XVI, Jules Leleu adopted art of East to the European taste, whether Andre Groult oriented on the Restoration epoch. Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris (known as Le Corbusier) wrote about Art-Deco that its authors created “the building of immense and ostentatious exhibition halls to enshrine in ‘sublime’ surroundings the escapade of the flower-bud swanning from an umbrella handle to the back of an easy chair”.
It’s the style of “lost generation”, disappointed with then-contemporary culture and values after the cruelty of global war. And Art Deco that created an illusion of prosperity and luxury, corresponded to the mood of those years. Along with usage of delicate natural trimming (nacre, ivory, wood etc.) a totally new aesthetic of glass, metal and nickle-plated surfaces appeared. Smooth natural lines of Art Nouveau were replaced with geometrized volumes. Massive, angular, forms were combined with subtle, sometimes grotesque, details.
In Europe Art Deco gained popularity together with the burst of post-war building – the whole blocks for wealthy people were projected in this style. It was applied also in architecture of commercial structures, public places like stores or cinemas. Then it rapidly went overseas. Before World War II it was only in the USA, where Art Deco was preserved in its pure form. There it left a unique imprint on the cityscape – there’re around 150 skyscrapers on Manhattan, erected in one decade. Chrysler Building, designed in 1928-1930 by William van Alen, is the brightest sample of such architectural experiments: its innovative construction supplemented exquisite decorativeness of the facade.
The main sphere was urban planning, main target of which was satisfying growing demand in housing. Among the others plans by Ernst May and Hannes Meyer (representative of Bauhaus design school) in the Soviet Union should be marked out.
Another side of Art Deco (though some specialists consider it to be an independent trend) a branch, defined by its extreme simplicity and utilitarism. Belief in possibility of rational solving of problems and functional organization of city (as well as in improvement of world with their artistic movement) stimulated creative activity of such important masters as Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. Each of them had his own methods, but the common thing was an integral approach towards their task. It’s expressed in the motto “From the spoon to the city” – architects wanted to surround people with objects that would make life more rational and harmonious, leaving time for perfecting our minds and souls. The opposition to this concept was “organic architecture” of Frank Lloyd Wright, who saw space as organism that changed depending on functions and environment. It didn’t dictated its own rules but formed freely, using all multitude of shapes and materials.
Cabinet and interior sculpture lost its popularity by the beginning of the 20th cent., as it turned into elite art and was available to a limited number of people. An attempt to replace traditional bronze statuettes with cheaper materials, like zinc and other alloys, was unsuccessful, as couldn’t give desired artistic effects – delicacy of details, clearness of silhouettes etc. Therefore, such pieces weren’t of a great demand.
But the beginning of the 20th cent. witnessed the revival of interior sculpture in France, Germany and Austria. This kind of art was especially praised by masters of Art Deco and became an essential part of the owners’ prestige. During the period of the style’s origin (before 1920s) all Art Deco works were produced as individual, unique one (for instance, figures of kids with portrait resemblance were common).
It was time of sculpture’s flourishing that gave us such prominent artists as Ferdinand Preiss, Prosper Lecourtier, Demetre Chiparus, Bruno Zack and others. Female motifs were the most widespread. If German sculptors liked depicting actresses, sportswomen (and weight-lifters), classical nudes, their French colleagues favoured more graceful and elegant themes – half-naked ladies in light mantles and scarfs, smoking feminists, amazons and others. Animalistic subjects were also typical for Art Deco (deers, panthers, gazelles in the moment of highest exertion, pheasants, parrots and songbirds), as well as personages of Commedia dell’Arte.
A distinctive trait of Art Deco was chryselephantine technique (from ivory and gold or bronze) that, because of its artistic value, served as original specimen indication from tirage copies. Demetre Chiparus applied it often, using ivory imported to France from Congo. Certain parts of a sculpture were carved from ivory (mostly face, hands, feet) and accurately fitted to metal. Ivory details were supplanted with ivorine in 1930s. Ivorine doesn’t fissure like its natural prototype, but still, industrial samples often have splits, flaws, so much less appreciated among connoisseurs.
Another characteristic detail of Art Deco was stone pedestal (mainly from marble, more seldom from onyx or Belgian schist), which made the figurine soaring. The pedestals’ surface were usually covered with silver or gold patina and were executed in complicated techniques of coloring and of embossing. Creations of Austrian masters can be recognized by intensive green patina they preferred.
Anyway, stone remained one of the most popular materials. Antoine Bourdelle was an outstanding artist, who favored them, creating captivating monumental and small-scale pieces.
A famous poster “Priester” (1903) by Austrian Lucienne Bernard is considered to be the starting point in graphics of Art Deco. He elaborated new principles of graphic design and created playbills, posters and other advertising products that had a significant influence on this kind of art. The history of its development during Art Deco epoch can be divided into two periods: 1910 – 1925 – originating in the sphere of fashion-illustration, prevalence mainly in France; 1925 – 1939 – development of means of duplicating stimulated evolution of posters, which absorbed stylistic peculiarities of Art Deco. The style permeated into industry and commerce.
Such masters as Charles Lupot and Robert Bonfils can illustrate two aesthetical approaches, observed in graphical production of 1920s. Robert Bonfils worked as a fashion-artist for “Gazette du bon ton”, “Journal des dames et des modes” and others. For the international exhibition of 1925, he created a poster with dancing man in antique tunic and faun. His graceful manner totally corresponded to the neoclassicistic tendencies of other displays. Classicistic laconism and lucidity was given to it with geometrical accents and stylized inscriptions. Charles Lupot paid more attention to problems of composition – organization of space, combining elements. His vision inclined more to decorativeness, so essential for Art Deco.
Posters were the kind of graphical art that reflected all newest artistic ideas. In 1920s Paris was a center of various groups of designers and decorators (Societe Artistes Decorateurs, Union des Artistes Modernes). Among its members there were such renowned ones as Cassandre, Paul Colin, Jean Carlu and already mentioned Charles Lupot. Specialists named them “musketeers”. Their posters were notable for plastic volumes that gradually transformed into flat silhouette, and sharp contour line. Projects of those authors differed from early Art Deco, since they purposefully borrowed some vanguard conceptions of form-modeling. Elongated and refined outlines were extruded by ponderous forms in 1920-s – 1930-s. That met main notions, shaped by “Union of Modern Artists” (“Union des Artistes Modernes”), who followed recent European movements (De Stijl, constructivism, futurism and others).
Evincing of Art Deco in painting was the least obvious. Here it didn’t escape the influence of the newest phenomenon of the art in the 20th cent. – Abstractionism, whose main promoter was Vasiliy Kandisky. Legacy of Casimir Malevich, the founder of Supermatism, and Constructivism, which saw functionalism as the main target of art. Talented painter and sculptor Amadeo Modigliani, famous for his portraits with intentional stretching of proportions, gave Art Deco a preimage of subtle stylization.
As it was already said, Art Deco was a mixture of classical traditions with modernistic innovations. The most noticeable impact was caused by Cubism, especially its method of dividing objects and their analysis of their geometrical components. Nevertheless, it’s important to underline that painting of Art Deco doesn’t belong to avant-gardism.
Canvases of polish master Tamara Lempicka is considered to be the brightest example of Art Deco painting. Her portraits and erotic nude images were rather well-thought-out then sensual. It comes as no surprise, knowing she was born at the dawn of technocratic era and her creative principles are eloquently illustrated by the thought the artist “shouldn’t forget about precision. Painting should be clean and accurate”. Jean Dupas propagated identical visual “philosophy”.
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