Monday, November 25, 2019

Art Deco

Art DecoArt Deco by Camilla de la Bedoyere
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wouldn't have wanted to live in the 1920s or '30s, but the art and architecture of that period are sublime. This is a sumptuous little book. Beautiful photos and excellent contextual explanations. I would recommend Arie van de Lemme's Art Deco: An Illustrated Guide to the Decorative Style, 1920-40 as a companion piece, as van de Lemme's work provides a more coherent chronology and a little wider view of the context in which the art arose. However, de la Bedoyere's work does an excellent job of tracing the two tracks of Art Deco: The upper-class-fueled (mostly French) school of "High Art Deco," and the (Bauhaus-influenced) mass-produced Art Deco works, whose primary consumer was the middle class. The main differences, at least early on in the movement, were craftsmanship and production, both of which seem fairly tight-knit factors in the "split" (my quotes). "High Art Deco" typically used more expensive materials such as exotic woods (ebony seemed to be a favorite) and ivory wrought by expert craftsmen by hand (and when I say "men," I also mean women - this was the era when women began to come into their own, in regards to being publicly recognized as artists), whereas the bulk of Art Deco pieces were designed by excellent designers, but after the initial model was created, these designs were mass-produced, much more inexpensively, for the mass market. Later, a sort of Hegelian synthesis occurred, in which expert artists designed the work, the body of the work was mass-produced using such modern materials as bakelite, chrome, and aluminum, then the finishing touches were hand-crafted by the initial designer. Either way, Art Deco had a strong impact on society, as items of convenience and ornamentation, such as bakeware, furniture, radios, and hood ornaments, were the focal point of much of Art Deco's style. Since such items were ubiquitous and often cheap, the movement had a lasting effect on the material culture of the years to follow. What would a '57 Chevy be without Art Deco coming before it? A box on wheels.

Art Deco was also a product of colonialism. I am amazed by the influence of the arts of Africa, Asia, and South and Central America on the art of that time. You can argue whether colonialism robbed the artistic traditions of these areas or paid homage to them, but you can't argue that European and American artists were not heavily influenced by those traditions at that time. Art Deco brought "World Art" to the western world's popular consciousness, changing it forever.

Even now, some Art Deco is highly sought after. If I had a fortune, I would buy some of Dimitri Chiparus' bronze and ivory statuettes in a heart-beat. But after looking up the prices of these works, I realize that I will never own one. Even the copies run into the tens of thousands of dollars each!

I happen to live about 40-minutes drive from Taliesen, so I was really glad to see Frank Lloyd Wright's work featured in this book. It baffles me when books examine the Art Deco movement and don't include his work. This is likely because of the euro-centric view of some publishers, but it is a shame that his work should not be front and center, as some of Wright's work epitomizes the style and function of Art Deco design. I'm lucky in that there are several of his buildings in the city where I live. They are beautiful, in person, and speak to a time when architecture on the smaller scale was art. Those days are, I'm afraid, over.

There is much more to this book, with too many examples of art and artists to truly do it justice in a review. It is a good, deep dive into the art and design of the era. I would recommend it as a part of your study of Art Deco. My biggest complaint about the book is the font in which the copy is typed - it is very small and very faint, not good for your eyes. Perhaps this was done to accentuate the beautiful full-page pictures, avoiding the distraction of dark text. But for those of us who actually read art books, having to read these (again, very faint) paragraphs under a strong artificial light actually takes something away from the beauty of the photos. The publishers might have benefited from heeding the Art Deco mantra "form AND function".

But these are the times we live in.

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