Saturday, April 13, 2019

Art Deco: An Illustrated Guide to the Decorative Style, 1920-40

Guide To Art Deco Style 1920 40, Illustrated Guide To The Decorative StyleGuide To Art Deco Style 1920 40, Illustrated Guide To The Decorative Style by Arie van de Lemme
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For the life of me, I can't understand the low ratings given for this book on Goodreads. Then again, some of the same people who gave it low ratings also gave The Catcher in the Rye five stars, and you know my opinions regarding that putrescent skid mark on the underwear of literature.

Now that I've gotten that out of my system . . .

As an undergraduate, I was a Humanities Major with a history emphasis. This meant that I studied a bevy of disciplines, including visual arts, sculpture, architecture, dance, cinema, theater, music, philosophy, history, and literature. It was a good education. While studying, I became particularly enamored of a few different artistic movements: Art Nouveau, Modern Abstractionism, Pre-Raphaelite art, and Art Deco. I did a fairly exhaustive study of each (I had to in order to graduate!), so I'm coming at this as someone who knows a bit about the movement and the art movements that were chronologically before, during, and after Art Deco. There was a lot going on there between the two World Wars, and I don't have the time or patience to outline the historical precedents and antecedents of the movement known as Art Deco.

I don't really have to, because Art Deco: An Illustrated Guide to the Decorative Style has done a pretty good job of it. No, it's not a philosophically deep treatise. If someone were looking for that, I'd recommend a book a little longer than 128 pages, many of which are taken with pictorial examples of the trends being examined therein. But the introductory chapters give a very good, high-level overview of the context in which the movement arose, taking L'Exposition Des Arts Decoratifs Et Industriels of 1925 as an approximate starting point. From hence the term "Art Deco" arose.

After a brief, but more than adequate review of the history, the book plunges into the various areas in which Art Deco manifested itself. Far from being a merely artistic (that is, painterly) phenomenon, Art Deco was a true movement, an attitude, really, of some parts of society (those that would afford it - though mass production and cheap materials made Art Deco more easily available to common folk) that was reflected in the material culture of Europe and the United States. This inhered in the realms of great commissions (such as the great luxury ship Normandie, The Hoover Factory in Britain, and The Chrysler Building in New York City), furniture, metalwork, tableware, ceramics, glass, fashion, painting, design, and jewellery [sic], all of which are addressed in this work. One of the more interesting aspects of this movement is the fact that there was very little by way of visual arts (namely painting) and that other visual movements, such as cubism and fauvism, were predominant in the world of painting. There are few paintings outside of posters that can be termed "Art Deco" proper, but almost any painting of the time would likely be surrounded by Art Deco sculpture, framed in wood crafted in an Art Deco style, and many of them would be housed in a building that was composed of Art Deco elements. Think of Art Deco as, quite literally, the world in which other art was housed.

One can gather from this that the line between art and craft was often blurred during this period. Many of the more prominent practitioners of one discipline were inclined to cross over into another or, at least, to collaborate with another. For example, the famous metalworker Edgar Brandt, created bronze jardinieres with cobras rearing their heads, which were, in turn, surmounted by exquisite glass work by the famed Antoine Daum. The architect Frank Lloyd Wright (one of our hometown heroes here in Madison, Wisconsin) designed furniture in his signature style, and many other craftsmen and artists worked magnificent pieces outside of their moyen.

My solitary complaint about the book is that sometimes a piece is referenced on a page nowhere near its picture, and a few pieces that are lauded with high praise do not appear in the book at all. A few of these are because the artifact that held them (namely, the ship Normandie) was scuttled and no longer exists. Not all the sands of time make it from the top of the hourglass to the bottom, unfortunately.

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