-By William O’Connor
The 20th Century became a century of speed! The railroad, the automobile, the telephone, the airplane. The industrial age had transformed the world as it had been known for thousands of years, and had transformed it quickly. WW1 had erased any sentimental holdovers of the Victorian Age and by the time of the roaring 20’s the world was moving in top gear. Art, science, philosophy and technology had all changed the way the world was understood. Modernism was the new zeitgeist and there was no going back.
For the first time in my Artist of the Month Series I am going to highlight an entire art movement. Art Deco.
There is no one artist who can be attributed to Art Deco although many were involved in its inception. Beginning in France in the 1890’s with Art Nouveau and Symbolism artists like Mucha and Klimt focused on form and pattern; spreading to America in the Arts and Crafts Movement with architects like Frank Lloyd Wright. Before WW1 Cubism, Futurism and Constructivism played an important role, exploring the new Modern aesthetic of abstraction.
By 1920 Modernism was quickly being adopted by every discipline of the applied arts from automobile design and fashion to architecture. Art Deco essentially became the mass-market, commercial interpretation of Modernism. The modernistic concept of abstraction of forms into highly stylized geometric components was perfectly adaptable to the new commercial printing techniques and industrial applications of furniture, architecture, printing and design fabrication. The new film industry in Hollywood used art deco for its glamorous and modern visuals. Artists such as Russell Patterson, Tamara de Lempicka, Erte, and Rockwell Kent became icons of the style in the field of illustration. Even Pablo Picasso went through an Art Deco phase.
Perhaps no where else was Art Deco so successful as in New York City, the Modern City, the City of the Future. In landmarks such as The Chrysler Building(1928), Radio City Music Hall(1929) The Empire State Building (1929) and Rockefeller Center (1930) the style of Art Deco is on its best display in the city that rose as fast as the new century could build it.
Art Deco has been critiqued for style over substance however, symbolizing the sleek, chromed new modern age. Indictments of its streamlined inorganic forms as a metaphor for dehumanizing man into clones in movies like Metropolis (1927) and novels such as The Great Gatsby (1925) presaged the eventual co-opting of the style by Soviet and Nazi propaganda art to promote idealized conformity with figures as mass produced automatons. The style fell out favor in the west by WWII. (see: The Dark Side of Deco, from The Telegraph on Nazi Art Deco)
In pop culture today the aesthetic of Art Deco carries with it the legacy of oppressive industrial regimes. The Film Noir/Art Deco inspired urban landscapes of the Batman franchise have come to symbolize corporate excess and corruption and in Star Wars the cityscape of Coruscant is eerily reminiscent of Fritz Lang's mega city.
Art Deco still stands as a monument to the first flush of excitement and exhilaration as we rushed into the 20th Century. Today Art Deco is more popular and highly collectable than ever as we rush into a new century which is even faster than the last.