Style of Contradictions

By Lambirth, Andrew | The Spectator, April 5, 2003 | Go to article overview

Style of Contradictions


Lambirth, Andrew, The Spectator


Art Deco is the style that succeeded Art Nouveau, enjoying a surprisingly long global life, stretching from 1910 to 939, and from Europe to America, India and Australia. As the curators of this vast exhibition (over 300 exhibits) maintain, Art Deco was 'arguably' the most popular style of the 20th century, affecting everything from skyscrapers, night-clubs, cocktail bars and cinemas, to handbags, shoes and letterboxes. It was a style of contradictions, an inter-war hold-all which was modern without being Modernist (though the two fruitfully overlapped, as in the Modernist icon, Lubetkin's Highpoint One building in Highgate), frivolous in some manifestations, austere in others, hand-crafted yet industrially moulded and mass-produced, universal yet individual.

This pluralism makes Art Deco an ideal style to celebrate in our `anything goes' society. Its imagery employed frozen fountains, petrified sunbursts and dynamic zigzags to great effect, and derived its inspiration from Art Nouveau, Cubism, the Russian ballet (particularly a fondness for bright colours: jade green, purple, scarlet and orange), American Indian and African art and the Bauhaus. It attempted to close the gap between art and industry, focused on the city and the machine through leisure and entertainment, and unashamedly tried to give people what they wanted - a bit of glamour. Never before was an art movement so openly dedicated to consumerism.

The V&A's stunning exhibition has been three years in the making, and is divided into five sections: Style and the Age, Sources, 1925 Paris Exhibition, Spread of Art Deco and Deco World. It opens with a taste of high style and chic - Franz Hagenauer's brass mirror surround in the shape of a girl's head and hand, Jacques-- Emile Ruhlmann's gorgeous Lotus dressing-table, all neo-classical elegance in ebony and ivory inlay, an exquisite lacquer jewellery box by Yamazaki Kakutaro, and that apogee of streamlined engineering, a Waterwitch outboard motor. This display eloquently indicates the range of objects to be found in the show at large, backed up as it is by paintings, posters and sculpture, carpets and fabrics, dresses, photographs and ceramics. Some of the finest exhibits are pieces of furniture. At one extreme is Ruhlmann, at another is Eileen Gray's austere silver-leaf day-bed like a dugout canoe: marvellously elegant but no doubt hideously uncomfortable. Somewhere in the middle is the extraordinary stomachy chiffonier by Andre Groult, all sharkskin marquetry and anthropomorphic curves. With such an embarrass de richesse to choose from, the visitor needs a little expert guidance. At this point it is customary to turn to the catalogue.

There is no catalogue as such for this exhibition. There is a massive publication of 40 chapters and over 400 pages, containing scholarly contributions from 29 different authors. In hardback it costs L40 and is an unwieldy coffee-table book; it is certainly not the modest and informative publication you would wish to carry round the exhibition and consult. And it seems that, for the show's curators, the book is a more important event than the visual revelation we experience as we walk round the V&A's galleries.

In the introduction there is mention made of `this book and its related exhibition'. Is this the way visual arts programming is going? How can the experience of seeing the work of art be secondary to an expert's interpretation of it? And yet the most likely souvenir (besides postcards) that the enthusiastic and solvent visitor will take away from the exhibition will be this mammoth tome. …

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