Subtitles prepared by human
Towards the end of the19th century the sinuous stylings of Art Nouveau blossomed throughout Europe. It was intended to be an aesthetic resistance to an increasingly mechanised and hard- edged world. But resistance was of course futile and art nouveau blossomed only briefly. And by the early years of the 20th century progress and the machine age had inevitably rolled right over it. What followed soon after was not only an acceptance of change and technological progress but an endorsement and celebration of this brave new world. At the time it was simply and accurately called the Modern Style. We now call it Art Deco. In 1925 Paris hosted the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts from which Art Deco takes its name. And it's probably for that reason that we think of it as an essentially 20s phenomenon. But like a lot of accepted wisdom this simply isn't accurate. The foundations of Modernism in design and illustration were being laid even before 1910.
This image is by Austrian artist, typographer and illustrator Julius Klinger and it dates from 1908. He was one of a trio of Germanic illustrators who rejected the fanciful ornate tendencies of the recent past and revolutionised the very concept of commercial image making with a body of work which effortlessly demonstrated an ability to get to the abstract heart of the subject at hand. And Klinger in particular was able to demonstrate not only the highest level of aesthetic appeal but also wit and humanity in all that he produced. Similarly accomplished in a wide range of creative design fields the German Lucian Bernhard also pushed at how far you could go in terms of abstraction and still make sense. And fellow german Ludwig Hohlwein had much in common with Bernhard but his was a more conventionally human and less geometric style. All 3 of them made radical pioneering use of large areas of flat colour, bold patterns and non-representational settings and encouraged others to follow suit.
But it wasn't until after the Great War ended in 1918 that the Deco mindset really started to gather momentum. Fashion and lifestyle magazines such as Vogue had begun to appear and flourish in the late 19th century. And although superficial in content they were a clear reflection of the age in which they were published. And by the 20s their covers and pages had succumbed to the altogether more angular look of Art Deco. Vogue was only one of many in the United States and Europe to embrace this most fashionable of styles. The French of course were heavily invested in the concept of fashion, with Paris as the epicentre of all that was chic and glamorous. This is clearly visible in the editorial illustration produced at the time. George Barbier was an illustrator who created a large volume of highly stylised fashion and lifestyle figure work which harked back to the kind of images found on ancient Greek urns and vases. And Russian-born Romain de Tirtoff - better known simply as Erté - was equally if not more in demand for his languidly posed females.
Such was his international popularity that before long his costume and set design work would be enlisted in the making of numerous Hollywood productions. But in addition to this more formal and somewhat emotionally cold work there were some illustrators determined to show that Deco wasn't entirely devoid of heart and humour. In the States John Held Jr. succeeded in applying the geometrical flat precision of Deco to his magazine work. He was particularly adept at poking gentle fun at the bright young things who populated the more fashionable venues of the Jazz Age. And the exceptionally distinctive but lesser known Brazilian designer and cartoonist José Carlos showed a determination to not take life quite as seriously as some others. His cover work for the magazine Para Todos effortlessly demonstrated that Art Deco could be simultaneously stylish and entertaining. There was also Italian artist and designer Fortunato Depero who also occasionally dabbled in magazine illustration, and although not conventionally
comic his radically geometric almost tribal images do possess an engagingly absurd humour. And on this lighter note we move effortlessly into sheet music cover art. This was a globally popular phenomenon of the Deco years and following decades. Buying the sheet music of the popular tunes heard on radio and in dancehalls would enable both amateurs and professionals to play these tunes at home or in bars and pubs. And music being an essentially emotional and romantic art form their covers were invariably illustrated to enhance their appeal. Even the yet to be successful Surrealist painter René Magritte knocked a few out to pay the rent. Although Swedish by birth, Einar Nerman worked in London, New York and Paris, and his lighthearted but extreme and aesthetically remarkable work graced many covers with a trademark elegance, graphic simplicity and good humour. The illustration of book covers was not as widespread as it is today - the paperback book had yet to make an appearance.
But nevertheless the extent of the influence of Deco can be clearly seen on many of the covers from the time. And designer and illustrator Edward McKnight Kauffer was one of the first to realise the potential of the book cover as a platform for promoting his own visual agenda. But however pervasive Art Deco was it's fair to say it struggled to have much impact on children's illustration, which generally stayed staunchly traditional and naturalistic. There were occasional exceptions such as Joyce Mercer, who applied a decidedly spiky and angular aesthetic to her fantasy illustrations, and a particularly innovative approach to her colour work. And in America Dorothy Lathrop's children's stories harnessed the languid look of the Parisian fashion brigade with some success. But easily the most radical and influential children's illustrator was Russian Vladimir Lebedev. He was also an artist and designer, but in this arena he challenged prevailing wisdom about what children like and respond to with a series of books
which explored geometry and flat colour with remarkably expressive uncompromising results. And so we come to the most enduring legacy of the Art Deco style - The Poster. In a world without T.V. posters were by far the most effective way to promote, publicise and sell your product or service to the public. Unlike the psychological complexity of modern advertising in the 20s and the 30s it was considered enough to simply show whatever you were selling as attractively as possible. So from the most humble of everyday consumer products through to luxury items, must have accessories and motor cars, somebody somewhere had illustrated it. And in any city or town in most of the world you were never more than a few feet away from a poster. And there was one particular aspect of 20th century living which bordered on obsession and dominated urban wall space in Europe and America. By the 20s travel was more affordable and quicker than ever before and even the
working classes could travel by train to the seaside or visit other parts of the country. British Rail commissioned vast amounts of illustration and Frank Newbould is probably the best known of the travel poster illustrators. His work portrayed landscapes both home and abroad as enchanted places using an unrealistic palette of almost psychedelic colours. But he was by no means the only one. Tom Purvis in particular could lay claim to being every bit as daring in his use of colour. Both had picked up on Ludwig Hohlwein's technique of reducing the elements of their illustration to flat posterised colour, and dramatic unexpected composition to grab the viewers attention. But where Hohlwein had been all about the human element their work was much more about landscape and the environment. Far less lyrical were the posters of Edward McKnight Kauffer, whose book work we saw earlier. His images for the London Underground went way beyond what Newbould and Purvis were doing in terms of abstraction, and were heavily influenced by the jagged aesthetic of Futurist art.
Another remarkable and extreme posterist of the period was Belgian Leo Marfurt, whose travel posters reduced even the human element to robotic shapes enslaved to his angular compositions. And in France the more graceful poster work of Roger Broders captured the elegant and more exotic appeal of France’s Côte d'Azur resorts. But whether it was luxury travel or something more mundane everything was imbued with the most stylish associations in the remarkable work of Adolphe Mouron, better known by his professional name A. M. Cassandre. By far the most significant and enduringly influential of all Deco posterists he began his career in 1924 and immediately achieved wide praise for this furniture shop poster. Cassandre's overnight success seems to be due to his ability to have absorbed and synthesised everything that had gone before and refine it to new levels of aesthetic appeal. There are all the trademark signifiers of modernism and Art Deco in his work
from a clear cubist influence and a love of the abstract, to remarkably assured composition and tasteful use of unexpected colour. But he had other influences too - Surrealism crept in on occasion and once in a while a very dry humour and cartoon sensibility. And just as Art Deco had actually begun before the 20s it ran on beyond the 30s and continued to be a dominant aspect of illustration throughout the Second World War and into the 50s. And later generations of illustrators found the art deco principles too hard to resist Art Deco may now be just one of any number of styles that people use in what we now call the Postmodern Age. But it took no time at all to find these examples of contemporary illustration which either deliberately mimic the real thing or at the very least owe an obvious debt to what may well prove to be the most enduring of all illustration styles.
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