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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

French Art Deco

To a great extent, Art Deco is epitomized by the works that were shown at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exhibition of Modern and Industrial Decorative Arts), held in Paris in 1925. Indeed, the name of this vast exhibition would later be abbreviated to Art Deco, giving a catch-all label—perhaps somewhat imprecise—to the enormous range of decorative arts and architecture created between the first and second world wars.

Disillusioned by the commercial failure of Art Nouveau and concerned by competitive advances in design and manufacturing made by Austria and Germany in the early years of the century, French designers recognized that they could rejuvenate a moribund industry (and an important sector of the French economy) by reestablishing their traditional role as international leaders in the luxury trades (a reputation that reached its apex in the eighteenth century). The founding in 1900 of the Société des Artistes Décorateurs, a professional designers’ association, marked the first official encouragement of new standards for French design and production through their annual exhibitions of member work. In 1912, the French government voted to sponsor an international exhibition of decorative arts to promote French preeminence in the design field. The exhibition, originally scheduled for 1915, was postponed on account of World War I and did not take place until 1925.

The Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris was a vast state-sponsored fair that dazzled more than 16 million visitors during its seven-month run. The works exhibited—everything from architecture and interior design to jewelry and perfumes—were principally intended to promote and proclaim French supremacy in the production of luxury goods. The primary requirement for inclusion (more than twenty countries were invited to participate) was that all works had to be thoroughly modern—no copying of historical styles of the past would be permitted. Nonetheless, much of what was exhibited was firmly rooted in the traditions of the past. The stylistic unity of exhibits indicates that Art Deco was already an internationally mature style by 1925—one that had flourished in the years following World War I and peaked at the time of the fair. The enormous commercial success of Art Deco ensured that designers and manufacturers throughout Europe continued to promote this style until well into the 1930s.

During the 1920s, Joseph Breck, the Metropolitan’s curator of decorative arts, took a serious interest in European modern design. With the help of a fund established in 1922 by Edward C. Moore Jr. (son of the silversmith Edward C. Moore who also served as president of Tiffany & Co.), Breck was able to acquire important works by notable French Art Deco designers such as Ruhlmann, Süe et Mare, Rateau, and Lalique. In 1923, he established the first Museum gallery for modern design, which he reinstalled frequently as new examples were added to the collection. Though Breck’s taste may be considered somewhat conservative by today’s standards, he nonetheless identified the works he acquired as representing the highest achievements of his own day, demonstrating their continuity with longstanding established traditions of design and craftsmanship.

The 1925 Exposition is considered a triumph of ornament in a variety of guises, and indeed this is one of the defining characteristics of Art Deco. Sometimes ornamentation was straightforwardly applied to the surface of an object, like a decorative skin; other times, potentially utilitarian designs—bowls, plates, vases, even furniture—were in and of themselves purely ornamental, not intended for practical use but rather conceived for their decorative value alone, exploiting the singular beauty of form or material. Painting and sculpture—again, conceived mainly as decoration rather than as serious works of fine art—were an important aspect of Art Deco, as well. Among the most popular and recurring motifs are the human figure, animals, flowers, and plants; abstract geometric decoration was also prevalent.

Exoticism played an important role in the conception of Art Deco. Early on, in 1908, the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev arrived in Paris with his dance troupe, the Ballets Russes. The company’s productions—characterized by their somewhat brilliantly colored, outré Orientalist sets and costumes that brought to mind the richness of an Ali Baba cave—became instantly popular among fashionable Parisians, making an immediate impact on French taste. During the 1920s and 1930s, the French government encouraged designers to take advantage of resources—like raw materials and a skilled workforce—that could be imported from the nation’s colonies in Asia and Africa. The resulting growth of interest in the arts of colonial countries in Asia and Africa led French designers to explore new materials (sharkskin, ivory, and exotic woods), techniques (lacquering, ceramic glazes), and forms that evoke faraway places and cultures. This trend reached its culmination in the state-sponsored Exposition Coloniale, an enormous display of French colonial culture held on the outskirts of Paris in 1931.

Further, during the Art Deco period there was a fairly wide acceptance by the consumer public of many of the ideas put forth by avant-garde painters and sculptors, especially as they were adapted by designers and applied to fashionable luxury objects that encapsulated the sophisticated tastes of the times. Fauvism, Cubism, and Orphism were among the many fine-arts movements that played an important role in the development of the style.

Fauvism (exemplified in the paintings of Henri Matisse and André Derain) was one of the first major avant-garde developments in twentieth-century European art, in which artists explored the emotional and decorative effects of color and pattern, usually combined with distortion or simplification of form. The movement lasted only from 1905 to 1907, although its impact lingered—especially in the decorative arts—into the 1920s.

The invention of Cubism by the painters Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in 1907–9 was particularly significant: with its arrival, old artistic conventions—realistic depictions of subjects—were turned on their head. Cubism, in its most basic definition, proposed the visual reduction of a subject to its most basic shapes and planes through geometric stylization. The resulting loss of naturalism allowed a “pure” representation expressing the essence of the subject, projecting a more objective and real vision of it than a mere depiction could. Many French designers borrowed the abstracted shapes of Cubism for their decorative effects.

Orphism, a development of Cubism that can be considered the first truly nonrepresentational art movement in France, promoted the attempt to convey meaning—lyrically intangible concepts—through compositions of abstract form and color. The term was invented in 1912 by the poet Apollinaire to differentiate works by artists such as Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger, and Francis Picabia from that of the Cubists.

A particularly strong relationship between fashion and decoration developed during the Art Deco era; each profession was aware of the benefits the other could provide. Couturiers asked artist-decorators to create suitably stylish showrooms and shops, while those same decorators recognized the benefit in bringing their work to the couturiers’ rich and fashionable clientele. In collaborating, both professions acknowledged that fashion involved more than clothing, and recognized the potential in addressing desires and aspirations through the branding of the domestic environment as an important component of a stylish life. Some individuals—like Paul Poiret—straddled both professions, and came to be seen as important tastemakers in general.

The 1930s saw radical changes in design. The Art Deco style, which had reached its apogee at the 1925 Exposition, gradually waned; its decorative flourishes and emphasis on rich and exotic materials seemed increasingly irrelevant, particularly in light of the exigencies of the Great Depression. At the same time, the geometric forms and plain undecorated surfaces concurrently favored by the International Style modernists (such as Le Corbusier or designers of the German Bauhaus) proved too demanding for most people. It was with relief that high-end consumers sought refuge in the familiar language of classicism in the years before World War II. The so-called Return to Order (from Jean Cocteau’s 1926 book Le rappel à l’ordre) was characterized by its reliance, albeit simplified, on historical precedent. Unlike early French Art Deco designers, who mined ancien-régime taste for its sophistication, refinement, and charm, their counterparts of a quarter-century later looked instead to the icy monumentality of the French past, creating designs that projected through their stately opulence a sense of unassailable security and authoritative confidence in a period that was characterized by growing economic and social crisis. A quality of almost desperate theatricality pervaded the era, as though the designers and their clients were trying to escape the increasingly dismal reality of daily life.

In 1937, the French government sponsored the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne (International Exhibition of Arts and Techniques in Modern Life). Less ambitious than the 1925 exhibition, the fair also did not promote the French luxury trades, but rather focused on France’s place in the modern world as reflected through the country’s achievements in science and technology, unconsciously marking the end of the Art Deco era.

The years following World War II were characterized by enormous change on every level. The war ended, leaving a new generation of veterans with young families struggling to rebuild their lives. The pressing need for affordable housing and the furnishings for it led to a boom in design and production. A new optimism—filled with the promise of the future—prevailed. The elaborate households of the prewar years were gone, replaced by informality and adaptability. Gone, too, was the conventional approach to furnishings as expensive and permanent status objects. New materials and technologies, many of which had been developed during wartime, helped to free design from tradition, allowing for increasingly abstract and sculptural aesthetics as well as lower prices for mass-produced objects.