Art Deco--Between the Wars
" Cool, Jazzy, Contemporary"


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"Art Deco...[has]...identifiable formal features--qualities of precision, geometrical economy and percussive rhythm.... Freed from the restraints of tradition and driven by insatiable demands for novelty, Art Deco stopped at no geographical, cultural, historical or spiritual boundary in its search for anything it could use to make things look new. In its relentlessly expansive aesthetic and commerical opportunism, it mirrored globalizing capitalism." (Johnson B26)

Art Deco encompasses a broad spectrum of styles and artists representing trends begun in the late 19th century. It evolved in a time frame that included the Great War, the Bolshevik Revolution, the "roaring twenties," the Great Depression, and the rise of fascist (Mussolini,) Communist (Stalin,) and Nazi (Hitler) totalitarian regimes. Technological advances, mass production, and consumerism marked the economic developments of the period. "Out with the old; bring in the new" characterized social attitudes and behaviors. Art Deco was nothing if not eclectic, borrowing inspiration from the ancients (Egypt, the classics) the exotic (sub-Sahara Africa, East Asia, fantasy,) the avant-garde: it delighted in and exploited new materials to meet or create new tastes. In contrast to "high" art designed to be viewed from a distance and/or hung from walls in galleries and museums, Art Deco was intended for use and for a popular, mass market. Art Deco was evident in painting, sculpture, architecture, fashion, furniture design, film, advertising, household and recreational items--the list is endless. As commentator Martin Greif put it, Art Deco came " embrace virtually everything that was produced between the two world wars, from the finest French the tubes of Tangee lipstick purchased at the local five and dime...." (Greif quoted in Benton, et al. 16) Art Deco both reflected and shaped the culture and ideas of the era.
(Image--plate 28.1)


The architect Charles-Edouard Le Corbusier first coined the term, "art deco" in a reference to the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, the Paris 1925 Exhibition. (Benton, et al. 16) However, the term itself did not come into the artistic vernacular until considerably later, i.e. 1966. In the 1940s, Bevis Hillier sought to define the style or movement that comprised Art Deco, calling it,

"an assertively modern style, developing in the 1920s and reaching its high point in the 1930s.... [I]t ran to symmetry rather than asymmetry, and to the rectilinear rather than the curvilinear; it responded to the demands of the machine and of new materials...[and] the requirements of mass production." (Hillier, in Benton, et al. 17)
(image, Benton, et al. plate 20.7) Art Deco...[a]pplied to everything from ashtrays to skyscrapers.... [I]t defined the look of modernity for almost 30 years...." (Johnson B23)



Exotic Egypt and Africa both influenced the emerging styles of Art Deco. In 1922, archaeologists discovered and opened the tomb of the boy king, Tutankhamen and set off a wave of "Egyptomania," a "media event" that expanded and mushroomed into all aspects of popular culture, producing sweeping changes and new fads. Parisian jeweler Pierre Cartier designed faux Egyptian jewelry and Maurice Couet created an Egyptian temple gate clock. (Benton, et al. 43)


Claudette Colbert starred in Cleopatra, the Folies Bergere dancers cavorted about the stage with Egyptian style ostrich fans, George Cole designed a movie palace with an Egyptian temple-like facade decorated with lotus-topped columns. (Benton, et al. 43, 47) People named their dogs "Tut" and danced to the "Tutankhamen Rag." Legend maintains that Lenin, who died in 1924, was embalmed according to procedures based on those of ancient Egypt. (Benton, et al. 48) "...the public imagination was fired by the ancient cultures of Egypt..." not to mention ancient Babylon, Mesopotamia, and Mesoamerica. (Benton, et al. 125)


Art Deco artists drew on African motifs in a trend begun by Picasso's Les démoiselles d'Avignon before World War I. Artists and consumers liked the geometric lines of African textiles, the spare appearance of traditional masks. Jaded nouveau riches sophisticates of the roaring twenties saw in Africa "a wellspring of primal creativity...." (Benton, et al. 79) Africa came to signify the exotic and the modern. "L'art nègre" enjoyed an unprecedented vogue in the 1920s and could be seen in Parisian interior decoration, the cabaret, in fashion and its accoutrements. (Benton, et al. 126-7) For the Colonial Exhibition of 1931, Louis Vuitton designed a traveling case of crocodile with an African context. His line helped to associate African motifs with what was modern, glamorous chic. (Benton, et al. plate 14.2)




American Embassy, Paris. "Josephine Baker." Americans in Paris. Online Available.
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Art Deco 1910-1939, ed. by Charlotte Benton, et al. London: V&A Publications, 2003.

Johnson, Ken. "The Essence of Wit and as Cool as Jazz." The New York Times, August 20, 2004.


McKee, Peggy. "Intro-Egypt-Africa." Art Deco--Between the War. Updated. February 18, 2014 . Online Available.
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(McKee. "Intro-Egypt-Africa.")


Author: Peggy McKee
Last modified: February 18, 2014