PRINT December 1970

Art Deco

ELAYNE VARIAN HAS BEEN ESPECIALLY sensitive to vital currents. Her annual “Art in Process” exhibitions have, by moments, brought incisive, transitional work and issues before a larger public. Her Art Nouveau exhibition of last year (a survey of which the present “Art Déco” is a pendant presentation) set a pattern for broad historical surveys of unusual periods at the Contemporary Wing of the Finch College Museum, of which Mrs. Varian is the director. Her commendable effort has been primed by several rather shallow publications in the field, the actions and sharp acquisitiveness of many specialized dealers and collectors, and a great deal of rumored puffery in the field.

A word on the kinds of publications which have appeared in English is in order (the French have already published several catalogs, one for the exhibition Les années “25” held at the Musée des arts décoratifs in Paris (1966) and another for a survey held this year in Strasbourg): Martin Battersby has put out a large picture book called The Decorative Twenties (1969) filled with delightful pictures and a good bit of ranging information but which avoids hard, close scrutiny. Giulia Veronesi’s Style and Design, 1909–1929 (1968) is a translation from an earlier Italian work and is rather curious for its focus on Italian manifestations of a style which continues to look back to Sem and Cappiello rather than forward to the geometry of the Paris-based Art Déco. Probably the handiest work is the tiny and inexpensive essay by Bevis Hillier called Art Déco (1968) which suffers largely because Mr. Hillier appears to be pressing unduly for the Art Déco-inspired art of tardy English Pop such as we find in the work of Colin Self. However, in the degree that artists of note have been drawn to the style, either for source material or as collectors, so too has the style’s acceptance been hastened in turn. It is now crossing the threshold of wide public approval which perhaps more than anything may hasten the demise of that part of enthusiasm which is attracted by pure camp, kitsch and faddishness.

In this connection one can point to Roy Lichtenstein’s sculpture which takes the form of movie palace balustrades, or to the nostalgic collages of Richard Merkin. Far deeper, for example, would be an attempt to discriminate between the phenomenological similarity of, say, the compass and protractor paintings of Frank Stella, and the issues of decoration as conceived by Robert Delaunay throughout the 1930s, or Brancusi’s later solutions to the heads of Mlle. Pogany in which the stepped layering and fanning may be said to correspond to the plane and set back skyscrapers of Raymond Hood for Rockefeller Center. Or is Andy Warhol’s passionate collecting of the style of 1925 a function of a pursuit after glamor? Perhaps the least anticipated response to the power of the style is reflected in the fact that the earth sculptor, Robert Smithson, while still an exponent of the so-called Minimal style, had published on Hollywood Moderne. Such a fact alone discounts simplistic discussions of Minimalism not to refer to the subsequent evolutions of its chief exponents.

The term Art Déco comes from the vast exhibition of decorative art held in Paris in 1925 called the Exposition des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, an exhibition which might be viewed as the culmination of the absorption of Synthetic Cubism into the tradition of French handicrafts and objets de luxe. By 1925, this drift had clearly veered from the aspirations of the Bauhaus which, in Germany, was attempting to reintegrate the relationship between the artist and the technician, a union that would be effected by redetermining what artisanry was. Broadly speaking, the Germans viewed it as an art expressed through the use of the new technological and mass-production techniques of the 20th century. The French still continued to regard the artisan as an indispensable adjunct to the artist, be he painter, sculptor, dressmaker, jeweler, bookbinder, what have you. Both views derived from the many arguments surrounding the role of the artisan at the turn of the century.

But the French, and ultimately their American followers, clung with greater tenacity to the power of the hand and the imagination over the immutable and infinitely repeatable perfection of German machinist design. So many problems relate to this disparity that in 1925 the French would have no German pavilion, although the Soviets were represented in a Suprematist building. The most beneficent result of the present exhibition by far will be a spurring of a closer examination of the work of the many genial designers connected with the movement. The Finch College manifestation points out problems, illuminates lacuna, generates enthusiasm as it, unfortunately, drives up market values. It clearly points to the fact that essential research needs to be done, especially in the decorative arts, since they, more than any other “species,” are imitative of episodes and shifts in the so-called fine arts, particularly in architecture and architectural theory. The role of Le Corbusier, of International Style architects from Oud to Gropius and their students in America cannot be underestimated. Among the most prestigious items exhibited at the Finch College survey was the broad selection of furniture designed by Eliel Saarinen, although the early furniture designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Marcel Breuer, and the De Stijl work of Rietveld are equally impressive.

Since the style of 1925 is really that of the period between the two mars, 1918 to 1939, one is forced to observe the interconnections of ultimately highly differentiated extremes. The earlier phase is still imbued with the luxurious conception of life assumed to be the birth- right of the European upper bourgeoisie which saw in the cessation of hostilities of the First World War only that moment when the esthetic privileges which had been closed to them during the war could once more be resumed. It is noteworthy that many of the chief figures of Art Déco, René Lalique and Georges de Feure for example, had achieved celebrity long before as purveyors to the highest taste of the turn of the century. This world view was emulated by nouveaux riches Americans as yet not disillusioned by the stock market crash nor the trials of the Depression. The latter phase of the style is rendered complex as it precisely reflects this world depression, fascism in various guises, and the factitious and beautiful world of escape which Hollywood provided.

Russian episodes are hinted at, both in terms of the vast impression made by the opulent fantasy of Diaghilev’s pre World War I ballets as much as in the intellectual and geometrical abstract universality of the style of the Russian Revolution, Suprematism.

Necessarily, the survey brings into light many of the objects of the chief designers of the period, Lalique, Daum, Marinot, Dunand, Corning in the United States in the field of glasswork and luxury objects, and as furniture designers, Ruhlmann, Suë and Maré, and their many continental and American imitators who acquainted themselves with their designs at the several Salons des artistes décorateurs held throughout the later 1920s and ’30s and were inspired by the success of the 1925 manifestation.

The effects of the Depression, rampant chauvinism and nationalistically-biased art forms, ought to have killed off the style were it not for the narcosis of Hollywood which perpetrated a decorous classicizing version of the hard geometry of the 1920s upon a yielding public. Hollywood Moderne or ultra-modern became a swan song style to which the Paris World’s Fair of 1937 and the New York World’s Fair of 1939 subscribed, but only insofar as they addressed themselves to a new audience of urban white-collar workers. At the same moment, the racist subcurrent of le style nègre, begun in the ’20s at the time of the Paris triumph of Josephine Baker, was given renewed impulse in the continued success of French and Belgian exploitation in Africa and our own racist practices back home.

Obviously then, what this first big survey of Art Déco in America indicates is that, apart from the wide enthusiasm which is greeting decorative objects of this period, on the basis of pure visceral response, we are in need of hard scholarly attention. We are, in fact, at that moment in taste when the former imposes the latter as a moral responsibility.

Robert Pincus-Witten