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Art Deco Sculpture

Posted on 20 Feb 2017

From sinuous curves to machine-age lines, the shape of Art Deco sculpture held up a mirror to its turbulent age.

The patterning of animal skin lends a playful, decorative touch to Alligator Bender by Nathaniel Choate in the grounds of Brookgreen Gardens, South Carolina, which houses the largest collection of Art Deco sculpture in the US. [Credit: Nathaniel Choate, Alligator Bender, Brookgreen Gardens, South Carolina]

If the Art Deco movement finds its richest fulfilment in the plastic arts of marble, metal, wood and stone, this is in large partly because Art Deco is the most fully embodied of aesthetics, taking as its first study and central object of admiration the female body.

Sex and death, decay and renewal: the pervasive themes of Viennese Expressionism took their place alongside elements of Cubism, Bauhaus and Constructivism in the art of sculpture between the wars.

As so comprehensive a list of influences would suggest, Art Deco gloried in pastiche no less than the Art Nouveau which was its most conspicuous progenitor, and with an adaptability which secured its popular appeal long after niche preoccupations of Modernism had bloomed and withered.

Artists from across Europe were drawn to Paris like bees to a honeypot: the native Alfred Janniot, Hungarian-born Gustave Miklos, Brazilian Victor Brecheret and Russian Ossip Zadkine principal among them. Zadkine was queen bee in the hive that became an artists’ colony in Montparnasse, as the art of Art Deco shifted focus from abstraction to animalier sculpture. Before long, however, these turbulent times saw another change of emphasis from form to movement as the Art Deco centre of gravity shifted during the 1920s from Paris to the US.

Cool lines and hot movement bring the US influence on Art Deco back across the Atlantic in Karl Hagenauer’s Dancer. [Credit: Karl Hagenauer, Dancer]

Feminine objectification and emancipation are both reflected in the costuming of The Golfer by Ferdinand Preiss. [Credit: Ferdinand Preiss, The Golfer]

Both immigrant and native US artists, finding a lack of appreciation of European modernism among a conservative public, cultivated their audience with representational forms in lines as clean and newly polished as the guard-rails of a transatlantic liner. The home of this revitalised Classical spirit in American sculpture became the Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina, where nymphs and goddesses sported with most un-Classical crocodiles in the prolific work of Paul Manship. At the same time, American film, music and fashion played their part in shaping a newly carefree spirit in sculpture, while the oiled cranks of mass machinery reproduced figures of gleaming austerity for a hungry market of the newly well-to-do.

Just as British and French car manufacturers satisfied their customers’ need for speed, they catered to acquired aspirations of finesse with Art Deco touches and finishings, topped off by the Jaguar mascot and the Rolls-Royce Spirit of Ecstasy. It was the culmination of a journey unimaginable three decades before in 1911, when Thomas Mann had his thinly fictionalised composer Gustav von Aschenbach walk through the ornamental bronze gates of a Munich cemetery, before meeting his Death in Venice. In a reverie among the gravestones, Aschenbach is struck by a vision of what now reads as a prophecy of the Art Deco as outlined here, in “those wonders and horrors of the diversity on Earth which his desire was suddenly able to imagine… [and] which seemed to hover in a limbo between creation and decay.”

Peter Quantrill

Art Deco Sculpture

Alastair Duncan