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We know it when we see it
The MFA’s ‘Art Deco’ delights

The debate as to what constitutes Art Deco — Is it a style? A movement? An attitude? — belongs to those dispassionate arguments associated with faculty clubs, collectors’ colloquies, and design students. The rest of us can content ourselves by enjoying it as a variety of styles and motifs that describe a major international influence on industrial design, architecture, and fine art (public art and photography particularly) in the period between the World Wars. In fact, the term Art Deco wasn’t coined until the 1960s, and its official birth dates only to the Paris International Exposition of Decorative Arts and Modern Industry in 1925. Maybe it’s like porn — we know Art Deco when we see it.

On the cover of the voluminous (464 pages) catalogue for the Museum of Fine Arts’ "Art Deco 1910–1939" shines Gordon Buehrig’s hood ornament for his 1935 Auburn 851 Speedster automobile. The car in its entirety — marigold-colored, thick, curvaceous, almost comical in its grandeur — can be seen to the left of the ticket collector and at the foot of the escalator that will take you to the MFA’s celebration of the second wave — coifed and gelled and forever looking into its Bakelite mirror — of the Industrial Revolution. I think of that hood ornament as epitomizing Art Deco. More frieze than figurine, it’s bright, stylized, sleek, suggestive of speed, self-consciously sexy, and, as a result, antiseptic. Art Deco was nothing if not clean. It was also frequently, weirdly geometric. Think of the upper tier of William Van Alen’s Chrysler Building (1927–1930) in Manhattan, the dance formations of Busby Berkeley musicals, the lamps and bookends and cocktail shakers and tea services in silver and nickel and chrome all modeled after graduated skyscrapers. Geometric designs abound, but not the kind you see in the mosaic floors of a mosque or in Victorian parquetry or in Leonardo da Vinci sketches. Art Deco geometry aims at the intersection of the fanciful and the infinite; it believes in its own frivolity.

"Art Deco 1910–1939" achieves what few exhibits of its kind aim for, let alone deliver: it’s smart, comprehensive, chock full of engrossing, sometimes bizarre objects, and, more remarkable still, historical. On entering the exhibit, you’re treated to an overview of Art Deco’s design sources. An ancient Egyptian eagle, a belt buckle in turquoise, perches beside a glittering diamond brooch of the same posture and shape from the 1920s. A Mayan-inspired tile by Auguste Lazo, manufactured by the American Encaustic Tiling Company in 1928, reveals itself not as the pure abstraction you took it for at first glance but as a dancing figure in a loincloth or skirt and a huge, colorful headdress. The African, Greek, and Chinese influences on Art Deco are traced with surprising juxtapositions of artifacts both ancient and Jazz Age.

The show is at its best when it allows you to regard the design of individual objects in their rich peculiarity. By far my favorite part is toward the end, where a wall-long display case presents a variety of disparate objects. Each registers like a mutant of what we’re used to, a Siamese fighting fish instead of the usual plain goldfish. The square 1936 Fisk Radiolette by Harold Van Doren and John Gordon Rideout sports two rounded feet at its base and an elaborate screen over its speaker, both in jade-green plastic against coal-black plastic exterior. If it were tiny, it could pass for a pendant, so rich are its colors and so embellished its design.

If I could have taken anything home, and this was one of those rarest of exhibits when I thought happily about living with what I was looking at for the first time, it would probably have been a clock. High on the list of mesmerizing timepieces is one of Jean Puiforcat’s nickel-plated bronze-and-white-marble affairs from 1932. The middle has been hollowed out, and each number, in some unmistakable Art Deco font, sits on a silvery round riser (as if it were a stamp) against a larger silver disk. The result is that the entire clock — the disks connect to one another forming a scalloped circle — looks like a mechanical flower. If it chimed, you’d expect to smell jasmine.

Even more elaborate is Jean Goulden’s silvered-bronze-and-enamel clock from 1928. But instead of a flower, it resembles a building. The face of the clock rises up on a black enamel pedestal from a decorous confusion of shapes, like a stately high-rise among low-slung buildings. Those "buildings," in their shapely irregularity and touches of color (blue and black), anticipate the architectural embellishments of Frank Gehry. The face of the clock, capped by a silver top hat, lies within a thick silver circumference. It looks only slightly demented. And delightful.

Last but not least on the list of clocks I’d gladly have absconded with is Kem Weber’s gold-colored 1934 Zephyr electric clock in brass and Bakelite. What’s remarkable about this one is the way its width contributes to its sleekness. In our era, sleek is associated with slender. Contemporary clock and watch makers don’t require depth for the mechanics they need to install. In 1934, they did. The result is a design that reminds me — guess what I’ve been watching at night — of one of the more densely built Olympic gymnasts: thick and squat but nevertheless inarguably elegant.

No less strange, but in a different way, is the 1925 cigarette lighter made by the Art Metal Works for Ronson. Shaped like a ship or a locomotive, this stationary lighter suggests in almost every aspect of its design that it’s actually moving. The chrome lines applied at its top and the complementary lines incised in white plastic at its base suggest aerodynamics. It looks as if you could slide it down a 30-foot bar without effort.

Unfortunately, much of what’s spectacular about the show is compromised by the very attention to scholarship and history that make the catalogue and the introductory corridor such a valuable contribution to the understanding of 20th-century design. A great deal of "Art Deco 1910–1939" is arranged according to geography. Partial or whole rooms reflect Art Deco in Scandinavia or Middle Europe or South Africa or Italy or France. Although this approach brings together the makers of furniture and rugs and clocks and chandeliers and the fine-artists who shared the same locale and culture, it goes against the ethos of the movement. The excitement of Art Deco lies in the reinvention of traditional shapes and patterns. The wall of travel posters, the case of dress forms sporting women’s evening gowns, the case of jewelry, and the aforementioned case of outré household items all allow you to consider the formal aspects of Art Deco. You get to see variations on a theme. But arranging these treasures according to the country of origin in cordoned-off rooms means you can’t step into the room or around the objects or see them in relation to other designs and designers working within the same category.

Then there’s the issue of lighting. If you’ve ever walked into Radio City Music Hall or Rockefeller Center or the Empire State Building, or seen a Fred Astaire movie or a Maxfield Parrish illustration, you know that one of the signature motifs of Art Deco is its stylized orchestration of light. From the quilted fan pattern of the classic American diner to the train-like shape of the steel-and-vinyl Electrolux vacuum cleaner to the chrome-plated accordion ascent of a Donald Deskey table lamp, much of what we understand as Art Deco centers on the geometric patterning of light. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s reflected or emanated or both.

Some of the most enthralling parts of "Art Deco 1910–1939" read like experiments in luminosity. Peter Muller-Munk’s chrome-plated pitcher in the shape of a ship’s prow appears both incandescent and propelled. The make-believe buildings in Horace Taylor’s poster The Royal Mail Line to New York shine brighter than the stars overhead. Even the French aluminum-and-plastic handbag from 1925, with its silvery patterns against a black case with a blood-red clasp, looks as if it should hold stardust. The problem is, the overhead light throughout the show has been turned low, and the walls have been painted in deep, somber hues. The result is a heaviness of atmosphere and a ponderousness of spirit that’s antithetical to the spirit of the liberated, futuristic, campy, gay, and delightfully excessive force of Art Deco.

That said, don’t miss this show.

"Art Deco 1910–1939"

At the Museum of Fine Arts through January 9.

Issue Date: August 27 - September 2, 2004
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