Deco 1910 - 1939
at The V&A, London
Review by Mark Beesley, June 2003
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
exhibition runs until July 20th.