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Monday, August 27, 2018

1920s Art

Artist John Held Jr. perfectly captured the awkward frivolity
of both the era of the 1920s as well as its art.
Virtually every decade in art has its own peculiar stereotype. Some have to do with a prevailing style popular at the time. Some are marked by the important social issues or news events (such as decades strewn with wars). Fortunately, there were no major conflicts during the 1920s to harden the art of that era. In fact, quite the opposite; this period reveled in the desperately optimistic hope for an unending peace following the "war to end all wars." It was an era blind to the fact that a forced peace was sprouting the seeds for yet another world war more terrible than the first. No, instead, two elements came together to form our enduring image on the art of the 1920s, an Art Deco-flavored transition to Modernism and a hopeful optimism that the good (though somewhat decadent) times would go on and on forever...or at least the foreseeable future. As it turned, out the foreseeable future was dismally short, lasting a little less time than the decade itself.
Never was there a greater contrasts in the art of two decades.
One might hesitate to consider the 1930s documentary photos of Dorothea Lange (above, right) as art. However, one might also make a case that images of the Charleston dance craze (above, left) were far from high art as well. Yet the two accurately depict radically opposing eras separated by just a few months...a few years at best. I could go on and on contrasting these two eras but I've already covered the art of the 1930s, while that of the 1920s, in its simplicity and superficiality, needs a more comprehensive look.

Cloth hats, cropped locks, and straight vertical lines were "in."
Art Deco for women?
No art is more superficial than that of the fashion designer, particularly in designing for women. Not that men's fashions don't exhibit a certain air for flair, but nothing like the frocks and locks (and in the case of the 1920s, hats) which festoon the fairer sex. If the female fashions of the 1920s seem to have a decided similarity to those of the 1930s, it's no accident. During the Depression decade, even fashion conscious ladies often found that updating their wardrobe to the new, more "tailored" look of the somewhat more conservative decade to be a luxury they could little afford. Poverty and art have long been considered antithetical.

Though the Vitaphone sound-on-
disk recording system was
considered a huge technical
breakthrough at the time,

far less than half of The Jazz
Singer featured sound.
Considering the cultural and social upheavals of the 1920s, one of the greatest reflections to be found during most art eras--motion pictures--was surprisingly dim. Moviemaking became a corporate industry. Money was the dominant factor, not art. Most movies from most of this decade were short, unimag-inative, formulaic, and at best, forgettable. There were exceptions, such as Eisenstein's 1925 Battleship Potemkin, but even among these, few were made in the U.S. and even those were more entertainment than art. They were, that is, until October 6, 1927, when Warner Brothers' producer, Darryl Zanuck, debuted the company's "Supreme Triumph," The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jol-son, as a fine Jewish lad who embraced the "sinful," avant-garde, jazz of his time. While the film was mostly silent, it did contained sequences of prerecorded synchronized music and dialogue, something movie audi-ences had never heard before. Considered a fad at the time, the movie's most memorable line, "You ain't heard nothing yet," was nothing if not prophetic.

Having "invented" it, then wrung Cubism dry, Picasso morphed it into a Synthetic Cubism as seen in his 3 Musicians from 1921, before discarding the style entirely for a new classism represented by his
Woman in White from 1923.
In reviewing what I've written regarding previous art eras, I came to realize that I have "doted" on the fine art of painting. Though painting was a vibrant artform in the 1920s, I think I can best express the diversity of the era by highlighting the contrasts between just two --Pablo Picasso and Thomas Hart Benton. One made tremendous international strides as he searched his soul and bent his style to his varied themes. The other remained only a region force to be reckoned with, his style and content remaining virtually unchanged over the course of his entire career. Though Picasso was notorious for almost randomly changing his style of painting, the contrasts between the two paintings above, spanning a mere two years of the decade, is little short of remarkable.

Self-portrait With Rita (his wife), 1922, Thomas Hart Benton
Thomas Hart Benton was, as they say, "no Picasso," nor did he try to be. Picasso was Spanish/French. Benton was an American--a Missourian. His father was a Congressman, his grandfather, for whom he was named, was a five-term senator from that state. Though Benton studied in Paris for a time, his somewhat lyrical realism was firmly established by the 1920s. And though the scope of his work rivaled that of Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, his style was all his own, and would remain so until his death in 1975 at the age of 86. Picasso led the international art world into Modernism. Americans in the 1920s were not ready for Picasso nor his radical, even whimsical, stylistic gyrations. Neither was Benton; yet both men neatly reflected the nationalism and nature of the painter's art during this period of cultural upheavals.

Chrysler Building, William Van Alen, architect.
If painters were beset by a myriad of competing styles, the same was not the case as to the architect's art. Having long-since discarded the decorative niceties of Art Nouveau, architecture during the 1920s had but one dominant style--Art Deco. In fact, so pronounced was this transitional movement between Classicism and Modernism, in one manifestation or another, it permeated much of the stylistic elements of virtually every artform of the time. William Van Alen's and Walter Chrysler's Art Deco "race into space" (The Chrysler Building, above) was to stoke the latter's ego. Their efforts saw the construction of the tallest skyscraper in the world, completed in 1930. However, just eleven months later, its 77 floors were superseded by over 400-feet in height. The 102-story Empire State Building, just twelve blocks away, held "World's Tallest Building" honors for the next 41 years.

Domestic architecture eschewed the streamline Art Deco in favor of yet another "revival," this one referred to as Colonial Revival.
The Colonial Revival style (above-top), which was only slightly reminiscent of colonial architecture. Rather, it was economical, compact, and practical for the nation's first (but rapidly-expanding) suburbs. The two-story houses, frequently built just a few feet apart, offered large front porches for escaping the summer heat and socializing with close neighbors. Often the space between such homes offered barely enough width for a driveway to a garage in back for the Model T (I grew up in one such abode). For the ambitious, yet frugal do-it-yourselfer, such houses (above, slightly simplified and later heavily remodeled) could be purchased as a package from a catalog. The Craftsman Style building materials, right down to the front doorknob, could then be delivered by railroad to the proud new homeowner's local community.

Inspired perhaps by the "Gatsby" look, Art Deco furniture and interiors were often stark, simple in design, and maybe just a little too stiff, uncomfortable, and formal looking.
For the more upscale home of the 1920s, whose owner could afford the services of an interior "decorator," though the exterior might exhibit traces of the colonial past, inside the rooms and new furniture (above) swung to the prevailing Art Deco stylings. As compared to the fuss of Art Nouveau and the real fussiness of earlier Victorian interiors, Art Deco offered a clean, hopeful, modern look Americans saw as an optimistic future.

From an artistic or aesthetic point of view, auto design
progressed little in the 1920s.
And finally, during many decades one can trace art and design tastes through the "art" of automobile design (especially in the Post-WW II era). However, during the 1920s, though the automobile rapidly changed virtually every aspect of human endeavor, the auto designer's art changed little. The emphasis was on reliability, convenience, and price rather than chrome (then reserved only for radiator housings) or the art of streamlining, and tail fins. Henry Ford, at the beginning of the decade, dictated that the buyer could choose any color so long as it was black (an enamel which dried quickly on his assembly line). He treated his famed "Model T" as an everlasting design ideal, and nearly ran his fledgling company into the ground by his obstinacy. Only as the 1924 upstart, Chevrolet, began to gain popularity (and market-share) did Ford bring forth his "Model A" and a somewhat more colorful palette for the buyer to peruse. Only Chrysler made any effort to blend the prevailing Art Deco influences into the design of the company's slightly "jazzy" output. For some arts and artists, the "roaring 20s" was, indeed, a rousing cheer for a newfound peace and prosperity. For others, it could best be described as a contented purr.

Though Norman Rockwell designed
his first Post cover in 1916, it was
during the rambunctious 1920s
that his art first became the social
icon we recall today.


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