A thoroughly moderne milieu

Art Deco 1910-1939
January 9, 2004

Timothy Mowl welcomes a lavishly illustrated book on the first true 'world style'

This is an exhilarating and, at the same time, deeply frustrating book. It was published to accompany the Victoria and Albert Museum's summer 2003 exhibition and to justify its claim that sees "the main line of modernity in the inter-war period as running into art deco rather than the ambitious orthodoxy of modernism". Notice, however, editor Tim Benton's biased phrasing of that claim. Art deco, or the "moderne", as it was often called, although the dominant style of the period, stands unsupported, while modernism, only a rare, experimental interloper at the time, is described as "the ambitious orthodoxy" - whatever that means.

If someone had to write an illustrated history of the Tory party, would it be considered wise or fair, when choosing a team of three editors, to pick two Labour supporters and one Liberal? But that is more or less what the publisher has done here. Charlotte Benton's reputation rests on her Emigré Architects in Britain 1928-58 (1995), most of those émigrés being, of course, out-and-out modernists; Tim Benton wrote Le Corbusier: Architect of the Century (1987). "The Corb" notoriously despised art deco: he claimed once that "the more cultivated a people become, the more decoration disappears", which Benton is honest enough to quote; but what curious credentials. The third of the trio, the "Liberal", is Ghislaine Wood, a specialist in art nouveau with a strong bias towards French influences in art deco, but at least liable to be impartial.

Between them these three editors have presided over a selection of illustrations that must be described not simply as brilliant but as entirely convincing and converting. They make a definitive case for the style. Literally every page projects images of art deco artefacts, decorative details and architecture that are vital and creative. A reader finishes the book feeling optimistic about humanity. This was clearly the first true "world style", drawing its strength impartially from any country and historical period. More to the point, it was the ideal style that would cloak the drab utility of functional technology, or what Tim Benton calls "the ambitious orthodoxy of modernism". It should, and could, have seen us through with credit and beauty to the end of the 20th century.

What is frustrating about the book is our foreknowledge that this hopeful partnership between decoration and functionalism will be cut short by the 1939-45 war and followed by a 20-year-long black hole in the heart of the century, a void from which we have still not recovered critically. These were the years when Mies van der Rohe's absurd catch-phrase "Less is more" would be accepted as a divine paradox and used to justify every developer's cheese-paring austerity of design, leaving whole cities, such as Plymouth and Swansea, blighted by tedium.

The editors have written ten of the 40 essays that make up the text and divided them notionally into four sections, although in reality there are just two: the Paris 1925 exhibition, and the rest of the world. In tone the essays are scholarly, subdued and sometimes ambivalent. Wood on "European glass" and Clare Phillips' dazzling eulogy of "art deco jewellery" are notable exceptions. They could hardly have written anything but lyrically when accompanied by illustrations of Lalique's "Deux Paons" lamp or Cecil Beaton's shot of Loelia, duchess of Westminster looking as if butter had already melted in her mouth in her Lacloche diamond tiara, But was it necessary to quote, in the essay on "art deco architecture" John Burchard's description of the style as "somnambulant impassiveness" and "a nightmare in which ornament and decoration were confused with creativity"? With such advocates, who needs critics? As Tim Benton reminds us, we in this country still limp on under the influence of Nikolaus Pevsner, who used the enormous prestige he deservedly acquired for his Buildings of England series to convince us that art deco was "a vulgar debasement of 'the aesthetic laws' of industrial design, 'dishonest' and evidencing a 'universal and irresistible longing to escape'".

Such aesthetic puritanism is a disease, like flu, from which Britain periodically suffers; but if anything can immunise us it is the visual evidence of this book. Ranging the globe, the maharaja of Jodhpur's art deco palace of Umaid Bhawan was "Kubla Khan" realised, with a midnight-blue swimming pool to die for rather than to swim in. Then there is Paris' Pont Alexandre III, transformed for the 1925 exhibition into "the projection of a possible city on Mars". Josephine Baker dances in a skirt made of bananas and not much else; Susie Cooper and Clarice Cliff dash off pots for common use, each one a domestic artwork; Australia suddenly produces high art in mosaics at Melbourne and - in perhaps the most shaking image of the book - an altar in Sydney of pagan solemnity. Tamara de Lempicka's paintings turn young girls into near-cubist goddesses, and the lobby of the Palacio de Bellas Artes (1928) in Mexico City anticipates the gates of golden geometry to heaven.

Yet, always modernism, the cheap solution, the more profitable way, was awaiting its psychological moment to take over when popular opinion was traumatised. That moment came in 1945. After 1918 there had been a defiant surge of optimism and creativity, with the craftsmen of art nouveau ready to take on the new art deco; after 1945 and the traumas of Belsen and Dresden, there was only despairing retrenchment. The reason for these contrasting reactions is something that the essays shirk.

Art deco has been highly favoured by the dictators, fascist and communist alike. Incomprehensibly, Tim Benton claims that art deco was ignored in Russia. Has he ever travelled on Moscow's fabulous metro? New York's 19-30 Chrysler Building inevitably features in these illustrations, but at least five of Stalin's superb art deco-Byzantine tower blocks in Moscow, buildings we were trained to mock during the cold war, have matchless iconic presence. Hitler spent his adolescent years in the Vienna crafts cooperative Wiener Werkstätte , and witness Albert Speer's Reich Chancellory and designs for a new postwar Berlin. And could anything be more deco-stylish than the black-and-silver chic of a Gestapo officer's uniform?

Art deco emerged from the second world war tainted by association with brutal tyranny, and even when, in the 1980s, postmodernism made a gallant attempt to regain the forbidden ground of applied art, critical responses were entrenched and hostile. And the abstract and the conceptual art of the period was not remotely applicable to architecture or decorative detail. Postmodernism wilted and the world still waits, stricken by a foolish guilt about the obvious and accessible beauty remembered in this lavish and important book.

Timothy Mowl is reader in architectural and garden history, University of Bristol.

Art Deco 1910-1939

Editor - Charlotte Benton, Tim Benton and Ghislaine Wood
Publisher - V&A Publications
Pages - 464
Price - £40.00
ISBN - 1 85177 387 8

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