Suddenly it is Paris in the twenties. Outside the café windows the parade of
umbrellas furls under clearing skies reminiscent of the grays of Caillebotte.
The clouds of war have vanished from the sky as unnoticed as clouds of birds
vanish at dusk. Out on the rain-wet streets prosperity walks the dogs of
opulence, one furpiece on a leash, another around the shoulders. The
overheated sensuality of the twenties dances from evening till dawn,
could-care-lessing the events of the day. Poiret and Chanel and Schiaparelli
have announced the inexhaustible things an undecorated piece of cloth can do
to a woman’s shape. The arrival of jazz has turned the tinkly quaintness of
ragtime into the purr of Josephine Baker’s contralto and blast furnace of
Louis Armstrong’s trumpet. Upsetting economic dreadlines in the news cezanne
into the fruitbowl pastels of self-satisfaction over fine wine. Posters on
kiosks matisse their voluptuous shapes of style and font. Angle and
streamline and vehicle vuillard away the rectal carnage of military revenge
in the what-me-worry decade between Versailles stuffiness and beery München
pütsch. All testifying to the garb romance always dons after an era of horror.
It was time for something new. The drifting directionlessness of France in
the 1920s when film and poetry were all but the same thing, a nostalgia for
what always is because it never was.
New... and yet... more: Modern. Diverting. Striking, startling,
disharmonious, direct. Everyone saw the need: Art of street to challenge art
of salon. A merger between middle-class decorative taste and the
revolutionary’s love of the outré, the young artist’s love of the
avant-garde, the liberated career woman’s preoccupation with the suave and
the elegantly insolent. By the time the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs
et Industriels Modernes opened in Paris, the masters of modern art—Picasso,
Braque, to skim for the moment the mythic cream, Klimt, Léger, Kandinsky,
Magritte, Modigliani, Duchamp, Ernst, and Toulouse-Lautrec—had already
transformed the fine arts. There seemed no new territory to explore.
Then the newbies discovered graphic arts.
There was no “Art Deco” then. Indeed, that appellation was not used until
1966. But artisans embracing a handful of ideas loosely bundled as “Style
moderne” borrowed bits from Cubism, Russian Constructivism, Italian Futurism,
the Vienna Secession, Bauhaus, then added techniques of their own:
abstraction, distortion, oversimplification, geometric solidities reinforced
with intense colors. They used these to celebrate the rise of commerce,
technology, and (thanks to the auto and airplane) speed. The ensuing volcano
spewed simultaneous views from several directions: hypercontrasts of color
and arrangement, transformations of reality, personality, eccentricity.
These inspired a new kind of fine artist, the illustrator. Names like
Cassandre, Jean Carlu, Herbert Bayer, and McKnight-Kauffer began to turn up
not merely on posters, but magazine covers, stationery design,
advertisements. A kumquat of Orientalism was squeezed out of Diaghilev's
sensational Ballets Russes. American jazz, native American and African art,
Egyptian glyphs, these too. And above all the discovery of personal power in
the power of machines. All these contributed to an aesthetic confluence from
which has flown the sociological art theme of our times: graphics, commerce,
private purpose, public event, and social attitude are all immersed in one.
Art Deco Graphics is like looking at the wedding pictures of one’s
“Here” is the first encyclopedic gathering of the best of graphic design
created in the two-and-a-half decades leading up to 1936, when Life Magazine
effectively killed the idea of magazine art by introducing the full-page
photo. We’ve been stuck, ever more drearily, with it ever since. There are
chapters on posters, magazines, commercial design, books, stationery,
fashion, theatrical costume (which for a time was hard to distinguish from
fashion). Art Deco Graphics is a definitive sourcebook, as one expects, for
art-history enthusiasts. But it is also more: Anyone who takes Web design
seriously could do worse than relook at Art Deco as the fount of the most
important art-caused social transformation in history.
Dip a little deeper.
There are nearly half a thousand illustrations, and nearly a quarter-thousand
are in color. Many of those are full-page. All are testimony to author
Patricia Frantz Kery’s inexhaustible ransack of museums, art dealers, and
private collections in her quest for thoroughness. And her exquisite taste in
selecting the best for these pages. And her wit: On page 88 is an image with
the word “PROBLEM” in a streamlined sans-serif block-style font (an Art Deco
hallmark). Out of the “O” sticks a cigarette, smoke tendrilling upwards.
Yes, we would most certainly agree today, says it all doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, no. Look a little closer. The brand name on the cigarette is
“Problem.” Why anyone would brand-name a cigarette “Problem,” even then, is
a mystery. Forty years ahead of time, but it was on the wrong-way track.
Almost all these images are standouts, but a few are unsettling, and
breathtakingly so. On page 89 is an ad for Herkules Bier “aus dem
Hasenbrau-Augsburg.” The sinister, leviathanic, muscle-bound, fist-clenched
figure uses one of the hallmarks of Art Deco—deep shadow to enhance
contrast—to convey a message as self-contradictory as it is threatening:
Drink this and it won’t go to your belly, it will build the muscle of
Germany. Rage is power, and watch out you fops of Versailles.
That was 1925. Five years earlier Ludwig Hohlwein design an ad
“Tachometerwerke” for a Düsseldorf maker of the eponymous instruments to
clock engine revs. The vehicle, with its riveted sheet metal body and
upjutting phallic levers for gears and brakes, all done in a dark drab
befitting military maneuvers in the slime, is not a Gay Paree streamlined
beauty with chauffeur and mink-trimmed consort. It is a tank. The vehicle
alone says, “We’re coming, out of the way.” But it is the driver who truly
frightens. Garbed in the thick leathers of automobiling at the time, gloved
hands gripping—no, choking—the wheel, his face is of such grim, hating,
enraged determination that one cannot think of similar malevolency in all of
art history except perhaps for Meiji-era Japanese prints extolling the
glories of battle. Even in 1920 the omens were shrieking, and by 1925 they
were extolling muscle.
Yet for the most part Art Deco was sweetness and elegance, if not light, and
a kind of innocence during the days when modern commercialism was being
established. One can see editors exploiting inner fears on behalf of ad sales
even then: the Vogue and Vanity Fair covers depict improbably slender women
draped in the silks and furs of unattainable wealth, their eyes of steel
willing and able to stare down an amorous tycoon (page 143). Book publishers
were right alongside them: A book cover by a designer pseudonymed “Fish” (in
reality the British caracaturist Ann Sefton) proclaimed, High Society—Hints
on how to Attain, Relish – and Survive It; A Pictorial Guide to Life in Our
Upper Circles. Powerful Fortune covers (whose ultra-simplicity and
unusual view angles could inspire cinema students even today) whose One
Dollar newsstand price really *was* a fortune in those days (page 140). They
also were the days when Fortune had taste: A 1941 cover was graced with a
Fernand Léger graphic. Page 141 yields up fabulously insensitive stereotype
of Fritz Kreisler jamming with Louis Armstrong, and a Vanity Fair cover of
a banjo-playing black (p. 148) would be sued off the stands nowadays.
There are surprises, too. The late-Twenties Shiseido Cosmetics ads use the
same logotype the firm uses today—perhaps the most antiquarian logo around
save for Ford Motor Company, and yet so with-it even now. Stationery
designers produced some astonishingly beautiful designs—many mixing in
plentiful dollops of Art Nouveau imagery—and if the captions between pages
193 and 205 are anything to go by, they joined postcard designers in
undeserved anonymity. The artistry of A.M. Cassandre deserves a re-look (the
only two works available on Amazon are out-of-prints dated 1976 and 1983, and
the most interesting find on bn.com is this. Surely someone
out there might be inspired by such a find.
A reviewer could go on for hours like this. Almost every image the book
deserves a paragraph to itself. And the descriptions, they could go on, too:
elegant style, cool sophistication, ocean liners racing the Atlantic and
trains crossing continents., speed a metaphor for modernity, modernity that
was soon turned into fashion. The role of the then-new medium of radio, how
Hollywood musicals soon picked up the message of offering hope for better
times and a temporary escape from daily troubles. In direct dissonance with
today, art pushed style into commerce rather than commerce pushing style into
Art Deco Graphics is about graciousness of form. An unmatchable book that can
be read five, ten times and still sift up new baubles. Brief-lived, yet
timeless, like the then-young artists’ cheerful way of navigating into the
future using no compass or ancestral guidance. Like office girls who adored
the little black dress, but were informed they could liquefy, rather than
dump, themselves, into it, and so did.
The best book of its kind. Nothing comes close.