The ambitious Amos Anderson Art Museum, a private institution in the center of Helsinki, explores the early development of French Art Deco in the arts, and the period’s impact in Finland. The exhibition lasts until July 21.
The emphasis of the exhibition is in the painting and fine arts, paving the way for the style that later became known as Art Deco and most glamorously recognizable in 1920’s & 30’s design, interiors, architecture, fashion and film. The exhibition’s curator, art historian Laura Gutman, makes a point of the 1910’s attack against the exceedingly expressive and colorful Fauvism (1900-1912…) –think of Matisse’s ”Woman with a Hat”, 1905, or the work of André Derain– a backlash that favored the emergence and popularity of Classicism, which in some ways joins hands with the early steps of the evolving Art Deco in design, crafts and architecture.
The exhibition gives valid scholarly arguments on the early stages of the development of Art Deco, but it misses the heart and soul of Art Deco and its finest achievements. Art Deco defies exact defininitions in its many-faceted call for naughty, vibrant, urban, eclectic and initially elitist way of design, a call for a new, modern life and sense of fun, a change of outlook after the grim Great War of 1914-1918. Art Deco never became a favored style in Finland. Our 1920’s Classisism, the Nordic Classicism, rooted here much more easily, as did the strict and pure, modern Bauhaus ideals in the 1920’s and 1930’s Finnish ”Funkis” or Functionalism. (We Finns are still often too cool and sober for much sense of fun in design).
The Amos Anderson exhibit presents several paintings by Maurice Denis as influential to the Finnish artists of the era, such as Juho Rissanen, Eero Järnefelt and Venny Soldan-Brofelt. The organic, twining lines and flat surfaces of Maurice Denis owe as much to the Art Nouveau style (1890-1915) as Classicism, and the attempt to discover the Art Deco spirit of the Finnish painters amongst the folds of the models’ robes and dresses, aking to the Ideals of The Antique, seems a bit forced. None of the Finnish artists’ works exhibited in this context can be considered their strongest, and the exhibition presents only a few works of art that I would consider great.
Certainly it is interesting to see the way the Finnish sculptor Wäinö Aaltonen carved the hair of his models in stylized three-dimentional tubular swirls and remember that Tamara de Lempicka painted the hair of her models in her iconic Art Deco portraits in a similar style. But this flashback only emphasizes what is missing in this exhibition: indeed, the decadently glamorous work of de Lempicka, the geometric yet sensuous and theatrical designs and art of Sonia Delaunay and her husband Robert, the tubular stylizations of Legér, the angular and energetic influence of Cubism (peaking around 1909-1915 with Picasso and Braque and continuing to the 1920’s) bringing fore the echo of cities, technology, Machine Age, jazz, and new angles to view the world.
The wonderful, few pieces of furniture and objects in the exhibition, both French and Finnish, do represent Art Deco, but have less to to with the paintings of the show. An exception is the Finnish Nikolai Kaario whose 1920’s and 30’s works are designs as much as they are paintings, stylized, they are or could be plans or parts of Art Deco interiors or stage sets.
Alas, the exhibition tells a fascinating but marginal tale of the early emergence of Art Deco, and in this context the name in a big bold font, ART DECO, is a teaser that does not fulfil its promise. The exhibition lacks the energy, mystery, pizzaz, decadence, and sense of fun that is in the core of Art Deco.
There is a great wealth of material to build a show on Art Deco! Victoria and Albert Museum in London did one in 2003; different resources there! In 2010, a special exhibit in New York featured furniture and interiors of the legendary oceanliner Normandie (1935-1941). In the fast-evolving fashion industry, Art Deco has been an inspiration in the last couple of years. The witty, daring and visually talented director Baz Luhrmann is bringing out in 2013 his new film version of The Great Gatsby, a tale of wealth and misfortune in the 1920’s, designed very much in the mood of Art Deco.
The Italian Futurism (Futurismo, 1909-1916) was a cross-cultural movement that involved all the arts, design and architecture. It glorified the ideals of future, technology, speed, urban living and youth. Futurism was influenced by Cubism, and it inspred both Constructivism and Art Deco.
A key member of Futurism was the architect Antonio Sant’Elia whose drawings for an industrialized and mechanized futurist city with its interconnected skyscrapers, ”Citta Nuova” turned out to be vastly influential. There is much in Sant’Elia’s elegant architectural drawings that remind you of the elements that were to become familiar in the later Art Deco buildings. Sant’Angelo was killed in the World War I. – It is fascinating to watch Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1925/27, Germany) and draw parallels between the film’s cityscape and that of Sant’Elia’s visions.
Many Russian avant-garde artists studied and lived in Paris, and Cubism was influential in their workl. Futurism has its links with the arts and theater movement in Russia, too, and Kazimir Malevich (active in 1910-1935) their spiritual brother.
Incidentally, the Imperial Russian porcelaine factory Lomonosov produced some of the most fabulous Art Deco tableware in the early 1920’s, before that modern style was deemed ”corrupt” and the factory shifted into communist propaganda porcelain. (The old skills and designs have resurfaced in stunning new production since the Soviet system’s collapse.)
During times of distress, people have a tendency to seek solace in romance or entertainment involving far-away, exotic and longed-for places. After major catastrofies, such as wars, people eagerly expect and embrance a change, something different. The French Orientalism and Exotism of the 1910’s and 20’s blossomed in fashion, silent films, music and ballet. Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes presented exotic tales in exuberantly fashioned costumes and scenography by Leon Bakst, with new music commissioned and composed by Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and Satie.
Parade, a 1917 ballet with music by Eric Satie on a story by Jean Cocteau, sets and costumes by Picasso; a video glimpse of its later recreation:
After the horrors of the World War I, a changing world, developing technology, new ideas, a new kind of life would seem to be in order. The growing popularity and fascinating possibilities of film as mass entertainment, changing tunes in popular music and the arrival of jazz, the ideals of speed (cars!), height (skyscarapers!), the growing independence of women, expressed as boldly in clothes, haircuts as in the right to vote, the belief that developing technology, faster production methods and the human brain behind it all could lead into a better world, changed ideals, styles and fashion. The world was becoming modern.
Art Nouveau’s pastoral curving lines received cubist fractures and jazzy urban syncopation.
A style revolution emerged towards the mid 1920’s that seemed to tie in all the before mentioned elements: change, cubism, cars, orientalism, exotism, modernism, sensuality and angularity, luxury, jazz, joy & fun and a kind of unabashed physicality. The great inspiration and kick was the stupendous world-news of the 1922 finding of the intact tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt, and a decade long major trend that followed. Melted into the imagery and shapes of the King Tut findings, Art Deco blended traces of the ideals of classism, of German Bauhaus movement and the Dutch De Stijl, a touch of Futurismo, ideals of technology, speed and height. The modern was embraced but ornamentation and decoration were not discarded. In Art Deco style, Art Nouveau’s pastoral curving lines received cubist fractures and jazzy urban syncopation.
In the 1925 Paris World’s Fair, or The International Exhibition of Modern and Industrial Decorative Arts (Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes) in Paris, the French were the pioneers and decided to show only what was ”modern”. Art Deco came together and blossomed in the French entries, and excited and intoxicated the visitors who included hoards of influential producers, art directors and designers of the fast developing Hollywood movie industry. Art Deco found a welcome home in the fantastical sets of Hollywood pictures as they were being dreamt up and built for mass consumption. In this respect, the American Art Deco’s emphasis on ”entertainment” quality, and the oversize styling as if all was a stage spectacle, is understandable in American architecture also.
If Isadora Duncan is the dancer for the classicists, then Josephine Baker is the choice for the wild and wicked Art Deco society.Originally from St Louis, she came via Broadway to Paris, gradually developing into a glamorous entertainer icon who socialized with the cultural elite and was a muse for famous artists, including Cocteau, Hemingway and Picasso. Here in the video, in her earlier, earthier incarnation in 1927, she jimmies & kicks to Charleston with relaxed abandon, clad in a post-cubist frock. And look at the faces she makes! In 1934 she became the first African-American female to star in a major motion picture, Zou-Zou (1934, with Jean Cabin).
Travel as tourism
In the 1920’s travel as tourism developed, by train, car, ocean liners and by air. Far away and exotic places were closer, and inspired the imagination of artists and any other travelers. Art Deco became the distinct design style for the finest trains and passenger ships, as well as the era’s travel posters. The Finnish national airlines, Finnair, was founded in 1923 under the name AERO.
Deco in Finland?
If Art Nouveau as a style is feminine, romantic, organic, whimsical, winding and flowing, and deeply rooted in Nature’s inspiration, then Art Deco that follows is masculine, angular, urban, bursting, whirling, climbing, jumping and speeding. Even Art Deco’s feminine curves are usually in tension, in contrast or counterpoint with rhythmic, geometric elements. In the work of the Vienna Secession artistic group of the great architect Otto Wagner, the designer-architect Josef Hoffmann and the painter Gustav Klimt, or the grand cafes of Prague, or the apartment houses of Barcelona, you get a sense that the Art Nouveau style develops effortlessly into the more geometric and iconically urban Art Deco style. In Helsinki, the popular National Romantic Style, as we call our Jugendstil or Art Nouveau, takes a more robust form and less excessive than in France, Belgium or Germany. The Finnish architect and designer Eliel Saarinen echoed some early Deco influences in his major works, and by the time of the excitement of his near-win of the Chicago Tribune Tower competition and 1923 move to the USA, Saarinen was a budding modernist of international quality. In his architecture and furniture designs for the Cranbrook Academy, Art Deco styling is evident.
Instead of the entertaining Art Deco, Finland followed more the ways of 1920’s Classicism and the more modern, somber and reduced Bauhaus movement’s functionalistic aspirations. Alvar and Aino Aalto’s 1924 travels in Italy so inspired them that the plans for the Workers’ house in Jyväskylä were changed mid-building. The completed house (1925) combines elements of Nordic Classicism and Art Deco. The new, thrilling means of mass entertainment, the movies, offered architects and designers exciting possibilities. When the new Bio Capitol (1925/26) opened, it was the finest, coolest, largest movie theater in Helsinki. Designed by the architect W.G. Palmqvist, with interiors by Hilding Ekelund and interior decorations by noted artists Toivo Vikstedt, Gunnar Finne, Göran Hongell and Gunnar Forström; it was a melange of Nordic Classisism and Art Deco. Architect Martti Välikangas designed both the building and the interiors of Bio Athene (later named Orion), and his work is pure Art Deco, with the entrance hall as if to a royal Egyptian palace with glossy columns and gilded details. In Tampere’s massive 1929 building named Tuulensuu of condominiums and shops (by the architect Bertel Strömmer), a glamorous movie theater with the same name opened, too, and was later named Kino Palatsi. It was recently renovated into dinner-theater, carefully utilizing the original interiors. Art Deco style in Finland is so little appreciated that it was impossible to find good photo material of the movie palaces in the internet.
The only major Art Deco building (left) in Helsinki is the Parliament. The architect J.S. Siren won the architectural competition in 1926, clearly inspired by the international King Tut craze of the 1920’s. The building was completed in 1931, a young independent nation’s proud achievement. The exterior is grandly classicist, with the side entrances as if into the tombs in Egypt’s Valley of The Dead. The interiors are quite ”hollywood” in their flamboyant elegance. Wonderful staircases of marble, brass and chrome, glossy paint surfaces in smooth accent colors, geometric, patterned linoleum floors, exotic dark woods, fabulous Art Deco chandeliers (made in Finland) and the Tutankhamun inspired furniture create an impressive artistic whole. Arttu Brummer (works seen at the Amos Anderson exhibition) designed furniture and Gunnar Finne painted the sublime ceilings. Even the papyrus plant, a popular Art Deco motif, received its interpretation by Siren as a Parliament table lamb.
New York City was my home for ten years. For a young designer hungry for inspiration and fascinated by Art Deco, Manhattan is a true treasure trove. Countless hours of walks with a camera, poking one’s nose into lobbies and halls, checking out staircases and elevators…
In Manhattan architecture, the sky is truly the limit, and in the mood of ”higher, faster and prouder” and with a reliance in the advancement of technology, Art Deco became the style of the new Machine Age’s skyscrapers. Zoning laws and building permissions allowed added height to the buildings if special attention was given to the artistic quality and decoration of the buildings’ first 2-3 floors’ facades and public spaces. This gave the architects, designers and skilled craftsmen ample opportunity to show what they can. The results are often impressive and entertaining.
The mood, speed, danger and sex of the new modern city is shown as a feverish vision in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis; Manhattan meets Metropolis, or vice versa. In 2008, the film’s original cut -thought forever lost- was found in Argentina, and Metropolis has since been restored. It is the first film ever to have been inscribed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. In the enclosed clip, a dancing Art Deco siren or goddess –with a head-dress inspired by the Egyptian papyrus flower– climbing out of an Art Deco jewel box is suitably seductive and drives a crowd of gentlemen so wild that The Grim Reaper is alarmed! The editing of the montage is nothing short of sensational.
New York’s Empire State Building (1931) is possibly the most famous landmark Deco tower, and the occasional home of King Kong. The most magical skyscraper, however, must be the Chrysler Building (1930) in Manhattan. With an internal steel skeleton, it is still the tallest brick building in the world. The lobbies, stairways and elevators are masterpieces of craftsmanship, with Egyptian motifs stylized in colored marbles, inlaid brass and exotic woods. The top exterior is an interpretation of the classic Egyptian inspired Art Deco theme of the sun and its dispersing rays.
Rockefeller Center (1932-39) is a proudly planned, elegant consortium of 14 Art Deco buildings; fantastic reliefs in the facade, fascinating paintings in the public hallways. But a great pity that the original Diego Rivera fresco (100 square meters) of the RCA building was destroyed as Nelson Rockefeller disliked the small Lenin face included. The fresco was replaced with a stunning, larger mural by the Catalan artist Josep Maria Sert.
A European inspired boulevard, the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, north of and leading into Manhattan, is a nearly five-mile stretch with a number of significant Art Deco apartment buildings; it makes an interesting walk for an architecture and design enthusiast.
The magic of movies
Art Deco style became a megatrend in the United States from the early 1920’s till the mid-1940’s. The power and growth of the film industry was a great means of building the trend. Movies offered unheard-of magic, and great movie palaces were built to take the breath away, with exotic Mayan and Egyptian motifs already before Tutankhamun was found. The Egyptian Theater (1922) and The Pantages in Los Angeles, (1930), Loew’s King’s Theater (1929) in Brooklyn, Radio City Music Hall (1932) in Manhattan are all landmark Art Deco theaters of many in the USA. I once toured Atlanta’s wonderfully ornate and very Egyptian Fox Theater (1929) , conceived as if it was to be a world’s wonder. I wonder what it must have felt like to the contemporay audiences to experience then and there a showing of Claudette Colbert’s famed film Cleopatra (1934) with its iconic Egyptian style Art Deco sets and costumes. In the Radio City Music Hall interiors, luxury materials such as exotic hardwoods and gold leaf were inventively combined with new industrial materials like bakelite and aluminum.
The Hollywood musical is an art form in itself. It reaches its black-and-white best in the work of the actor-dancers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers. Here a glimpse of a new hit dance, The Continental (to Oscar winning music), amidst some grand Art Deco hotel sets, in the 1934 Gay Divorcee.
Top Hat (1935) is one of the ultimate Hollywood Art Deco musicals. The art directors, set and costume designers were at the top of their game in this most elegant, stylized black-and-white film. The lack of color emphasizes the Deco sets, and the glow of the materials, lit to offer genuine movie magic.
The director/choreographer (auteur) Busby Berkeley develops the Hollywood film musical into powerful, highly kinetic expressions of storytelling and art. In The Gold Diggers of 1935, Berkeley builds a moving spectacle on a simple story of one day in the life of ”ordinary” folks living in New York. There is a stylized reality to the sequence, a strong undertone of sexuality and hope, a great physical quality, almost like an American parallel to Socialist Realism. The strong artistic vision, set to Harry Warren’s haunting show tune The Lullaby of Broadway, reaches a great, tapping climax when the evening in the city changes into night…
In Cleopatra, the 1934 hit film directed by Cecil B. DeMille, the Egyptian King Tut background of Art Deco meets the grand skills of the new Hollywood ”dream industry”.
Art Deco became the trendy style to create impressive interiors for clubs, restaurants, hotels, theaters, bars, oceanliners and the houses, villas and apartments of the rich and the famous. The rich & famous still enjoy this style; both Madonna and Barbra Streisand have owned large Art Deco collections of furniture, and paintings by Tamara de Lempicka.
Streamlined Deco for the masses
The stock exchange crash of 1929 and the Great Depression had a profound influence in the American life, but Art Deco continued to flourish in design and the movies; people wanted to be entertained. In the developing design trends of the 1930’s, Art Deco’s angular elements became more streamlined.
The stage designer, Norman Bel Geddes opened his design studio in 1927, and in the 1930’s was influential in shifting the angular Art Deco into Streamline-Modern, and into consumer products and everyday life. The work of the all-round designer Raymond Loewy is a great example of that, designing everything from buses and trains to mass-produced china and cutlery. The whole Miami Art Deco district is fun streamlined-deco with pastel color accents and a beach feel.
In America the Art Deco influence continued in architecture and design through the 30’s towards the mid-40’s. It became a standard in government or municipal buildings, with a layer of austerity added. It then sometimes brings to mind the official buildings that Mussolini had built in Italy, or what Albert Speer designed for Hitler’s Germany. Stalin’s architectural dreams for Soviet Union could not have come about without the preceding Art Deco, though both in Hitler’s and Stalin’s favored architecture, Neoclassicism prevails.
Let’s close with two highly energetic, escapist and optimistic Art Deco musical numbers from an era of depression, oppression, rising fascism and upcoming war. We’re in the Money from Golddiggers of 1933, and Marika Rökk singing Ich brauche keine Millionen, 1939 – I need no millions, as long as I have music, and your love…
ART DECO TIMELINE © Markku Piri 2013
CHECK OUT: May 10-19, 2013, Fashion in Film -project of Saint Martins College in London presents the work of French director Marcel L’Herbier.