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Modern Taste
Art Deco in Paris, 1910-1935

26 March28 June 2015

Modern Taste: Art Deco in Paris, 1910–1935, the exhibition on show at the Juan March Foundation from March 26 to June 28, 2015—and to which this catalogue is a companion volume—aims to offer visitors an opportunity to appreciate, examine, assess and enjoy an artistic movement that defies easy definition but which has been described as "the last of the total styles": Art Deco.

Modern Taste: Art Deco in Paris, 1910–1935 both is and is not an exhibition "of" decorative arts. Featuring over 350 objects, it does, indeed, include pieces that are outstanding examples of decorative art, but in concept its very precise intention has been to challenge the time-honored division (rigid but too simplistic to be meaningful) between the fine arts and the decorative or applied arts that is so typical of today's museum-led, modern (in the strict historical meaning of the word) approach to the aesthetic. The exhibition aims to question the almost total absence of Art Deco from the history of modern art and from curatorial practice, and to vindicate—as some exemplary cases did in the wake of the Deco revival from the 1970s onwards—not only the evident beauty of Art Déco but also the fascination exerted by this singularly modern phenomenon with all its cultural and artistic complexity.

The style-or rather the mixture of styles and influences-known as Art Deco began in Paris (then regarded as the capital for modern art) around 1910 largely as a reaction against Art Nouveau, the movement that had looked to 19th century Symbolism and nature for its inspiration. The (quintessentially modern) aim of the exponents of Art Deco was to create something new, yet their work drew upon a vast array of sources and influences, ranging from national, historical styles—those of the 18th and 19th centuries in the case of France—and vernacular traditions to those from other periods and countries such as ancient Greece, Egypt, Africa, Mexico, Japan and China. The early avant-garde movements—particularly Cubism—were also a significant influence: like the proponents of Art Nouveau before them, representatives of the new style were close monitors of the cutting edge.


Henry Sauvage. Exposición Internacional de Artes Decorativas Modernas. París. Pavillon Primavera. 1925
Henry Sauvage. Exposición Internacional de Artes Decorativas Modernas. París. Pavillon Primavera. 1925

The Maison Cubiste (Cubist House), a decorative project on a grand scale presented at the Paris Salon d'Automne in 1912, exemplified this nicely. It consisted of a life-size facade designed by Raymond Duchamp-Villon, faceted in planes as if depicted by Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris or Georges Braque, and included interiors decorated by Louis Süe and André Mare, Maurice Marinot, Jacques Villon, Roger de la Fresnaye and Marie Laurencin, with paintings by de la Fresnaye, Laurencin and other artists including Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger and Albert Gleizes hanging on their walls. Another characteristic trait of Art Deco—apart from its capacity for assimilating and reworking many and varied sources and influences—was its curious stance in relation to modernity. Its stated aim was to be "modern" and, to that end, to avoid direct imitation, yet while modern enough in its response to advances in technology, industry, communications and urban planning schemes to equip cities for the new century, it paid little heed to the strict tenets, fundamental to the Modern Movement, that required decorative elements and all forms of ornament to be suppressed in the interests of the guiding principles of functionality and formal abstraction.

The disparity of its sources meant that no single set of stylistic attributes attached exclusively to Art Deco: its nonetheless considerable repertoire ranged from the stylized flower motifs and strategic deployment of light and flowing water featured at the Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exhibition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts) in 1925 (and already recognized as typical), through the "Jazz-Modern" phenomenon and up to and including the sleek shapes and effects of streamlining, launched by North American industrial design in the 1930s and replicated world-wide by the 1950s. There are, however, certain characteristics that Art Deco can claim as its own, which include: consistent appreciation of good quality; ready recognition of, and response to, the nuances of contemporary lifestyles; and celebration of the new, of youthful sensuality and of consumerism. Art Deco also cultivated a certain amplification of detail and effect, and was characterized by exotic materials, high manufacturing standards and a masterly power of seduction. What we know as Art Deco was a modern style, but one that was an alternative to the avant-garde. It stood for a modernity that was pragmatic and ornamental rather than utopian and functional, and it became the great shaper of modern desire and taste, leaving its characteristic stamp on Western society and capitalism in the early decades of the 20th century.

The staging in Paris of the 1925 Exhibition (originally scheduled for 1916) was an initiative by the French Government intended to re-establish the primacy of French luxury goods. It served admirably as a launching pad for Art Deco: the eyes (and critical faculties) of the world were focused on the exhibition and its style spread rapidly to all parts of the globe, remaining influential at least until the outbreak of World War II. The event was a great public success, though many critics declared it to have been a missed opportunity to develop a democratic, industrial style (the most eye-catching pavilions were aimed at the well-off elite) that could have existed in parallel with, and provided an alternative to, the luxury trades and the privileged consumption patterns of "the leisure class", to use Thorstein Veblen's term. In Paris, the most avid consumers of Art Deco were young, upper-class women in thrall to fashion and the couturiers who dressed them: the spectacular apartments of Jacques Doucet, Suzanne Talbot and Jeanne Lanvin provide an eloquent glimpse of their lifestyle.


The exhibition aims to question the almost total absence of Art Deco from the history of modern art and from curatorial practice, and to vindicate—as some exemplary cases did in the wake of the Deco revival from the 1970s onwards—not only the evident beauty of Art Deco but also the fascination exerted by this singularly modern phenomenon with all its cultural and artistic complexity

Art Deco could be said to have come into being in Paris after the end of World War I and to have lasted until the effects of the 1929 Wall Street Crash began to make their presence felt in France from 1931 on. Around 1929, another aesthetic tendency began to emerge from within its ranks, identifying more readily with the "other" modernity than with the excessive luxury and voluptuous ornamentation of much of early Art Deco. In tune with a global return to a measure of austerity in the decorative arts and architecture, a group of young artists—dissidents from the first Deco and members of the Union des Artistes Modernes (Union of Modern Artists, or UAM) subsequently founded in Paris in 1929—began to produce work of a more sober cast, using tubular steel and chrome as their main materials, influenced by the Modern Movement that had evolved in Holland and Germany whose principal representative in France was Le Corbusier, the most prominent opponent of the new style even before 1925. This, then, is the background story to the first Art Deco, featured in this exhibition with the very specific aim of claiming its rightful place in the history of modern art.


The exhibition Modern Taste: Art Deco in Paris, 1910–1935 is organized chronologically and thematically into eight sections, which trace the evolution of a fascinating yet little-known phenomenon. Displayed in a variety of spaces and settings of different sizes, the exhibition features a combination of reconstructions and re-creations involving over 350 paintings, sculptures, pieces of furniture, fashion garments, items of jewelry, perfumery, cinema-related material, architecture, glass, ceramics, lacquerwork and goldsmithery, not to mention fabrics, book-bindings, photographs, drawings, plans, models, advertising posters and magazines—all prime examples of "modern" taste and vividly evocative of the Zeitgeist of Paris in the 1920s and 1930s that is as difficult to capture as it is deep-rooted in our contemporary culture.


Charlotte Perriand. Silla Gueridon, c. 1927. Musée des Beaux-arts de la Ville de Reims © C.Devleeschauwer
Charlotte Perriand. Silla Guéridon, c. 1927. Musée des Beaux-arts de la Ville de Reims © C.Devleeschauwer

Many of the selected exhibits are precious, little-known works by famous artists; others are valuable, well-known works by equally significant but lesser-known creators. That said, the artists, designers, artist-decorators, couturiers, interior designers, ensembliers, architects and craftsmen whose concerted output defined Art Deco, were legion; works by over 120 of them appear here, illustrating the exhibition's narrative thrust which starts off with a quest for the origins of Deco in the Paris of the first decade of the 20th century. Cubism is identified as one source and reassessed accordingly; the luxury and functionality of French interiors in the 1920s are panoramically displayed; there is a virtual visit to the 1925 Paris Exhibition. The show is particularly rich in the kind of objects that attest to Art Deco's powers to seduce potential consumers and foster new attitudes of mind, body and spirit through its influence on fashion, perfumery, accessories and the decorative items that were so characteristic of the 1920s and 1930s. The itinerary ends with a look at the role of the exotic in Art Deco in general, and the effects of the 1931 Colonial Exhibition in Paris in particular. By the mid-1930s, Deco's peculiar version of modernity was joining forces and amalgamating with new tendencies represented by the likes of Charlotte Perriand, Le Corbusier and Eileen Grey—names that spring readily to mind in association with modernity, from whose history Spain's Art Deco seems—oddly and unfairly—to have been excluded.



What we know as Art Deco was an alternative style to the avant-garde. It stood for a modernity that was pragmatic and ornamental rather than utopian and functional, and it became the great shaper of modern desire and taste, leaving its characteristic stamp on Western society and capitalism in the early decades of the 20th century

The catalogue of the exhibition also includes a collection of essays and texts that, among them, constitute a view of Art Deco that is at once wide-ranging and detailed. Readers will find it an invaluable introduction to our subject. The project has enjoyed the benefits of the involvement of Professor Tim Benton, a leading expert on the arts of this period, in the role of visiting curator, and special advisor Ghislaine Wood, both of whom co-curated the Art Deco, 1910–1939 exhibition at London's Victoria and Albert Museum in 2003. Interpretative essays by Benton (approached by the Juan March Foundation not only for his expertise in this field but principally for his close interest in modernity and its protagonists, especially Le Corbusier), José Miguel Marinas and Tag Gronberg appear alongside more specific, detailed contributions by Emmanuel Bréon, Ghislaine Wood, Évelyne Possémé, Hélène Andrieux, Agnès Callu, Carole Aurouet and—on the subject of the extraordinary status of Spanish Art Deco—Francisco Javier Pérez Rojas.


In addition to details of the items on display, readers of the catalogue will find almost 1,000 illustrations, many of which reveal a surprising aspect of Art Deco: a hidden, little-known, unvulgarized, high-quality Deco, in many cases produced with a mission to democratize and extend the catchment of what can justifiably be called "modern taste."

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