Published: August 31, 2004
High-voltage glamour came blasting into town in late August when “Art Deco: 1910-1939” arrived at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). Elegant, exotic and sensuous objects are on view from the period that encompassed the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age and America’s curious juxtaposition of prohibition and the cocktail.
The exhibit, organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, is simply svelte – a powerful and comprehensive display of more than 240 examples of Art Deco furniture, textiles, ceramics, sculpture, fashion and jewelry, photography and painting. Objects range from an exquisitely designed diamond, onyx and platinum pendant from the Paris workshop of Henri Picq for Cartier to a sumptuously contoured 1935 golden yellow Auburn 851 Speedster. These icons communicate the story of Art Deco as a global event.
The first hint of Art Deco appeared in Paris in the spring in 1909 when Serge Pavlovich Diaghilev introduced his Ballet Russe to the public. The ballet represented a great departure from the full-length classical productions seen up until then. No more formal tutus; here was the avant-garde in the form of innovative choreography alongside opulent costumes and set designs by such artists as Alexandre Benois, Leon Bakst, Nicolas Roerich, Fernand Leger, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Masters like Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy and Erik Satie composed the music.
Although it is used freely, the term Art Deco was derived from the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes. The term was coined by author Bevis Hillier in his 1968 volume Art Deco of the ’20s & ’30s; prior to that the descriptives used were Modernistic or Style Moderne. Art Deco is an umbrella term; it embraces a wide range styles and disciplines.
The Paris exposition was itself a watershed for design. Meant to reestablish French eminence in matters of taste and luxury, it was wildly successful. More than six million people visited during the six months of its run. French Art Deco designers like Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann and Rene Lalique were major contributors.
One pavilion in particular, the Hôtel d’un Collectionneur, was the most ambitious and most acclaimed in the exposition. Designed by Pierre Patout, the interiors were furnished by Ruhlmann and decorated under his highly discerning eye by such artists as Jean Dunand, Jean Dupas, Antoine Bourdelle, Emile Puiforcat and Edgar Brandt. A recreation of the pavilion is on view at the MFA, and several works designed for the 1925 exposition are on view within. They include a lacquer cabinet by Ruhlmann and Jean Dunand, Ruhlmann’s spider table and a pair of armchairs and Jean Dupas’ jazzy painting “Les Perruches (The Parrots).”
While that pavilion was the grandest representation of Art Deco, the largest was the French ocean liner Normandie, replete with furniture and accessories by the major French artists of the day. Rene Lalique exquisitely executed the lighting, causing the vessel to be hailed as “the ship of light.”
Peter Muller-Munk’s chrome-plated brass “Normandie Water Pitcher” on view at the MFA was inspired by the imposing bow of the Normandie.
Art Deco was the first international design style that, as it spread from France around the world, allowed each country to make its own imprint. The resulting variability was driven by national preferences, cultural differences, and social and economic forces. In the years after the 1925 Paris exposition, Art Deco spread beyond the confines of the affluent; mechanization led to mass production.
The movement had as many diverse sources – ancient cultures, the avant-garde, fostered by new technology, social changes and cultural modernization – as it had diverse arenas – fine and decorative arts, architecture, sculpture, theater, film and photography, and industrial design. Its practitioners adopted exotic imagery and materials from ancient Egypt and Greece, Africa, Central America, Japan and China. They borrowed straight lines, zigzags and circles from the avant-garde movements of cubism and constructionism. During the Roaring Twenties, the 1922 discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb fueled interest in the ancient and exotic, African American singer and dancer Josephine Baker was wildly popular and jazz gained a foothold, James Joyce’s Ulysses was published and the Chrysler Building was built. Noel Coward, Hollywood and the silver screen all conveyed the luxe of the era. Trains and airplanes were faster and sleeker. The stock market crashed, but for many the music played on until 1939 when World War II broke out.
The exhibition is laid out in a sophisticated open plan that takes the visitor through the development of Art Deco and its various permutations. Objects from the museum’s collection, for example, from the Egyptian department, illustrate the inspiration behind some of the Twentieth Century rdf_Descriptions on view. Tamara de Lempicka’s emblematic 1927 painting “Jeune Fille en Vert” hangs at the entrance and sets a fine tone.
There is considerable space allotted to fashion. It was during the Art Deco period that women cast off the lengths and layers formerly required. They got the vote in America in 1920, and all over the western world they shortened their skirts, shined up their dresses and bobbed their hair. Newfound freedom had them smoking cigarettes, drinking cocktails, wearing jewelry, dancing the Charleston and the tango, and driving fast, flashy cars. The imposition of prohibition in America in 1928 did not slow things down much. When it was repealed in 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt mixed the first legal martini in the White House. Evidence of all these excellent new vices are on view: sleek gowns by Lanvin, Paquin and Chanel, jewels and cigarette boxes by Cartier, a gleaming cocktail set by Norman Bel Geddes and the Auburn Speedster parked in the lobby.
Another entire section of the exhibit is given over to the exotic. Examples on view include a screen and a canoe-form daybed by Eileen Gray and a room setting display of works made for couturier and collector Jacques Doucet, such as a mantelpiece and pair of andirons by Jacques Lipschitz. Japanese postcards from the 20,000-piece collection dating from the early Twentieth Century to just before World War II, given to the MFA by Leonard A. Lauder, are also on view. They illustrate the monumental changes in Japanese society during the period and they also evince the influence of Japan on Art Deco and of Art Deco on Japan.
The gem of the exotic would be the prints by Paul Colin of Josephine Baker.
The exhibit also looks at the impact of Art Deco on travel and transport. Engineering advances in aerodynamics introduced streamlining, which permeated all manner of industrial design from trains to toasters. Streamlining came to be almost synonymous with Art Deco. Travel posters on view attest to its great popularity as do a “Locomotive in Motion,” a circa 1930 train model, and the 1935 John Gutmann photograph “Car Hops, Early Drive-in Restaurant, Hollywood, California.”
The final section explores Art Deco in America where its influence was profound. Oddly enough, President Herbert Hoover declined the invitation for America to represent its products at the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes on the grounds that the United States had nothing new to exhibit. He was right, but not for long. American artists inspired by the new designs presented at the Paris exposition got going. The building boom of the 1920s was heavily influenced by Art Deco, and skyscrapers, with their distinctive setbacks derived from English common law, cast their images on furniture, textiles and tableware and much in between.
Margaret Bourke-White’s image of the Chrysler Building celebrates its Art Deco essence.
Donald Deskey’s table lamp and Paul Frankl’s 1927 desk and bookcase typify American efforts. Both are from the collection of John P. Axelrod of Boston. Other American contributions on view are Norman Bel Geddes’ patriot radio and a famously streamlined Ronson cigarette lighter.
“Art Deco: 1910-1939” culminates in the Theme Center from the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the end-point of Art Deco.
The show as organized by the Victoria and Albert included some 350 very diverse objects. Space restrictions at the MFA, and at the previous sites, the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, reduced the number of pieces that could be placed on view. Nevertheless, each institution was able to make its own imprint on the exhibit. Great credit goes to each institution for the ways in which they presented the amazingly varied objects.
The Boston exhibit includes about 35 pieces from the MFA’s own collection and another 15 objects from local private collections.
Collector and MFA overseer John P. Axelrod has lent some of his spectacular collection of American Art Deco. “Much of the success of the show is attributable to his lending,” says Tracey Albainy, senior curator of decorative arts and sculpture in the art of Europe department. Axelrod’s loans were influential in bringing the exhibit to Boston. He is a self-described “Art Deco freak.”
Another new book, Collecting Art Deco, by Boston’s Tony Fusco is also for sale in the MFA bookstore. It provides a careful and concise view of Art Deco, with discussions of its history, motifs and materials and the marketplace. The publisher is Random House’s House of Collectibles. Fusco is president of the Art Deco Society of Boston and a recognized expert on Art Deco, who will offer the three-session course “Art Deco: Sophistication, Songs and Streamlining” as part of the exhibition at the museum in October.
Another program of interest is “Shades of Afro Deco,” a discussion of the Harlem Renaissance by Leslie King-Hammond October 3 at 3 pm.
“Art Deco: 1910-1939” at the Museum of Fine Arts is a very Boston event with an array of programs and courses. These include jazz brunches and cocktail hours featuring such Art Deco specialties as the Singapore Sling, the Sidecar and the martini – whose glass is perhaps the quintessential Art Deco icon.
“Art Deco: 1910-1939” is on view through January 9. The museum is at Avenue of The Arts, 465 Huntington Avenue. For information, 617-369-3448 or .
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