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Art Deco: 1910-1939 at the Legion of Honor

The Streamlining of Decadence

For much of the past half-century, critical pundits have treated Art Deco like the spoiled brat whose father's wealth and connections have allowed it easy access to the otherwise impenetrable echelons of the creative elite. "Indulgent", "capricious", and "exploitative" are some of the epithets hurled its way, and while Deco's aesthetic and academic implications have remained largely intact, a gradual acceptance of commercial art has allowed this movement more breathing space in the otherwise stuffy corridors of art criticism.

Art Deco: 1910-1939, currently on display at the Legion of Honor Museum, explores the advent of a changing social ethos in the face of consumerism. The result is a supine and sophisticated world under glass, a celebration of commercial hedonism that seems as changeless as ornaments in a fish tank. A retrospective that ranges from unnervingly kitschy to glamorously enduring, Art Deco delineates the cultural transformation of everything from factories and cinemas to fashion and photography

The ushering-in of 20th century commercialism is the essential thrust of the show. Art deco was first championed at a 1925 exposition in Paris promoting the baubles of design and commerce. Re-envisioning the world through skyscrapers and tea kettles, pochoir prints and film posters, Cartier-embossed hotel atriums and haute couture gowns, was the unabashed core of the movement. Altogether, the sweeping lines, burnished surfaces, and synthetic inventiveness synonymous with Deco are facets of its endless pliability. Dispatched in London, Paris, New York, Hollywood and Tokyo, Deco's seductive, streamlined package is still detectable in the decorative flourishes of your local Target or Pottery Barn.

Approximately 300 objets d'art drawn from European, American and Japanese collections illustrate borrowed influences from Meso-American, Oriental and African sources, as well as the European traditions of Cubism, Futurism and Constructivism. The angular sensibility of Deco's predecessors is languidly rendered in painting, furniture, sculpture, textiles, architectural design, glass, ceramics, jewelry, graphic art, photography, and fashion by artists like Eileen Gray, Tamara de Lempicka, Gio Ponti, Cecil Beaton, and Coco Chanel. Deco's unique appeal also lay in its popularization of modern art's avant-garde, concomitant with a burgeoning middle class that would comprise the primary consumers of this new style. It's little wonder, then, that coffee and tea services, cocktail sets, vacuum cleaners, radios, clocks, and chrome cigarette cases lie alongside emphatically contrived paintings of cubist damsels in distress. After all, the household wares structure a more pertinent display, an example of the illimitable success of art as consumption- the perfect spectacle for hemmed-in (yes, the exhibit will be packed) window shoppers, with all the perplexing variety of a department store.

A special feature of the exhibit is the main portion of the 1930s foyer of London's august Strand Palace Hotel. One of the world's most revered Deco interiors, it will be viewed for the first time in 30 years. The replica includes a mirrored revolving door, internally illuminated glass encasement, staircase, and columns, which reveal the novel arrangement of both the materials and lighting.

The show segues off into a string of galleries that emphasize the international sources of Deco, including a dazzling work on glazed stoneware dripping with colorful renditions of dancing medicine men and female sun warriors (Auguste Laze's Tiles with Mayan Motifs) and generously encrusted scarab brooches from the Cartier collection, a declamatory curtsey to ancient Egyptian decadence in modern design.

The downstairs galleries are host to smaller-scale pieces, such as Man Ray's glib photographic studies of anatomy and electricity, glossy aluminum and plastic clutch purses, lacquer/jade radios, and shimmering evening dresses with convoluted gem appliqués. Walter von Nessen's skyscraper-inspired table lamps and cocktail shakers in silvered brass offer an exquisite fusion of industrial design and bourgeois chic. Paul Frankl's ostentatious Dressing Table is really nothing more than an oversized mirror, irrepressibly smug in its mien. The fashionably angular sculpture, Venus, by Boris-Lorett Lorski stands in contrast to the delicate, attenuated legs of Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann's Spider Table, while Natalia Gonchorova's creamy lamé gowns and rubicund patchwork dresses offer up a fashion feast fit for Pallas Athena herself (who, incidentally, lingers in the adjacent gallery).

Other pieces include a glimpse of Josephine Baker's Danse sauvage, an erotically charged example of the cabaret entertainer's invented primitivism and the influence of African American art forms on the Deco movement. A bright white 1937 Cord 812 Phaeton awaits us at the exit. The most instantly recognizable car in history, it entices spectators with its voluptuous contours and flagrant avowal of consumer cravings.

The philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote in his seminal essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: "Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction. Unmistakably, reproduction…differs from the image seen by the unarmed eye. Uniqueness and permanence are as closely linked in the latter as are transitoriness and reproducibility in the former." Benjamin might have lamented the state of traditional art, as it were, languishing in the rubble and consumed by the fiery Babylon of commercialism. However, he was quick to note the iconic effect of the new art, expounded and multiplied by the masses, shimmering in the absurdity and sublimity of manufactured excess.

For all its stylistic brio, the lexicon of Deco prizes surface at the expense of narrative, providing for an abundance of disparate pieces. The exhibit doesn't present Deco as a cohesive movement- oftentimes, the mishmash of global influences results in a disorder of capitalist pomp. But that's the kind of limb-stretching, flippant indulgence that's definitively Deco, and it's peerless in this exhibit.

Note: San Francisco will be one of only two American venues for Art Deco: 1910-1939, which was organized by London's Victoria & Albert Museum. Following the showing in San Francisco, the exhibit will be on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

On display March 6 - July 4
at Legion of Honor
34th Avenue & Clement St. @ Lincoln Park
Phone: 415.863.3330
Hours: Tuesday - Sunday (9:30 am - 5 pm)

Image: Tamara de Lempicka, Jeune Fille en Vert, ca. 1927, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris