Art Deco, the style that the Royal Ontario Museum will celebrate in an extravagantly beautiful exhibition starting a week from today, prided itself on speaking a multitude of exotic visual languages. It was the world's first serious attempt at a universal and multicultural form of expression, and it eagerly borrowed from every culture and art form that crossed its path --Aztec temples, Greek amphoras, Egyptian murals, African sculpture, whatever.
So naturally Art Deco: 1910-1939, which arrives in Toronto after a big success at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, makes a point of showing where all these influences came from and how they filtered through the modern imagination, eventually transforming the look of things on several continents. But it would be wrong to classify the ROM show as educational. Anyone visiting it will probably leave with an enhanced idea of how the past century looked and why, but that's not the main point. Art Deco always aimed to pleasure the senses, and a major Deco show that was anything less than ravishing would be a failure. This one is not a failure. It's a delirious success.
Art Deco resembles pornography in one way: Nobody can precisely define it, but you can recognize it when you see it. Ghislaine Wood, the Victoria and Albert curator who chose this collection for showing in four cities, favours a broad, open-ended definition. She casts such a wide net over her subject that she pulls in not only the furniture, glass and office buildings most people identify as Art Deco but also Cecil Beaton's photography, Tamara de Lempicka's paintings, the facade of the Eros Cinema in Bombay, a poster for Canadian Pacific's Empress of Britain steamship and Greta Garbo's dressing table in the movie Grand Hotel.
As it slowly established itself, just before and just after the First World War, Art Deco signalled a change in sensibility. It succeeded Art Nouveau, and the difference was striking. If Art Nouveau drew its images from flowers and trees, Deco borrowed the style of machines. If Art Nouveau's forms were rounded, Deco's were geometric. As the great art historian E.H. Gombrich wrote, "Where Art Nouveau relished the sinuous line, Art Deco went in for angularity." If Art Nouveau was cozy, Deco was chic. Art Nouveau loved earth tones, but Deco adored brilliant scarlet, jade, purple or orange. Art Nouveau venerated individual craftsmanship, but Deco embraced machine-made products, from glassware to fabrics. The Deco artists loved surfaces that glittered, surfaces of glass, silver, steel, lacquer, then chromium and Bakelite.
Art Deco designers developed a repertoire of cherished forms -- sunbursts, chevrons, zigzags, zebra stripes and lightning bolts. On streamlining, they went a little crazy. Engineers invented streamlining to cut the wind resistance of trains, aircraft and cars, but designers immediately recognized it as a metaphor representing the speed and intensity of the new age. They streamlined everything from vacuum cleaners to pencil sharpeners.
Art Deco made its first impact in Paris in 1925, before anybody called it Art Deco. The French staged the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes to establish their pre-eminence in design and manufacturing. Paris lit up its bridges and fountains, announcing that something grand was happening, and the Citroen logo decorated the Eiffel Tower. The exposition had 22 pavilions, most of them linked to Paris department stores.
This festival of culture and commerce drew 16 million visitors, but it didn't have quite the effect the French government imagined. Visiting designers went right home to knock off the new ideas for their customers in New York, Buenos Aires or Montreal. Shapes and colours that were generated in Paris passed so quickly into the world's collective image bank that they ceased to be specifically French.
Ideas moved swiftly across Europe and then across the Atlantic and even the Pacific, where Art Deco began showing up in Sydney, Shanghai and other ambitious cities. In New York, Deco made its most spectacular appearance as the stainless steel sunburst atop William Van Alen's Chrysler building. Wallace Harrison put Art Deco to work in Rockefeller Center and later in the perisphere-and-trilon symbol of the 1939 World's Fair.
In Canada, Deco showed up often in architecture. In 1931, Ernest Cormier designed an exquisite Art Deco house on Pine Avenue West in Montreal, Pierre Trudeau's home after he left politics; Cormier's Art Deco styling also lives an exuberant life on his tower for the University of Montreal. In Toronto, the Art Deco sensibility impressed itself on Eaton's College Street store (now College Park), where the old Round Room has recently been brought back to life as the Carlu, named for Jacques Carlu, the French architect who designed it in 1931.
Deco was the first style to specialize in shaping the fresh objects that came with the new society of the 20th century. Art Deco designers sprang into action at the prospect of creating radios, refrigerators, cocktail glasses, toasters and liquor cabinets. If you believed such socialist architects as Le Corbusier, this was offensively frivolous. Le Corbusier was planning a working-class Utopia, cities filled with houses and apartment buildings that would be honest, true and appropriately serious in tone.
Art Deco would have none of that stuff. It was a party for the eyes. It defied Le Corbusier and happily married itself to the spirit of buoyant 1920s capitalism. Later, during the Depression, Art Deco designers dreamed up profitable low-priced objects for the mass market.
But the Victoria and Albert exhibition, while celebrating the glories of Art Deco, does not want to be left on the wrong side of Le Corbusier's argument. The first page of the first article in the exhibition catalogue refers to the "ruthless commercial interests" that fed the glittery dreams of Art Deco. The same article, however, ends with the view that "some of Art Deco's most persistent meanings are to be found in fantasy and fun." On this issue, the V&A comes down firmly on both sides.
Movies, more than any other medium, spread the Art Deco message. Set designers, having decided a Deco room symbolized riches and chic, provided romantic comedies and musicals with elegant backgrounds dominated by zebra stripes and zigzag wallpaper.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced through Art Deco sets in The Gay Divorcee (1934) and other pictures.
Busby Berkeley used the patterning of Art Deco for his dance sequences in Footlight Parade (1933) and his many later musicals at Warner Bros. He reinvented the Broadway chorus line for the movies, organizing masses of dancers -- up to 150 at a time -- in fantasy arrangements that formed, dissolved, then re-formed as the audience watched in astonishment. Berkeley arranged scores of dancers in interlocking circles, stacked them in piles like carved maidens on the walls of a temple, and combined them with giant mirrors and fountains. His dancers were Art Deco made flesh.
In Italy during the Fascist period, sex comedies and melodramas acquired a special name, "white telephone movies," because the heroine, in her glamorous Art Deco bedroom, never failed to deliver dialogue into a white phone, a Deco invention. (Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful paid homage to that period by having his hero, Guido, work as a waiter in a showy Art Deco hotel.)
The material gathered by the V&A reminds us how often the line between decorative art and art-gallery art was happily blurred in Art Deco. A stylized stone carving made by Jacques Lipchitz in 1929 for a fireplace seems a perfect use of his talents, more impressive than many Lipchitz sculptures that stand in lonely splendour in museums. Fernand Leger's habit of incorporating industrial forms in his neo-Cubist paintings wins him a place in the show. The V&A has also chosen Brooklyn Bridge, a stylized Albert Gleizes painting from 1915 (owned by Mr. and Mrs. David Mirvish of Toronto) to show how industrial forms invaded fine art.
The ROM has added to the show a Canadian-built automobile with Art Deco overtones, a nifty McLaughlin Buick Sports Coupe in maroon with white-walled tires, made in Oshawa in 1934. The ROM will also send its visitors to the third-floor European galleries, where they will find what amounts to an annex of the show, the handsome collection of Art Deco furniture donated by Bernard and Sylvia Ostry, along with furniture that Frank Lloyd Wright (who was also influenced by Art Deco) made for the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo in 1923.
The exhibition pays tribute to just one performer, Josephine Baker, the black cabaret dancer from America. She is there because she was revered by many artists and because she arrived in Paris in 1925, the same year as the big exposition. A tall, handsome 19-year-old, she created a sensation with her nude performance in La Revue Negre at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. Colette wrote her fan letters, Picasso painted her, and Alexander Calder tried to catch the essence of her body movements in wire sculpture. One admirer presented her with a live baby leopard wearing a diamond choker from Van Cleef and Arpels. Baker simultaneously emphasized, exploited and satirized primitivism. At the Folies Bergeres, she wore her most famous costume, a miniskirt of rhinestone-studded bananas. A journal of the day, L'art vivant, described her performance: "The plastic sense of a race of sculptors came to life and the frenzy of African Eros swept over the audience. It was no longer a grotesque dancing girl that stood before them, but the black Venus that haunted Baudelaire."
For years, Art Deco was called Jazz Moderne or Streamline Moderne or just Moderne. It didn't get its current name until decades after it went out of style, when those two words were attached to a looking-back-on-1925 Paris exhibition in 1966. Two years later, a young British critic, Bevis Hillier, carved it in stone with a paperback, Art Deco of the 20s and 30s (Studio Vista, 1968), which launched the Art Deco revival.
The show at the ROM comes with a $70, 464-page catalogue, a large and gorgeous piece of work, with a multitude of exquisite illustrations. It will be much bought, much leafed through and little read. The text, by a platoon of 29 scholars under the editorship of Ghislaine Wood, Charlotte Benton and Tim Benton, inevitably reads like the work of a committee. It is solemn and joyless, precisely what Art Deco was not. The prose tends to be DOA: "an increasing tendency for ... largely associated with ... adapted to ... rapidly adopted by ... associated with ... developed in response to ... represented in ... increasingly defined" -- and that's all in one paragraph.
The most spectacular oddity in the show must be Les Perruches (The Parakeets), an oil painting by Jean Dupas (1882-1964), which Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann, the most admired French furniture-maker of the time, hung in one of his celebrated display rooms at the 1925 fair. Les Perruches, too big to ignore but too enigmatic to understand, shows some trees, five women (one of them looking like Queen Nefertiti), three doves and 18 parakeets. One of the women, wearing a black dress and kiss curls, appears to be delivering two paper-wrapped bouquets of flowers from the florist. Another woman has a skirt made of fabric that may have been on sale at one of the department stores in Paris that year.
Textbooks call Les Perruches an Art Deco icon, but there is little else to know about it. Some give it the adjective "erotic" (two of the women are nude) but the eroticism is so cool it's close to inert. At a glance, the picture seems allegorical, but no allegorical meaning occurred to me or to Peter Kaellgren, the ROM curator with whom I stared at it for a few minutes on Monday as the installation of the show proceeded. Perhaps it could provide a competition for ROM visitors: Write an explanation of Les Perruches and win a lifetime pass to the museum. In the meantime, all one can say about Les Perruches is that it's very, very Art Deco.