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Art Deco: the Flame of Creativity Before Darkness

This is very embarrassing. I intended to blog about Art Deco – Gli anni ruggenti in Italia right after I visited the exhibition in June… last year. I was ecstatic. I simply, utterly loved it. But then life intervened and – long story short – I’m only now posting about it. But it’s good to revisit this after one year. Time gives perspective.

Art Deco, the style of innovation rediscovered

Vittoriale degli Italiani – interior

The interest in Art Deco is surprisingly new. For most of the XX century, this was a style seldom considered by art lovers and collectors. Not old enough to be antique or even vintage, too unique to be mixed with other styles (or so it was thought to be), Art Deco only lived under the radar in the hands of specialised collectors who appreciated the style out of personal interest and taste. Most of the people who dealt with art and antique furniture focused on 1800s production, which is of high quality and reasonably easy to find.

Things have slowly changed in the last few decades. Art lovers and buyers have lost interest in the 1800s – since there is an abundance of it – and shifted their interest. On the one hand, they now gravitate toward the 1700s items, because they are beautiful and harder (but not impossible) to find. On the other, they appreciate the early 1900s more than they used to, especially Liberty and Deco. These items produced only for a very short period are not easy to come by, though they may still exist even in houses where they were handed down mother to children.

I suppose this rising interest is what finally prompted an exhibition about the 1920s. Art Deco – Gli anni ruggenti in Italia was the first exhibition of this kind ever offered in my country since the time when Art Deco was in vogue.

Art Deco and the domination of European decorative style in the 1920s

The 1920s were tumultuous times when creative and artistic movements seem to be born every day. After the horrible, destructive experience of WWI, the European middle class, in particular, sought a new way of life, pleasurable and luxurious whenever possible. Society was changing. The dynamics inside that society were changing, and a new language emerged to express that change. This new aesthetic wasn’t just art, it was life itself. An eclectic and exotic, modern and international way of thinking and feeling that spread over Europe, that looked back to the past and tradition but also ahead to whatever the future may bring.

Simple, clean shapes with geometric, stylised forms are the distinguishing characteristics of this style. It used varied materials both man-made (bakelite, vita-glass, ferroconcrete) and natural (jade, silver, ivory, obsidian, chrome and rock crystal) in a symbiosis of opposites which would become its signature.

As a modern style, it attempted to infuse functional objects with artistic touches. Like other contemporary artistic movements (the Bauhaus or the De Stjil for example) Deco embraced technological innovation, mechanisation and modern materials. Contrary to other movements, though, Art Deco quickly became a mainstream style. It touched every aspect of creativity and everyday life, from the design of objects to clothing to architecture. It originated in Europe, where it dominated the 1920s, then reached to America, where it remained dominant well into the WWII years.

Simple, clean shapes with geometric, stylised forms are the distinguished characteristics of #ArtDeco Click To Tweet

Art Deco: two decades, two continents

At the beginning of the XX century, a group of French artistic innovators formed an organisation called Societé des Artistes Décorateurs. Well-known figures of the Art Nouveau style, as well as emerging decorative artists and designers, were part of this collective.
The advancement of large-scale manufacturing initiated a revolution in the arts that was, in many ways, shocking. Artists realised that art could be created not just in the traditional ways, but also through the new technologies. Not only in the traditional venues (like painting and sculpture) but even in more mundane objects like furniture and other house items.
A completely new concept of art was born. Beauty was not to be enjoyed by just a few, but it should be bestowed on everyone. It could be part of everyday life and experience. It could be affordable. Art Deco artists sought to create art with the new mass-produced technology, with new materials and new forms.
The relation with the Art Nouveau was one of continuity at first. But as the idea of a mass-produced artistic object that could be used in everyday life took hold of the movement together with its simple, straight and sinuous lines that could be easily reproduced mechanically, Art Deco came in opposition with Art Nouveau and its aesthetic of nature, until the two styles became two opposing ways of making art.

Soon, plans for a major exhibition presenting this type of decorative art was conceived, originally in 1914, but the outbreak of WWI stopped all plans.
The idea was taken up again after the war, but because of several new difficulties, the exhibition was held only in 1925 in Paris. It was named Exposition Internationale des Artes Décoratif et Industriels Modernes, from which came the name Art Deco.
In the seven months of the exposition, some 15.000 artists presented their work in individual exhibitions visited by 16 million people. After brewing in the back burned since the end of the Great War, Art Deco exploded all over Europe.

Until the end of the decade, when life and freedom of expression in Europe became increasingly threatened, Art Deco produced a massive amount of objects in the most different fields. But this style was definitely too innovative and too stylised (therefore degenerated) for any form of totalitarianism. At the end of the 1920s, as totalitarianism surged in many European countries, Art Deco crossed the Atlantic and became the dominant style in the United States.
The onset of the Great Depression inaugurated the second phase of the movement, which evolved in the 1930s and a good part of the 1940s. Austerity might well be the core aesthetic of both the pragmatic and conceptual reasons for this development. More than ever before, there was an emphasis on aerodynamics and other expressions of modern technology.

Italian Art Deco

Art Deco – Gli anni ruggenti in Italia focused on the Italian experience. In Italy, Art Deco invested and informed all the creative fields between the year 1919 and 1929, with peaks of production, creativity and innovation during the biennial exhibitions in Monza held from 1923 to 1927.

Art Deco became the dominant style in architecture. It was the style of the new cinema houses, of the train stations, of theatres, ocean liners and the international trains. Italy was evolving and innovating after the war. Creativity exploded in jewellery, stoneware, glasses, wrought iron, fabric. Any object and any material was a good excuse for experimentation.

The will to merge the ancient tradition of craftsmanship with the new industrial technologies was particularly prominent. There was a strong demand for objects that were new but reminiscent of the Italian tradition. Artists and designers sought ways to produce objects with new technologies and materials (often thought specifically to be mass-produced) but that would retain the same quality and beauty of the hand-produced objects of traditional craftsmanship.

This desire to merge the new with the tradition, the mass-production with the beauty of the one-of-a-kind object, the idea of never sacrifice quality to quantity, was the core and the first step toward what we now call “Made in Italy”. Which, like Art Deco, isn’t just a style, but it’s a way of life and thinking, of working and creating.

By the onset of the fascist regime and its opposition to anything which didn’t look life-like and classical, Art Deco came to an end in Italy as in the rest of Europe. But the idea endured and continues to inform the “Made in Italy” up to these days.

The desire to merge the new with the tradition, the mass-production with the beauty of the one-of-a-kind object, was the core and the first step toward what we now call “Made in Italy” #ArtDeco Click To Tweet

Art Deco: The exhibition

The exhibition was held in the Musei San Domenico in Forlì from 11th February to 18th June 2017. The museum is located in a Renaissance house especially renovated and repurposed for exhibitions, a beautiful building in its own right. Two floors of exhibition ground are divided into many rooms. Every room was devoted to a particular aspect of Art Deco. Yet the exhibition also followed a rough timeline from the inception of this style to its dying out.

With the notable exception of jewellery (which, I suppose, would require its own exhibition), all kinds of objects were on display: sculptures, stoneware, paintings, clothes, furniture, illustrations and architecture projects. Most were everyday objects you would find in a house. There were also a few well-chosen pieces, like the selection of pottery and glasses from Gabriele D’Annunzio’s Vittoriale. His Isotta Fraschini was also on display, a one-of-a-kind handmade car especially built for him.
I was very impressed by the work of artist Giò Ponti, who was one of the head runners in the innovation of the mass-production of artistic objects, especially in the field of pottery. His designs were so exquisitely simple and still very elegant. Few colours and few lines, as well as stylised human figures, were his trademarks. The result was always something light, almost ethereal and extremely graceful.
Le Funi by Giò Ponti

Art Deco lent its unique twist to everything, but I think it gave its most exceptional results in the fields of interior design and illustration.
The architecture projects that I saw at the exhibition were illustrations in their own right, devised to create a feeling and mood, not just to illustrate a project. Never mind that many of these projects were never realised, some of them were outright impossible to.
I’m extremely partial to illustration. I loved Art Deco illustration with its simple, clean lines even before I knew what it was. I swear I would have spirited away a few of the illustrated books on display… if it weren’t illegal! Gorgeous doesn’t even start to describe them. Art Deco illustration had that ‘Erté’ quality even when it was not by Erté. It was always figurative, even when figures tended to abstract and become almost decorations. The quest for beauty and elegance was clearly always in the foreground and – in my opinion – often fulfilled.
Still, Art Deco also gave its best in interior design. I saw beautifully simple and clean pieces of furniture that gave pleasure just looking at them. Yet what I enjoyed the most were the few interior spaces reconstructions, including that of a train compartment. Beautiful!

[huge_it_gallery id=”13″]

I spent three hours inside the exhibition and came out completely dazed, but I swear I’ve seldom seen such an amass of beauty.
I hope someone will soon think up a new Art Deco exposition!

Art Deco: the Flame of Creativity before Darkness - The first Italian exhibition about Art Deco (Feb-June 2017) provided a look at a way of life and thinking as well as art creation
ART DECO - THE FLAME OF CREATIVITY BEFORE DARKNESS - The first Italian exhibition about Art Deco (Feb-June 2017) provided a look at a way of life and thinking as well as art creation


  • Roland R Clarke
    Posted June 29, 2018 at 20:53

    Wonderful post, Sarah – and informative. I have an eclectic interest in art so there are some art deco pieces that I crave plus some wonderful buildings. Love that poster as it captures that look of the period.

    • Post Author
      Posted June 30, 2018 at 09:33

      Happy you liked the post, Roland.
      I was a lover of Art Deco even before I knew what it was. Being there, with so many beautiful creations, was such a grand experience 🙂

    Posted June 29, 2018 at 22:18

    Thanks, Sarah, for this excellent piece on an excellent subject! In my WIP the colonists of an Earthlike planet centuries in the future have rebuilt their society using 1920s and 1930s New York City as a model, so Art Deco everywhere! Mind you, they get it hilariously wrong at times.

  • Hilary Melton-Butcher
    Posted June 30, 2018 at 02:52

    Hi Sarah – what a wonderful exhibition that must have been. I’ve been to a few at Goldsmiths’- the centre for assaying gold in London – and they’ve put on some amazing exhibitions – some smaller ones in the 1920s style. I do love seeing works in that era – and this looked to be an all encompassing exhibition. What an interesting place the Museum is too … cheers Hilary

    • Post Author
      Posted June 30, 2018 at 09:36

      It was indeed a thorough intorduction to the era and the style. I’m very happy I managed to visite it (in the very last weekend it was held, I should say).
      So many beautiful things!

  • Hilary Melton-Butcher
    Posted June 30, 2018 at 03:59

    Hi Sarah – this is from Rhonda in NZ .. re Napier and its Art Deco style – thought you might like to have it here – but equally delete this if I’ve overstepped the mark – couldn’t see an obvious email …

    Cheers Hilary

    • Post Author
      Posted June 30, 2018 at 09:37

      Thanks for the link, Hilary. Such a beautiful place, with some awesone deco creations 🙂

  • Margot Kinberg
    Posted June 30, 2018 at 18:46

    Art deco is gorgeous, isn’t it? And some of the patterns are rich and bold. I’m glad, Sarah, that you did a post on this art movement. It’s an integral part of the era, in my opinion.

    • Post Author
      Posted July 2, 2018 at 17:17

      That’s true. Art Deco wasn’t just a style, it was a lifestyle.

  • J Lenni Dorner
    Posted July 2, 2018 at 09:45

    Wow. I never knew all this. Thanks so much for the enlightenment.

  • Teagan R Geneviene
    Posted July 5, 2018 at 16:23

    What a gorgeous and fascinating post, Sarah! Thanks so much for sharing.
    Giving you a shout-out in my post this weekend. Hugs.

    • Post Author
      Posted July 9, 2018 at 21:50

      Thanks, Teagan!
      I’m happy to share. I wish you could see all the beautiful things there.

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