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From the Vault: Art Deco

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Submitted Art Emil Bisttram's "Study for Abstracted Tulips," 1932, graphite on paper, PGA Memorial Fund.

By Aubrey Hobert

Curator of Collections

and Exhibitions

Roswell Museum and Art Center

The years between World War I and World War II (1919-1940) were a contradictory period in America’s collective past. The U.S. had just won the biggest war in history, but we lost more than 100,000 brave soldiers in doing so. The economy boomed for 11 prosperous years until we hit our worst economic downturn ever in the form of the Great Depression. Flapper culture was all about freedom and parties, but we had just outlawed alcohol. And while European fashion was all the rage, Americans were afraid of European fascism. We were a fully modern country with faith in social progress and technological advancement, and we needed an art movement to showcase those ideals.

Art trends tend to follow social developments, so when America was going through a contradictory period, it would make sense for it to adopt a contradictory art movement. Art Deco was a blend of conflicting styles, including the stark geometry of Cubism, the bright colors of Expressionism, and some ideas from Italian Futurism. It was as fascinated with machinery and science-fiction as it was with ancient history from China, Japan, India, Egypt and Mesoamerica. This odd mixture was drawn together by a collective interest in excellent craftsmanship, expensive and rare materials, and a particular vision of modernity.

The term Art Deco comes from the French “Arts Décoratifs” meaning decorative arts. The decorative arts generally consist of furniture, jewelry, clothes, buildings, cars, kitchen appliances and other objects that are primarily functional, but often decorated to be visually pleasing rather than just utilitarian. By the 1930s, new materials became available, including chrome plating, stainless steel and plastics that made everything look sleek and shiny. Art Deco became mass-produced luxury for everyone.

The emphasis in the decorative arts on beauty and utility working together is in direct contrast to the fine arts (painting and sculpture) that have no physical function other than to be attractive or interesting to look at. Yet while Art Deco began with the decorative arts, it wasn’t long before fine artists began incorporating the style into their own work. The artist illustrated on this page, Emil Bisttram, often incorporated the simplified forms and dramatic curves of Art Deco into his work. Bisttram, along with Raymond Jonson, was one of the founders of The Transcendental Painting Group, a collection of about 10 abstract artists who lived in the Santa Fe/Taos area. They believed that art was the best way to experience and express spirituality and that abstract art in particular was more suited to the expression of feelings and experiences.

These abstract compositions often had elements of Art Deco style to them, combining smooth curves and stark lines. The “Study for Abstracted Tulips” shown here is not as abstract as many of Bisttram’s other works, but the Art Deco influence is pronounced. The tulips have been reduced to their most basic forms, as in Cubism, but unlike that earlier movement, we do not see the tulips from multiple perspectives. Curvilinear lines and heavy shading give the piece a sense of exciting movement.

Emil Bisttram’s drawing of tulips, along with other Art Deco-inspired works by Howard Cook and Kenneth Adams, will be available to view at the Roswell Museum and Art Center from Aug. 24 to Feb. 9, 2020 in our New Decades: 1930s and 1940s exhibition. The show is an exploration of the art and style that occupied Americans throughout the Great Depression and World War II. To really set the scene, big band, jazz and blues music will be playing in the gallery to give another dimension to our excellent art collection.

Art Deco was an international expression of modernity and grew out of a hopeful time when we believed technology could make all our lives better. The devastations of World War II, especially the nuclear bomb, essentially killed that dream and Americans have been increasingly cynical about technology even as it has come to dominate our lives. Perhaps that’s why Art Deco style still resurfaces occasionally in the media. In the 1990s, it showed up in the movie “The Rocketeer” and the TV show “Batman: The Animated Series” and in this decade, we saw it pop up in “The Great Gatsby” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Even video games have borrowed the aesthetics, so if you’ve played BioShock or Close to the Sun, which came out earlier this year, you’ve seen Art Deco. The style of the jazz age remains alive and well.