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The 1920s are roaring back in style with the popularity of Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’. The cinematic version of this literary classic is an extravaganza of Art Deco opulence and has inspired us to don diamonds and take a further look at the distinctive 20th century design movement.
The glittering Great Gatsby with its opulent parties, smoky jazz clubs and subterranean speakeasies has reignited the vogue for 1920’s nostalgia. Art Deco, characterised by bold geometries and dramatic flourishes, was the era’s defining style and artist Tamara de Lempicka was its outrageous Grande Dame. Delve into the Deco movement with a glass of champagne and discover its most memorable artist...
The term Art Deco, coined in the 1926, refers to a style that spanned the boom of the roaring 1920s and the bust of the Depression-ridden 1930s. The influential visual arts style affected all forms of design, from the fine arts and decorative arts to fashion, film, photography, transport and product design. According to the Victoria and Albert Museum, “It was modern and it was everywhere.”
The Art Deco era is often dated from 1925 when the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes was held in Paris. The exhibition was dedicated to the display of modern decorative arts and brought together thousands of designs from all over Europe and beyond. The regulations stressed the need for ‘modern’ inspiration. Whilst there were many novel exhibits, designers also borrowed from historic European styles, as well as from the pictorial inventions of contemporary Avant Garde art movements such as Cubism and the Bauhaus. The exhibition which had in immediate and worldwide impact helped to establish the themes and formal repertoire of Art Deco.
Art Deco reflected the plurality of the contemporary world, offering an accessible image of modern life and progress. It eclectically combined traditional craft motifs with machine age imagery and materials. Its products included both individually crafted luxury items and mass-produced wares, but, in either case, the intention was to create a sleek and anti-traditional elegance that symbolized wealth and sophistication. Around the world it came to represent new aspirations and desires, in particular the search for youth, glamour and adventure.
The style responded to the human need for pleasure and escape, and represented luxury, glamour, exuberance, and faith in social and technological progress. The Art Deco age was at the forefront of the most extraordinary period in the history of travel, beginning with the euphoria of Lindbergh’s first transatlantic flight in 1926. Vast ocean liners in particular became the greatest symbol of Art Deco elegance and comfort. The most luxurious of them was the Normandie which was completed in 1933 costing over $60 million and was decorated and furnished by leading French Art Deco designers.
Visually, the movement is characterised by sumptuous colours, bold geometric shapes and lavish ornamentation. The style is classical, symmetrical and rectilinear. Unlike Modernist art movements, with their social philosophies and manifestos, Art Deco was purely decorative. In their creation of a new style, Art Deco designers drew on diverse and distant influences, from the rich colours and exotic themes of the Russian Ballets Russes, to the urban imagery of the modern age.
In 1922 Tutankamun’s tomb was discovered and a flurry of archaeological discoveries fuelled a fascination with early Egypt and Meso-America. The arts of Africa and East Asia also provided a rich source of inspiration for the new decorative language. Knowledge of the style spread rapidly as Europeans emigrated to the US and American designers travelled to Europe. American imagery also began to be incorporated into movement and artists turned to the American city for evocative symbols of progress and modernity. Austrian-born designer Paul Frankl said, “the skyscraper was a more vital contribution to the field of modern art than all of the things done in Europe put together.”
It was the most powerful medium of the modern age, film, which established Art Deco as a truly global glamorous style. The Victoria and Albert Museum explains, “In Hollywood Art deco reached its full potential for fantasy, glamour and mass popularity.” Hollywood spun a magical web of luxury, youth, beauty, sexual liberation and consumerism. Stars such as Greta Garbo and Jean Crawford played racy, modern heroines and embodied Art Deco chic. It seems appropriate that a global blockbuster film is bringing the style back into vogue!
“Among a hundred paintings, you could recognize mine, my goal was: Do not copy. Create a new style... colours light and bright, return elegance in my models.” (Tamara de Lempicka)
An icon of the Jazz Age painter Tamara de Lempicka was Art Deco’s diva. Her art and her life of great wealth, indiscriminate sexuality and endless intrigue epitomised 1920s excess and indulgence. De Lempicka was a great beauty, a Polish aristocratic refugee of the Russian Revolution, she fled to Paris, where she studied art and made a name for herself through her cool, sleek sensual painting style; a style that soon came to epitomize the glamorous Art Deco ‘look’.
Her very social and theatrical lifestyle was made up of a succession of displays that awarded the major role to modernity and to luxury. From her escape from Bolshevik Russia, Tamara was determined to become a New Woman. She was easily at home in the bohemian scene of 1920s Paris, and became well-acquainted with the likes of Jean Cocteau, Andre Gide, and Pablo Picasso. She escaped from Nazi Europe via Havana and subsequently spent years in Hollywood painting the stars and New York as the "Baroness with a brush." Later, she moved to Huston and to Luxembourg and finally to Cuernavaca, Mexico.
When Tamara wasn’t painting, she was immersed in any one of her many, many affairs. Openly bisexual, she aggressively pursued both men and women to satisfy her voracious sexual appetites. Among her female lovers were the British writers Violet Trefusis and Vita-Sackville West (who were also having an affair with each other), the French novelist Colette, and the famous nightclub singer and actress Suzy Solidor. Suzy, in fact, was a popular artist’s model too, and posed for the most prominent artists of the day, including Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Raoul Dufy and Francis Picabia. Tamara expressed her liberated, uninhibited sexuality through her art in the same frank and candid fashion she did in life.
Tamara de Lempicka used formal and narrative elements in her portraits and nude studies to produce overpowering effects of desire and seduction. If anyone captured the desire and decadence of Art Deco it was her. The austerities imposed by World War II caused Art Deco to decline in popularity; it was perceived by some as inappropriately luxurious and ostentatious. But we are delighted that The Great Gatsby has seduced us, reigniting our passion for the era of glamour, decadence and pleasure. We're happy to embrace 'inappropriate' when it's this beautiful.