Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Art Deco

Art deco was a strange phenomenon. In the grand history of 20th-century art, it has generally been assigned a fairly lowly place. None of its leading figures are very famous, in the way that Picasso or Jackson Pollock are famous. It produced no magisterial paintings. And yet art deco represents something important that we lack today: an ambitious and serious artistic style whose home ground is the daily life of mainstream society.

The art deco style flourished from about 1910 to the outbreak of World War II. It gets its name from a vast exhibition held in Paris in 1925, the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels. The long French title was later reduced to the appealing diminutive: art deco. Conveniently, this name clicked with the big style that came just before: art nouveau. Nouveau was curving and slender and a little precious. Deco was chunky, solid and populist.

The perfect nouveau moment would be a young man with long hair and a huge bow tie, drinking tea from a tiny Japanese cup and writing a poem to a butterfly. The perfect deco moment is a woman with short hair, mixing a martini at a chrome-plated home bar while listening to a jazz band on the radio, only to be interrupted by her maid saying she is wanted on the telephone.

The great Paris exhibition wasn't in the least like a modern biennale devoted to the latest quirks and turns of the art world; it was more like a world trade fair. The 1920s saw the dawn of mass production and consumerism. It was the age of Ford production lines; the vast halls of department stores were still new and exciting. The 1925 exhibition was devoted to showing objects that would sell and that could at the same time aspire to artistic meaning.

Art deco brings together a range of concerns that we don't usually associate with art movements: decorative and industrial arts. This, and the fact that its central event was a trade fair, a kind of stimulus to world shopping, tells us a great deal about the phenomenon.

It was connected to everyday life: its representative objects were clothes, chairs, lamps and cocktail shakers. The show at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne includes surely the most stylish heating radiators ever created: gleaming chrome and fabulous to look at when not in use. I was particularly impressed by a sea-green Bakelite radio with a lightly classical front, and a chrome-plated record player. These are extremely charming. They take the little objects of life and connect them, visually and sensually, with our more noble aspirations.

The grandest objects of art deco were the skyscrapers of Manhattan, especially the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. They sought to contain the vastness of the constructions within the visual ambitions of classical style: the Empire State Building is organised (at the lower and higher levels) as a sequence of plain temple facades. Art deco is the ideal office style: the utopia of professional duties. It looks smart and efficient; it has understated luxurious qualities; it is gleaming and geometrically pure. You need to wear a suit and have short hair. Your heels click authoritatively along the polished stone floors of the lobbies and corridors.

These buildings remind us that art deco was often visually conservative. It took up all the modern conveniences -- transport, office buildings, cinemas, hotels, dress, communications, swimming pools -- and sought to make them elegant and refined. And a key strategy in this was to adopt and lightly modernise existing patterns of design.

A big influence was the refined middle-class German domestic tradition known as Biedermeier -- a style of decoration, furniture making and, in fact, of living -- that emphasised decency, comfort, simple classical motifs and pleasant, easy sociability. Art deco was a commercial style; even people who did not belong to the beau monde or the self-conscious avant-garde could buy art deco furniture in the leading high-street shops.

In the progressive narrative of art, art deco was rather embarrassing. This was happening after Marcel Duchamp and Dada, after Le Corbusier had built aggressively modernist buildings. Perhaps the best known designer from the period was Viennese craftsman Josef Hoffmann. His painted chairs and tables with little gold panels and simple elegant character are almost timeless. From the point of view of progressive art he should have known better. How could you paint white chairs with golden details when the cutting edge had already moved on?

But one might take the examples as teaching a reverse lesson: so much the worse for a progressive narrative of art history if it leads us to ignore so many lovely and worthwhile things.

One of the exhibits at the NGV that attracted most attention, on a busy Saturday, was some footage of the luxury French liner the Normandie (launched in 1932). The ship was a floating showcase of art deco. We see men in tailcoats and women in slender, shimmering gowns strolling about the cocktail bar. As we watched, one woman said aloud what I imagine a lot of us were thinking: "I was born in the wrong age." It's a longing for a more glamorous, elegant, smart and charming existence (rather than the desire to have lived through two world wars).

Is the exhibition a window on to another curious world, one that we cannot inhabit and in which we cannot participate? This is the fantasy of the art-historian as ethnographer: recording but not participating in the rituals of a vanished art deco tribe. The visitor can watch the film, but not be in it. The more radical and dangerous thought is to be loyal to the love. One may feel that the values of that era, as reflected in the objects, were in some respects finer and better than those of today.

The most poignant object is a poster advertising a new train, first run by the Victorian Railways on the Melbourne-Albury line in 1937. The poster carries the legend: Spirit of Progress (also presented by an illuminated sign on the rear of the train, which one could see as it raced away).

Today the slogan has a melancholy ring. The train that carried it is much more elegant and stylish than the trains we have had since. Its optimism was misplaced: it heralded the end, not the beginning, of progress.

An object as fine as the little Hoffmann table exists beyond time, as well as being an object originating at a specific time. It gives sense to John Keats's dramatic claim: "A thing of beauty is a joy forever."

The finest achievements vault over their period boundaries; they have something elemental and perfect about them that can excite admiration and love even if one knows very little about the origins. There is some deeply appealing cutlery from 1925. It would be perfect to use today. Sometimes, we may feel the benefit of a little period information to get us going. But the worth of the object cannot be comprehended if one sees it only as belonging to its time.

Many artistic and intellectual movements aim at changing the world and yet are fundamentally marginal: they challenge and shock, but make no difference. Art deco did not aim to change the world and yet it touched and enriched the lives of millions.

What we could -- and rather urgently need to -- learn from art deco is that a large purpose of art is to beautify and give style to the ordinary conditions of life in modern societies. Art deco did not rail against the factories or social inequality or the political system. Which is not to say that artists making beautiful cutlery or a perfect radiator were indifferent to such large-scale social matters.

It's just that they didn't see any particular need to try to solve the problems of the world by chrome-plating a record player or by painting a picture, such as Tamara de Lempicka's, of someone using a telephone (when that could still count as an exciting activity).

Exhibitions are very much governed by a set of scholarly art-historical assumptions. The most important official questions about a work of art are, first, how it came to be made at that time; and second, how did it fit into the evolving pattern of art?

Yet there are other more personal and perhaps more powerful questions that never seem to get raised. Why does this object matter to me now? What should you do if you love the art or style of the past more than you like the art or style of the present?

The point of encountering the art of the past is not so as to become well informed. Nor can it be as a way of understanding where we have come from. These are possible modes of curiosity, but they strike me as academic and intellectual. The real point, surely, is to find objects that speak intimately to one's soul: that seem to know you better, and address you more engagingly, than more recent items.


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