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Art Deco 1910 - 1939
at The V&A, London
Review by Mark Beesley, June 2003

Of all the big exhibitions so far this year in the major London museums and galleries, the most eagerly awaited (by myself, anyway) was the Art Deco show at the V&A. The big Art Nouveau exhibition there 3 years ago was brilliant and I suppose comparisons are inevitable, in which case I have to say the Art Deco is a little disappointing. There are not many really gobsmacking exhibits and they are not particularly well displayed. The strength of this exhibition though is the way it shows the origins of the style, how it evolved during the 1920s and 30s and just how varied and widespread it was.

A lot of space is devoted to the Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 1925, which gave the style its name and established it worldwide as the style of the modern age. That said, it drew heavily on the art of the past; on classicism, on French 2nd Empire and on the pre-Columbian art of Central America and ancient Egypt - made fashionable by the recent discovery of Tutenkamun's tomb. Another element was Exoticism, the appeal of the Far East and Africa, part of the vogue for 'L'art Negre' which celebrated black African culture. This derived from the earlier discovery of 'primitive' tribal art by the likes of Picasso and Matisse, and from the rise of black American jazz music. Exotic materials and precious gems and minerals abounded in the work on display at the 1925 exhibition; ebony, ivory, sharkskin, lapis lazuli, jade and laquer. Interestingly there is a marked lack of work by British designers.

Then towards the end of the 20s, the style evolves, with abstract, geometric forms predominating. These derived from fine art and architecture - cubism and then the abstract painting of the avant-garde, and the new architecture that went with it - unadorned, geometric shapes, flats roofs, white walls and long strips of windows. Erik Magnussen's 'Cubic' coffee service (see right) looks like something out of a still life by Picasso or Braques.

The Depression of 1929-32 had a big effect on Art Deco because it devastated the luxury market. Designers began to meet the increasing demand for less expensive, mass-produced goods, replacing precious materials with chrome, mirror glass, aluminium and the new plastics like Bakelite and showing a fascination with bright, reflective surfaces. One of the star exhibits is the foyer of the Strand Palace Hotel, stored away since 1969 - chrome and plate glass doors, with frosted glass columns lit from within - absolutely stunning.

Art Deco also epitomised the new age of fast travel - motor cars, aircraft, trains and ships with their ultra-modern streamlined shapes. Being a ship enthusiast one of my favourite exhibits was some rare, early colour ciné film of the fast transatlantic liner Normandie in 1936, with her glittering art deco interiors. There are some superb examples of travel posters too, with the new san-serif typefaces that are another essential aspect of the style (see right). The exhibition ends with a section on the craze of streamlining in the last phase of art deco, particularly in the USA. I especially liked the aerodynamic bacon slicer!

If you are interested in 20th century art and design you should try to see this exhibition. Even if you are not a fan of Art Deco, it is such a wide-ranging show you are sure to find something to interest you.

The exhibition runs until July 20th.

--Mark Beesley

 
 
Further information and images from the V&A website: Art Deco 1910 - 1939